Melding mature themes into your fan game plot

Echo

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#1
So, been lurking a notch and figured it'd be interesting to bring up some topics that have been on my mind. I've always been the sort to like getting as varied and numerous takes on a subject as possible. Helps refine your perspective.

In this case, the question is simple. What do you think about using serious plot points and concepts in your fan game story? Of course, this is referring to Pokemon plots. And, first of all, execution is ultimately everything. Any plot can be pulled off if executed exactly right.

The question will end up boiling down to what you believe you need to do to make it feel like they're not out of place. If there's anything that takes a person out of a narrative experience, its a contrast that doesn't sit right with them. I know I've seen a share of plots that seem to be edgy for the on the premise of the story and never considers consistent, immersive tone.

In my opinion, I think it can be approached from two frames of reference. First of all, how are those themes presented? Second, how impersonal are they?

Let's look at a hypothetical, purposely extreme fan game plot.

In the amazing region of Hoopaladah, the player character heads out with their parents to watch a play. After leaving, their parent's are killed by a mugger. Taking possession of the family Zubat, the PC heads out to avenge their parent's death by becoming the best trainer in the land and stop the nefarious Team Laugh from their plans of capturing the legendary Pokemon capable of hypnotizing the entire region into insanity.
Now, outside of parody, imagine trying to play this story seriously in the Pokemon Universe. Yeah, not going to work well. Personally, anytime I open a fan game and premise immediately starts off with some family member or some part of the population dying in its premise, then I'll tend to cringe. Same with stories that delve to heavily into the politics of the concept.

But, if you think about it, Pokemon games have tackled mature themes in the past. X and Y literally involves an all out war that kills tons. The originals had the literal Pokemon mafia. USUM had a plot and side stories that basically involved entire worlds being destroyed/decimated by various ultrabeast abilities.

There's a few trends you can see in how Pokemon handles its mature/serious subjects... First of all... Its ALWAYS about the Pokemon. Team Rocket steals Pokemon to do work for them. Not kids, or vulnerable people like a more real situation would have. The war from XY was a Pokemon War. When confronting Lysandre, the big emotional moment about his plans to destroy lives is about how he's going to wipe out the Pokemon.

In every case, the serious themes are believable because they deal with this make believe concept known as Pokemon. It never becomes too real. It is fantastical.

Any themes that tie back to the people and only the people are secondary. They never get the focus. They may be mentioned, but they're never played up as a main attraction. Look at Ghetsis's abuse of his son, N. It is actually a very serious topic given its literally a plot point of a father essentially abusing and mentally manipulating his son for his entire life up to that point. But its played off as secondary to the global domination plans through Pokemon that motivated him.

Second of all, the more serious themes are almost always something presented over time. You're, in a sense, weened into believing it as a possible reality. People may argue the quality of the stories, but one thing the games basically never fail to do is make everything feel like it belongs.

Basically, the lesson from this is that the premise, the introduction to your story, should never focus on serious themes. Look back at the extreme example. His parents were killed as the introduction to the story? No, that'd never work. Imagine if Pokemon X and Y started with the story of the Pokemon war and told the story of a kid living in the aftermath (same plot, mind you, just reframing it to introduce information at different points). It would have worked a ton worse.

So yeah, ultimately, I think the keys to creating a plot that can handle mature or serious themes is to focus the themes on the Pokemon and introduce them along the journey over involving them in any sort of initial premise.

Well, that's my opinion, at least. You guys? If there are any takers, lol.
 
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Dragonite

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#2
This comes up on discord now and again so I'm just going to start with what I think a lot of people are thinking but nobody has said yet, as far as I know: a lot of games (pokémon and otherwise) that use the "mature" meta tag come across as being written by a high school kid who's going through their "nobody understands me" phase with little understanding of the world outside the reddit threads they spend their weekends in.

Does that mean you can't, or shouldn't? Of course not! It does mean you have to be careful when you tell people that you're making a game with a mature story because as soon as the words leave your mouth they'll have made certain assumptions about the level of quality they should expect, but advertising and marketing are for some other time.

Let's start with this.

