Flying Manta Rays, Hovercraft And The Geographical Genius Of Beyond Good & Evil

by on March 2, 2011

Beyond Good and Evil US CoverWhen you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.
– God (Futurama: “Godfellas”)

This is entirely true, and it’s the reason why it is so hard to pin down exactly what it is that makes Ubisoft’s Beyond Good and Evil (2003) such brilliant game. It’s easy to explain what makes games bad, and it’s easy to say what would make them better, but trying to figure out what makes a good one good is nearly impossible. Doing something well is more about avoiding pitfalls than it is about hitting conspicuous highs.

Beyond Good and Evil is particularly tricky to discuss because it disregards traditional notions of genre, meaning that there’s nothing to really compare it against. It’s a platformer with stealth sections, an action puzzler with races and an open-world game which you explore through the medium of investigative journalism. It also features flying manta rays, Rastafarian rhinos, space travel, hovercraft races and a cow who serves beer.

The difficulty of classifying the game is reflected by its frustratingly ambiguous title (bafflingly shared with Nietzsche’s masterwork), which gives no clue as to either the plot or the nature of gameplay. Consequently, it demands player’s trust before they’ve even fired it up, a fact which may well have contributed to its disappointing commercial performance. A shame, because Beyond Good and Evil is probably the most emotionally satisfying game ever to feature a talking pig. Actually, there aren’t many games without talking pigs that are more engaging, so it’s worth trying to get to the root of Beyond Good and Evil‘s appeal.

First things first though. What is it actually about?

The game is the story of Jade, a young investigative journalist and photographer who lives with her adoptive uncle Pey’j (an anthropomorphic pig and expert mechanic) in an idyllic lighthouse on Hillys, a peaceful mining planet. They look after a group of children whose families have been taken away by the DomZ, a race of marauding aliens whose plan is unknown.

Law and order is the preserve of the Alpha Sections, an army of masked police whose inspirational leader, General Kheck, makes regular broadcasts reassuring the population that DomZ attacks are under control. Short on money, Jade accepts a commission from the IRIS Network, a mysterious organisation dedicated to discovering the real reason why the DomZ are invading.

This premise is definitely interesting, and it provides the perfect setting for a character who fights with a zoom lens rather than an M16, but it’s not storyline that makes the game so magical. You see, like most video games, Beyond Good and Evil is a tale of conflict. If a game has a plot, it’s almost always about some kind of monster, baddie or malevolent force that the protagonist has to overcome. This is because video game protaginists tend be be equipped with some kind of shooting/fighting/climbing skill, and the premise needs to give them an excuse to use them.

This is no bad thing, and there’s nothing wrong with giving players a big, drooling, hairy reason to master the fighting mechanics. It’s just that by and large, video game storylines concentrate on making you hate an enemy that you need to destroy. Surprisingly few games do what Beyond Good and Evil does, and that is make you love a world which you need to save. The story is still about conflict, but it flips your motivation around so your impluse is to protect, rather than kill.

The player only finds out who the real antagonist of the game is fairly near the end, but by that time they have fallen so head over heels in love with Hillys and its inhabitants that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that it’s safe. Hillys is cosy, scruffy, beautiful and believable. It feels so much like a home that it’s hard not to take it personally when the DomZ invade.

Unlike so many video game environments, which never stray from a single aesthetic (space station/post-apocalyptic/desert etc), Hillys is a kaleidoscope of contrasting visual styles. Unconcerned with generic conventions, Beyond Good and Evil places futuristic spaceships alongside the sort of architecture that wouldn’t look out of place in the French countryside. Mythical beasts dressed in flowing robes communicate via e-mail, and although Jade’s lighthouse is home to talking goat children, she still needs to remember to pay the electricity bill.

It’s the beautiful swirl of themes that makes Hillys so perversely believable. Real life is filled with diverse people, objects and customs that have arrived in the same place through accident of history, genetics or economics. We accept the apparent incoherence of the real world unconditionally because we know the reasons for its existence are far too complex for us to ever understand. By presenting a world formed of similarly diverse elements without trying to explain it, Beyond Good and Evil hints at Hillys’ deep and lengthy history.

What the player is able to learn about Hillys, however, they learn through the game’s central mechanic, the camera. This fairly simple device device provides a portal through which the player is led around the planet, cultivating a uniquely personal relationship with the environment as they zoom in to areas of importance.

The first instance of this is found in the game’s primary “collectible”. Most gaming collectibles rely on a kind of “rape and pillage” mechanic whereby players are rewarded for smashing up the environment (stand up Lara Croft), killing things (Kratos) or just looting whatever you find lying around (ok, now everyone is standing up). In Beyond Good and Evil however, you’re rewarded by the Hillyan Science Centre for taking photographs of Hillys’ wildlife.

