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15 Years Later: ‘Beyond Good & Evil’ Gave Us One of Gaming’s Greatest Protagonists

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Beyond Good & Evil  should need no introduction by now, but for the unfamiliar, Ubisoft’s action-adventure game from Michel Ancel, the man credited with the creation of the highly acclaimed Rayman series, is one of the most respected video games of all time, praised for its rich characters, captivating plot, varied gameplay, and terrific female protagonist.

Beyond Good & Evil tells the story of Jade, a rebellious young freelance photographer living on the planet of Hyllis, which has fallen under siege by the DomZ, a ruthless alien race who are currently invading the watery planet and are locked in a bitter struggle with humanity’s protectors. Jade is hired by the rebel organization IRIS to infiltrate the Alpha Sections, an intergalactic military that is supposedly protecting the people of Hillys, only they’re secretly trafficking humans to the enemy. She sets out to expose the gruesome conspiracy and plunges into a tangled web of lies to uncover the truth and restore justice to her planet. As the game’s name implies, however, things aren’t quite what they seem, and Jade — joined by her Uncle Pey’J and secret agent Double H — is never sure who she can or cannot trust. Jade quickly learns that sometimes, in order to find the truth, you must look beyond good and evil.

Beyond Good and Evil makes clear that Michel Ancel is a genuine visionary

Originally released back in 2004, Beyond Good and Evil stood out for its story, which still manages to hold up as a deeply unsettling and evocative tale (even if the overall plot is not as subtle as I remember it being). For all its state-of-the-art pyrotechnics and breathtaking thrills, this exciting adventure never loses sight of its humanity. That’s its point and its pride. It introduces shades of gray in a world where nobody can be trusted, and in many ways, this furiously exciting sci-fi adventure, carefully loaded with allegories and social commentary, is perhaps now, more than ever, relevant today.

Beyond Good and Evil makes clear that Michel Ancel is a genuine visionary who was trying to push the envelope of possibility in video games. What’s great about Beyond Good and Evil is that it invites and even encourages discussion and debate while delivering proficiently at the levels of plot, action and special effects. At the core of its story is a terrifying and serious observation of a corrupt government watching over its people while siding with the enemy. It’s a classic tale of dark horse resistance, as the green-eyed, green-clad photojournalist is pulled into a political uprising. Beyond Good and Evil stands out for its gorgeous visuals and intensity, as well as the bluntness of its class allegory. It is all that and more.

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It doesn’t take a graduate degree to suspect what may have inspired the game’s creator. One only needs to look at its title, and Nietzsche quickly springs to mind. An understanding of Nietzsche’s work as a whole relies on a solid grasp of his views on truth and language, and his metaphysics and conception of the will to power. Nietzsche is skeptical of both language and “truth” because they are liable to adopt a fixed perspective toward things. Only maybe Beyond Good and Evil isn’t referencing Nietzsche at all, or at least there’s more to it. Michael Ancel originally titled the game Between Good and Evil, which is far more representative of the story’s basic themes, since essentially Beyond Good and Evil builds a worldview of humanity as mostly positive but also capable of evil. Struggling in between those two is Jade, who desires to do good but is innately evil in nature as well (we learn this later in the game). Every story has a theme. You may not know what it is; it could be vague or hidden, or there could be multiple themes that make things unclear. Beyond Good and Evil is an example of one of these stories. The theme is the underlying truth. It’s what the story is really about and in BG&E, as the central theme revolves around truth and how we perceive what is true.

Jade is a photojournalist seeking the truth, and she records these truths via still photography. Her goal is to uncover the facts and use it against the enemy. I’m sure you’ve all heard the expressions “a picture’s worth a thousand words,” “seeing is believing,” and so forth. After all, seeing a photograph almost functions as a substitute for seeing the real thing, because in a way photography furnishes evidence. Photographers use their cameras as tools of exploration, passports to inner sanctums, instruments for change. In Beyond Good and Evil, we see the world through Jade’s eyes, and at times, through her camera’s lens. The game is built around third-person exploration and interacting with different NPC’s to gather information and objectives. Most of the game’s interior sections have you out on foot and in search of photographic evidence, and given Jade’s occupation, you’re also tasked with photographing various life forms in the world, the results of which you can sell for local currency. The game forces you to play and think like an investigative reporter, and while it does have various forms of combat, the real meat of the gameplay comes from its puzzle-solving.

So, perhaps Beyond Good and Evil has just as much to do with journalism and the media as anything else. Further proof of this reading is seen through the IRIS Network, whose primary modus operandi is the creation of counter-propaganda printed in their newspapers and heard on their radio stations. It’s no coincidence that when Jade finally meets with IRIS in the Akuda Bar, a song heard in the background contains a one-word chorus: “propaganda.”Although a seemingly benign force, it doesn’t take long for both players and Jade to question the motivations of the IRIS Network. Jade isn’t your typical gaming protagonists — she’s a muckraker, one whose purpose is to advocate reform and change. Jade fights back in various ways, but her greatest weapon is her camera, and her mission from the IRIS Network is to infiltrate key members of Alpha Sections in order to photograph their unmasked faces and capture the fate of their hostages.