In every case, the serious themes are believable because they deal with this make believe concept known as Pokemon. It never becomes too real. It is fantastical.
This is the important part. In the games Team Rocket was chased out of the country (twice) by a kid who was barely old enough to do algebra, and in the anime Jessie and James were foiled by Ash and Pikachu simply existing on a daily basis. They're punching bags who are only supposed to be scary the same way this guy is supposed to be scary, which makes sense, considering the target audience is someone who's about a third as old as I am - you try explaining organized crime to an eight-year-old. If they'd tried tapping into an older demographic we probably wouldn't be having this conversation because pocket monsters wouldn't have survived past Red and Blue.

As the years went on the premise started getting more and more ludicrous (gold and silver were more of the same, ruby and sapphire were about meteorological catastrophe, diamond and pearl were about deleting the entire universe, x and y were a euphemism for a nuclear bomb) and I'm actually not quite sure why more people don't roll their eyes at them but I'm guessing it's because the games aren't about the plots, and most or all of the players know that, they're about the adventure and the teambuilding.

If you want to keep the authentic feel of Pokémon, you have your work cut out for you: if you write a mature story, you have to present it in a way so that the player knows that they're not in any real danger and that the whole thing is at least somewhat comical, most of the time. (Gen 5 was kind of an anomaly since it was about the characters and not the nuclear launch codes, which I think also worked, since the whole drama of "they're confiscating pokémon!" overshadowed the stuff that would only hit closer to home if you were old enough to understand it.)

What if you don't, though? Say you really like the game rules of pokémon, with the turn-based battles and six base stats and hold items and colorful monsters, but you also like to play other games sometimes. You can do that, right? I actually don't play that many video games so I don't have a huge well of examples to talk about but I've been playing a bit of this lately and it at least has some moments that would make no sense whatsoever to a little kid. That's what "mature" means, right?

Here are some observations.

1. The biggest and baddest backstory doesn't win. Shulk wasn't born in a bathroom stall or raised by wolves or anything, he was just a normal kid thrust into the middle of something else. Not everybody had a totally normal life (dunban got beat up pretty good in the opening sequence) but it's not an arms race to the bottom either.

2. Villains have motives, too. In real life nobody thinks they're the "bad guy*." This isn't something the actual games are great at either, on the scale of "because I felt like it" to "my entire plan makes perfect sense except for the part where everybody dies" Cyrus and Lysandre are pretty close to "because I felt like it." I don't have a real good definition for this, but lawful evil seems to be more convincing/have more possibilities/scarier than chaotic evil if you're trying to get people to take you seriously. Most of the time. Surely you can think of some real life examples for that.

* the ones who do don't make very good stories

3. Morbid jokes that just come totally out of the blue aren't funny or thought-provoking. Some of you probably know what game(s) I'm talking about; for those of you who don't, I'm not going to name it, because I literally don't want to give it the search traffic. (It's not Xenoblade.)

4. You don't need a corporeal villain. I'm pretty sure most of you read this in school at some point. By the way, does anyone want to make a pocket monster game based off the odyssey or beowulf? I'd play the crap out of those.

5. You don't have to slap the player in the face with the point. You could have an outwardly tame plot that only gets weird when the player starts talking to NPCs and reading between the lines - I know I've played at least one game that did this, but its name escapes me. I guess Majora's Mask is one, I didn't play Majora's Mask but most of my friends who did when they were kids thought it was just another Zelda game until they were way older. Make the game theorists happy.

6. You don't need to be """dark and edgy""" to talk about complicated topics. There's a bazillion different subplots going on in Harry Potter and none of them are edgy. Also, I almost made it through this entire post without using the "e" word.

Let's start with that.
 

MGriffin

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#3
Personally I think the reason why I shy away from games that delve into "mature" themes is that you have to be a more skilled author to write those stories. This goes doubly-so if someone is going to call out the matured-ness as a feature of their game. Alarm bells ringing, and ringing loud.

I'd go several steps further than you, I don't have any problem with setting up the whole world as a dystopian nightmare if that serves the story you're trying to tell. Official Pokémon games are intended for young audiences and it's quite right that their stories could be understood in simple black and white terms; but I would suggest that fan games have a somewhat older audience, and so this means you can bring more nuance to the table if you want.

