Early Wednesday morning, a video game hashtag climbed to the top spot across America: #GameFreakLied, a caustic repository for all the anxiety, angst, and anger that has defined the pre-release narrative of Pokémon Sword and Shield.
At first glance, the furor is a refute against Game Freak’s development decisions for Pokémon Sword and Shield. But if we take a step back, the issue is much bigger than pocket monsters.
The #GameFreakLied hashtag appears to be the brainchild of a Redditor who shared images of Pokémon wireframes which purported to show re-used assets in Sword and Shield. As the post tells it, Game Freak said it decided to cut the national Pokédex, thereby limiting the number of Pokémon in Sword and Shield, because the company decided to redo all models “from scratch.” The wireframes, which are apparently the same across multiple games, are supposed to prove that Game Freak’s rationale is a lie. But if you look at the actual interview referenced in the post, that’s not what the Pokémon studio said, at least according to the translation highlights floating around on the internet right now. The actual text of these highlights state that “balancing for new Pokémon with new abilities has become very hard” and this specific reason is why Game Freak “have judged that it will be hard for all the Pokémon to appear, even in titles going forward.” The original article also states that “hardware changes” impacted the graphics quality of Sword and Shield.
Curiously, Game Freak has said multiple things on the subject — picking one quote as the reason seems suspect. In an interview with Polygon, for example, producer Junichi Masuda says that the studio prioritized adding mechanics over adding more monsters.
“We need to be able to prioritize new gameplay ideas,” Masuda said. “We need to be able to find a way to balance the right number of Pokémon and also still introduce new ways for players to enjoy the game, new gameplay ideas to keep the series fresh and enjoyable far into the future.” Likely, the decision came down to a combination of factors.
Another oft-cited idea is that Game Freak decreased the number of available Pokémon because it wanted to implement better animations, but once again, if you look at the specific interview containing that information, that’s not what the developer says. In the write-up by USgamer, Masuda does say that creating a game on the Nintendo Switch — which is a console, unlike most devices where you can play Pokémon — means “higher fidelity and higher quality animations.” That phrase is immediately followed up with, “But even more than that, it’s coming down to the battle system. We’re making sure we can keep everything balanced and give all the Pokémon that appear in the games a chance to shine.”
Detractors who are upset at the culled Pokédex cite, above all, animations and re-used assets as the smoking gun that proves Game Freak “lied” and has actually produced a subpar game. But Game Freak hasn’t exactly been untruthful — it’s been misconstrued, as people pick the parts of interviews that best suit their points, while actively ignoring what the developer says are the main reasons for the change. But it’s much easier to screenshot images or share shoddy animations than it is to assess the balance of games the public hasn’t played. Of course, this line of thinking also ignores the series’ draw has never been outstanding graphics.
The infamous Famitsu interview where Masuda mentions Game Freak apparently had to redo models nonetheless has become a sticking point for fans. Much of it comes down to unsourced images hailing from 4chan, where wireframe models of Pokémon appear to show that the creatures from Sword and Shield are constructed exactly like ones from previous games. While Polygon cannot confirm if these images are legitimate, we spoke to Pokémon hacker @SciresM, who has a proven track record with pulling information hidden in the game files, some of which have formed the basis of previous Pokémon leaks. SciresM says that hackers do indeed have a way to extract assets from Sword and Shield through the usage of specialty programs, which have also been used to do the same in previous games. According to SciresM, the images fans are sharing are real — but he didn’t personally extract them, nor can Polygon speak to the people who produced the graphics.
The reality is that it doesn’t matter if the wireframes are real. For fans who have been amassing a collection for years, there’s nothing Game Freak can possibly say that will make leaving behind beloved buddies sting less. There’s an emotional component here — if Mass Effect fans were intense about Commander Shepard’s storyline, a character who only spans three games, you can imagine how Pokémon fans feel about their companions, which may have been pulled across twice as many games. This may explain why the anger feels so palpable. While fans share foolproof “evidence” of poor animations and graphical performance in Sword and Shield, these posts mask something more basic: Fans feel betrayed. They were told, for years, that monster continuity was one of the core pillars holding up the games — and they believed it, even if rationally speaking, it would probably make sense for Game Freak to cut back at some point.
But even so, that doesn’t entirely explain the severity of the reactions to the limited Pokédex. The truth is that there’s always been a tension between Game Freak and the hardcore fandom that posts on websites like Reddit, or those who compete in tournaments. For years, Game Freak has insisted on making games that appeal more toward children, all while the existing player base continues to grow older. Fans have begged for more mature, complex, and difficult games over the years, but Pokémon largely remains the same. It took years for the games to abandon 2D sprites. It took years for the games to noticeably shake up the tried and true Pokémon formula. It took years for the games to make the jump to consoles. And while Game Freak has slowly introduced mechanics that appeal more to hardcore fans — like the upcoming ability to change a Pokémon’s nature — you still get the feeling that the games aren’t exactly for them.
Pokémon’s toughest challenge is balancing the needs and wants of older players, while always planning for the reality that the latest games will be someone’s introduction to the franchise. Few people pose the Sword and Shield issue this way outright, but every so often you see folks reveal that they’ve had a problem with the games, and Game Freak more specifically, for years now. The “Dexit” controversy just finally gives them an outlet to express that disappointment.
“You guys typed for years on 4chan about how you’re insatisfied [sic], don’t get lazy now, let your voice get heard out there!” one 4chan denizen wrote in response to the #GameFreakLied hashtag.
The resentment toward Game Freak pops up nearly everywhere you look. There’s this notion that while Pokémon is a global phenomenon enjoyed by millions, Game Freak and its mid-sized, 200-employee studio and its weirdly retrograde attitudes toward development, may not be the best fit for the series anymore. As one recent Tweet puts it, “all the problems people have with their recent games could be solved if Nintendo bought out Game Freak.” To be clear: It’s an unfair sentiment. It’s entirely possible that Pokémon is only a blockbuster franchise precisely because of the idiosyncrasies of the existing development studio.
And, more broadly, the controversy isn’t about Game Freak at all, either. Over the last few years, there’s been a rapidly growing shift between developers, publishers, and video game fans. Nearly every big studio you can name, from Rockstar to Blizzard, has come under fire for ignoring the apparent needs and wants of existing fans. Video game players, stoked by the acerbic rants of YouTubers, are now primed to expect unfinished games, half-truths, and being nickel and dimed. Trust has been eroded. Video game fans expect the worst, and in doing so, attribute malice to continually overworked and pressured game developers who can’t even defend themselves, because development studios are notoriously mum about what they say publicly.
Then again, who would want to throw themselves to the proverbial wolves when everyone is angry? Game Freak is the latest victim in an ongoing war between video game fans and the people who make their entertainment. It is also perhaps the most egregious target so far: There’s something jarring about seeing such raw vitriol spewed toward a children’s game whose mascot is a cute yellow rodent.
It’s a tiresome time to be a Pokémon fan, sure. I’ve spent more time reading about the apparent shortfalls of a game few people have played than I have talking about the legitimate reasons why I’m excited to play the newest installments in a series, historically speaking, has been pretty good. But it’s even more exhausting to love video games at all right now. There’s always a new puddle to be angry about. Or, in this case, a tree.