Pokémon has added limited options for character customization recently, but not enough to justify removing a defined protagonist from the story.
Character customization options in recent Pokémon games have shown that the type of protagonist a game uses has an impact on the type of story it can tell. Pokémon is soon to release it’s two latest titles, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, with a customizable Trainer. The original Pokémon games had a set protagonist, with generation 3 adding the ability to choose if the protagonist is a boy or girl and later games adding options for skin and hair color and different outfits. It is not entirely known what level of customizability the player character of Scarlet and Violet will have, though it appears to be more than previous games.
The problem with character customization options in Pokémon games is that they have largely been scant. There are no options for different faces or body types, hairstyles, non-binary identities, or other crucial options that allow a player to feel the character truly represents them. Players have even complained that the options that do exist, such as skin or hair color, are not diverse enough, even as recently as Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ limited character customization. From a plot standpoint, this customizability also sacrifices the ability to have a defined protagonist with their own personality and story. Mainline Pokémon games to this point have had largely silent protagonists that have displayed very little in terms of character or identity.
At this point, the Pokémon games are getting the worst of both worlds. If Game Freak wants to allow character customization, it should allow enough customization to enable players to find a character that fits them. If it wants to limit who the protagonist can be, it should make them a defined character so that they can have meaningful interactions with every Gen 9 character in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. At the very least, Game Freak could take lessons from CD Projekt Red in how to play both ends of the spectrum in an RPG.
Pokémon Could Take Notes From CD Projekt Red
Cyberpunk 2077 allows the player to physically customize V, the protagonist, in an unprecedented number of ways. The player is then allowed to interact with the game world through this character, showcasing personality traits and interacting with the plot. On the opposite end, The Witcher 3 has a defined protagonist in Geralt of Rivia. Though the player is still allowed some decision-making in the game (both in story choice and cosmetics), the character of Geralt is fleshed out by his interactions with the world. Either of these approaches would benefit Pokémon in terms of storytelling – it just needs to pick one.
Pokémon proves even kid protagonists matter, either as unique characters or a way for the player to insert themselves into the story. The current pattern of treating the character as a blank slate while also not giving them sufficient customization options doesn’t add anything to the story of the games. Hopefully the Pokémon franchise has learned this lesson and will provide better options for protagonists in the upcoming Scarlet and Violet.