The One Thing I Can’t Escape in Pokémon Violet

I still have a few more plot events to run through in the latest Pokémon game, not to mention about one hundred to one hundred fifty Pokémon still to catch or trade for, but I’ve put a pretty serious dent in the game’s content, met most of the NPCs, finished my classes, and at least briefly visited every major area in the game. I’ve had some fun moments spotting Psyducks glitched into surfaces, finding Garchomps flying around in mountains, discovering that my shiny Psyduck really is visually glitched and I wasn’t just imagining it being weird-looking this entire time (it’s constantly under a “bright-light-making-colors-fade-a-bit” effect when it appears in the world), and getting revenge on the high-powered trainer I accidentally ran into in my first few hours of the game (a cabbie just outside the central hub city on the path to the Elite Four is stronger than most gym leaders). I’ve had a lot of fun exploring the world, searching for new Pokémon to catch, and discovering stuff some of my friends who already finished their Pokédexes never found. It’s been fun. Mostly.

I’ve long been ambivalent about which protagonist I play in the Pokémon games that allow you to choose between what was originall called “Boy” and “Girl.” Only in Sword and Shield, when you could really invest in changing your characters’ appearance with clothing and hairstyles did I really start to form an opinion one way or the other. It’s not like it really impacted the gameplay, you know? At least not to the level that it did in other games where you could change your character’s gender or customize their appearance. As someone who spent most of my life living under the gender I was assigned at birth because I’d been convinced as a child that the way I felt about myself and my identity didn’t matter, I mostly picked the masculine protagonist out of habit. I couldn’t show any signs of stepping away from the identity I’d been assigned by my parents, after all, or else I’d run the risk of upsetting them.

That started to change in college, when I didn’t have to worry about my parents watching me play video games. I started to branch out more. Which, in Pokémon games, meant playing through them with the feminine protagonist instead of the masculine one (it meant a great deal more in other games, but that’s not really the focus of this post so I’m gliding past all that to stay centered on my point). Turns out there isn’t much difference between playing as the masculine or feminine protagonist in most Pokémon games, beyond the obvious visual changes of your character model looking different and your rival usually being different as well after the third game where your “rival” character became an NPC version of the character model you didn’t pick.

Most of the time, the way people speak to you doesn’t change much. Until X and Y (I’ve never played Black/White or Black/White 2, so I’m not sure if it started before X and Y), people only really spoke to you. There were times NPCs spoke to each other, but it was rare due to the format of the game. Even in X and Y (which I’ve been replaying lately as my “fall asleep” game), they speak about you sometimes, but they tend to stick to using your name. In fact, it wasn’t until Sword and Shield were it became common for other characters to speak about yours and even then, they mostly avoided pronouns, sticking to using your name or various titles like “trainer” or “Gym Challenger.” It was refreshing to play though these games and almost never encounter gendered language in reference to my own character.

All of which came to an abrupt end in Violet. I’d heard a lot about how they’d finally removed the gender restrictions on character accentuations, so I had decided I’d start the game with a masculine character and explore all of the more feminine hair and clothing options that were no longer out-of-bounds for my protagonist. It was easily the most fun I’d had customizing my character in a Pokémon game. Then I got out into the world and suddenly I was getting hit with gendered language everywhere. It wasn’t just in the occasional conversation with multiple NPCs anymore, now everyone was using gendered language to refer to my character. To my face, to other NPCs, any time I talked to someone, they started using gendered language in a way that completely destroyed the androgyny I’d so carefully built for my gaming experience. I wound up deleting my first hour of play and starting over with the feminine character because it was so pervasive.

Playing the feminine version of the protagonist didn’t really remove the gendered language, but it did mean I wasn’t being refered to by pronouns I’m still trying to correct my friends on. I’m still not out at work, either, so I get a lot of masculine terminology there as well. I just couldn’t stand getting it in my video gaming as well, especially when I had the ability to pick a different option. Sure, I had to go with feminine gendered terminology rather than being able to pick a gender-neutral option, but at least I’m not constantly getting hit with terms I’m listening for so I can correct friends who are still adjusting.

As I’ve played through the game, I’ve noticed how clearly gendered not just my character is, but every character. I know Japanese has a greater variety of pronouns than English, so I frequently wonder if the Japanese text of the game is less gender-specific than the English version is, but I’ve been unable to find anyone posting about it online. I also don’t understand enough Japanese to figure it out for myself. Still, it just feels so frustrating to see so many cool androgynous NPCs in this game that are so pervasively and constantly referred to in strictly gendered ways, via pronouns or gendered titled. Which is clearly a deliberate choice they made given that previous games rarely gendered NPCs in this way. They tended to have more clearly masculine or feminine character models, but that was mostly the extent of it.

It feels very “conspiracy theorist” of me to write this out, but part of me wonders if the choice to so clearly gender character via language was a result of the decision to lean into more androgynous NPCs and the ability for your character to pick any hair and accessory options regardless of the masculine/feminine choice you made at the start of the game. I mean, they even removed your ability to change your clothes beyond accessories, only allowing you to pick from four outfits that are the same for every character you make, only changing the primary color from Violet (navy/purple) to Scarlet (orange-ish). It really feels like a choice made to ensure your character’s gender remains either male or female.

So yeah, the game is super fun. It just kinda sucks to see one of my favorite parts of the series, a tiny thing probably meant to make it easier to create translations of the game text by making it the same no matter which protagonist you picked, disappear at the same time they added a feature I was really excited for. The few articles about this I’ve seen online tend to describe it as “one step forward and one step back” but it feels like more than one step backward to me. At least I could achieve a level of androgyny in those games, either through the expanded outfit selection in Sword and Shield or the too-small-to-really-see character model of the pre X and Y versions. Now I can build that as much as I want, but I can’t even pretend because the game constantly reminds me of something decided before the game even began and I get enough of that in my life as-is.

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