The Dark Council has convened, and by the will of my mysterious Patrons, my fate is ordained: we’re talking about Ghetsis, the villain of Pokémon: Black and White. Black and White have always been games that I have very mixed feelings about, for all sorts of reasons, and Ghetsis and his role in the story are inextricable from those feelings. I love the story of Black and White and their sequels; taken together I still think they have the best plot a core Pokémon game has yet produced (although more recent games have different strengths of their own). I also think they’re deeply flawed and could easily have been so much more. Ghetsis is a fantastic character – but he and his relationship with the games’ anti-hero (anti-villain?), N, are at the heart of what holds Black and White back. I’ve talked about Team Plasma, N and Ghetsis before in places, but that was ages ago and some of that old stuff is a little patchy, so this has been a long time coming. Let’s talk about what makes Ghetsis arguably the most evil character in Pokémon’s history and how he shapes the story of these now-classic entries in the series.
We meet Ghetsis almost at the very beginning of the game in Accumula Town, the first stop on our journey after leaving home, earlier than any other villain in the core Pokémon games, with the exception of Chairman Rose in Sword and Shield. From listening to a rally of Ghetsis’ supporters, we immediately learn that he is a leader in a group called Team Plasma, whose stated goal is “Pokémon liberation”: they believe that Pokémon are oppressed by trainers and kept from reaching their true potential, and must be set free by ending the culture of Pokémon training altogether. In stark contrast to Teams Rocket, Aqua, Magma and Galactic, who are all actively engaged in theft or harassment when we first encounter their members, this first interaction with Team Plasma is basically neutral. They aren’t yet trying to enact Pokémon liberation by force; Ghetsis merely asks listeners in the crowd to “consider” his arguments. The locals are more confused and sceptical than anything else; Pokémon training is just too deeply embedded in their worldview for his words to make any sense to them, let alone offend them. If this isn’t your first Pokémon lore rodeo, it probably even occurs to you to think that Ghetsis might have a point. Pokémon are “subject to the selfish commands of trainers”; it is plausible that “humans only assume” their relationship is mutually beneficial. And frankly, even if we accept the point that other characters tend to make against Team Plasma – that good trainers regard Pokémon as their partners, care for them and never force them to do anything against their will – the exceptions exist; Team Rocket is out there, and they aren’t even the only ones.
Ghetsis is a speaker, a persuader and a scholar, who surrounds himself not just with minions but with intellectuals who quote famous works of philosophy at us. As a member of the so-called Seven Sages, Ghetsis is in theory a mere advisor to Team Plasma’s true leader, the mysterious N. Ghetsis reveals to us quite early in the story that Team Plasma isn’t just staging rallies and talking: they want to re-enact an ancient myth of Unova, in which a mighty Dragon Pokémon (Reshiram or Zekrom, depending on whether you’re playing Black or White) appeared to a hero and gave them the wisdom and strength to unite the region. Even when he explains all this, though, Ghetsis doesn’t speak of himself as the hero and doesn’t threaten conquest, but says he wants N to use the great dragon’s power to “win hearts and minds” to the cause of “Pokémon liberation.” He even goes along with it when N decides that their re-enactment needs to include another hero – the player – to partner with the second dragon and represent the opposing vision for Unova’s future (secretly he thinks this is a waste of time, but is willing to indulge N and exploit the theatre of it). Ghetsis’ ostensible plan, which he will happily explain publicly, is all about using the spiritual authority that N will gain by completing the hero’s path to persuade people of the value of Team Plasma’s ideology. N himself seems to be fully on board with this. In fact, I’m not sure anyone in Team Plasma realises that Ghetsis’ true goals are more sinister – the other Sages, when you meet them again during the epilogue, speak as though Ghetsis deceived even them, and seem confused about what really happened. Zinzolin, who returns to Ghetsis’ service in Black and White 2, could have known all along, but honestly, the way he talks about their mission, I don’t think being fooled would have even mattered to him. As far as anyone who cares can tell, Ghetsis is running a non-violent campaign of persuasion and ideas.
