I heard the rumors. I saw those first commercials, like everyone else, and I advised restraint. There was no way the game would look like that.
It went into alpha, and then one day on Reddit I saw the topics. Pokémon Go was out.
I sideloaded the APK when I couldn't download it from the play store. Geo-blocked, only out in Australia and New Zealand at first, but there were ways around it. I caught a Charmander and I saw the city in the game, as if under spectral sight, and there was so much to do.
I was seized by a terrible desire, to be powerful, to be recognized, to take over gyms and seed them with impossibly strong castle-warders until everyone knew my name and rattled their swords at me in fear and awe.
It is an awful burden to be this competitive and this bad at games.
I snatched time between server outages and work to catch a few more Pokémon. People in the gyms had 1000 CP Pokémon. Someone on Reddit had max CP Pokémon after three days.
You can't get good with imagination and poking around school on your lunch break, you do it with money. Or cheating.
I saw some other Team Mystic members at McDonalds—blue bandanas and pins, if you were wondering—and we talked strategy for a while.
"I saw on Reddit that someone's sister saw an illegal on their app."
"No, like a black shadow that wasn't a real Pokémon, it made everything glitchy—"
"Oh, like Dennou Coil."
"Are you serious? Like Missingno?"
"Missingno isn't going to be in this game and you won't be able to import it into Sun and Moon, by the way—"
"I dunno, I just saw a post that you can control Eevee's evolution by naming them after the Eevee brothers from the anime. Niantic has probably programmed in all kinds of little references."
"Did the post have any details about where this was?" I asked, pulling out my phone.
"It was in Toronto, actually."
Awful. My curiosity was piqued; it was creepypasta, it was an entertaining lie in the grand tradition of Mew being under the truck or stories from My Uncle Who Works at Nintendo.
I hung out at the quadruple-lure spot behind Gerstein Library for a while. I'd bought a power bank off Amazon, the number in stock depleting as I watched it—holy shit, I would have to kill someone for the Pokémon Go Plus whenever it released—which was good for three or four charges, which meant about three or four hours on my phone.
Pidgeys and Rattatas spawned and I caught them mechanically, candy for my candy throne of lucky egg-boosted evolution experience, and I cursed when they ran away.
This game was the opposite of the main series: catch Pokémon, not merely to fill your Pokédex, but every one you see, thousands of them. Discard the weak ones, grind them up into candy. Evolve them in a lucky egg-fueled EXP orgy and then discard those ones too.
I mean, people min-maxed in the handheld games, but you could play those without really worrying about IVs or EVs or even type coverage and still be able to finish the game. In Pokémon Go you'd stall hopelessly, barely able to make a dent in your EXP requirements that increased by orders of magnitude like a diagram of the solar system.
There were voids between planets, and you could fall in.
Two of the lures ran out and I moved on. University College loomed, a modern Hogwarts with spires and crenellations. Like many people my age I had wished desperately for my letter to come, or for other escapes—hell, I still did, I'd sit at Hogwarts with eleven-year-olds if needed—but the day never came, and here we were, starving sleeper agents prepared to drop everything to catch 'em all, activated at last.
On the Philosopher's Walk I jumped at every shadow and remembered how the protagonists of The Summer Tree were attacked by a goblin here in the 80s, and I laughed at myself. I'd read that book in junior high and the law-school protagonists had seemed impossibly adult. Wise and good-looking future JD's got to go to magical lands, Celtic Middle-Earths, some to stay and some to return home.
Some to die there.
Maybe it was better to be here, in the real world, a nerd with carpal tunnel and shin splints. Would you become the very best, or would you die there in faerieland? Would you come back different? Would you come back scarred?
It depended on what the rules were, and I liked to change them. Cheater.
Ramsden Park. By the subway station. I got on the subway at Museum Station and rode it around to Rosedale.
The park was full of people looking for Pokémon, and I strolled around in the evening air, listening, waiting for that telltale buzz on my phone. A Pikachu's shadow led me to an area that was poorly lit, with deep shadows under the horse chestnut trees.
Going to get fucking stabbed over a Pokémon. Over an online game. C'mon c'mon c'mon—
Something popped and I slammed my fingers onto it, whirling around to find the main street again. When I turned over my phone there was no Pikachu, just a box, blank and black, hovering against the cheerful capture background.
A church bell tolled, which definitely wasn't ominous as shit.
I went to screenshot it and my phone crashed. It was gone when I reloaded it, even walked back to that dark corner of the park. Of course.
There were other people with similar stories. You couldn't screenshot them. You could take a picture with another phone or camera and it would corrupt the image. I thought of Snow Crash. What did it do to the programming in your brain?
There was no evidence, just rumor and legend. People made elaborate photoshops to describe what they saw, and then the fakers poured in.
It was just a glitch. It was only happening in countries where Go wasn't yet officially released. There was weird, bad data floating around, coming out between all the freezes and the glitches and the servers dropping left and right.
Go dropped in Canada that Sunday and the shadows went away, for a while.
A minor drama over a girl in Kansas with a legendary bird. A mistake by Niantic, or a way to change models to make them appear different? Spearows spawning as Zapdos, a digital illusion?
Were the legendaries in the game yet?
"We've got millions of people playing, they would have been seen already if it was a thing."
