Kanto of the Pokéverse: The Map of the Designed Nonexistent Location

Large places, such as cities and stretches of land, are generally not designed—not very thoroughly designed, anyway. The map of a city may represent the fruits of some degree of holistic city planning, but for the most part the city is still an emergent entity whose layout and features are largely left up to the decisions of many different planners of much smaller sections one step at a time, as well as the agendas of those who decide to purchase land and construct buildings here or there. The map of the open country also represents a region that is largely without design. Mountains, lakes, streams, oceans, and deserts all exist in their distinct sizes and locations because of the geological factors in nature that brought them about (with apologies to our creationist friends). Maps of fictional locations, by contrast, represent places that are designed entirely with particular purposes in mind. Maps of designed fictional places can exhibit traits that distinguish them from maps of real places that lack design.

Maps of locations in video games could be said to constitute their own genre of map, not only because their location is designed, but because this design is sometimes of critical importance to the impact of the work. Numerous other fictional places have maps, but the precise layout of the map of a region in, say, a book—The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia—is not generally as critical as the layout of a video game map. Maps of book locations may orient the reader and help to establish the nature of the location, but in most cases the particular way in which the locations are spread about will not be especially important. (Here I risk shortchanging the map design in The Lord of the Rings, for its meticulously designed map effectively states the blueprint for the entire adventure; nevertheless, I would insist its particulars are not as crucial to its story as the particulars of a video game map are to an interactive adventure. Most people do not care whether a given valley is a mile wide or two miles wide when reading a book, while in a video game this kind of detail can matter a great deal.) The maps of places in a video game are formulated to create a specialized adventure and to provide the set-up for certain challenges and quests. Like most elements of fiction, video game maps will usually try to give a superficial appearance of realism, but under scrutiny it can become clear that other factors are also at work.

There are countless video game maps I could examine, but I will limit myself to Kanto, the region explored in the first generation of Pokémon games. Some video game maps are based on real locations, but Kanto is based on nothing in our world, past or present. (I have to thank Jacob the Legend Tipps for posting some maps similar to Pokémon maps and thereby inspiring me to examine this topic further.) As a last introductory note, I have not played Pokémon in over seven years, so I am working with an incomplete memory.

You can examine one image of Kanto below. You might not see much, considering its small scale; click on it for an extremely large version of the map that you can explore closely.

…Or is it a map? If you have not played the game, you may be surprised to learn this is not a map at all, in the strictest sense—it is the actual location of Kanto itself, inasmuch as Kanto can be said to exist at all (or so it seems). The first two Pokémon installments are 2D games for the Gameboy, and during gameplay the player character and game space are seen from above. The picture shows the space the player explores throughout the entire game, and it was apparently compiled from ingame screenshots by someone by the username “Ryumaster.”

An overview of Kanto reveals qualities that characterize it as a video game space and betray its intentions as a place designed holistically for the benefit of players and not actually for the convenience of its fictional inhabitants. Its layout of cities is not random as it would be in real life; it creates a certain dynamic of adventure, involving the traversal through grass, roads, forests, caverns, mountain regions, and water. It emphasizes a certain level of variety designed to maintain one’s interest as the journey unfolds along a particular path. It may appear at first glance that the player can go anywhere he or she pleases from the start, but actually there is a set path for the journey, and it is mostly linear with respect to where the player can go at any one time.

The main adventure consists of visiting each city in turn and defeating its “gym” leader in a Pokémon battle, but various obstacles result in only one available sequence in which the gym leaders can be engaged—which happens to be in order of increasing difficulty. There are multiple areas that loop around back to where they started; note the two square-shaped blocks of areas in the northeast region. The design works to send the player on adventures that conveniently send them back to places close to where they started. Towards the end of the adventure, the player can visit the islands to the far south, bringing him or her on a round-trip back to Pallet Town, the location in which the player had started at the beginning of the game.

In addition to round-trip adventures on land, chains of islands that lead from one area of the mainland to another are very common in video games. I have seen them on the maps of many games besides Pokémon. It seems that in video games we do not often see chains of islands that branch off away from the mainland; they always branch in an arc back toward it, so that the player only has to visit each island a single time to cover them all and then get back to the mainland. This design strategy lets the player avoid visiting any island more than once, which might be tiresomely repetitive.

Further overall design reveals itself in other ways: the gym of the first major city the player visits, Viridian City, is locked the first time it is visited but is opened upon completing the round trip of the rest of Kanto. This is convenient timing, considering that the player is once again near the city. After defeating the Viridian gym leader, the next leg of the adventure—the route seen on the far west, directly west of Viridian—then becomes available to explore. These are some of the many contrivances that for a more interesting journey than one would be likely to have in a Kanto region whose layout and obstacles came about by chance alone.

