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In Pokemon Sword and Shield, you can’t meet people, but you’ll feel them

Interaction is limited, but it’s enough to make the world feel real

Cooking together at the Pokemon Camp Game Freak, The Pokémon Company/Nintendo via Polygon
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

The first person I talked to in Sword and Shield’s Wild Area gave me a three-day-old loaf of bread — be careful with it, they said. The next person was German and greeted me with a “Guten tag!” before passing along a tin of beans, a food item they said fell from the sky and hit them in the head.

Interactions like these are plentiful in Sword and Shield; you’ve probably heard similar stories, too.

Sword and Shield, released for Nintendo Switch on Nov. 15, introduced an open multiplayer space called the Wild Area, where high-level Pokémon roam free. When you’re online, plenty of other players inhabit the world, all running around, or riding bikes, doing their own thing. Some players stand in front of trees, as if they’re about to shake berries from their branches. Others are stuck in a seemingly perpetual search for looking for others to help in their Max Raid Battles.

There’s a feeling of social presence in Sword and Shield despite a lack of transparency on how the multiplayer features work. It’s not entirely clear if these interactions are happening in real time, or if they’re snapshots of player behavior in the world.

I suspect the latter is the case: I often find myself chasing other players around as they zig-zag through the Wild Area — a hint that, perhaps, they’re chasing others that I can’t see. Responses from these echoes of players are pre-programmed, a series of messages that are chosen randomly by the game itself. You can’t tell, necessarily, if someone’s interacting with you. There’s never a pop-up window or conversational choice about what response to send. If I’m not speaking directly to other people, neither are they.

And yet, despite this understanding of the Wild Area and the players within it — particularly, the limitations to engagement — the characters darting around the open space feel real to me. I got choked up when I first connected online and interacted with another player. I had spent the majority of the game playing by myself in an empty world before Nintendo switched on the game’s online servers. It caught me by surprise to suddenly see a Wild Area teeming with life — or, at least, the idea of it. It felt like a huge improvement.

There’s a certain presence to the Wild Area, something so perfectly constructed to feel alive, even when it’s not.

“Scholars who study games and other virtual worlds often talk about the concept of presence,” Dr. Katharine Ognyanova, assistant professor of communication and information at Rutgers University, told me. “This includes ideas such as self-presence, feeling as if your avatar was really you. There is also spatial presence, feeling as if you were really inside that virtual world.”

But in Sword and Shield, social presence is the most apt, the feeling as if there are real people interacting with you in the game world. Social presence is felt through two ideas: “a perception of agency,” as if there’s another human controlling the avatars around you, and “realistic human behavior,” Ognyanova said.

Realistic human behavior is where Sword and Shield both works and somewhat fails — the erratic way characters move makes it clear there’s a real person behind it. There’s no way a non-player character would be programmed like that. But actual engagement is limited; there are no dialogue options, no way to verbally communicate with another player.

A Pikachu and Morpeko at Pokemon Camp Game Freak, The Pokémon Company/Nintendo via Polygon

Ognyanova said communication is critical in forming relationships, which means we aren’t necessarily developing bonds with other players in Sword and Shield’s Wild Area. Rather, we’re connecting with them through the in-game options we are given.

Maybe players use those options to adapt within the system, learning to create a language of its own, like in Hearthstone. Communication in Blizzard’s digital card game is limited in an attempt to restrict certain kinds of trash talk, but players have learned to get around it. Researchers at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland found that players intentionally misuse Hearthstone emotes to communicate with other players, like using “Hello” both as a greeting and as a sarcastic way to nudge a slow player through a long pause.

Sword and Shield doesn’t have even these sorts of basic communications options, but there are a few moments wherein players have to click buttons to interact with others — namely, the Pokémon camp and in Max Raid Battles.

Cooking curry at the camp feels like the most intimate interaction available with strangers in Sword and Shield. Once you’ve set up a camp in the Wild Area, others can visit your tent. Their Pokémon play with yours. You can invite them to cook with you.

Together, you both fan flames, stir a pot, and throw your heart into your curry. “It does feel really intimate in a weird way,” Pokémon player Cel10e — who asked Polygon to use their handle — told me. “You get to see, at least a simulation of, their real, actual button inputs.”

They continued: “It’s really impressive to me just seeing how other people’s motions, and what Pokémon they have, and what they cook like, is this tiny little snapshot of another person playing the game at the same time as you, even without a chat feature or emote animations or anything.”

It’s not much, but you can imagine a person’s presence in these moments. What’s their cooking style? How are they stirring? What Pokémon are they using? It’s a level of engagement that feels just right for a Pokémon game, letting people connect enough to feel that presence, but not enough to let the toxic elements of online gaming seep in.

It’s enough to imagine your own little place in this big word in a way that Pokémon games haven’t let you experience yet. I said it in my review: Sword and Shield open up the world enough to spark wonder — the Pokémon chasing me in the Wild Area are a part of that. The other part is existing in a dynamic, changing multiplayer area with both friends and strangers.

Players are using these systems to telegraph things to other players, to help curate these experiences, similar to how camps are constructed by NPCs in the Galar region’s routes. Clips from Pokémon camps, some random encounters, others curated experiences — like a gaggle of Ditto or Pichu and a Toxel daycare.

You can stumble into others’ camps randomly, but much of the social game here is going on social media, in clips posted to Twitter or Facebook. Communication and connection is pushed outside of the game, but in a way that still impacts the play experience; there’s the idea that you could encounter those players — have your own meme experiences to post — in Sword and Shield’s multiplayer area.

Sword and Shield’s Wild Area has limitations, and players are adapting to work around them. Those limitations extend beyond how players interact; there are very real server problems in Sword and Shield. Digital Foundry noted that connecting to the internet in Sword and Shield’s Wild Area causes drastic performance drops.

The online interaction in Sword and Shield feels magical, but it’s still just the beginning. This isn’t a massively-multiplayer online game, not even close. And yet, I finally feel like the Pokémon champion I always thought I was.

And I’m still humble enough to wander around the world handing out sausages and beans to other players, too.