How Music Normalizes the Trainer Point of View in Pokémon Emerald

Music and sound design are crucial tools for telling the story and building the world of Pokémon Emerald (2004). Because music so thoroughly permeates the gameplay, it’s an important source of meaning within the game; it invites us to think and feel certain things in relation to the main story. What roles does the music of Pokémon Emerald play? What meanings does it convey, and how does it do so?

Certainly, the music works to inspire a sense of adventure as you play. Its layered MIDI instrumental textures emphasize brass and percussion, infusing the music and story with a sense of militarism. Music is a primary means through which the game invites you to imagine yourself on a quest for personal glory, the glory of dominating the Pokémon League. In so doing, the music also serves to reinforce the trainer point of view, through which you must experience and relate with Pokémon in the game. In my previous blog post, I describe how the trainer point of view, as the game’s only playable point of view, obscures the ways trainers exploit their Pokémon. Through this obfuscation, this point of view also conceals the centrality of Pokémon labor to Hoenn’s economic life. This essay builds on those assertions to consider how music further normalizes the trainer point of view. The music of Pokémon Emerald helps place you in the frame of mind of a trainer, thereby erasing, obscuring, or making irrelevant the perspectives of Pokémon.

 

You spend most of your time battling or seeking out battles in this game. The many pieces of music that accompany battle are therefore important storytelling devices.[1] But its ubiquity is not the only reason that the battle music should demand critical scrutiny. In the game, and indeed the broader Pokémon universe, battles are the testing ground for a trainer’s worth. In this normalized ritual of violence, trainers repeatedly force Pokémon to harm each other corporally and psychologically. As you battle, the music affirms and spectacularizes not only the violence of Pokémon fighting each other, but also the violence of their capture by humans. Fighting and capturing Pokémon are made to feel exciting and rewarding by the catchy tunes that accompany them.

But even before your first battle, the music that accompanies your first step as a Pokémon trainer portends the violence that it’s your destiny to wield. As you choose if your character is male or female and give your character a name, the accompanying music is scored for timpani, snare drum, synth bass, low brass, French horns, trumpet, flute, and high blip synths.[2] With the exception of the synths, the primarily wind- and percussion-heavy instrumentation evokes the sound of a military band.[3] The arpeggiated figure first heard in the French horn and passed around the ensemble, as well as the rhythmic pattern upon which the snare drum part is based, both resemble common melodic and rhythmic patterns in military marching music.[4] So, in its instrumentation, orchestration, and rhythmic content, the music here invokes a musical repertoire that is inseparable from militarism. It conjures a battlefield, toward which you soldier and upon which you will fight with honor to become a Pokémon master. All while you’re deciding the gender and name of your character. 

That the game should invoke military band repertoire while it asks you to name and gender your character suggests the imbrication of violence, gender, and selfhood in this world. Gendering and naming––in that order––are the first things you do in the game, and your character’s gender and name are the only two traits that you can influence. Everything else about your character’s identity and decisions, as far as the main story is concerned, has already been determined for you. This is therefore a crucial moment, one in which you imbue your character with your own imagination. You might make it into an avatar of your own personality, or you might invent another person entirely. But whatever you decide, this is the one time that you can shape some portion of your character, and it’s no coincidence that the musical accompaniment here evokes a militaristic ethos. This moment almost stages a kind of military self-enlistment, inviting you to see yourself as a warrior. The musical invocation of militarism at the beginning of a quest that ultimately builds toward a form of dominance helps establish this world as a patriarchal one, with you as its foot soldier.

To call you a warrior, and thus to imply that this is war, might seem an exaggeration. But the game clearly demands that your character enact tremendous amounts of violence against Pokémon. Think about how many Pokémon you encounter in battle throughout the main story, Pokémon past whom you cannot journey until you make them faint. You can’t avoid battle forever, or you’ll never advance the plot.[5] Indeed, the main story hinges on a series of trainer battles through which you must progress. And unless you use some chemical to repel wild Pokémon, you will be attacked. You can run sometimes, but not always. And to level up your Pokémon, you must spend hours prowling bush after bush, cutting down any wild Pokémon who attack. By the laws of the game, you must fight.[6] The marching band declared this your destiny as you were being created.

