In Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, the way you can change your character is a nice change, but the game’s use of gendered language is disappointing.
Both fans and critics have had a mixed reaction to Pokemon Scarlet and Violet. Some have lauded the new Pokemon designs and the sheer size of the open worlds, while others have criticized the games’ poor performance and frequent lack of level scaling. The game’s approach to character creation and the gendering of player characters has been criticized by players. While some efforts have been made to decouple gender and character, the game’s heavy use of gendered language, particularly when other characters address the player, can make playing Pokemon Scarlet and Violet a frustratingly binary experience.
Prior to release, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet revealed that character customization would involve selecting a “look” for the character, as opposed to designating the character’s gender. In addition, certain cosmetics, such as certain types of makeup, are no longer exclusive to female-appearing characters, which many viewed as a positive development. In addition, there is a greater selection of hair lengths, and all players wear a gender-neutral school uniform. However, these positive steps make it all the more frustrating that the game continues to refer to the character by their gender.
Clavell and the Instructors are Frustratingly Outdated.
The player character in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet attends either Naranja or Uva Academy, both of which are led by an elderly man named Headmaster Clavell. Clavell is consistently portrayed as a somewhat stuffy, old-fashioned character, even referencing “the good old days” when Trainers had to write their Pokedex by hand instead of using Rotom Phones to store data. Because Clavell is portrayed as so archaic, it is generally understandable that he speaks in a formal manner. However, one aspect of his formal speech seems unnecessary: his constant, insistent use of “Master” and “Miss” instead of the player’s name.
Clavell is the character who does this the most, but the majority of other Academy teachers and even some Pokemon Center employees also use “Master” or “Miss.” Given the amount of time spent at school, a player is constantly reminded that their character has been assigned a gender, regardless of what they desire.
This appears to be a regression for the Pokemon games. If the developer desired Clavell to refer to the player by a title, many gender-neutral options are available, including “Trainer,” “Student,” and “Young One.” The majority of characters in previous games, including adults in positions of authority like Gym Leaders and Pokemon Professors, referred to the player character as “Trainer” or by their chosen name. Arven, the protagonist of the “Path of Legends” storyline, is one of the few characters in Scarlet and Violet who does not use gendered language with the player. He refers to the player as his “little buddy” regardless of gender.
Pokemon Customization Advances While Language Regresses
Infuriatingly, the persistent use of gendered language towards the player contrasts with the game’s character creation system and the appearance of other characters, many of whom do not strictly adhere to a binary gender system. All players, regardless of gender, wear the same school uniform and have access to the same assortment of accessories in Paldea’s shops. Prior to the games’ release, the LGBTQ+ community praised Pokemon Scarlet and Violet for the removal of the Professor’s traditional “Are you a boy or a girl?” question, as well as for the greater variety of hairstyles and the ability for any player character to wear makeup or have long eyelashes. Despite the developer’s obvious awareness of the need to move away from heavily gendered player characters, the continued use of such archaic gendered titles as “Master” and “Miss” feels like a step backwards.
Although no non-player characters in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are explicitly nonbinary, transgender, or genderfluid or openly express LGBTQ+ identities, the game’s character design choices heavily favor gender-ambiguous and non-conforming designs. Geeta, the game’s champion, wears an elegant suit, and many of the other Gym leaders and Elite Four members prefer pants and suits to dresses. Rika of the Elite Four and Grusha the Ice-type Gym leader gained popularity among LGBTQ+ Pokemon fans due to their androgynous appearances; in particular, the male-identified Grusha wears makeup openly. Scarlet and Violet’s interpretation of the Hiker class of Pokemon trainers is also popular. Paldea’s Hikers are muscular men who flaunt their attractiveness in tight tank tops and short shorts and sport an attractive combination of long, flowing hair and dashing five o’clock shadows, resulting in an overall appearance that appeals greatly to gay fans of the game.
How do Scarlet and Violet approach gender differently?
Ultimately, the approach to gender in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet feels like “one step forward, two steps back.” It’s a continuation of what Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl and Pokemon Legends Arceus started: giving all players access to the vast majority of clothing and accessories. Some non-cis players, however, find the use of “Miss” and “Master” to be triggering and experience gender dysphoria while playing the game. Hopefully, a future update to Pokemon Scarlet and Violet will include the option to disable gendered titles or have Clavell and the teachers switch to a more gender-neutral term like “Trainer.” Some might say that Clavell’s old-fashioned way of speaking fits with the “past vs. future” themes of the games, but this is at the expense of player comfort and safety.
Gendered character creation is still a major issue in gaming, so the fact that Pokemon is willing to address it at all is a step in the right direction. But it can be frustrating for players when in some games they can be open about being gay but not in others. Particularly, the Square Enix farming sim/RPG hybrid Harvestella, which was released only a few weeks before Scarlet and Violet, allows the creation of explicitly non-binary characters referred to by “they/them” pronouns in-game. Fans still hope that future Pokemon games will have a similar non-binary option and the option to choose character pronouns other than “he” and “she.” However, Scarlet and Violet did not have this option.