A Look Back: Beyond Good & EvilPublished By:
Third-Person Action AdventurePlayers:
T (Teen)Release Date:
December 2, 2003Screenshots: LinkWritten BY:
There are a lot of games that have left legacies. Characters like Mario and Sonic have broken into mainstream popular culture in such a way that they come to mind almost immediately. There are more niche games like Deus Ex and Fallout, known for their plots and pioneering gameplay mechanics. Most such games leave behind these legacies due in no small part to their success, both critically and commercially. Beyond Good and Evil was different, both in its success (or lack thereof) and in the unique legacy it left behind. During the May 2008 Ubidays event, the much-anticipated sequel to the critically acclaimed Beyond Good and Evil was officially announced. In light of this, I thought it might be a good time to take a look back at the game that had so many clamoring for that sequel, and see what makes it such a seminal entry into the vast catalogue of games.
Beyond Good and Evil may have been a commercial flop, but it gained universal acclaim from critics and those proud few who did play it. In this journey to the past, it’s more clear what Beyond Good and Evil does right, and where it deserves its praise. But with a fresh look, and without the rose-colored lenses, it’s also easy to see where it falls short. Also: spoilers ahead.
For the uninitiated, Beyond Good and Evil is an adventure game designed by the now cult-famous Michel Ancel, developed and published by Ubisoft, and released in 2003. Its story follows Jade, a freelance photojournalist and caretaker of an orphanage on the planet Hillys. There’s been a long-going war between the alien “Domz” and the “Alpha Sections,” a kind of elite galactic military police. Jade and her ‘uncle’ Pey’j (pronounced ‘Page’) care for the orphans whose parents have become casualties of the war.
Ah, Jade. She stands out more than anything in this story as probably the first genuinely strong female lead in a game. Sure, Lara Croft was shooting guys and ex-ploring tombs--a self-made female Indiana Jones with the wealth of Bruce Wayne who never had to rely on a man to get the job done--but her most recognizable trait as a cha-racter remains, arguably, her bust-size. Jade is strong, determined, ambitious, intelli-gent, maternal, and independent. With her tomboyish looks and conservative dress, she’s sexy without being sexualized, because her appeal comes from her character.
Jade isn’t the only character that stands out. There’s the porcine mechanic ‘Un-cle’ Pey’j; Jade’s adoptive caretaker and secret leader of the “terrorist” group IRIS Net-work. The dutiful and loyal Double-H, a career soldier who’s just a little bit off his rocker after spending 16 hours in a Domz torture chamber (not to mention years of breaking down gates and doors with his head).
Arguably, Beyond Good and Evil is most acclaimed for its story. Looking at the game now, this strikes me as a bit odd. As I mentioned, the plot involves the world of Hillys caught in the war between the alien menace Domz and the almost totalitarian Alpha Sections. Meanwhile, a “terrorist” organization called the IRIS Network is being accused of undermining the war effort by resisting the growing rule of the Alpha Sections and sewing dissension amongst the populace. At a glance, all of this hints at the morally ambiguous nietzscheism of its title. Who do you trust? No one really seems to understand the Domz or their motivations; the Alpha Sections may be almost dictatorial, but they’re defending the galaxy and doing a damn good job of it; the IRIS Network sincerely claims to be fighting for the people’s freedom, but their efforts, however good-intentioned, are undermining the Alpha Sections’ war effort and putting the world at risk. In a political situation such as this, who do you trust? Who do you side with?
Unfortunately, this moral ambiguity goes away fast. Jade joins the IRIS Network and quickly discovers that the Alpha Sections and Domz are one-and-the-same. Not only that, but their actions are pretty unforgivable, abducting the people of Hillys and draining them of all life-fluids. So the initially shades-of-grey setting almost immediately gives way to a story of a plucky bunch of rebels fighting against an evil empire of alien vampires, and the political struggle devolves into a simple “save the world from the aliens” plot that’s we’ve been seeing in games since Space Invaders.
Cracks in the plot also come through in the gameplay. It’s stressed to us time and again that Jade isn’t a warrior. She’s a journalist, fighting an enemy much bigger than she or the IRIS Network, and her camera is her best weapon. IRIS fights the Al-pha Sections by fighting their propaganda with the truth and Jade and her camera are their most vital assets. It’s a blow to the narrative to see this contradicted as it is in the gameplay. According to the narrative, Jade isn’t a warrior; she’s just one woman. In the game, however, she has very little difficulty defending herself with her radical bo-staff skills, power-up moves, and the artillery attached to her hovercraft and spaceship. She navigates labyrinthine environments with swift acrobatics, but the process is auto-mated and context-sensitive, requiring no input from the player, making it effortless both on our part and hers. She sneaks through heavily-guarded enemy territory with more expertise than Sam Fisher, but with about half the effort. I am simply not convinced that Jade needs help from anyone. All of this is to say nothing of her super resurrecting powers, which she uses to revive everyone taken from Hillys, and completely negate the sense of loss that was, up until the end, so prevalent throughout the third act of the plot.
I would argue that Beyond Good and Evil’s greatest strength is not its merely adequate plot, but rather, its world. Ancel’s vision of Hillys is so cohesive, so dense, that you never for a moment doubt its authenticity. What’s weird is, Hillys is so random, so cartoony, and yet we buy it, thanks largely to the confidence with which Ancel sells it. It’s populated by a wide variety anthropomorphic animal-people, the ambiance switches from sci-fi to fantasy and back again at the snap of a finger, technology ranges from steam-punk to cyber-punk, the believably functional to the ridiculously far-fetched. There’s no explanation, no reason, no purpose for this world to exist as it does. Yet, it all works. Part of it is the art style. It’s said that the closer you get to realism, the further you get from empathy. Its comic, almost Disney-esque aesthetic, is so consistent, and so disarming, that you simply accept what it has to offer. The other part is the part that’s necessary to any good con. It’s the details, and the lack of exposition, that sell this world so completely. The waterways and skies of Hillys are filled with traffic, people go about their business in the streets, Alpha Sections propaganda dominates the airwaves. As the player progresses through the game, the situation changes. The once idle citizens now protest in the town square, shouting praises of Jade’s work and IRIS. At the end of the game when Jade, Pey’j, and Double-H seize the Alpha Sections planetary broadcasting satellite, her photographs replace the propaganda on the television screens that float around Hillys. The world is made up of small details and the player’s actions affect these details. Sure, it’s all scripted into the game’s narrative, but it provides and incredible sense of immersion and progression that simply isn’t seen in games where the player simply advances from one task to the next.
This is what makes Beyond Good and Evil a must-play game. While the plot fails to live up to its potential, and the gameplay is fairly rudimentary, Ancel’s abilities as a world-builder should be the standard for all game designers. There isn’t a single place that feels ‘wrong,’ or like it doesn’t belong. The game doesn’t really do anything wrong, it just does some things routinely. The fighting and platforming seems shoved in because it meets the expectations of what a videogame “should” offer. It isn’t “wrong” or “broken,” it’s just bland. The things that it does right, however, are done brilliantly. The upcoming sequel has a lot to live up to. Hopefully, the technology of the current generation will give Ancel the freedom to really give us his unrestrained all.
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