"Or maybe they've spawned places that you can't go, like Antarctica, or a power plant, or on the top of Mauna Kea—"
"Zapdos at the power plant, right? How come the workers don't have one yet?"
"We could go over to check—"
"Don't try to go to Pickering. You will get shot if you try to trespass."
"Nuclear power, dude."
I didn't say anything. There was something bigger than legendaries in the game, something more powerful.
We joked about seeing Pokémon outside the game, seared on our eyelids, and we laughed—but I did, in fact.
I had begun to sense them, and I got good at it.
I passed the triple lure at Trinity Church and Uncle Tetsu's—still a huge lineup when the cake tastes like Velveeta cheese, I'll never know—and there were people all around with their heads down and their phones up, searching.
Tourists in loud shorts and worn Birkenstocks and airline-tagged backpacks filled to bursting wandered by, looking for their Airbnb. I had runners on, despite the heat. You never knew when you'd need to run, in this game.
There were pigeons in the park, and I thought about taking a picture, but I'd made the Shiny Pidgey joke a few too many times. Someone was feeding them, and they swirled around in vast flights of gray feathers, and here and there the shinies in copper and white. A busker at the market crooned along to a guitar and a clarinet.
I didn't think about the shadows I saw there, among the birds, Matrix code falling and falling.
Niantic killed Pokévision and killed tracking Pokémon. The mood on the internet turned sour, and then ugly. People posted stories about disability and injury and not being able to make it to Pokémon fast enough. They begged. The in-game tracker was useless.
The cat and mouse game began: new methods of tracking, piecemeal, dummy accounts that teleported and located the Pokémon in an area, gogols slaved to our endless thirst for Pokémon. Pokévision's successors appeared with an army of accounts, less stable, always looking over their shoulders.
Niantic took an axe to the problem, banning accounts and then siccing SafetyNet on our rooted phones, forcing updates. And there were still cheaters out there with twenty Dragonites at max CP, squatting on gyms.
How could you compete?
I stopped playing. I was tired.
Someone developed a Pokémon spawner, manipulating the game's traffic to allow capture of any Pokémon. It was bedlam.
The flame wars were ferocious—did I just date myself by calling them flame wars?—"I'm a hacker and a spoofer," said one gilded post, "but this is too much!" People had screenshots of Mewtwo in their kitchens or at Burger King and the subReddit was melting down, people were getting banned left and right.
It was useful to people in rural areas with no spawns, to people who were homebound or disabled, to people missing the few regional Pokémon in the absence of trading. Was it too powerful? What was the point of playing if you could just line up Pokémon, capture them one after the other like willing sacrifices? You might as well just set up a bot to do it for you, reduce your experience to a command prompt, scrolling in black and gray.
Perhaps Niantic intended something like this all along, some said, tinfoil-bright, as a paid feature or corporate tie-in. The experience requirements after 30 were too huge, too many orders of magnitude to be covered by foot power. You needed warp drive.
It was fairly simple: Pokémon ID number, your GPS coordinates—voila, the Pokémon spawned on top of you.
I spawned a Porygon. I had espied the little bastard's shadow one night when the servers were acting up and dashed out to catch it, and it was gone when I restarted the app. I didn't catch it. Maybe later, if it was the very last Pokémon I hadn't caught, I'd fill in the gaps like with the trainer escape glitch in RBY.
I'm a cheater. I always have been. Not to break the game, not to make it pointless—you could just Gameshark yourself Master Balls and systematically catch every Pokémon on Route 1, you could drag and drop a .pkm file for every Pokémon into your game, you could get a save file of the completed game and say "I've caught 'em all".
No, I just… I grease the wheels, I prop open the hole in the fence that's already there. The game asks me for something impossible—trade with strangers, farm gems with a 0.1% drop rate, play flash games until your eyes bleed—and I say, no. There's got to be a better way, I say, infomercial-clumsy. I look into the cracks and I keep playing, but not like that. Not stupid, not ridiculous expenditures of time and money.
I went down the list and put in the code for number 152. It would probably just throw an error, but maybe the Johto Pokémon were in the code already.
Show me Chikorita.
It spawned a shadow, black and glittering and throwing off pixels like a Dennou Coil illegal. Like Missingno.
Missingno appeared when you summoned a Pokémon that wasn't in the code, a blank spot like a missing tooth in hexadecimal columns, Pokémon deleted, pushed forward to the next game, Pokémon that didn't make it in, Pokémon that never existed, Pokémon that could never exist.
Missingno spawned on the liminal space between land and sea, on an environment unassigned to specific encounters. Empty. Waiting.
Missingno was what happened when you jumped from what was permitted to what was possible.
Only a child could be capable of this unremitting, heedless obsession. No wonder Ash never ages.
Power is everything. Winning is everything. "I want to be the very best, like no-one ever was", says the song. What do you do when you aren't strong? When you can't win? When cheaters, impossibly strong, are grandfathered in? History looks down and cackles at your insufficiency.
Winning is everything. It's worth dying for. It's worth killing for.
To be the best you have to be the best, or you have to make it so that you are by attrition. It's hard to make people forget. It's hard to make them disappear. But it can be done.
I am the best, the best there ever was. I moved up the ranks. See you on the street.