Which brings me to the battle music. Every piece of battle music opens with what one of my favorite video game music theorists calls “that two-bar chromatic sixteenth-note noise barrage.”[7] It’s a dizzying descending string line layered atop a high synth ostinato, meant to startle you as a wild Pokémon attacks from the bushes or the shadows or the sky or the murky depths of the ocean.[8] What follows are eight bars of punchy French horn and trumpet over a restless electric bass, a stony timpani, and an energetic rock beat on a drum kit. We hear only open fifths after the beat first drops, not knowing if this is a major or minor key. This harmonic ambiguity, leavened with the Phrygian mode,[9] provokes a sense of uncertainty. Not until the strings begin the scalar primary theme in the ninth bar, outlining a major tonic harmony, do you feel some resolution. The major mode soothes your shock and surprise––now it’s time to fight.

The music is a driving, heart-pounding spectator as you battle. If you’ve decided to weaken the wild Pokémon so you can catch it, you throw a Poké Ball and hold your breath as the Ball rocks back and forth, the trapped Pokémon trying desperately to escape it. But then the Ball snaps shut, expelling cute stars as it seals the Pokémon away, and the music stops. The beat of silence here is powerful; there’s so little silence in the game that we know this moment is special. Here, you have almost enough time to consider what the Pokémon might be feeling upon being captured; you relive this moment so much that you almost begin to wonder about it. But inevitably, the high woodwinds tell you with a pentachord flourish that you’ve won, that you’ve done something worth celebrating. Your victory music is a polka-like tune in a major key, all Phrygian threats now banished, held in time by the familiar military snare drum.[10] With its short phrases, repetitive structure, and narrow melodic range, the tune sounds like a childish taunt. It plays while you extract biological data from the Pokémon for your PokéDex, and while you choose a nickname to brand the Pokémon as your property. The battle is over, the capture is successful, and the local music for wherever you are returns.

Junichi Masuda’s battle music is so intoxicating, so perfectly put together, that you can easily get lost in its relentless energy and forget that this is a scene of violence and seizure. The music here is meant to depict the things you might feel as the trainer––surprise, excitement, and finally, triumph––not the Pokémon’s feelings. In this way, the music of Pokémon Emerald, particularly in battle, tethers you to the trainer point of view, immerses you in it. Just imagine if what you heard after capturing a Pokémon was a slow dirge instead; it might send a ripple of dissonance across your thoughts, alerting you to a perspective other than your own, to the possibility that you did something wrong. You might even think twice before throwing another Poké Ball, just to avoid the unpleasantness. Sadly, though, the music consistently celebrates the capture or defeat of Pokémon as your success; there isn’t any room for a Pokémon’s point of view. All that matters is your quest to catch ’em all.

 

How do creators represent power in their speculative universes, and how do they therefore normalize certain politics within these worlds––especially where creators or fans discuss these worlds in ways that mask politics altogether? I like interrogating the ways that power’s many tendrils bind the fictional worlds I encounter in music, literature, film, and games. Yes, this kinda shit is fun for me, but it’s also an important part of how I’m trying to decolonize my own thinking. I’ve been socialized to accept notions of difference that have made so many kinds of violence normal and justified in my social worlds, including violence against people like me. Some thinkers have called this normalization “coloniality.” Blaser et al (2010) explain coloniality as “the system of ordering differences (of species, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, and epistemology, among others) according to a hierarchy that always justifies the dominance of those who are defined as modern over those who are defined as non-modern” (15). As a theory, coloniality highlights two ongoing processes at the very core of Western modernity: the creation and refinement of notions of difference, and the translation of those differences into a hierarchy of dominance. These twin processes insinuate themselves into our thinking and relating with others, and they often show up in our popular cultural products.

At no point in my research into the broader Pokémon universe so far have I encountered a character who questions the fundamental truth that it’s not just okay, but admirable––desirable, even––to capture other sentient beings and force them to fight each other for your own glory. Human trainers exercise inordinate power over the Pokémon they capture and fight, but the power at work here is made to appear benevolent, if it’s even named as an enactment of power at all. For instance, characters in the early Pokémon anime repeatedly call captured Pokémon “new friends,” even though Pikachu’s very insistence upon not being confined in a Poké Ball attests to the discomfort that certainly some Pokémon must experience once captured. Would you lock your “new friend” up in a ball that prevents them from escaping unless you call them out?