Also, I think that the simplicity required makes Pokémon's attempts to parallel real-world situations rather lame. To me, N's position is that humans shouldn't own animals. But the metaphor fails in both directions, my headcanon says that Pokémon are sentient, and the games say that Pokémon are not owned but in a willing partnership. So where does that leave us as the reader? What's the point of an allegory that strays too far from reality?
 

leilou

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#4
I believe that the problem is not with mature themes but with emotionally strong themes.

Imo in such stories it is harder to not break the immersion of the player with emotional scenes.

In the amazing region of Hoopaladah, the player character heads out with their parents to watch a play. After leaving, their parent's are killed by a mugger. Taking possession of the family Zubat, the PC heads out to avenge their parent's death ...
If my parents are killed it's an emotionally intensive moment. So it needs to be handled as such. Just a:"Oh, my parents are dead. Let's kill the murders!" won't cut it here because it won't let the player digest the mcs' parents death. If that is handled just right it the start of your game will be more impactfull as most others because if you don't loose immersion during such intense moments your getting real feelings across and get the player invested in the mc. But pulling it off poorly will distance the player from the mc and have the opposide effect.
 

Scyl

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#5
Basically, the lesson from this is that the premise, the introduction to your story, should never focus on serious themes. Look back at the extreme example. His parents were killed as the introduction to the story? No, that'd never work. Imagine if Pokemon X and Y started with the story of the Pokemon war and told the story of a kid living in the aftermath (same plot, mind you, just reframing it to introduce information at different points). It would have worked a ton worse.
It all lies in execution. You can have mature themes in your game as long as you treat them with the respect and care that they need.
 

Jewelwriter

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#6
I think this is the thing that is bugging people... that they want mature themes in the mainline games but one has to keep in mind that the series is for everyone. And that is the hardest battle of all.
Even harder than the Metapod Battle Ash had.
 

Echo

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#7
I believe that the problem is not with mature themes but with emotionally strong themes.

Imo in such stories it is harder to not break the immersion of the player with emotional scenes.

If my parents are killed it's an emotionally intensive moment. So it needs to be handled as such. Just a:"Oh, my parents are dead. Let's kill the murders!" won't cut it here because it won't let the player digest the mcs' parents death. If that is handled just right it the start of your game will be more impactfull as most others because if you don't loose immersion during such intense moments your getting real feelings across and get the player invested in the mc. But pulling it off poorly will distance the player from the mc and have the opposide effect.
While this is certainly not bad advice for storytelling in general, it doesnt really address the core issue I am getting.

The disconnect

Pokemon has established an identity over decades. Suddently starting with your parent’s death would be a huge blow to knock you out of immersion because its so different than the identity Pokemon has created.

The same applies to any established franchise. You couldnt use a Pokemon plot for Batman without massuve changes to make it actually fit. Otherwise youre going ti he breaking any immersion constantly

Its not just about handling and executing themes well

Its about good execution of themes without betraying the tone and storytelling style that makes something uniquely Pokemon
 

Jewelwriter

Rainbow Mage
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#8
While this is certainly not bad advice for storytelling in general, it doesnt really address the core issue I am getting.

The disconnect

Pokemon has established an identity over the decades. Suddenly starting with your parent’s death would be a huge blow to knock you out of immersion because its so different than the identity Pokemon has created.

The same applies to any established franchise. You could not use a Pokemon plot for Batman without massive changes to make it actually fit. Otherwise, you're going to he breaking any immersion constantly

It's not just about handling and executing themes well

It's about good execution of themes without betraying the tone and storytelling style that makes something uniquely Pokemon
[Blame my end for correcting the spelling of the post.]

As I said in my own post, one has to keep in mind that the topic isn't just for one specific audience, especially when going for such an audience as Pokemon's, if you keep in mind how many are you aiming for then you should be able to insert things such as a heavy plot, deep thought moving angles and more. BUT it's not easy since it would mean that you would have to remember that Pokemon is a massive target and will hit a lot of people whenever you even purpose an idea out and that's in good and bad ways. For some of us (game makers), we got a lot more to worry about which will make even putting those ideas on a visual representation a chore in and of itself. Artist only got the visual to worry about and storytellers only got to worry about what is written and be sure that the imagination of the reader is given room to think of. I'm probably overthinking this but then again it can't hurt right?