It is not obvious when playing the game itself, but when looking at this compiled image of the whole region, a striking amount of negative space can be seen. There are many empty zones in between routes and cities, and what occupies them is neither shown nor intentionally left to the imagination. Rather, we are not supposed to be especially aware this negative space exists when playing the games. The game maintains the illusion of a complete world, because all the routes are enclosed and we never see beyond their borders to the great blank beyond. Judging by the fact that ingame characters never mention such regions, it would seem that the “real” Kanto is not actually filled with such blank areas—nor does it contain the graphically messed up “glitch cities” that can sometimes be accessed by finding ways to illicitly escape from the adventure’s confined areas—but that the “real” Kanto contains a complete world.

But what is the “real” Kanto? Have we not just seen the realest form of Kanto that exists, or have we only seen a map of it? A case could be made that the game space itself is, in fact, a generalized map—one based off a “real,” idealized Kanto that actually exists only in the imagination. After all, the region as seen above and as explored ingame is still unrealistic and could be said to exhibit generalization strategies characteristic of maps. There are very few roads—and on those roads that exist, there are no cars. This seems unlikely to be the case in the “real” Kanto. Some of the towns have remarkably few buildings; for example, Pallet Town has only three buildings. One might well argue the Pallet Town we explore ingame is a generalized version of the “real” Pallet Town, which might be a little larger. If so, this would indicate the game itself utilizes selection, an aspect of map generalization (Monmonier 28). I would guess that Kanto is purported to be about the size of a small state, but the player could probably walk from one side to another in an hour or so (if we only count walking time and ignore fights with wild Pokémon). This could indicate that the game space is a “map” of a smaller scale than the “real” Kanto, meaning the game’s area is “smaller than the reality [it represents]” (Monmonier 5). I think support for this notion of the game space being a generalized map derived from an imaginary ideal Kanto can be found in other, more detailed maps of the same region, and here is one example.

As far as I can tell, the above Kanto map was made by Nintendo during the time of Generation I (that is, the late 1990s). A similarly detailed map of Kanto has been released during most of the succeeding generations, always filling in the negative space with forests and plains. The map above seems more true to the “real” Kanto than the game is in some ways, but in other ways it may be even more generalized. This map represents an imagined Kanto with a more realistic number of buildings, utilizing less selection than the game itself in showing the size of cities and towns. For instance, Pallet Town now has a more plausible six buildings instead of merely three. However, other regions are actually more generalized in this than in the game. The bridge on the far east is greatly simplified from the series of bridges in the game—or perhaps the simple bridge is more accurate and the game’s bridges are enhanced, although this raises the question of who is to say which of two maps of a fictional place is more “accurate.” The paths between the cities are smoothened and enhanced; whether this makes the map more or less true to the ideal Kanto than the game space could be up to the viewer, but these are still generalization techniques (Monmonier 26). Some areas of the map, such as the Safari Zone (the enclosed field near the south end) and numerous routes, use selection very judiciously in comparison to the game space.

One can imagine the “real” Kanto as quite a bit larger and more elaborate than either the game space or the other map, containing aspects of both. There remains a question of whether the above map is based on someone’s original vision of the “real” Kanto that the game space itself was also based on, or whether the map is based purely on the game’s version of the map. It would seem that the map is probably based on a more detailed design plan for the game space itself, and I think an analysis of differences between the game space, the Generation I map, and the Generation IV map reveals evidence of this. The revised map released a few years ago during Generation IV can be seen below.

This map, also seemingly made by Nintendo, represents a reimagined Kanto. An obvious aesthetic difference is its muted, more mature-looking color palate in contrast to the first map’s emphasis on brighter colors. Upon first seeing this map, I was tempted to think it would turn out to be more realistic than the Generation I map—but then I saw that, once again, Pallet Town is reduced to a mere three buildings. This map apparently utilizes selection more than the Generation I map in at least some of the towns and cities, although some areas such as the Safari Zone and the pathway from Lavender Town to Fuchsia City are far more detailed—and closer to their ingame appearance—than in the Generation I map. The Generation IV map brings the region up to date with the other games in the Pokémon series, adding additional locations on the far west side of the map and a revision of the Indigo Plateau—the location in the far northwest—as being a mountaintop rather than just a building. In this regard, it is probably truer to the original vision of Kanto, given that it had always been designated a “plateau.”

