So: player characters in Pokémon. They aren’t characters, really. They’re consistently left totally and completely blank so that whoever’s playing the game can project themselves onto this avatar with as little friction as possible, taken to unnecessarily hilarious ends with Red’s silent reappearances in later games. Naturally, this approach has its fair share of pros and cons. On one hand, this aids immersion tremendously—you’re free to name this character whatever you want, command them to do whatever you want, interpret their behavior and thought processes however you want, and more recently even dress them however you want. Players turn that character into themselves, and are able to see themselves in the Pokémon world, albeit from a top-down perspective. It’s the ultimate extreme of role-playing, giving you a place in this world but then allowing you complete freedom to adjust to it however you like. But on the other hand, this might have some connection to the fact that Pokémon has never really been known for its story. It’s difficult to write a plot centered around an empty shell. The player does things to continue the story, but they’re very much watching it unfold before them, and only stepping in when given the opportunity as opposed to doing much to actively push it forward. Again, Pokémon’s pretty much always done it this way, and it seems to be working for them, so it may not be something you see a lot of people clambering for. But since there’s a boatload of Pokémon media that does feature main characters who are actually characters, I don’t know that we can say people are totally averse to the thought.
It seems to me that Lillie is GameFreak’s attempt to have it both ways. The player character of Sun and Moon remains a void who can be anyone the person holding the 3DS wants them to be, but they have a very close friend who has her own desires and faults, is heavily-entwined in the overarching plot, and develops greatly as a character. Granted, she doesn’t do very much herself in terms of actively driving the plot forward—she spends a lot of time reacting, and not as much time decision-making—but her character is written in a way that that’s actually part of her development. Which is…kind of ingenious, really. Is she meant to be a metaphor for the Pokémon main series games learning to be more active in their storytelling, as opposed to just being an observer? Well, maybe at that point I’m reading a bit too much into it.
For the sake of argument, let’s accept my premise as true: Lillie is an attempt to have a “main character” the plot centers on while still having a totally blank “player character” for absolute immersion. Then the only question becomes: Does it work?
I’d say yes.
People love Lillie. If you looked at a discussion of Sun and Moon prior to their release, you’d see people saying “This Lillie girl is off, we all agree she’s a Nihilego in disguise right?” Check them after its release, and you’ll see dozens of fans shouting about how wonderful she is. Like, I’m sure there are some people who don’t like her, no character can be universally-loved, but…I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone bashing her, and Sun and Moon have been out for close to a year now. When you have to go out of your way to find people who hate a character but get bombarded by people who like them without trying, it’s safe to say they’re pretty darn popular. Has the series had a breakout character like this before? Maybe with N? Certain Hoenn characters certainly had a resurgence when ORAS came out, but even then it seemed to typically be antagonists, plus Steven who just sort of pops in and out on occasion. Even when N does become an ally in B2W2, he’s only in, what…one scene that’s actually plot-relevant?
What I’m getting at is that there’s a novelty to Lillie’s role in Sun and Moon’s story. How big a factor that novelty is in her appeal is something we can only know if this becomes more regular. I do hope to see this technique or something similar employed in future Pokémon games, because while I do like feeling like I’m my own trainer, I enjoy stories as well, and Lillie’s story is one I really enjoyed. I’ve gone on record as saying there are aspects of Alola and its cast I wish we’d seen more of, and perhaps the focus on Lillie has a hand in that, but still: she’s very unique in this franchise, and very interesting. Hopefully, she’s a good sign of what’s to come.