Or is that just me?
 

Dragonite

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#9
Earlier I tried going after this with the assumption that you could separate the mechanics and story from the expectations people would have when they turn on a pokémon game, but that seems to be you guys' main concern so I guess I'll roll with it. In that case, the most important thing I can think of is being really careful how you present it. One way would be to do the gen 5 thing where things only get real if you pay attention, but now that I think about it, you could probably go the other way too. Start off more or less like a normal game, but as things progress make it more and more clear that the world isn't as idyllic as you thought when you ran off to get your starter from the old man next door.

You don't have to go totally off the deep end even, even if you just went part of the way and did a reasonably believable coming-of-age story or something, you've already got something that you'd probably never see in one of the official games. That might be a good starting point for people like me who've never had a serious attempt at actually writing a story.

Don't beat the player over the head with something big in the intro and then downplay it, though. Mom got killed by someone who wanted her wristwatch? Oh. Okay.
 

juliorain

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#10
One thing I think is that people forget is that Pokémon is told from the perspective of a kid.
Earlier I tried going after this with the assumption that you could separate the mechanics and story from the expectations people would have when they turn on a pokémon game, but that seems to be you guys' main concern so I guess I'll roll with it. In that case, the most important thing I can think of is being really careful how you present it. One way would be to do the gen 5 thing where things only get real if you pay attention, but now that I think about it, you could probably go the other way too. Start off more or less like a normal game, but as things progress make it more and more clear that the world isn't as idyllic as you thought when you ran off to get your starter from the old man next door.

You don't have to go totally off the deep end even, even if you just went part of the way and did a reasonably believable coming-of-age story or something, you've already got something that you'd probably never see in one of the official games. That might be a good starting point for people like me who've never had a serious attempt at actually writing a story.

Don't beat the player over the head with something big in the intro and then downplay it, though. Mom got killed by someone who wanted her wristwatch? Oh. Okay.
That’s just generally good writing tips. A lot of dark fangames does come from a desire to be cooler and often the immaturity in writing translates that way by the writer not understanding immersion or emotional impact of the content they were writing.

To bring it in specifically with Pokémon people often forget that the these games are told from the perspective of a child or teen. GTA gets to be edgy as much as they want to because it’s told from the perspective of a 20 or 30-something hoodlum that has an adult perspective. Pokémon stories, unless the protagonist is older, can’t usually start out in a slap-in-the-face-style and full immersion of the games’s darker world because it would literally paralyze your teen/child protagonist. If they’re thrust into all of the violence, then they’re going to need space too process whatever happened. I think Reborn gets away with it because their opening scene is a terror attack, and most kids can logically be witness to that (children in countries where the US is invading, 9/11, etc.,), kids can witness their parents being killed, but extreme events like those are just as scarring and scary for them as an adult, and should be reflected in how their character would interpret the event given their universe's contextual background.

If your player learns them about your game as it progresses, their perspective on the global situation should reflect that, as we see in virtually every Pokémon game no matter how ludicrous their stories become. I’m saying that’s how the main series has done it and not how anyone should.

I think it works because that is good writing. If we’re told all at once about any of the evil teams plots right off the bat, not only does it spoil the plot for the player, but it would be too much for that moment. I mean you could have a Pokémon styled mega man game where you know the evil boss at the end of the map you must destroy at the end but I don’t think that has been done successfully so far(is like to see that, actually).

My apologies this was written mobile.
 
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Dragonite

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#11
One thing I think is that people forget is that Pokémon is told from the perspective of a kid. (snip) That’s just generally good writing tips. A lot of dark fangames does come from a desire to be cooler and often the immaturity in writing translates that way by the writer not understanding immersion or emotional impact of the content they were writing.
More so with the other thing I wrote, but yes and no. It's not like you should ignore all this if you were writing something else, but I get the sense that there's less room/forgiveness if you screw it up when you're trying to take on serious talks. If you fail at writing fantasy a lot of people are probably going to say it's just another dull LOTR clone, but if you fail at writing something mature a lot of people are probably going to think you have a pretty dim view of the world.

