The Pokémon Company has had an interesting couple of weeks. First, Pokémon Sword and Shield released their first DLC, The Isle of Armor, to luke-warm reviews. Some have called out the expansion’s surface-level content, while others applauded the broad and diverse addition to Galar’s wild area. Being more of a content guy myself, the extra wild area doesn’t do much for me, although I’m still working through the new storyline and am cherishing every nostalgic minute of it.
Then, The Pokémon Company setup a special announcement to share the news of an upcoming game titled Pokémon Unite. The free-to-play MOBA, in partnership with Tencent’s TiMi Studios, is supposed to be a League of Legends-style strategy game. Some took to the YouTube comments to lament their unfounded anticipation, while others had a more measured, wait-and-see attitude. I know I’ll be picking it up to give it a whirl, but I’ve always been a bit of a Pokémon fanboy, so call me biased.
Fanboy or not, my return to Galar for The Isle of Armor DLC reminded me of how impressed I was by Sword and Shield’s diverse cast of characters. It’s been a while since I played a Pokémon game, so I’m not sure if the Pokémon games have become more diverse gradually over time, but it certainly struck me as a pleasant surprise, at least since the more homogenous Ruby and Sapphire days. That’s about the time when I first put down my Poké Ball.
To celebrate this new, improved, and inclusive cast, here are six of my favorite examples of character diversity in Pokémon Sword and Shield:
Can we take bets on Hop’s race? Is he Hispanic? Arab? Just really tan? Normally a name would give us a clue, but “Hop” isn’t particularly distinct. This racially ambiguous buddy was a delight to play alongside, from his disarming personality to his unabashed determination. It was a refreshing switch up from the rivals I remembered who were notoriously ruthless, and just kind of rude.
Move over, Misty. There’s a new Water type Gym Leader in town, and she’s ready to kick your butt. Nessa is just the third dark-skinned woman Gym Leader in the franchise’s 24 year-old history, coming in after Lenora and Iris from Pokémon Black and White.
Unsurprisingly, Nessa is not without controversy. She became incredibly popular when she was revealed because of her representation and her great character design. However, along with that came a subset of fans who produced fan art re-imagining Nessa with white skin. Eventually, even a “White Nessa” skin mod surfaced, changing Nessa’s appearance in-game. What this says about racial identity in gaming and in the Pokémon universe is a story for another time, but the fact that Sword and Shield featured a character who could stir this conversation at all is a bold achievement in its own right.
Opal, what a sweetheart! This Ballonlea City Gym Leader effortlessly channels everyone’s favorite grandmother. Opal laughs in the face of stereotypes that suggest the elderly are weak and grumpy. She’s charming, playful and stylish, to say the least. I can only hope I’m as festive as she is at 88.
Ice type Gym Leader Melony was a Sword exclusive, replaced by her son Gordie in Shield. That’s right, Melony’s a mom. A working mom! Are there any other Gym Leaders out there who happen to be mothers? I can’t think of any, but somebody please tell me if there are. There’s something distinctly human about remembering that the characters in this world have families of their own, and it’s nice to be reminded that even a nurturing mom can be a relentless Gym Leader.
The incredible thing about Raihan is the number of ways that his background could be interpreted. Is he a black guy wearing blue contacts? Is he Middle Eastern? His English name, Raihan, is an Arabic name; is he Muslim?
Some players might get stuck on pinning Raihan to a specific race or ethnicity, but his ambiguity is the beauty of his design. Raihan’s features are specific enough to tell a unique story, but broad enough that a player can fill in the gaps with their own personal references. The character artist rolled out a canvas, but the players add their imagination. It’s a co-creation of sorts.
To me, Raihan might be a South Asian, Muslim, Pokémon trainer who happens to have blue eyes because they’re relatively common in anime-style universes, kind of like pink hair. That’s a pretty special story for me.
This is the first time I have ever played a Pokémon game where the main character could be customized to truly look like me. Dark brown skin, wavy unkempt hair, and a wardrobe that I have absolutely worn out in public in recent history. Seeing yourself in a video game is an incredibly immersive experience, especially in a series that has a reputation for being relatively rigid and formulaic.
Well done, Pokémon. You’re onto something here.