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Since appearing in Beyond Good & Evil, Jade has been met with a very positive reception and has been included on several lists of top female video game characters, side by side with the likes of Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 and Samus Aran from Metroid. Michel Ancel set about creating a character that resembled a real person rather than a one-dimensional sex object, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that his wife, Alexandra, a character artist for the game, played an important role in her creation. Jade is an uncommonly well-written, fleshed-out character in a medium that desperately needs more characters like her. Voiced by Jodie Forrest, Jade was best described by Ancel himself as having “a soul like a real person” rather than simply a puppet for the players to control. He noted the character’s design was adapted during production and attributed her personality to the game’s dialogue, voice acting, and visuals “coming together.”

Jade doesn’t exhibit any of the stereotypical traits of a female a character, but she also doesn’t overly-correct either, and we immediately have a good understanding of who she is and what to expect from her in the opening moments of the game. She is a martial artist, parkour expert, a spy, a photographer – and an undercover freedom fighter. She is strong-willed and capable, but still sensitive and caring. She has a strong maternal nature and is never once over-sexualized. She fights with a camera – with information – with knowledge – but also with a staff. She has feminine characteristics, but isn’t’ defined by feminine stereotypes. Simply put, she’s a great example of a character that’s fully fleshed-out and feels real, with actual agency and motivations. Her name carries with it connotations of East Asian and Mesoamerican ornamentation, and while it is never clear what her nationality is, she is a woman of color. More importantly, we see the evolution of her motivations go from protecting the orphans to seeking the truth, then to saving a loved one and eventually the entire planet. She is many things in fact, but what makes her character so incredibly unique is how Michel Ancel flips everything upside down in the final act.

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Near the end of the game, we learn that Jade isn’t exactly what she appears to be. Turns out her real name is Shauni, and Jade is actually a DomZ with unique and powerful abilities that can seemingly bring back the dead. The entire time the High Priest and his ruthless alien army were trying to find her and bring her back home because of the immense evil she is capable of doing, an evil that is an integrated part of who she is. It’s no coincidence that her name is Jade since the term jade is applied to two different metamorphic rocks that are composed of different silicate minerals, and its earliest use was as a sharp weapon — thus signifying both her beauty and her ability to cut through the truth. And let’s not forget that jade is a special gemstone of healing and stability, thus a perfect metaphor for Jade herself. Ultimately, the story is simply about Jade fighting for her soul and holding on to her humanity, even if she’s technically not a human. The point is, every small detail, every characteristic, every plot beat, and every line of dialogue was put in place to service her character first and foremost. And regardless if you like the third act twist or not, the way Michel Ancel chose to alter the gameplay during the final boss fight is nothing short of genius.

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Michael Ancel’s opus stands as one of gaming’s best examples of characterization

When Jade comes face to face with the High Priest and learns her true identity, her entire world is turned upside down. She’s left confused, vulnerable and forced to fight several clones of the two men closest to her, Uncle Pey’J and Double H. The choice to have her fight against her colleagues only strengthens this as an emotional battle, and as she begins to lose control, so do we. Suddenly the buttons on our controllers are flipped backward – left is right, forward is backward, and so on. Much like Jade, players are left momentarily confused. Jade becomes unpredictable to even the player controlling her, and so when I say every decision made when creating this game was in service to her story, I wasn’t exaggerating. Even the game mechanics, during what should be a fairly simple boss battle, become a metaphor representative of Jade’s own inner struggle.

Michael Ancel’s opus stands as one of gaming’s best examples of characterization, an involving study of a girl searching – searching for answers, for belonging, for truth, for a foothold in life at a time when footholds are hard to find. It is a work that demands attention, and it satisfies on many levels. It is a game of intelligence and ambition, teeming with ideas and assembled with fearless artistry. At the end of the game, Jade’s photographs, published under the pseudonym “Shauni,” do in fact bring about a revolution against the Alpha Sections, and not only does she save the world and stop evil, but she also manages to find exactly what she was looking for, even if the truth isn’t exactly what she was hoping for.

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Eyes OnPies

    February 6, 2017 at 10:56 pm

    Article would have been better if written by a female, Ricky get some counseling your male unconscious bias is showing.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘The Walking Dead’

A look back at one of the most critically acclaimed narrative based point and click story games of the decade: Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

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The story-based video game has been around for a long time but there has been a spike in popularity in them in the last decade. One of the most influential and critically acclaimed narrative games is the 2012 game Telltale’s The Walking Dead, which initiated a tidal wave of choice-based games that still continues today.

