Sobbing With Sobble in Pokemon Sword and Shield

Or: The Psychology and Philosophy of Sad Baby Water Lizard Pocket Monsters

Sobble looks ahead with a sad face and timid demeanor.

With Pokémon Sword and Shield coming out in a little less than a month, the hype cannot be more real. Game Freak, Inc.—the developer, for those uninitiated—has been noticeably more tight-lipped when it comes to information this time around as compared to previous games, and one could argue that it’s made the anticipation way stronger as a result. Still, there’s been a healthy dose of reveals since the announcement of the games way back in February of this year, and boy does it look amazing!

Yamper is an electric corgi which seems unable to put its tongue away. Wooloo is probably the cutest, roundest sheep-creature ever conceived by man. There’s Alcremie, a whipped cream little monster with variants based on flavors and toppings. And then there’s Polteageist, which is literally a tiny ghost who lives inside a teapot—bruh!

With the addition of the new Gigantamaxing feature that makes Pokémon huge and gives them alternate forms, classic monsters like Charizard, Pikachu and Butterfree are getting some love too. Pikachu, particularly, looks like an absolute unit in his retro-looking, chubby Gigantamax form.

None of the reveals, however, have created as much craze as the very first one.

During the initial announcement of the games, Game Freak revealed the three choices for starter Pokémon: Grookey, Scorbunny and Sobble—the grass, fire, and water-type starters, respectively. And this was the moment when all of the fans’ collective sh—…stuff was lost forever.

Just look at that thing!

The official Pokémon Sword and Shield website describes Sobble as “a somewhat timid water lizard Pokémon that shoots out attacks as it hides itself in the water.” The site goes on to mention that if it gets nervous or embarrassed, it will disappear into its surroundings. And that if it feels threatened, it will start to bawl and spread its tears around the area, which are said to be able to make others around him cry too.

And just like that, within hours, people went crazy about this sad little critter. Fan art and comments started popping up everywhere in social media, with people saying that they felt like wanting to protect and take care of the little thing. Stuff like “want to see it grow up healthy” and “my child, must protecc” (I especially like that one with the meme and everything), flooded the internet like level 3 Zigzagoons on Hoenn’s route 101.

This might be the point where we ask ourselves why we Pokémon fans are so bizarre. I don’t have a good answer for that.

The next potential question, however, has a more interesting answer. How does a collective urge to care for and protect this non-existent creature even happen in the first place?

And here’s where we go all Pokémon Professor on this thing.

Have you ever randomly smiled at a baby, only for the little pocket monstrosity to—as if driven by pure instinct—smile right back? I personally know only two facts about babies. One: as natural as it might be for anyone to think so, these things do not, in fact, belong inside Pokéballs. And two: they also don’t know a thing about common courtesies—just ask my dad about that beer I supposedly peed in once (true story). So clearly, the fact that they would have such a response hints at something instinctual at work, maybe something about human brains or our nature.

A study by Christian Keysers, together with Valeria Gazzola, both of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, apparently found that “observing another person’s action, pain, or affect” (an emotion or desire as influencing behavior) “can trigger parts of the same neural networks responsible for executing those actions and experiencing those feelings firsthand.” I’m pretty sure this isn’t the first study conducted on the topic. As a matter of fact, I found at least two more by the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences and by the University of Chicago, both dealing as well with the concept of empathy—our ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes (not literal shoes, though; you know what I mean).

It would make sense for people to naturally feel for others given the social nature of our species. And while the baby in the hypothetical example mentioned earlier would probably not have developed this capability yet, the fact alone that it (I use the pronoun “it” referring to babies because it sounds cuter) naturally reacts to others’ facial expressions and whatnot is pretty neat in my opinion.

Neuroscience is actively discovering and studying phenomena such as this, but while all of this experiment stuff might sound new and exciting, it’s hardly a modern development. Just ask 18th century, Scottish philosopher, David Hume—though you can’t really ask him because he’s been dead for almost 250 years.

David Hume poses for a profile pic with his Pokémon partner.

Hume, among philosophers of his time, was as rare as a shiny legendary. While others were making strides in the use of reason to learn about ourselves and the world around us (to include morals and stuff like that too), Hume was an advocate for emotions. He famously said that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

He was what is known as an empiricist, someone who believes that since we can only perceive the world through our senses, these sensorial experiences should be our go-to when it comes to coming up with our ideas, thoughts, and conclusions about it.

According to Hume, as he explained in A Treatise of Human Nature, passion rather than reason govern human behavior. Fun fact: apparently he bombed pretty hard with audiences on this one, which is kinda funny, but I digress. He spoke about what he called impressions and ideas. Impressions, according to him are the product of the senses and the feelings that sensorial stimuli create—examples of these could be pain, pleasure, sadness, and joy. Ideas, on the other hand, are copies and associations we make from these impressions. The point is that thoughts, memories and patterns we derive from initial impressions (or feelings) will, in turn, create our ideas.

