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Sunday, April 14, 2024

'Pokémon Crystal' Unlocked My Trans Girl Heart

I remember it vaguely, from an article in a magazine or on the web somewhere: “Pokémon Crystal will let you play as a girl.”

Those mundane words opened up a new world for me. At the time, I was but a tiny child. And as far as anyone was concerned, I was a boy. Not that I would have argued with them. I didn’t really have any self-awareness as a girl at the time. But despite lacking the awareness, reading the article about Pokémon Crystal gave me a huge sense of elation that I couldn’t understand. At the time I didn’t know why, but I was excited and swept with emotion. A tidal wave so powerful that even though most of my memories of the past were suppressed (sometimes intentionally), that one brief moment stuck out to me my entire life.

The wave immediately crashed down into sadness. At the time, I lived in Thailand. I was a huge Pokémon fan, and I already heard of many amazing Pokémon things that were only available in other countries, like the Ancient Mew trading card that people only got by watching the Pokémon movie, The Power of One, in theaters. Back then, I thought that I might never be able to get a copy of Pokémon Crystal and was disappointed. I told myself not to get my hopes up and to try to forget about it.

One day, I randomly stumbled across a copy at a local department store. I was ecstatic and immediately begged my grandmother to buy it for me, then played it the moment we got home. It asked me for a name, but I didn’t have any ideas, so I just went with the default player name for the girl character. 

Kris. That name was everything to me. I could choose to be a girl.

I became Kris, and it changed my world. I was obsessed, and I immersed myself in the game. Even though I could only see it through the small, pixelated screen of a Gameboy Color, it felt more real and vibrant than my actual existence.

I kept playing long after I finished the story. I kept playing even after I explored every part of the world. I kept playing even when all there was left to do was plant and harvest trees, and when all the NPCs gave the same dialog. I was happy just to feel like I was there, just to look at the little character sprite running around and being able to think, “I am Kris. I am a girl.”

Even after the cartridge battery ran out and I couldn’t save the game, I would get it replaced and go through the whole adventure all over again. Pokémon Crystal was what gave life to my little trans heart.

Even now, decades later, seeing the character design of Kris—or Crystal, as she was called in some works, like the Pokémon Special manga (Pokémon Adventures in the US)—would fill me with emotion. And so did Suicune, the star of the game cover for Pokémon Crystal, as well as my most trusted partner in my other world.

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But what makes Pokémon Crystal special, when there are many other stories about trans people finding solace in art?

Even if we look beyond my personal experience of it being the first game I played where I could choose to be a girl, I still think it is notable for a simple reason: Pokémon is big. It was a cultural phenomenon that swept the globe, and many of us are still enthusiasts today. After all, it’s one of the biggest media franchises in the world.

Many would say to look to indie media for representation, where diverse people from all backgrounds write their own stories in their own voices, and I agree. After all, I’m an indie creator trying to make stories with my own thoughts and feelings too.

But let’s go back in time, back to when I discovered Pokémon Crystal.

I was an outcast kid in Thailand who barely knew anything about the world. If you talked to me about indie games and media, I would ask, What is that? Can you eat it? Is it tasty? I didn’t know much about games, and I barely had access to the internet. I didn’t even know where to go on the internet when I had access to it.

Since I wasn’t even aware of being trans at the time, I wouldn’t have known to go looking for a piece of media to fill up my heart in the first place. I knew there was something there, some inkling, something tugging on me, but I had no words to give it a name.

For some context, this was in Thailand right around the turn of the millennium. People have mentioned to me before that since Thailand was internationally infamous for having a lot of trans women, they thought it was an open and accepting place, but that is entirely wrong in my opinion. At the time I vaguely “knew” of trans women through a Thai term that I find derogatory and do not want to mention here.

My awareness at the time was from family members occasionally mentioning them, that they saw some on the street or something. They weren’t treated as women, but as some other thing. Actually most of the time it sounded like they weren’t even human, just some vaguely disgusting object on the ground.

As such, I mentally had no connection between them and myself, no idea that being transgender was a concept that could possibly apply to a human, since those things weren’t related to humanity. And so my little heart was closed off and unaware.

I was also reluctant to approach and try unfamiliar things, while Pokémon was already a comforting presence. That name recognition also made it easy to ask for permission to buy the game.

It was only because Pokémon was big, and that I was already interested in it, that I was able to give shape to what I was feeling inside. It was only after becoming Kris that I knew I wanted to be a girl.

Of course Nintendo and Game Freak, the makers of the game, probably never bothered to think about trans kids when they allowed the player to play as a girl. No doubt it was made to appeal to cisgender girls.

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Still, I’m grateful to whoever made the decision and subsequently lit up my life like a glowing crystal (pun intended).

I know I wasn’t the first, and surely won’t be the last, unaware queer person who had an epiphany from a game or book they came across. Nowadays games with detailed character creators that let players have any kind of body they want are ubiquitous, but we should still encourage big developers, publishers, and creators to build inclusive, representative narratives into their stories.

After all, it would do a lot of good to expose more people to stories and identities that don’t fit their own, and build their empathy for their neighbors close to home and far away. We’ve certainly had enough of people who refuse to understand anyone who doesn’t have the exact same experiences as they do.

Besides, maybe—just maybe—they can reach that one kid who still knows nothing about the world, and sees themselves for the first time.


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