With the release of Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon, the 20-year franchise has hit a high in terms of worldwide popularity once again. Pokémania has swept the world, and with over 10 million units shipped and at least 2 million units sold in Japan alone, Sun and Moon are on track to break some major records for Nintendo. One of the more interesting aspects regarding Sun and Moon is the emphasis on a storyline, something fans of the franchise have always wanted.
Pokémon has always been a franchise about the monsters over the trainers, but the past seven years have seen changes to that formula through attempts at complicated story arcs. The aims of Team Flare, for example, are conflicted due to the leadership style of Lysandre, who wanted to destroy the world in order to save it from humans. Cyrus of Team Galactic strived for pure nihilism, wishing to create a void for all mankind by destroying the world in its wake. These stories have world-ending consequences with an “epic” take to them but often come up short of that “epic” quality due to the lackadaisical presentation; the stories are passive and in the background, and the player involvement becomes one that is reactive at best, or at worst, almost ineffectual save for the final battles.
The only exception to this, arguably at least, is Pokémon Black and White, which to this day remains a very divisive game in the series. Love it or hate it, Black and White have two aspects that almost all Pokémon fans agree with: the treatment of characters and the slow burn of its story arc. The pacing in Black and White is helped immensely because the entire region feels embroiled in this growing crisis—one that starts small but escalates by the game's climax. It is a more fulfilling, “epic” story in that way, especially when it deals with the treatment of the villains of the region, whose motivations are still world domination but have much more nuanced layers to them outside of that simple core. The heart of it all, however, is the one true, complex character in the Pokémon series, the anti-hero Natural Harmonia Gropius, better known as N.
As I have discussed before, anti-heroes are tough to pull off, but Pokémon is able to deliver a character with complex motivations in a game that has often kept motivations ultimately simple and in the background. N, for all intents and purposes, is the perfect foil to the protagonist and shines due to his positioning as your rival and his conflicting opinions on the status quo of the Pokémon world. The questions of why Pokémon are used for fighting and how cruel trainers can be with them are good ones that are often ignored in the franchise, especially when many NPCs in each game talk about the world of Pokémon with glee—their partners and friends often used for battling and other functions.
N, along with the villain organization Team Plasma, argue a different tact. We first see N in Accumula Town, among the crowd as Team Plasma's leader, Ghetsis, begins talking about Pokémon liberation, questioning why people capture and battle Pokémon by arguing that doing so is cruel and abusive to them, forcing them as slaves to their trainers. This sets in motion the rivalry between N and the protagonists; while the player has a choice to agree or reject N’s beliefs, N continues to follow this line of logic, seeing Pokémon as equals over tools and only battling trainers when necessary.
This is reflected in subtle ways through the game. The four main battles you have with N across the entire story line, for example, all contain different Pokémon, with the implication that N releases his whole team after battling the player every step of the journey. N also boasts a sense of fairness in his demeanor, arguing from the point of view that he truly can be a savior to those Pokémon who have suffered and liberate them from humanity to create a truly equal world.
N in a lot of ways serves the role of the villain in his plans, but he himself is not a villainous character. Most of his motivations can be dissected from N’s own backstory; he is an orphan raised by Pokémon before Ghetsis took him under his wing. As a child under Ghetsis’ care, N saw many Pokémon who were abused and neglected (something Ghetsis himself would manipulate to cultivate N’s worldview for his own goals), which in turn helped in formulating his core beliefs that people and Pokémon must be separated. N also has a special ability to speak understand what Pokémon say, which further fuels his resentment towards humanity due to his upbringing of being with abused Pokémon.
In one of the emblematic themes of Black and White, N serves as the ideological opponent to the world’s given ideals, a sort of extremist point of view and a desire to be heroic against those around him. This ties into the mythology of the in-game Unova region, where the two legendary dragon Pokémon, Resharim and Zekrom, both represent Truth and Idealism respectively. The two Pokémon, complete opposites but part of a bigger whole singular dragon, were split in half by two brothers representing these contrasting points of view and subsequently battling each other with no end in sight.
