Voices: Is Palworld a Pokémon rip-off? Who cares?

If you wait long enough, every fad eventually comes back around. Gen Z have discovered “emo” fashion and claimed it for themselves; children act like they invented playing with slime as if the nineties didn’t already grace us with Gak; and the most popular video game in the world at the moment is… well, let’s talk about that.

Palworld is an action-adventure game in which the player can catch and raise a wide variety of creatures (or “pals”), and train them for tasks such as world traversal and combat. The player captures “pals” in devices known as “pal spheres”, and can use them to battle other Pals and their trainers across the game’s vast open terrain.

If that sounds familiar, you’re right. It sounds exactly like the famous Japanese collectable monster franchise: Digimon.

Sorry, wait, let me just check my notes… oh, Pokémon. It’s similar to Pokémon.

So similar, in fact, that the game has started a huge online debate about what exactly constitutes plagiarism. In fairness, the similarities of the two properties goes well beyond the premise, with some people pointing out that several design elements of Palworld creatures seem to have been directly copied from existing Pokémon designs, and that certain character Palworld models are proportionately very similar to those found in Pokémon games.

The game’s director released a statement condemning the abuse of artists that worked on the game, but did not deny the similarities between the properties.

Compounding the controversy is the fact that Palworld developer PocketPair has previously used AI as part of its development process, raising questions about whether the technology was used in Palworld’s development.

While Nintendo, the company which owns Pokémon, has said that it “intends to investigate and take appropriate measures to address any acts that infringe on intellectual property rights related to the Pokémon”, the game is still up, and there is no indication that they will be able to sue the makers of Palworld for its (incredibly substantial) profits.

That isn’t too surprising. For one, my reference to Digimon earlier wasn’t just me being hilarious – Pokemon has spawned so many imitators at this point that it could be considered a genre in itself, and policing them all would be impossible. In fact, many people have already pointed out that Pokémon itself borrows heavily from a variety of sources, including character designs from the Dragon Quest series of games, as well as more generally from Japanese mythology and pop culture.

Likewise, my initial description of Palworld was a little misleading. While all of those Pokémon-esque mechanics do appear in the game, and are the ones people tend to focus on when discussing it, Palworld also contains elements of base building, crafting and survival, reminiscent of games like Fallout 4, Breath of the Wild and Minecraft. It even has a “wanted” system, similar to Grand Theft Auto.

The issue with Palworld isn’t so much whether it’s plagiarising content. Indeed, from a legal perspective that doesn’t seem to be the case at all – if it was, I doubt it would have even made it to Steam, let alone sold one hundred trillion copies already.

What’s troubling, though, is that people who are defending the game’s liberal stance on allegedly borrowing assets aren’t always necessarily denying that borrowing is taking place – they’re making excuses for it. Early on, shortly after the game’s release when people had started to notice that Palworld shared some similarities with Pokémon, the discourse wasn’t “this is a rip-off” vs “no it isn’t”. The discussion was “this is a rip-off” vs “there’s nothing you can do about it”.

People were accused of going to bat for Nintendo just for pointing out obvious similarities between the two properties, as if plagiarism stops being plagiarism depending on how much you like the people being plagiarised. Pokemon fans who were unsatisfied with Nintendo’s use of the Pokemon IP over the past two decades were willing to overlook the accusations, seeing Palworld as both the answer to their requests for an immersive open world Pokemon experience, and a shot across the bough at the company which had failed to meet their expectations.

A few weeks ago, the YouTuber Hbomberguy went viral for a video in which he accused several content creators of passing off other people’s hard work as their own, backing up those accusations with hours of detailed evidence. The video was shared widely, with the consensus being fairly predictable: “taking somebody else’s hard work and passing it off as your own is lazy, not to mention morally repugnant”.

However, the discourse around Palworld seems to have added a caveat: “… unless I like it”.

In the age of rampant AI misuse, where more and more people seem to think that they’re entitled to other people’s hard work so long as their use of it doesn’t “technically” break the law (or the laws against it have yet to be written), you’re going to be seeing this a lot.

We seem to have completely blurred the line between morality and technicality when it comes to art, and that acceptance is going to encourage companies to cut more and more corners until we’re left with very little art to enjoy at all.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to log another 100 hours on Palworld.

… What? I didn’t say it wasn’t fun.