It’s dusk. I’m driving with my significant other through her neighborhood, which is pretty secluded and generally quiet. Not a single other car passes. The only sound in the car comes from my phone, which she has hijacked as I drive, undertaking the noble task of keeping an eye on what kinds of creatures live around her house. We’re on a mission to catch enough Nidoran and Pidgey to power up some of my monsters and liberate the Pokemon gym at the nearby mini golf course. As I drive, a potent thought enters my mind: how the hell am I going to review the thing?
At it’s base, the problem presented to a reviewer by Pokemon Go is actually a quite simple one. It’s one that plagues all sorts of games, movies, books, and any other medium you might care to name. It’s the idea that a game can both be great and terrible at the same time, to a degree where evaluating the thing on a quality scale feels like a moot point. More specifically, a game can make the player feel intense personal joy without technically being “good.” Pokemon Go bears the scars on its back of the biggest such divide I’ve seen in recent memory.
One could use this fact as a springboard into a whole conversation all about the necessity of reviews and review scores, and a close and careful examination of our close and careful examinations. I’m not here to do that, though. Pokemon Go is important in ways that games haven’t really been before. Those ways, having just been born within the last week or so, are still in their infancy. Who knows what they will grow up into!
On the day after Pokemon Go went live in the US, a friend and I went for a walk in a local park. We found a gym, illogically placed on a nondescript roadsign, and we caught some critters. At one point, a guy came by on a skateboard, stopped, and asked what we were doing. He was holding his phone out as we were with ours, and we all figured out pretty quickly that we were all on the same mission. He wasn’t the only friend we made in just an hour or so in that park. I now have a short list of six people who I keep an eye out for whenever I’m in the area.
That’s the real beauty of Pokemon Go, and what makes it so difficult to define by traditional standards. Half of what makes the game fun has nothing to do with the game itself, as much as it does with what the game makes its players do. When you really boil it down, the thing gives out more player agency than the gaming landscape has ever seen before. There’s nothing more player-controlled than wandering around the real world, searching your own town and woods. At the risk of sounding reductive and cliche, the phenomenon is pretty groundbreaking and unprecedented.
The community that has generated itself from this game is one that has to put up with a lot of crap, too, because the game is actually still a bit of a mess. I’ve had days where I just couldn’t log in for hours at a time, gym battles that terminally froze right as I landed what would have been the final blow, and numerous other errors. Sometimes the wild encounter rate seems to drop to zero based on nothing but the whim of whatever Pokegods govern my corner of the cosmos. The combat in gyms honestly isn’t that great, and comes off feeling like some kind of rejected Tap Titans clone. There’s no PVP mode, marring the concept of trainers encountering each other in the wild by not really giving them much to do. The thing still feels like it’s in beta half the time.
But you know what? The other night I caught a Pidgeotto at the Taco Bell drive-thru. Her name is Taco Baco, and she is now my main tank. I went to a coffee shop in town yesterday, and they had a sign offering a discount to members of Team Mystic, as well as specialty drinks based on the game. In the last week at my day job, I have gotten into triple the number of conversations with customers I ever had before, all because there were notes to be compared. What did you catch on this street today? Hey, is that gym at the shoe store down the road still controlled by Team Valor?
Pokemon Go isn’t just unusual and hard to define. It’s a game where actual quality is rendered, dare I say it, irrelevant. Sure, the bugs will get fixed, but right now there are more important things than bugs. We are in the infancy of Pokemon Go changing the way we interact and socialize. Social media has done this time and time again in the last quick decade and change, but never in a way like this. So no, this is not a Pokemon Go review. The phenomenon itself is all the review we need.