Early in the story, another of the Sages, Gorm, tells us that Ghetsis “will liberate Pokémon with words alone,” while the rest of Team Plasma uses force. True to those words, although we meet Ghetsis half a dozen times over the course of the story, we fight him only once, at the very end, when his plans are coming apart, and we never see him ordering Team Plasma grunts to attack anyone or take their Pokémon. He persuades, he lies, he manipulates, on occasion he makes veiled threats, but violence is not a normal part of his toolbox (or at least, he’s careful to maintain plausible deniability). On the one hand, this seems to any reasonable person like an admirable quality. On the other, a lot of Pokémon media – because it wants to encourage an environment where players battle each other in a spirit of good sportsmanship – likes to promote an idea that battles are an exchange of two trainers’ truest beliefs and feelings. N, who doesn’t even seem to be a trainer in the conventional sense and wants to end Pokémon training altogether, nonetheless battles the player repeatedly, and claims to have gotten a better sense of the player’s character and their bond with their Pokémon in the process. Fighting in Pokémon is pretty formal, even ritualised in a very martial arts-y way, and is almost more about expression than violence – or at least it’s supposed to be. In a Pokémon story, the fact that Ghetsis doesn’t fight means that he doesn’t put his beliefs on the line. Because he never battles anyone, it’s difficult for Pokémon trainers – even wise and experienced ones like Gym Leaders – to get a sense for the kind of person he really is. And again, Ghetsis says things that are perfectly reasonable. The Castelia Gym Leader, Burgh, says that Team Plasma’s views raise important questions and promises to change his approach to Pokémon training, and Gym Leaders are set up as characters we’re supposed to respect, so Burgh’s opinion is worth taking seriously.
Someone saying all the same things about Pokémon and humans – maybe even in Ghetsis’ exact words – could be the good guy in a different story. On the other hand… he just has a certain vibe. Ghetsis’ personal style is grandiose, even in comparison to more recent Pokémon villains. Dude has serious Final Fantasy villain energy. It also doesn’t take long before we get more explicit hints at his sinister nature. In our first hostile encounter with members of Team Plasma, who are harassing a Munna in the Striaton Dreamyard, a wild Musharna creates a vision of Ghetsis to intimidate and threaten them. “T-this isn’t… Ghetsis when he is gathering followers,” they say, “or Ghetsis when he is trying to control people by tricking them with speeches! This is Ghetsis when a plan has failed and he is about to issue punishment…” In mixed company, Ghetsis is civil, articulate, thoughtful and devoted to the greater good. Those who serve him, however, know well that just beneath the surface he is wrathful, dangerous and cruel. They’re scared of him. What’s more, even while speaking about Team Plasma’s benevolent vision, Ghetsis slips up occasionally. He’ll talk about his vision of “the world that I – I mean, Team Plasma – desires,” or admit that he loves to watch “the moment when someone loses all hope.” And then, when it looks like he’s won – when N has awakened his legendary Dragon Pokémon, but the player has yet to do the same – he can’t resist gloating, and comes to you on the Tubeline Bridge into Opelucid City to speak one-on-one for the first time. He still doesn’t tell the whole truth, still says “Team Plasma” when he means himself and still talks about “liberation,” but admits that what he really wants is a world where “we alone will be able to use Pokémon,” and sketches out a course of events where “foolish” and “gullible” people will release their Pokémon first, until a critical mass of public opinion forces everyone else to follow suit.
Maybe the most compelling thing about Ghetsis to me – the thing I remember most about him, years after playing Black and White and their sequels – is how completely he breaks down when each of his two main plots is discovered and defeated. N gets his climactic showdown of Black and White, Yin and Yang, Dragon versus Dragon, a battle to symbolise the entire ideological conflict of the story, and he loses. N accepts this loss, and the challenge to his worldview that it represents, with grace. Ghetsis… does not. The façade cracks. Furious with N’s failure, he apparently can’t stop himself from revealing his true plans: to rule the world, humans and Pokémon alike, when no one can use Pokémon to battle but Ghetsis himself and his trusted minions. Eventually, after Ghetsis himself has been defeated too, he is reduced to impotently yelling “I AM PERFECTION!” and ranting abuse at N, whom he calls “a freak without a human heart,” until he is dragged away by Cheren and Alder. The same thing happens at the end of Black and White 2, including the same insult to N (“don’t talk like a person, you freak!”). This time though, it’s his own personal servants, the Shadow Triad, who realise that “Lord Ghetsis has… lost control” and take him away, apparently out of concern for him and seeming almost apologetic as they speak to N, after which we never see Ghetsis again. Ghetsis has always been calm, self-assured, persuasive and capable of real, challenging arguments about the philosophy of Pokémon training. It’s hard to reconcile the man he appears to be with the evil we know he’s responsible for. At the very end, we can see, though – this is who he’s always been, hateful and angry and abusive. He’s just very good at wearing a mask. I think that contrast is very powerful, and even though it had been clear to me for a while that Ghetsis was intended to be a bad guy, the sheer venom of his reaction to defeat was startling when I first played Black and White, while the totality of his collapse in Black and White 2 is enough to make me feel pity for arguably the most evil character in Pokémon’s history.