From this hodgepodge is where our will to act originates. Essentially, we do things because we’re wired to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and not necessarily due to our ability to think things through. This apparently serves as a base for our moral sensibilities as well, when we consider what would cause pain or pleasure to others.

For the tl;dr crowd out there: as far as Hume was concerned, it’s all about the feels.

“But this is an article about Pokémon, bruh!” I know, I know. We’re getting there. Because here’s the thing: in his arguments, Hume also spoke about “sympathy”—a word which back then, he used to refer to something more akin to what we know as “empathy” today.

Humans are not only capable of associating things and ideas with personal feelings, but by observing others, we can also pick up on cues about how they might feel as well—through their expressions, for example. Because of this ability to empathize, we might find ourselves, to an extent, feeling similar things to what others feel in certain situations. In this context, you could say that, in a way, this might lead us to desire that others experience good feelings. Or at least to want to help them avoid negative ones, since those feelings (good or bad) can eventually become reflected as our own.

If we see someone step on a Lego and shriek like an Oddish when you mistake it for a weed and pull the tuft of leaves on its head, we might instinctively wince as if we felt their pain too—as if we hadn’t been the ones who left the damn thing on the floor in the first place (sorry mom). When we see a little water lizard in a puddle of its own tears, we storm Twitter with ugly fan art and comments of support.

See? Told you this was still about Pokémon.

There was also an empirical study conducted in 2011 in the Netherlands. Its focus was empathy and compassion in the context of healthcare. They used 50-something nurses and a similar number of patients (older people with chronic diseases) and found that through their daily experiences, the nurses were able to “feel with” their patients. In a way, they could somewhat share what the patients felt almost as if they were feeling it themselves. This phenomenon could be helpful in providing quality care for people who need it. And the connection created through this empathy and compassion between nurse and patient, could also help some patients feel more comfortable and open with their professional carers, thus making the process easier. Sure, I believe it’d be unrealistic to think that the nurses in these situations can literally feel what their patients feel, exactly as they do—since essentially all they’d probably have to go on would be memories of past similar experiences or what they can imagine the patients feel. But nonetheless, the idea that there can be such a deep connection between human beings when it comes to putting oneself in another person’s situation, is very interesting.

Finally, here’s another thing: Ever wonder why we find some things cute and not others? According to Konrad Lorenz—an Austrian ethologist (also dead like Hume)—infantile features trigger nurturing instincts in adults. An ethologist is someone who studies animal behavior (I googled it). And while this seems to apply more to animals that naturally require parental care, I wouldn’t be surprised if it extended, to some degree, to other animals and even things as well. We love round, small, soft-looking things with weird limb proportions and giant eyes because that’s what babies look like. Think about it: human babies are so pathetic that they can’t even keep their heads from falling backwards, for Arceus’ sake. If we didn’t find things cute and had an innate desire to care for them, if we weren’t capable of noticing social cues in others that help us feel what they feel (like seeing someone crying and knowing they’re either sad or in pain), and if these emotions didn’t guide our reasoning and our actions like Hume proposed, we would all be dead.

And guess who looks like a baby with a shamelessly blatant sad expression that would make Hume bawl like me if I saw a Gigantamaxed Pikachu in real-life?



Game Freak struck gold with this move. Take a franchise that people all over the world love, make its newest monster look like a baby, slap a sad face on it, and throw some tears in there for good measure: profit. Like a Venomoth to a flame, now you’re reading an article about the psychology and philosophy of the painfully adorable little monstrous thing when the game hasn’t even come out yet.

The massive caring and protective reaction that took the pokéfandom by storm from the moment the first trailer for Pokémon Sword and Shield dropped—for a creature of which we knew nothing about except its tendency to cry when threatened or embarrassed—can tell us a lot about humanity.

We have systematically destroyed the planet, conducted genocides, and built weapons of mass destruction. We can be racist, homophobic, and pretty much all kinds of terrible. We can say all we want about these facts and point them out as part of our nature (because sadly, they probably are).

But every now and then, something comes along that shows humanity’s prettier colors. And it is in those few, fleeting moments that I get this warm and fuzzy feeling inside—maybe even a little teary-eyed too—much like these adorable little pocket monsters that we can’t wait to go on our next adventure with. So if you happen to have stumbled upon this article while scouring the Pokémon Center website for your own lovable baby water lizard plush, don’t feel weird, fellow Pokéfan.

Let’s take care of this little guy!

Instead, take pride in the fact that you’re human. Because our ability to feel empathy, and our natural desire to be compassionate toward others, is way more badass than getting the perfect IVs and nature on a first egg hatch. And we all know how awesome that can be.

Written by E.T. Otero

E.T. Otero is a U.S. Navy sailor living in Spain. His hobbies include consuming media in all its forms, working on creative writing projects without ever finishing them, and coping with the crippling side effects of existentialism and the dizziness of freedom.

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