Lee Everett, the protagonist of the first season of The Walking Dead Game.

Telltale Games was created in 2004 and had a significant library of games established — including games based on Back to the Future and Jurassic Park — before the release of The Walking Dead. It was the zombie point and click adventure that shot them to triple A game studio status though. The game took on similar mechanics to their other games but introduced a more cinematic style. Player choice is a key element in regard to dialogue choices and important decisions within the story. These shape the player character, Lee Everett, and change his personality to suit the play style. This was one of the most endearing features of the game, allowing players to experience scenarios slightly differently depending on your choice.

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Lee and his ward Clementine had a strong connection that led to a lot of the emotional moments in the story.

The depth of the characters and dark nature of the narrative are the best aspects of the game. The player takes on the role of Lee as he is on his way to jail at the dawn of the zombie apocalypse. After a car accident leaves him stranded, he stumbles upon a little girl named Clementine. Lee becomes her protector as they and a group of survivors try to survive in the walker-infested world. This simple story of a man with a troubled past attempting to protect a little girl at the end of the world is incredibly engaging and it is difficult not to get emotionally attached to both Lee and Clementine. The system wherein certain characters will remember Lee’s words or actions is also a nice feature that can guilt trip you over your choices, particularly if you see the words “Clementine Will Remember That”. Lee is an interesting and complex character whose attitude and personality can change depending on player choice and Clementine is a loveable child who doesn’t fall into the “annoying kid” stereotype in most games. Both became beloved video game characters who set a precedent for likeable protagonists in gaming.

The Walking Dead

The cast of characters in The Walking Dead’s first season all had their complexities.

The legacy of Telltale Games and The Walking Dead still continues within the gaming community. Telltales unfortunate downfall in September 2018 was a great loss to story-based gaming but many have been influenced by Telltale’s work since. Dontnod adapted the episodic formula for their Life is Strange games, another fantastic narrative series. Others who had previously worked for Telltale helped bring other great story games to life. The co-writers of the first season of The Walking Dead game set up the company that created the 2016 game Firewatch, for example. More writers of the series launched Night School Studios, responsible for Oxenfree (2016) and Afterparty (2019). The Walking Dead catapulted Telltale Games to stardom, leading them to take on a slew of projects — possibly leading to their downfall. Despite this, the game has carved out a place for itself in history as one of the best point and click narrative adventure games that established a trend of games that encourage strong storytelling and complex characters.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Dark Souls’

Despite the difficulty and learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the Dark Souls series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers.

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Dark Souls Remastered Review Nintendo Switch

Over the course of the last decade a lot of games have made large and influential impacts on the medium of gaming but few have done so as significantly or triumphantly as Dark Souls

The pseudo-sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls took the framework of the original title and altered it considerably. Gone were the many individual stages and hub area, replaced by a massive open world that continuously unfolded, via shortcuts and environmental changes, like a massive metroidvania style map. 

Dark Souls also doubled down on nearly every aspect of the original. The lore and world-building were elaborated on considerably, making the land of Lordran feel more lived in and expansive. An entire backstory for the game, one that went back thousands of years, was created and unfolded through small environmental details and item descriptions. 

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The bosses were bigger, meaner and more challenging, with some of them ranking right up there with the best of all time. Even standard enemies seemed to grow more deadly as the game went on, with many of them actually being bosses you’d faced at an earlier time in the game. Tiny details like this didn’t just make the player feel more powerful, they added to the outright scale of the entire game.

Still, if we’re here to talk about the biggest influence Dark Souls had on the gaming world, we have to talk about the online system. While the abilities to write messages and summon help were available in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls improved on and enhanced these features to the point where they changed the game considerably. 

The wider player base made the online components work more consistently as well. Rarely were players left standing around for 15-20 minutes waiting to summon or be summoned for a boss fight. There were more messages on the ground to lead (or mislead) players, and the animated spirits of dead players warned of the hundreds of ways you might die while playing through the game. 

Dark Souls

The addictive nature of the game and its rewarding gameplay loop would lead to the establishment of the Souls-like genre. Like with metroidvania, there are few compliments a game can receive that are as rewarding as having an entire genre named for them.

Since 2011, the year of Dark Souls’ release, dozens of Souls-likes have emerged from the ether, each with their own little tweaks on the formula. Salt and Sanctuary went 2D,The Surge added a sci-fi angle, and Nioh went for a feudal Japanese aesthetic, to name just a few. 

Either way, Dark Souls’ influence has been long felt in the gaming industry ever since. Despite the hardcore difficulty and intense learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers. For this reason alone, Dark Souls will live on forever in the annals of gaming history. 

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‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

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That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

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By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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