I expected to have a little fun with it. Maybe it'd hook me in. But I had no idea how deep this would go.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Pokémon Go has officially landed in the UK. The augmented reality mobile app by Niantic, for iOS and Android, had already left a considerable impression in territories where it had been easily downloadable without any backdoor trickery—just look at the productivity of the workforces of the US and Australia these past seven days. And now it's here. Hell, now it's as good as everywhere. (Apologies to Japan.) We've read the stories about dead bodies, muggings and even stabbings, but they're not affecting the game's popularity.
Which is, partly, indebted to the app's amazing simplicity. You walk about, catch Pokémon that pop up on your map, and check into PokéStops to get Poké Balls and eggs and other such tools of the trade. You collect as many of the pocket monsters as you can, level up, and then you can put them into battle with other players at designated gyms—that might also be churches, or leisure centers, or garages, or trash cans, probably.
Because I'm a resourceful sort of person, I downloaded Pokémon Go the day it came out—thanks, handy internet guides to getting software that you're not supposed to have. That was a week ago now. I expected to have a little fun with it. Maybe it'd hook me in. But I had no idea how deep this would go, and me with it.
After installing the game and designing a trainer, you get to pick from one of the three classic Pokémon dtarters. "Great," I think to myself. I'll pick a Charmander, and be done with it. Except the game's map promptly glitches out, and I tap on Bulbasaur. Shit. I don't want a dumpy vegetable as my starter. It doesn't even breathe fire. After some disappointment at myself and the game, but mostly the game, I stroll out into the unknown frontier of King's Cross in search of more Pokémon to join my seedy new friend.
I keep the app open as I wander, clicking on all the PokéStops marked on the map—just random landmarks, really, some obvious and others just a sketch of graffiti on a wall, yet each possessing a small clutch of fresh new balls. Catching the Pokémon themselves is relatively simple: You just flick a Poké Ball in their direction, whack them on their noggins, and that's that, gotcha. At least, it's that effortless in the game's early stages. It's actually kind of staggering how Pokémon Go just lets you into its world without any explanation or tutorials whatsoever. The confidence that Niantic has in its intuitiveness is uncommon, even for mobile apps. So far largely unmoved, I nevertheless press on, knowing that tomorrow is another day, with new Pokémon to collect.
All I have here are Pidgeys, Rattatas, the usual boring normal types. But then I open up the app at work, and what's this? A Dragonair. What the hell is a water/dragon–type mulling around in central London for? I chuck about 50 Poké Balls at it—my entire stock—before it runs away. I shut the app down and declare that Pokémon Go is "shit for babies". The tantrum I throw lasts roughly three hours, until a bunch of guys in the office decide that we all need to go hunting together. Well, OK, if you insist.
And here, as a team of trainers, something pretty amazing happens. We're ducking in and out of streets we'd never previously been down, despite their proximity to our place of work, to check in at PokéStops for more items—after my Dragonair encounter, I'm in need of some Balls. We nab a few Grass-type Pokémon in a park—makes sense—and that's when that little switch inside my head clicks. This game is the dream we were promised by the Pokémon TV show: Going out to new places and catching these critters, free and having fun and not caring about any of the other shit happening in the world. If it doesn't fit inside a Poké Ball, who cares?
We're all quickly at level five, which opens the option of competing at gyms—the biggest markers on the map—and to pick sides, a team, to stick with for forthcoming battles. We're all agreed: It's Team Mystic or nothing. (Well, there are two other teams, but who cares about those losers.) We're confident: These local gyms will all fall before our mystical might. This was our turf, and on our turf, we were kings.
We were not kings.
All the gyms had been taken by some prick on the red Team Valor, with some ridiculously strong Pokémon. There was no way we could challenge them. My usual work commute route wasn't cutting it in terms of building my levels. This wouldn't do. I had to get better, somehow. But when I try to play the game after work, the servers are having one of their teething-problems hissy fits, rendering me unable to push into new territory, to seek out stronger Pokémon for Team Mystic. But the weekend was upon me: Tomorrow, Saturday, I would expand my radius, eschewing public transport, and come hell or high water, I would bag myself some of those elusive rare Pokémon.
Now I'm not the most active person in the world. To be honest, I'm pretty happy living my life as a short dumpling boy who doesn't really like exercise. So I never anticipated that I'd walk 15 miles in a single day.