This ideological difference is the real crux of N being the game's villain, because N represents either truth or ideals, depending on which version of the game you play. He claims to know the truth about the suffering of Pokémon or claims that his ideals can lead to a better world for all. N’s motivation is not power or domination but simply proving himself to be right in his convictions, a complex motivation that he questions throughout the entire game. N sees himself as a true hero, purposefully matching himself as one of the brothers of legend and taking up the mantle of either truth or ideals in his actions.
N's fairly solid logic sells this idea further. The Pokémon games tend to struggle with the moral implications of catching and battling monsters; most NPC’s brush it off as a bonding experience between trainers and their newfound friends, while others argue that life is symbiotic between Pokémon and people, and should stay that way. What follows, however, is a Socratic debate between N and the protagonists, a discussion of their points of view with neither side fully dominating the conversation but simply playing into each other’s hands and arguing for critical thinking between both sides and their ideologies.
It is this ideological debating that is the heart of Pokémon Black and White, and this retelling of the mythical stories of the in-game world with the player taking on the role of one of the brothers is where a real epic feel takes hold. There is no globalized domination plot to destroy the world, there is simply a push for a massive change—with real human stakes for the entire region. What’s more, every major NPC in the game, from the gym leaders to the Plasma grunts, has a part to play and actively fights for their point of view. The involvement of the entire region gives the story much more weight and allows the protagonist to feel more proactive in the conflict against N and Team Plasma, making the stakes feel like a climax instead of forcing a confrontation between the player and the villainous team.
What’s more, the final conflict is filled with emotion and depth that has rarely been seen in a Pokémon game. N, well aware of the role you play, offers a final battle between the two dragons, a battle between truth and ideals once more, to prove himself right. This winner takes all fight will have N either get his wish or the player finally proving to N the moral of Black and White: that extreme ideology is dangerous and an understanding between the two sides can lead to harmony. It is a final battle, climaxing with epic music and one of the best opening’s ever in a Pokémon battle, of the two dragons clashing for the first few minutes if the player chooses to use their legendary Pokémon.
Even in defeat, N accepts this fate, especially when in the climax the true villain of the game, Ghetsis, shows his true colors of how he manipulated N from the start and even planned to overthrow N if he got out of line of his own vision: becoming the ruler of the world after all trainers were “liberated” from their Pokémon. It is that kind of forward planning that also makes Ghetsis perhaps the most dangerous villain in the entire series, being the devil on the shoulder of N throughout the adventure until the time is right to strike. Even his in-game team, which is the last fight you have before the credits roll, is designed specifically to incapacitate N’s team, when comparing the type chart weaknesses between the two sides.
After the defeat of Ghetsis, N finally comes to terms with his own ideology and realizes his own beliefs were mistaken. The final scene is touching in a lot of ways, with N revealing how he was surprised by how many Pokémon care for their trainers and want to be with them in his travels, and how he didn’t understand why. This moment of growth is the climax of N’s personal character arc, the shaking of his beliefs and coming to terms that his own ideology, his own form of the truth or ideals he pursued, can’t be forced upon others. It is a moment that is bittersweet but appropriate for N as a character; it is a young man who becomes bigger than himself by listening to others, instead of blindly forcing his beliefs on them.
It is a process many go through as they grow older; we start out idealistic and somewhat naïve growing up with strong convictions about what the truth of the world is. Adolescents, young adults, humans in general sometimes think they know everything, only to realize their own world view has been confronted with a different perspective that changes their beliefs. N embodies that process of accumulating knowledge through experience, of opening yourself up to a view that is beyond your own, and realizing that rejecting it is not in vain but rather a mark of maturity and growth. N was searching for the truth or idealism of his own beliefs and found it in ways he never imagined through his own personal journey, which shows the world is not so black and white (an on the nose reason why this generation is Black and White), but rather shades of grey.
Pokémon Black and White will always be a divisive game but in a lot of ways it represents the best of the Pokémon franchise when it comes to compelling story and characterization. It is a story with a simple moral but complex motivations, and thematically is set up perfectly through the characterization of N. Another true anti-hero in the sense that he's a primary antagonist to the player but with motivations beyond simple villainy for villainy’s sake.
I hope you guys enjoyed this edition of Character Select. Please, if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions leave them below or message me on twitter @LinksOcarina. See you next time.