I made my first important life decision when I was six years old: I choose Squirtle as my starter. This decision was made on a brand new GameBoy Color, and motivated by a desire to be competitive against my brother's Charmander.
A lot of people will comprehend those statements, but for the confused and uninitiated, I'm talking about Pokémon, a now 20-year-old franchise about weird, colorful monsters. These genre-spanning creatures invaded pop culture through multiple television shows, movies, books, toys, clothes, songs, games, and anything and everything else. They originated, however, in a 1995 Japanese video game.
In the original game, the goal is to become the very best Pokémon Trainer by catching all 150 Pokémon and battling them against other trainers. Its mixture of exploration and tactics provided myself and millions of other kids perfect distractions from unimportant things like homework and chores. I dedicated countless hours to perfecting my team, exploring the game's expansive world, and memorizing stats and names that will never help me secure a bank loan, yet they are ingrained in my brain. Pokémon was this amazing fantasy that I always wanted to live in.
As of Thursday, July 7, that fantasy has become reality... sort of.
A new way to play
I'd heard about Pokémon Go a few times prior to its release: nothing detailed or exciting, just that it was a free app that would allow people to play Pokémon on their smartphones. When it was released in the U.S. last week, a couple of my friends vaguely talked about exploring town and catching Pokémon in the street. Intrigued, I immediately deleted those silly dating apps to make room on my phone for Pokémon Go.
My Pokémon journey started during my lunch break. Initially, I thought it was simply an updated version of the original game: I created my character, was placed in a virtual world, and then asked to select my first Pokémon. Guided by nostalgia and the fact that he is objectively the best starter Pokémon, I choose Squirtle again.
And then it happened.
Squirtle appeared in front of me. Not in the virtual world, though. He was right in front of me, on the sidewalk, staring me down. I couldn't believe it! I was face-to-phone with a Pokémon.
I was experiencing the game's augmented reality feature, which uses a phone's camera to display Pokémon as if it's directly in front of you. So when a player encounters a Pokémon, it might be standing under the mailbox in their front yard, hiding behind the trees in the park, or (in at least one documented case) chilling on top of the toilet seat. It's charmingly low quality, but super effective.
While the augmented reality feature is the game's highlight, its driving mechanic is exploration.
What I originally thought was a map of a fictional, virtual world was actually a map of Bend. The game uses GPS and a crude yet accurate Google Maps wannabe to follow the player's movement in real-time. Additionally, local landmarks and points of interest are represented as PokéStops (where trainers gain helpful items) and Pokémon Gyms (where trainers can battle with their Pokémon).
Instantly, I was hooked. This was the dream I had unknowingly been dreaming for 20 years, come to life.
Catching more than just Pokémon
To be fair, though, the game is not perfect. Trying to be the very best is tough, and my Pokémon journey has been filled with server crashes, screen freezes, a sore neck, and awkward looks. And I'm not sure it's the answer to getting youth and adult gamers outside and interacting.
But it's immediately a different experience than sitting on the couch in front of the television. Players may be focused on that fantastical top layer, but the real world is never completely hidden from view.
On the second and third days of my Pokémon journey, I was joined by my brother. Once rivals forever locked in combat (when it came to Pokémon), we were now a team of explorers, the Lewis and Clark of an already discovered world filled with undiscovered, fake monsters.
As we walked through the Old Mill District, we caught a lot of Pokémon and reveled in being adult children for the day.
As we walked farther, I started looking up more. I noticed all the memorials and plaques that the game marked as PokéStops. I found signs for a fly fishing challenge course spread across Old Mill. I walked a new path that took me further along the Deschutes than I had ever been. And when my phone inevitably died from the exorbitant amount of battery power catching Pokémon requires, I wasn't even upset.
I was outside on a gorgeous summer afternoon in Bend. Who could complain about that?