Ghetsis as a villain is great; the fact that we see him for what he is long before anyone else can is honestly kind of satisfying, and the scale and cynicism of his manipulation and deception make him feel really worth hating. But that’s also… well, it’s also why Ghetsis is kind of the problem with Black and White.
This is a story that presents the possibility for a radical change in how the entire setting works. It takes something that had previously been set up as a fundamental part of Pokémon’s value system and acknowledges that it might be Bad Actually, in ways that are taken seriously by characters we have reason to trust. Then… at the end of the day, we learn that all of that was a lie; that the wise sage is evil, that the people working for him are misguided zealots at best and opportunistic thugs at worst. And much as I like Black and White, and their sequels, I find it difficult not to suspect that the reason the story goes this way is because the alternative would put too much at risk in the real world. Ghetsis has to be wrong and he has to be evil, because if he’s right, you can’t go on making Pokémon games – at least, not without rewriting a lot of the rules of the world from scratch, both mechanically and narratively. If Pokémon training is part of a system of oppression, then it’s one that the creators of the game are pretty heavily invested in. You can’t have the kind of radical change that Team Plasma asks for, then go on to create the Kalos region and set X and Y there and remake Ruby and Sapphire as if nothing had happened. You have to write a story where that challenge is defeated, and it’s proven that only minor changes are necessary; otherwise it’s your games and your plans for the future that are on the line.
And at this point… although this article is still in principle about Ghetsis, we kinda have to talk about N.
N’s backstory comes to us in pieces, with the most thorough exposition of it coming from N himself at the very end of Black and White 2. N is… at the very least implied to be Ghetsis’ son – by his own account, he grew up with wild Pokémon in a forest until Ghetsis showed up, claiming to be his father, and took him away to join Team Plasma. Ghetsis could easily have been lying (it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for him), and there are notes and interviews from the game developers that indicate they meant for N to have a somehow “mystical” origin rather than normal human parentage, but I don’t think there’s anything in the games themselves to make that clear. Growing up as their anointed “king,” N was kept isolated, allowed to socialise only with members of Team Plasma and select Pokémon who had suffered horrible abuse at the hands of humans, so that he would develop a warped impression of what it meant to be a Pokémon trainer. Ghetsis did all that, not to make N grow up sharing Ghetsis’ own worldview, but to turn him into a figurehead for the belief system Ghetsis hoped to impose on everyone else. That’s the behaviour of a literal real-world cult – forcing someone into beliefs you don’t even sincerely hold yourself. Ghetsis is ultimately responsible for a lot of terrible things, probably including a lot that’s strictly speaking worse than what happened to N. I think his abuse and manipulation of N hit home more than anything else though, for several reasons: N is a major character whom we’ve gotten to know and care about by the time we learn about his past; he was a child when Ghetsis brainwashed him; the nature of what happened to him was deeply personal and has probably damaged his ability to relate to other humans permanently; Ghetsis had to exploit the trauma of other Pokémon as well in order to indoctrinate him. Sure, Ghetsis didn’t try to literally end the universe or anything, but what he did was evil in a much more complex and personal way.
Nonetheless, N is arguably what makes the whole of generation V work; he’s someone who sincerely believes in the ideals that Ghetsis only feigns, and although he holds those beliefs because of the lies he was fed, the games also give us plenty of reason to think that N is special and worth listening to. He has a mystical ability that lets him talk to Pokémon, he’s coded as some kind of genius savant, and he wins the allegiance of a legendary dragon just like the player does. As Unova’s Champion, Alder, points out, N’s beliefs can’t be solely the product of Ghetsis’ manipulation; if there weren’t something real there, he could never have become attuned to Reshiram or Zekrom. At the same time, N’s unique powers make it very important that we’re able to convince him. N doesn’t have to take humans at their word, because he can actually ask Pokémon whether they’re happy – and he does, repeatedly. By the end of Black and White, he no longer wants to separate all humans and Pokémon, but he still has lingering doubts, and leaves Unova to travel and think. Those doubts are still very much in play two years later in Black and White 2, and one of the things I like best about those games is that they allow room for a less one-sided view of the conflict. They actually show us a splinter faction of Team Plasma led by Rood, another of the Seven Sages, which faithfully follows N’s ideals and is dedicated to helping Pokémon who have been hurt by people. The original games gave us glimpses of this sincere, noble side to Team Plasma, but the sequels take much more time to develop it. Even they, though, shy away from validating any of Team Plasma’s radical beliefs: Rood’s people were good, but they were still wrong, and they explicitly see their service to Pokémon now as a kind of penance. N reaffirms at the end of the story, when Ghetsis has been beaten a second time, that something has to change; specifically, he wants “Pokémon and humans [to be] freed from the oppression of Pokéballs” (my emphasis), which is still an extremely radical proposition for this series. In the epilogue, though, he eventually gives up his dragon to the player (who is a different character from the protagonist of the previous games), meaning that both Reshiram and Zekrom are now partnered to conventional Pokémon trainers. Harmony is restored, and N’s vision of a world without Pokéballs is left as a dream for the distant future.