The Generation IV map fills in the game map’s negative space in different ways than the Generation I map, and it also has a very differently shaped coastline. This may seem an indication that Kanto was never designed very thoroughly, and that what lies within the negative space and how the coastline is shaped may not have ever been set in stone—but on the other hand, the Generation IV map’s coastline design stands in direct contrast to another potentially more accurate map which is similar to that of the Generation I map. I will return to that shortly.

Aside from the negative space and the coastline, other aspects not visible in the game space do seem established as canonically part of the “real” Kanto. Both the Generation I and Generation IV maps showcase features not present in the actual game space, and they have some of these in common. This seems to be evidence that they are both based on a fuller design for Kanto than we see in the game itself. For instance, Cinnabar Island—the large island to the far south—is host of a volcano in both maps, but not in the game space. This demonstrates that the map designers consider it an essential feature of Cinnabar in the “real” Kanto, and there are two possible reasons why it is not in the game itself. One possibility is that the volcano was not imagined until after the game itself was made but was later “canonized” as a feature of the island. The other possibility—more likely in light of the meaning of the word “cinnabar”—is that the volcano was envisioned from the beginning as part of the island but was not selected as a visible feature for the game due to certain design considerations. It may have been difficult to make the volcano aesthetically interesting under the technological limitations of designing a Gameboy game.

Even considering that the game itself appears to be a kind of map of Kanto, there is a representation of the region that is even further generalized, and this is the map (the “town map”) that the player can use within the game.

I would venture a guess that the town map, being included in the game itself, is more true to the “real” Kanto—or rather, to its original design, minus the western areas added later—than either of the more detailed artistic maps. This indicates the Generation I map had a more “accurate” coastline, most closely matching the one seen on the town map. The Generation I map still does not, however, completely match the town map, and this would seem to be intentional. One is left to wonder what the real Kanto looks like.

In the end, of course, there is no real Kanto. There are only different visions of it—the game space, the town map, and numerous official and fan-made detailed images. They all stem, either directly or indirectly, from an original game plan that was designed for the purpose of creating a specialized adventure. If a map were only a means of helping someone find their way around, it would not be accurate to call the game space a map, considering it is the only form in which a person can explore Kanto at all. However, a map is not limited to being purely a guide; the meaning of a map is much broader. A map can be any representation of a location. In the case of Kanto, the game space represents an imaginary place, and it is this representation that the player explores. The map and the territory are one and the same.

Works Cited

“HGSS Kanto.” Bulbapedia, the Community-driven Pokémon Encyclopedia. 14 Nov. 2010. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/File:HGSS_Kanto.png&gt;.

Monmonier, Mark. How to Lie with Maps. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1996. Print.

“More Maps!!!” Jacobthelegendtipps. 02 Apr. 2012. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <http://jacobthelegendtipps.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/more-mapsh/&gt;.

“Pokemon Blue Guide & Walkthrough – Game Boy – IGN.” IGN. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <http://guides.ign.com/guides/16708/page_229.html&gt;.

“RBY Kanto.” Bulbapedia, the Community-driven Pokémon Encyclopedia. 21 May 2010. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/File:RBY_Kanto.png&gt;.

“Red/Blue Pokémon Map.” HD Wallpapers Only! Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <http://onlyhdwallpapers.com/wallpaper/pokemon_blue_maps_rby_kanto_red_yellow_map_desktop_5570x5808_wallpaper-217768.jpg&gt;.

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6 thoughts on “Kanto of the Pokéverse: The Map of the Designed Nonexistent Location

  1. This was so intriguing. I am not even lying; I took a good 15 minutes to really read your paper. Thank you, man! What an interesting subject! Takes me back…and makes me think. Here’s to killing two birds with one paper! Yes!

    • Thank you very much! I’m glad to have provided some nostalgia for the old games in the context of a new way of looking at them.

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  4. Hi, nice musings on the subject here. Very interesting food for thought.

    Just one thing though, you state numerous times that the fictional Kanto is not actually based on a real location, and while it would be true to say that this Kanto is not a map of any real location, it is in fact based (however loosely) on a region of Japan. Which even shares its name.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kant%C5%8D_region

    Looking at this map image, you can broadly see a resemblance to the fictional Kanto:

    I think it is a shame you had not known this at the time of your writing, it would have added greater depth to the discussion.

    • Thanks for the comment. This is really interesting to learn. I see the resemblance between the two Kantos. I never considered the possibility that the Kanto I wrote about was based on a real place; I’ll try to take this as a valuable lesson about doing more research and not making too many assumptions. This would certainly have changed the direction of my analysis if I’d known it at the time. I would have discussed how the landscape was changed for the purposes of the video game, rather than being invented from the ground up.

      I apologize for how long it took me to see your comment and approve it. I made this blog for a class I was in last semester, and I had not checked it since the summer began.

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