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What is Pokémon Go’s story? Here's a theory

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Pokémon Go is family friendly entertainment, while also being the latest popular video game about life after the apocalypse and nature’s inevitable reclamation of our planet. At least, that’s my theory.

Unlike the series of roleplaying games that precede it, Pokémon Go doesn’t bother with dialogue and story. Why are we fighting one another? Why have we been forced to take one of three sides in a war for territory? Why is it that our world and the game’s world have been bonded through our smartphones? Who's to say!

Curious players are left to parse brief tutorial text for context and motivation. It’s not that the game lacks a story entirely, rather the narrative available to its 7.5 million participants doesn’t follow a three-act structure or any structure at all really. The nibs of plot are more akin to tea leaves, clues waiting to be given meaning by a skilled interpreter.

Pokemon Go Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Of course, there are no Pokémon Go story experts. At least not until a private college adds that master's program. So, in the interim, I’ve hoisted the burden upon myself. What I tell is a story about life on Earth — our Earth, not the fictional cities of other Pokémon games. Set at an unspecified point in the distant future — long after both an apocalyptic event and the natural period of recovery that followed, in which nature reclaims our planet’s surface — the human race has become nomadic. A singular focus drives everyone: conquer the land.

The map is the obvious clue, a bird’s-eye view of our familiar cities, the buildings replaced by verdant green. In this theory, pokéstops would appear at first to be excavation sites until we consider their uniformity. The creations made by human hands have been so efficiently razed that not a single stone remains. And so pokéstops are simply memorials to the memories of the occupants of this future world. Like history displays in a local museum that can't afford relics, the world is littered with a standardized, circular, spinning tablet featuring a photograph and a couple words about what once was.

The pokémon that players meet eerily resemble Earth’s actual fauna for a reason: they’re cynical mutations of the animals that currently roam our planet. The cataclysmic event at the heart of this theory annihilated most life, and what survived adapted to appease the dominant species: humans. Men and women have lost faith in one another, and now crave more than anything else a sense of safety and camaraderie. Naturally, wildlife responded by becoming at once more violent and adorable. For a modern precedent, consider the husbandry of dogs.

Pokemon Go James Bareham / The Verge

But here’s the "wait is this cigarette actually salvia" part of the theory. It's us, the Pokémon Go players, that are the avatars. And the avatar in Pokémon Go are the actual players. Have you played Assassin's Creed? It's kind of like that. We're a historical simulation, living our lives so that a future civilization may experience the pre-apocalyptic past and mine it for technological knowledge.

Yes, the video game world is the real world. My evidence? When you catch a pokémon, you have the option to turn augmented reality mode off or on. When the mode is off, the pokémon are in their natural habitat, a high-contrast planet overtaken by foliage. It’s only when the augmented reality mode is on that we see the creatures placed poorly atop a world they don’t belong in. Our world is the augment to their true reality!

This is the closest explanation for why humans in Pokémon Go have devoted the entirety of their technological skills and resources to build literally nothing but "gyms." Gyms are wormholes, crystal balls, stargates, or whatever you’d prefer to call these beacons that allow communication through space and time. They bond future people with us, the simulated memories of the past. But they require fuel, and so the future civilization must take breaks from the simulation to catch resources. and they're powered on the one thing that we know will transcend the apocalypse: humanity's endless love for pokémon.

To control gyms is to have a link with the past. To understand the past is to learn the skills to build better gyms, To build better gyms is to threaten nature, invite war, and ultimately repeat the cycle of life on Earth.

Pokémon Go is yet another retelling of Ozymandias, reminding players of the fragility of our bodies and our creations, both of which can crumble to a dust so fine that it is imperceptible in the tall grass that overtakes it. It’s not a happy story, but the good ones rarely are. But that's just my theory.


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