Unown

#201 – Unown

Unown is probably the purest example the series has ever given us of a novelty design. Sure, you’ve had monsters like Ditto who revolve around one gimmick, or Sudowoodo who’s largely designed around a “gotcha” moment, but even those have some life of their own.

Unown, on the other hand, is mechanical dead weight. Its only purpose in the core-series video games lies outside of battle, and it’s in the fact that there are 28 variations of the lil’ fella. To reiterate the handbook I got at a Scholastic book fair in the year 2000:

…which brings us up to a conspicuous 26; forms for the punctuation marks “!” and “?” were added in the next generation.

I think what’s most appealing about these guys is that they’re all heavily-stylized versions of the letters they represent, but in a way that feels internally-consistent. There’s a certain style to how they’re all built from spokes and curves out of a central fixture, which helps them feel like they cohere into some old system of writing that either was adapted from or into the current English alphabet.

That central fixture is, of course, a singular eyeball. Seeing as these guys show up almost entirely in the context of “long-abandoned ruins”, it’s a delightfully creepy choice to have those ruins be constantly staring back at you. Oh, yeah, that’s their entire thing – sticking to walls and hiding in plain sight, waiting until they’re disturbed by some adventure-archaeologist. The walls are alive, indeed.

On the flip-side, eyes are almost always meant to come in sets, which re-enforces the idea that Unown are meant to be taken as a collective species rather than individual organisms. And boy howdy, you can’t mistake anything with an eyeball for not being a living creature.

They don’t feel perfectly natural, but I don’t think they’re supposed to. I love their subtly alien concept, and they open up a lot of incidental implications to dig into.

But Unown is a total novelty who only knows one move, and does not belong on anybody’s team except as a handicap. In fact, that sole available move (Hidden Power) was deprecated in the new games, so who knows what they’d even play like? If history is any indication: not well.

Luckily, that’s not really the point of Unown.

The point of Unown is to act as Kiddo’s First Cipher.

In Gold and Silver (and, later, in Diamond and Pearl), there are “ruins” areas that are the only place where Unown will spawn naturally. These places also have engraved pictograms of the 28 species of Unown, arranged to spell out simple clues.

Now, a six-year-old playing this in English will feel reasonably clever at “deciphering” the literal writing on the wall to solve a puzzle, but to everybody else it feels fairly straightforward. But we aren’t the only audience here; these games were developed in Japanese, where there’s definitely some level of English fluency, but it’s certainly not ubiquitous among elementary-schoolers . So not only would Japanese players have to transcribe them into legible writing, but also translate it from a second language. And, of course, this also proves true for any region where English is not the national language, because you can bet that those puzzles weren’t localized in any meaningful way.

Of course, this leads to some silly moments where a supposedly-professional archeologist will sit dumbfounded next to a sign that my kid brother could tell you translates to “ESCAPE”. At the time, Pokémon was one of those universes that defaulted to “the characters speak/write whatever language it’s presented in”. Nowadays – and very visibly, as of Sword & Shield – the Pokémon setting has its own established system of writing, which neatly gives a retroactive explanation to why Unown were treated like a mysterious alien language in-universe at times.

Luckily, they nipped this problem in the bud in the third generation of games by using Braile for similar puzzles instead, which is both universally uncommon and absolutely not meant to be read on a flat LCD screen. While it’s a very functional choice, I think it loses something in how Unown tied together an in-universe monster with an in-universe puzzle. It’s a trade-off that renders this whole species a little redundant, but hey – they have their charms!

For one, each individual Unown is animated in a separate way in the 3D games, and I don’t mean that they rotate at slightly different speeds and angles when idle. Instead, each has its own personality; “N” zig-zags between its two “feet”, “Q” does a clunky loop-de-loop, “W” wiggles its little “eyelashes”, and so on. It’s a lot of detail that the animators really didn’t need to go so far out of the way for, but it charms me to no end that they did.

And that’s one of the reasons why I wouldn’t want to see them around all the time. I love having a little collectible species within a game built around collectible species – you can complete a mini-Pokédex without trading! – and they’re used well in puzzle scenarios. But the Unown also create a scenario where every time they show up, the artists have to draw up new assets for 28 little buggers instead of one, and that’s for a monster that virtually nobody will actually keep in their party by design.

For another thing, it’s a mystery to me why the games landed on “F” and “G” as the default forms of these monsters that get used in promotional art. Surely you’d want to go with a “P” for “Pokémon, right? I could at least understand “G” for Pokémon Gold, but “S” for Silver didn’t get the same treatment, and “F” feels arbitrary aside from it being one of the more recognizable letter shapes.

The last and most lingering point about these little monsters is that their natural habitat supposedly isn’t even in the Pokémon world. They exist in some other, unexplained dimension, slipping through into world we know when it’s convenient just to arrange themselves into little ciphers. Why do they show up at specific sites? Are they being ordered by “trainers” with their own written language to spell out messages?

This is one of the things that I adore about Pokémon: it doesn’t always feel the need to answer its own questions. And not in a “they never finished filling out the plot” way. More in a sense that the world is forever full of some wondrous mystery, and that nobody really understands all of it. That’s the impetus for the player being setting out on a journey in the first place, after all: what good would exploration be if everything was already laid out and cataloged?

It really pays off to have an Unown quantity in the world.

I love these little alpha-bits and their function within the setting – it’s a great way to match the gameplay together with a little subplot in the story, if in a relatively way. Still, all those variants and no real battle ability make them a pretty bad return-on-investment if there isn’t an area designed specifically to use them as a puzzle element. If the designers could figure out some system of combining different Unown “characters” into more useful and battle-ready “words”, I might be more on board. As it is, I’d put them in Reserve and use them judiciously, where a story can benefit from a bit of ancient mystery.

Any and all appreciation for Unown is welcome in the comments!

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