Have you ever thought about how weird it is that Pokémon doesn’t actually care if you catch all of the various little monsters?
I mean, it does, totally. The series tagline is “Gotta catch ’em all!” with more exclamation points added depending on how the writer feels that day. Obviously the game cares if you do, in fact, catch them all. Failing to catch them all means that when you reach the end of the game, you…
Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? Even if you do have hundreds of pokémon by the end of the game, you’re still not going to be using the vast majority of them. Even in the first games, you couldn’t be using the vast majority of them, since you had 150 total monsters and six spaces for your field team. Catching literally every single monster does not award you anything different except more breeding options, and the vast majority of the monsters you can potentially catch aren’t useful for that, even. The game in no way cares about you catching them all… except for that tagline.
It’s hardly the only game to fall under that particular header, either. Supposedly, the goal of DayZ is to survive the zombie hordes, but anyone who has played the game will happily state that the zombie hordes are only a problem if you are particularly distracted or short-sighted. The real danger are the numerous human hordes who will happily wave at you and smile, then shoot you as soon as you come within firearm range. Zombies are, at best, a minor irritation.
Terraria and Minecraft both have building a structure and surviving as a supposed goal, but in both games you can do that within seconds and it’s not an actual challenge. You quickly find yourself descending further and seeking things out and building stuff for the sheer joy of it, not because it’s an explicit requirement of the game. Theoretically, Final Fantasy XIV is a game in which you play a character following the main storyline, but in practice I care about that story only insofar as it shapes the world around my murdering spy and all of her various antics.
The stated goals of these games are not their actual goals.
With most games, the goals the game cares about are coded into the game explicitly. Defender’s Quest cares about you reaching the end of the story and upgrading your units, because both of those goals are distinctly part of the game’s coding. It even cares about you building up a diverse array of units, seeing as how each subsequent unit of the same time is more expensive than the units you bought previously. Trying to just get by on endless copies of the Berserker is not going to work, in other words. It’s counter to the design goals.
Other games allow you to pursue goals that have little to nothing to do with what the game actually wants you to be doing. If I actually had a copy of The Crew, my goal would be entirely focused around driving across the United States and enjoying the scenery rushing by my little pretend car, despite the fact that the game is supposed to be about racing. That’s not a weird element of the game itself, that’s just me being strange and really liking the idea of driving all over creation without dealing with the realities of doing so.
But then there are games that start out being about one thing, that have a strong and obvious push encouraging you to do something, but then the actual game is about something radically different. Sometimes it’s subtle, like how Recettear is about 70% dungeon crawling and 30% shop management if you want to get the best stuff the game has to offer, and other times it’s as blatant as, well, Pokémon.
If you weren’t told to grab all of the little beasties, would you do so? Would you care? It’s like collecting every Black Magic spell in Final Fantasy XI – doable, certainly, but filled with a lot of things you don’t need and probably won’t ever wind up using. It’s the old joke about having a spellbook filled with hundreds of spells of which you only need or want four by the end of the game. Catching every pokémon is only something you do because the game tells you to, and the game only tells you to do it because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to milk more playtime out of people trying to catch things they’ll never need or want.
And yet it’s successfully coded into the idea of the franchise. The idea that you could say “no, I don’t want that pokémon, I’m not going to catch it” seems kind of weird, like you’re taking an unusual stance. Of course you want to catch it. You’re supposed to catch all of them. That’s your job, isn’t it?
No, it’s not. But we’re told that it is, and we collect them anyway, even with the tacit understanding that many of them are going to sit forever in a box in a computer. I don’t know how that makes any sort of logical sense, but that’s not the point.
In some ways, it’s a matter of these games having stated goals that appeal to parts of our nature as gamers even if the game doesn’t explicitly support all of them. No, you don’t have to catch all of those little monsters, but we’re all sort of inclined to catch stuff in video games, collect more things, and so forth. Sure, I don’t need to really work hard to survive in Terraria and I don’t lose much when I die, but it’s an endorsement of caution and it feels comforting.
But more than that, it’s a way of tying in a win condition that can’t actually be won. There will always be more pokémon, some that you can never catch. You have to keep playing to try and keep running up this hill, always aiming for the top and knowing that you can, in fact, never catch everything. Even if you’ve scoured every game for every possible variant, there will always be the ones that you have to be given, that cannot be caught, the stuff you can never see on your own.
It’s a goal that you can never accomplish. Because the actual game doesn’t care about it; only you do.