Pokémon is nothing more than a game where you beat up a bunch of little kids pets and then steal their lunch money.
And I’ve been playing a lot of Pokémon: Let’s Go Pikachu since I got it for Christmas. So I’ve got a lot of lunch money right now. But there’s something so much more to Pokémon. Something that goes deeper than capturing and pitting animals against one another.
Like all the best Nintendo games — Zelda, Mario, or Metroid — Pokémon allows you to live out the same journey that every great hero has ever embarked on. It follows the same story archetype that some if our oldest and most well-loved stories and myths used to tell their tales.
And you know this archetype. You’ve played it in Zelda or followed it when you watched Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star. It’s the story arch known as The Hero’s Journey.
Joseph Campbell, a scholar, writer, and lecturer, spent his academic life studying and teaching mythology. And he discovered that the stories, dramas, and myths told throughout human history followed a similar pattern. Where the story came from did not matter. It could have been Greek, Norse, or Mesopotamian. But no matter where those stories came from, they all followed the same tale:
A person known as “The Hero” ventures out into the world facing great trials, and achieves great deeds on behalf of his people.
Gilgamesh, Hercules, Beowulf, Captain America, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and, yes, even Ash Ketchum follow the model of The Hero’s Journey. And here’s how Pokémon follows The Hero’s Journey.
Pokémon and The Hero’s Journey
The Ordinary World
This is the beginning of the story where the audience first meets “The Hero.” You’re thrust into their world, their problems, and connected with them on some sympathetic level.
In Star Wars, we see this with Luke as he dreams of more than being a farm boy. In Harry Potter, it’s the establishing of life on Privet Drive. While in Pokémon, your first connection with The Hero is his room.
His room has a bed, a dresser, a computer, and a television with an SNES. Most of these things are items you had in your room too. And that creates a subconscious connection between you and The Hero.
The Call to Adventure
Here “The Hero” is presented with a problem — an adventure.
In Star Wars this happens when Obi-Wan tells Luke he must come with him to Alderaan. In Harry Potter, owls begin dropping off invitations to Hogwarts. Professor Oak is the Obi-Wan in Pokémon when he challenges you to build your Pokédex and become the next Pokémon Master.
Refusal of the Call
In most myths, “The Hero” refuses the call to adventure initially. In Star Wars, Luke refuses Obi-Wan’s proposal to go with him and instead returns home to, well, find his aunt and uncle barbecued. Harry Potter doesn’t refuse the call himself, but the Dursley’s do that for him.
The Hero doesn’t have to directly refuse the call. In some myths, the refusal of the call comes from another character who expresses uncertainty or danger ahead. And in the case of Pokémon, that happens when you try and leave town; Professor Oak stops you, warning that wild Pokémon live in tall grass.
Meeting with the Mentor
The mentor is the wise old man or wizard who encourages “The Hero” to embark on his journey, and who often bestows a magical weapon to The Hero. You know who that is in Star Wars and with Harry Potter, Harry kind of has two mentor’s at first, Hagrid and then eventually the “true” Mentor is Dumbledore.
Yet again, Professor Oak fulfills this by entrusting you with your first Pokémon.
Crossing the Threshold
In mythology, this is the moment where “The Hero” sets out on his quest to begin his adventure. Arriving in Mos Eisley is this for Luke. And for Harry it’s his first trip to Diagon Alley.
Pokémon accomplishes this by having you engage in a quick battle with your rival (you gotta learn how to play before you get out into the world). And then you’re off to catch ’em all by heading north into the tall grass.
Allies, Enemies, and Trials
Once “The Hero” crosses the threshold and enters the special world he encounters tests and challenges that he must overcome. And if he’s lucky, he might make a friend or two along his way.
Luke is tested by Obi-Wan with the marksmen remote on the Falcon, and then he’s tested a ton on the Death Star. But they picked up Han and Chewie for the trip, so at least he has some new friends to aid in his quest.
The wild Pokémon you dare to capture are, at first, your enemies. But then you battle them and prove you’re superior, and they become allies. Or you happen to cross another trainer on the road who gives you tools you can use on your journey (give me your lunch money, kid!) when you beat them in battle.
Throughout ancient myths, this is where “The Hero” finds a dangerous place, often a cave, where a hidden treasure lies. In Star Wars, it’s the Death Star or the Cave of Wonders in Aladdin or getting past Fluffy in Harry Potter.
In Pokémon, there are literal caves: Diglett’s Cave and Mt. Moon are the first two that come to mind.
But for the most part, outside of catching legendary Pokémon in actual caves, the “caves” from The Hero’s Journey are represented by gyms in Pokémon. It’s here where you prove your might to gain a gym badge(s) that will allow you to advance to battle in the Pokémon League.
This is the moment in all myths where “The Hero” faces the dragon in the cave and is often faced with death. The Ordeal is where “The Hero’s”skills gained on the journey are always put to the test.
In Pokémon, “the ordeal” are the battles you face in the Pokémon gym.
In mythology, the reward is the treasure “The Hero” receives after surviving the ordeal. This can come in the form of a magical item, an elixir with special properties, or a token like the Holy Grail.
Star Wars accomplishes this with the rescue of Princess Leia, and the flight to Yavin to deliver the secrets held in R2.
In Pokémon, your reward comes in the gym badge or a TM.
The Road Back
Here “The Hero” is chased by his enemies for the treasure he’s won from the cave. In Star Wars you see this when Luke, Han, and Leia dash back to Yavin with the Death Star battle plans. The road back for Harry Potter is one we don’t see because he’s unconscious.
In Pokémon, this is accomplished by the fact that once you get through all the towns and gyms, you arrive back to Pallet Town.
Resurrection & Return with the Elixir
Resurrection is the moment in myths where “The Hero” is transformed and changed by his experience.
Once you’ve defeated all the gym leaders in Pokémon you’re (in a sense) transformed by your experience. But you’re still not a Pokémon Master yet. You still face one more daunting task: The Pokémon League and the Pokémon Champion.
Throughout the myths that Joseph Campbell studied, he found that “The Hero” had to return to the ordinary world with the treasure/knowledge he received. And once there, he was faced with one final battle.
In Pokémon, that comes when you face the Elite Four and then The Pokémon Champion. Once you defeat these last trainers, you become an official Pokémon Master and you and your Pokémon are then entered into the Hall of Fame.
Why Video Games like Pokémon are Important
The Hero’s Journey has taught human beings for millennia how to face adversity and conquer it. The stories of Greek, Norse, or Mesopotamian heroes have reminded generations of the most vital virtues, warned against the snares of evil, but most importantly, these stories tell us that we can be more than we ever imagined.
A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. – Joseph Campbell
Stories like the one in Pokémon remind us that we can give our lives to something greater.
A few months ago this phrase burst into my mind: I wasn’t raised on video games. Video games raised me.
Video games taught me the values of hard work, perseverance, problem-solving, and even morality. And that’s what The Hero’s Journey teaches you: if you’re open to the call and accept it, you can become something greater than ordinary. You too have the power to become a Hero.