So, I think it’s important to try and figure out what the creators of popular cultural products are inviting me to feel or think––from advertisements to board games and beyond. I want to discern the motivations behind their aesthetic decisions, and to think through the political implications of those decisions. I don’t do this necessarily to “cancel” these products if they don’t align with my politics. Rather, I want to practice empathy and compassion in everything I do, and so I find it necessary to ask where and how the popular cultural products I enjoy invite me to enact colonial ways of being and relating, even if the enacting is “only” done virtually. Beyond this, it’s just plain interesting to ask these questions. The universe of Pokémon Emerald becomes infinitely richer for me when I pick it apart in this way and try to understand how all its parts fit together. When I first played the game, I fell in love with the energy and beauty of the soundtrack. But when I listened more closely, years later, I developed a fuller appreciation both of its intricate construction (the motivic and harmonic connections across all the battle music are deliciously satisfying to discover) and its political utility in the game’s universe. Do you know what the music in your favorite television series, films, or video games is telling you to think?


[1] All the music discussed in this essay was composed by Junichi Masuda. See https://vgmdb.net/album/1024.

 

[2] This piece is listed as “Opening Selection” in the game’s soundtrack. It begins at 2:29 and ends at 4:16 in the following video: https://youtu.be/ob_nQpBFpL0?t=149.

 

[3] Listen to this excellent performance of The Marine’s Hymn performed by “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band for an example of military band instrumentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGdkJcP3jNU

 

[4] Revival by John Philip Sousa is a good example of the snare drum patterns we hear in “Opening Selection”: https://youtu.be/tmrT9Nvd_6U?t=4.

 

[5] Some gamers have sought to explore the possibilities of a pacifist run of Pokémon Black. For example, see https://gamefaqs.gamespot.com/boards/989552-pokemon-black-version/60105356. As another gamer on this forum points out, though, “Isnt [sic] battling one of (if not the) main elements of the trainer society?” Another gamer tried a “low EXP run” whose progress we may never learn, see https://gamefaqs.gamespot.com/boards/921905-pokemon-emerald-version/59556331. YouTuber SolTheCleric, who appears to specialize in pacifist runs of video games, has managed a pacifist run of Pokémon Blue. But he has to resort to exploiting glitches in the game that end up destroying the very fabric of reality (for example, the main character is able to walk through walls to avoid battle). In short, it seems quite impossible, within the rules of the Pokémon universe, to avoid the violence of battle.

 

[6] Constant battle demands constant healing. When your Pokémon faint or are otherwise weakened, you take them to a Pokémon Center, where a near instantaneous healing process returns them to you good as new. The sounds here help depict healing as a momentary blip, a brief interruption in your protracted itinerary of battles. You hear a few soothing plucks of a harp and a sound effect resembling the Super Mario Bros. pipe glug. But how could the sometimes massive amounts of physical and psychological trauma that Pokémon undergo in battle be erased as simply and easily as this? What if the length of the healing process were commensurate with the amount of damage sustained? What if your Pokémon could actually die and not simply faint? The interminable cycle of violence might get interrupted. But the game can’t allow this, because it would overly complicate the fantasy––to capture monsters and make them fight each other with no consequences at all for anyone. Music here affirms the trainer point of view by helping to overly simplify the healing process, rather than inviting us to imagine the painful physicality of healing. Even in the early anime series, healing at Pokémon Centers takes some time––Pokémon are wheeled in on gurneys and the trainers must sometimes wait hours for their Pokémon to be returned to them.

 

[7] See https://youtu.be/fWrcc9VSc5Y?t=38.

 

[8] This piece is listed as “Wild Pokémon Battle!” in the soundtrack. It begins at 9:00 and ends at 10:39 in the following video: https://youtu.be/ob_nQpBFpL0?t=540.

 

[9] For more on the Phrygian mode, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnoKgWnMEq8.

[10] This track is listed as “Wild Pokémon Defeated!” in the soundtrack. It begins at 11:18 and ends at 11:54 in the following video: https://youtu.be/ob_nQpBFpL0?t=678.

Work Cited

Blaser, Mario, Ravi de Costa, Deborah McGregor, and William D. Coleman. 2010. “Reconfiguring the Web of Life: Indigenous Peoples, Relationality, and Globalization.” In Indigenous Peoples and Autonomy: Insights for a Global Age, eds. Mario Blaser, Ravi de Costa, Deborah McGregor, and William D. Coleman. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

David ChavannesComment