And what’s Ghetsis doing during all this? In Black and White 2, Ghetsis has apparently relinquished formal “leadership” of Team Plasma to the eccentric scientist Colress, and takes a back seat for much of the duration of the story. He is still very much in charge behind the scenes, though, showing up near the end to lament how Colress has failed him by prioritising scientific inquiry over the goals of Team Plasma, and to explain what his goal is this time. Ghetsis’ new plan is to conquer the world with the third legendary dragon of Unova – Kyurem, whose relationship to Reshiram and Zekrom is the subject of more fandom discourse than we could possibly cover here. Reshiram and Zekrom supposedly represent Truth and Ideals, and will only make common cause with a hero who proves worthy of those principles. This is why Ghetsis originally needed N. Kyurem, on the other hand, represents emptiness and void. According to Ghetsis, this means it can act as a “vessel” for his all-consuming ambition – exactly what he hoped N would be, when Ghetsis found him: a “freak without a human heart,” a blank slate for his false ideology. He tries to empower Kyurem by forcing N’s Reshiram or Zekrom to merge with it, creating the monstrous White or Black Kyurem. This, quite conspicuously, doesn’t work; in gameplay terms, Kyurem simply isn’t the world-ending threat Ghetsis believes it will be, and is actually much more easily dealt with than his own Pokémon team. I honestly think this may just be a failing of the game design, which doesn’t have many ways to make legendary Pokémon “earn” their plot significance in battle. However, I have another reading I like better. The player can later form Black or White Kyurem as well, and that process is described as using Kyurem as a vessel for the “truth” or “ideals” forged by the hero. I think Ghetsis did that by mistake, introducing N’s values into Kyurem’s empty soul so that it became more than just a vessel for his megalomania. He does this because he still doesn’t understand; he still sees N, Reshiram and Zekrom as tools without their own agency, not realising that their beliefs and values actually have a lot more substance than his own.
Just as N is like Reshiram and Zekrom – passionate, innocent, utterly devoted to searching for truth and upholding his ideals – Ghetsis is like Kyurem: ultimately, he doesn’t believe in anything at all except power, and that is his failing. When N loses, his beliefs have taken a hit, but he still has bedrock principles to fall back on and build into new beliefs. He still sees problems with the world and potential for a better future – even if the games aren’t interested in showing us that. All Ghetsis has is power and hate, and when he loses, those are gone.
When Ghetsis loses, there is nothing left of him.
So that’s why Ghetsis is a character I have mixed feelings about – he’s an enjoyable villain with an interesting plan, and a powerful contrast and foil to N. But he’s also the reason Black and White kind of give us permission to write off N and his beliefs as the misguided and short-sighted delusions of a brainwashed dragon cultist. Of course N believes humans and Pokémon should be separated – wouldn’t you, in his position? But it’s fine; once he sees what the world is really like, he’ll realise that it’s not actually that bad. True, there are those lines from the end of each story that seem to validate N and express a hope for future change, but that’s not what the game is about; the game is about stopping him. A story that asks “what if the status quo is not just suspect but actually terrible?” and concludes “no, some things need to change but basically the world is fine” is… certainly a choice, and to be fair I think it was probably easier to write that story in 2009-2010 than it would be in 2020 (although this is also a criticism I have of Sword and Shield). However… Black and White act sometimes like they want to be a clean break from the games that came before – for instance, by using no Pokémon from previous generations, and by being the first games set in a region outside “Japan” – and this story sets up so much potential for a really dramatic break that would change what Pokémon is forever. That change never comes, because there was never any flaw in the world or its people that needed to be repaired: there was just one bad guy, consumed by his own narcissism, ambition and cruelty.
Special thanks to my eternal and deathless Patrons for supporting my work, and especially to Intonyeon, the recently appointed Minister for Heresy of my Dark Council, who suggested this article topic. Each month, the members of the Dark Council get to choose any topic for me to write about; next up is a review and discussion of none other than the immortal mascot himself, Pikachu! If you’d like to support my writing and maybe get some input into future writing projects, consider signing up to make a regular donation at https://www.patreon.com/pokemaniacal – every little helps!