Also now that you mention it, it might be rather interesting to see a story where the whole thing doesn't make sense (on purpose - it won't work if you half-ass it) because you're just a kid. I was six when 9/11 happened so I didn't really know what any of the words in "World Trade Center" meant but people went mad so it was clearly something important, but also it meant we got to go home from school so that was what I really cared about at the time. Anyone play this, by the way?
 

juliorain

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#12
More so with the other thing I wrote, but yes and no. It's not like you should ignore all this if you were writing something else, but I get the sense that there's less room/forgiveness if you screw it up when you're trying to take on serious talks. If you fail at writing fantasy a lot of people are probably going to say it's just another dull LOTR clone, but if you fail at writing something mature a lot of people are probably going to think you have a pretty dim view of the world.

Also now that you mention it, it might be rather interesting to see a story where the whole thing doesn't make sense (on purpose - it won't work if you half-ass it) because you're just a kid. I was six when 9/11 happened so I didn't really know what any of the words in "World Trade Center" meant but people went mad so it was clearly something important, but also it meant we got to go home from school so that was what I really cared about at the time. Anyone play this, by the way?
Yeah it's just a standard of value we judge ourselves on: our ability to tell a unique story.

@ your second comment:
I mean I have friends in NYC who were 7 or 8 who saw the smoke stacks and knew immediately what happened.

There were hundreds of children who went home to 1 less parent that day.

But yeah! Why not utilize childhood naivety as a story element? Twould be cool.
 

Phi-Bi

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#13
Looks like what is being discussed the most here is about the depiction of violence while mature themes is not limited to violence. Most of everyday 'mature' problems are not about violence anyway. Finding a job, financial pressure, depression and many more all can be considered as 'mature' theme and I think Pokemon games are quite a good medium to tell them. Some Pokedex entries can even be a source of inspiration. Let me give an example.

Cubone: "When it thinks of its deceased mother, it weeps loudly. Mandibuzz that hear its cries will attack it from the air. The skull it wears on its head is that of its dead mother. According to some, it will evolve when it comes to terms with the pain of her death."

That's quite a heart touching Pokedex entries and maybe devs could turn it into a sidequest where the player help a person to deal with deceased mother and somehow along the sidequest that person encounter a Cubone and can relate to its suffering until the two can terms with the pain of their mom's death. Dealing with loss and grief is a mature theme too and I think devs should be able to see the potential of Pokemon in telling a heart-touching stories.

Of course at the end of the day execution is the key and now that I think about it Pokemon Adventures manga is one of the few media that can adapt Pokemon with a darker tone successfully. Even the Pokemon creators said that Pokemon Adventures manga is the closest adaptation of Pokemon world in the creator's vision. It turns out that Pokemon is supposed to be darker afterall.

However, despite depiction of violence seems to be what understood by the most as 'mature' themes, it is actually one of the most frequent reason that a story can be edgy--if not handled right. One way to avoid that is to ask why the violence is needed in the story. If one of the answer is to make the story looks 'cool' and 'mature' (Often it can be hard to admit that this is one of the reason though so careful introspection is a must) then those are the ingredients of cringe-worthy story. If you want show violence show that violence is not cool and should not be glorified even though sometimes it's necessary. If you want to show death, make those deaths to be meaningful to the characters to emphasize the value of life.
 

Stupid Dinosaur

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#14
You are correct, there is an element of fantasy that allows for Pokemon games to stay suspended in a realm disconnected from the startling impact of "earth-shattering" story points like killing off Batman's parents. However, it's the key detail of how the element is presented. As you said, Kalos' war is an intense event when it's presented as a stand-alone instance. But that's not what Pokemon does, it frames the issue through a lens that is more palpable to a younger audience.