I kick off my trek in Waterloo, and am immediately hit with a slew of new Pokémon. PokéStops pop up all over the place. One has confetti around—someone's put a lure on there. And it's worked a treat—there are tens of people gathered here, all with faces in phones. Yet as I get nearer, a conversation sparks up. Pleasant exchanges, between total strangers—and I really can't stress enough how this kind of behavior is almost totally unheard of in central London. I soon enough show them who's boss, and proceed to catch all manner of uncommon Pokémon. Four hours fly past, and I'm in a cafe, looking at Reddit.
There it is. The /r/PokémonGoLondon subreddit has the locations of Charmander. The starter Pokémon that I was denied could now be mine. But the hot spots in question are right across town. I screenshot them. Tomorrow, my fiery friend. Tomorrow.
Along my impromptu tour of what ultimately feels like the whole of London, I begin trying to conquer gyms in earnest, bumping up against some truly powered-up Pokémon trainers. I stand just yards from them. "Red Team?" one of them asks me. I say nothing. I say nothing, and I take their gym, like a silent assassin with his pockets full of Drowzees and Slowpokes and Mankeys. Pokémon Go's asynchronous multiplayer is strange one. I figure I'm being some sort of super badass Pokémon trainer as I emerge victorious, like when you meet your rival at the end of PokémonGold/Silver/Crystal. But in hindsight, I think I came off as a weird nerd.
Naturally, Buckingham Palace is a gym. I stop to check out who's holding the place down as his or her own. I reckon I can take this person. I'm confident. Gym leader of the Queen's big house, that's me, in a matter of minutes. Except I can't take a sliver of health off the opposition. It's not going anywhere. And yet, surely I had this in the bag... Oh hang on. The thing's glitched again. Reboot. And again. And again. And nothing. My shot at ruling the roost at one of London's premium PokéGyms has gone. The dream has died. I go home and fall asleep, barely able to feel my legs anymore.
Charmander, you bastard, today is the day I'll get you. But first I decide to check out some unusual PokéStops near my flat, in particular the unmarked graves that I can farm Poké Balls from. As I'm walking up to the church and its graveyard, I notice a hearse. Oh, no. I can't possibly waltz into the middle of the congregation and stand around playing a Pokémon Game. Not wanting to be that dick by gatecrashing a funeral, I immediately let it go and head for Holland Park, a.k.a. Chamander City, on foot.
On the way there, though: nothing. A massive stretch of emptiness in the game. It's odd to come across these unpopulated part of Pokémon Go, especially in a big city like London. I trudge on through the desolation, down a straight road that simply never wants to end. All of my excitement is ebbing away, as each heavy breath leads me closer to a kind of epiphany.
Pokémon Go isn't about being a Pokémon master. This game has tricked me into doing actual exercise. Was lugging my arse across London really worth it? Should I have just gotten on the Tube like a normal human being? I was being fuelled by some urge to catch virtual animals that live on my phone. That makes no sense. This had gotten into my head in a wicked way. Pokémon aren't real. Why am I even doing this?
I reach Holland Park, catch a Charmander, and feel absolutely nothing.
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The addiction has spread. And the toll of all that walking is being felt. I look online for respite, but it doesn't come: The rest of the world is going through this waking nightmare, too. Both my physical and mental well-being feel as if they're on the rocks. This has blown up like nobody, surely, could have forecast. And once it's out there, in you, there's no stopping Poké fever. Poké fever comes for us all. That guy who got stabbed? He just kept going with his Poké Balls, with his PokéStops. I head to the shops. There are some kids hanging around outside, catching Rattatas. I think about warning them. That was me, merely days ago. But I know it's too late. Pokéfever already has them. I leave without saying a word.
All of the gyms are now beyond me, ruled by cruel masters in possession of the fiercest monsters. Around them, the same selection of critters continues to emerge. The glamour of Pokémon Go has faded. The urge to go outside and add to my collection doesn't surface as it did just two days ago. I'm already at the other end of this particular hype ride. It's brilliant—it has to be, or else it never would have smitten me so. But Pokémon Go has broken me, too. Which is incredible, really, considering there's almost nothing to it. The real heart of the game isn't the game at all, but interacting with other people, real people, hovering above their smartphone screens. I don't think that there's much to this catching them all lark at all. But the social side of the experience? Seeing random individuals coming together because of a shared interest in something so simple as tapping away at the faces of digital animals? I think that's a little bit magic. But next time I know there's a gathering happening, I'm taking the bus.
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