In this case, what the writers emphasized was the relationship between Flabebe and AZ. It specifically maps the established connection you as a player have developed over the journey of the game with your pokemon to a new event where the trainer, AZ, acts as a proxy, abet in an extreme manner, for the feeling of loss the player would have if he or she had to, say, release their pokemon. In addition to this, the way AZ handles this issue is not in an extremely realistic manner, allowing the player to disconnect from the severity slightly, but still an illusioned reflection of real life imposing issues. Thus, the writers are able to present a story of loss and gross devastation to a 9-year-old in a way that they understand.

Now, I agree that Pokemon couldn't do the plot of Batman if it handled it the way typical Batman films do by starting the film with the establishing event. But Pokemon could 100% write a Batman story if it wasn't presented like that. Pokemon is great at working with masks and diversions (AKA Pokemon battles) to talk about conflict. The stories told are fragmented with gameplay and all of the story isn't given to you in bulk like a film would. There's much time for spectacle amongst the narrative.

I don't want to type out right now the entire plot of a Batman Pokemon game (but I totally could), but if it was to start post parent death without the player knowledge of this and you are told by your butler that your Zubat is waiting downstairs for you, and then along this trek you see portraits of a mother, father, and son, but there are no NPCs other than a butler in the house and perhaps some boxes in the master bedroom, the player can easily make the conclusion that something happened. The thing is, at this point in time or ever really, does the player have to know what happened. But the feelings of "this is a story about loss" are still present within the heart of the player. You don't have to have Alfred say, "Your parents would have been proud" or something like that. If anything, that's saying way too much. A great example of this is the relationship between the player's mother and Norman in gen 3. They obviously don't live together, and the game doesn't have to say anything more but the theme of separation is still present.

I could write a gruesome murder horror story for a Pokemon game and have it fit within the Pokemon canon of writing. It's such a cool way to write complex stories for kids. I love talking about these kinds of things.
 

RileyXY1

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#15
I believe that mature themes can be done right if they are done the right way, as shown in Reborn. Being dark and edgy for the sake of it, as shown in ZO and Insurgence, should be avoided.
 

leilou

A wild Minun appeared!
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#16
Cubone: "When it thinks of its deceased mother, it weeps loudly. Mandibuzz that hear its cries will attack it from the air. The skull it wears on its head is that of its dead mother. According to some, it will evolve when it comes to terms with the pain of her death."

That's quite a heart touching Pokedex entries and maybe devs could turn it into a sidequest where the player help a person to deal with deceased mother and somehow along the sidequest that person encounter a Cubone and can relate to its suffering until the two can terms with the pain of their mom's death. Dealing with loss and grief is a mature theme too and I think devs should be able to see the potential of Pokemon in telling a heart-touching stories.
Well ... this kinda is in Pokémon Let's go Pikatchu/Eevee. Team Rocket exploiting the poor cubones naivety by telling it it can meet its mother if it tags along with them. And after rescuing it the last meeting with its mother. Quite the touching scene.

One thing I think is that people forget is that Pokémon is told from the perspective of a kid.
That's an interesting point. Trying to start the player off as adult and seeing how the game will turn out would be different for sure. It would also force you to do a different intro setting which might be quite refreshing.

And while writing that I had the thought that the game starting with the professor telling you all kinds of stuff starts the expection in the player that they will be playing a canon like, innocent game. So deviating from those expectations by getting to "mature" might actually be enough to break immersion and feel edgy if not carefully introduced.
 

Platty

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#17
In addition to all of these points, I believe that a lot of the people that have come to love Pokemon, do so because they can escape reality.
The games that place mature themes within a Pokemon game are likely to ruin the experience for some people - and that's assuming that those people are even willing to play those type of games to begin with.

I personally have come to dislike mature-related Pokemon games because they're cliche, and most of the time, executed poorly.

I saw so many fine points above and I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one that thinks this.
 

Ruler

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#18
Another thing I believe that is important to keep in mind is the 'mature' doesn't always equal not censoring tragic/violent events. Much like what Phi-Bi said, mature can also refer to problems or situations that say, a 10 year-old, wouldn't worry too much about. Having your game deliberate about things such as how the Pokémon world can afford to be a utopia, or the history/technology behind varying things within the world is a good place to work. Things such as "what happens to Pokémon inside the PC", "how does a Pokeball work", and "why/how were these things developed" can offer a large variety of plot points to work with.
 
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