The game’s animal photography manages to circumnavigate its potential for cloying tweeness by making Jade work hard for her photos. Whilst it’s easy enough to take a picture of pig-man Pey’j as he’s pottering about in his workshop, there’s an amoeba who will only emerge in the dark, and a mouse that runs away if it hears Jade approaching. It’s also worth remembering that because the Science Centre don’t want pictures of dead Crochax, Jade sometimes has to snap animals as they attack her, which makes for some interesting pictures.

Engrossing though this activity is, it’s something of a warmup act for Jade’s most important task, taking incriminating photographs of the Alpha Sections’ shady activities as part of her missions for the IRIS network. Although they must provide proof of the Alpha Sections’ treachery, the player is completely in control of how these pictures turn out. Consequently, it is especially exciting when the IRIS Network’s various broadcasts are distributed to the citizens of Hillys, showing the very pictures that the player took whilst they were crouched behind some storage crates in the Alpha Sections’ base.

The flash of recognition as you see a picture that you took displayed on the giant television screen in the pedestrian district’s central square is exhilerating, not least because of the effect it has upon the population. The more evidence Jade collects, the more Hillyans take to the streets to protest, so the player slowly develops a sense of having a very real impact upon the game world.

This sense of subversion is extended by the imaginative ways in which the various game areas are linked together. Perhaps the best example of this is the sequence whereby Jade has to infiltrate Hillys’ Slaughterhouse District.

The IRIS Network have discovered that the Slaughterhouse can be accessed through a gap in the wall of one of Hillys’ celebrated hovercraft race tracks. What’s clever about this is the fact that Jade actually needs to enter the hovercraft race in order to gain access to the Slaugherhouse. Because the race track in question is actually a playable mini-game, it feels genuinely mutinous to sneak off whilst the race is in progress.

Beyond Good and Evil‘s story only falls down when it loses faith in the narrative power of the game world. Although Jade’s camera is the perfect tool for a protagonist whose power lies in her ability to subvert, rather than conquer, the game still includes sequences where she must engage enemies in hand-to hand combat. Although it’s not inconceivable that Jade – who spent much of her childhood on the street – would know how to wield a Dai-Jo, the combat mechanic is neither strong enough to be fun in its own right nor believably awkward enough to lie comfortably alongside the portrait of Jade as a hard working resident of a peaceful community.

It doesn’t help that the “weak point” on the Alpha Sections’ armour is marked by a fluorescent yellow bulb with a giant arrow on it (honestly), which makes it seem like the office prankster scrawled “KICK ME” on a post-it and slapped it on the back of the boss. Sadly, this makes the otherwise imposing Alpha Sections feel very much like generic video game enemies with a clear weak spot. Just as hedgehogs in Donkey Kong can be flipped over with a well-timed roll, the Alpha Sections’ bright yellow oxygen tanks reduce them to mere obstacles in Jade’s assault course rather than a genuine threat to our heroine’s life and the safety of her people.

I suppose the fighting sections were included to create tonal variety, but they greatly detract from the sense that Jade is creeping around behind the approved backdrop to a world that the authorities allow her to see. The most darkly effective sections of the Slaughterhouse level are those where the Alpha Sections have the ability to fire an insta-kill laser at Jade if she comes out of hiding, meaning that combat is out of the question. If death was always the consequence for failing to stay hidden, the illusion of an enemy who want to protect their secrets at any cost would have been maintained.

There are also a handful of plot developments near the end of the game which reveal that Jade is more closely linked to the events she is uncovering than she ever knew. These developments (one of which is a complete Deus ex Machina) not only detract from Jade’s everywoman appeal, but more importantly discredit the game’s message that real power comes from questioning received wisdom and making the truth public.

The game is at its stongest when it presents a world to the player and allows them to explore and draw their own conclusions. When it bestows omnipotence upon its protagonist, the importance of engaging with Hillys to discover the truth is diminished. Conversely, when the only power Jade has at her disposal is the power to communicate through her photos, the more the player must completely immerse themselves in the environment.

The game’s narrative flaws are unfortunate, and one can’t help but wonder how the game would have turned out if legendary director Michel Ancel (Rayman, Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie) had attempted the kind of mechanical minimalism of Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus. Just as Colossus amplifies the wonder of its giant bosses by removing almost everything else from the game, so Beyond Good and Evil may have avoided a few of its pitfalls by dispensing with combat altogether in favour of espionage.

Nevertheless, Beyond Good and Evil‘s triumphs far outweigh its failings, and the overwhelming sensation upon finishing the game is one of deep satisfaction at having saved Hillys, an island of idiosyncrasies in an ocean of identikit video game landcapes. Much of the credit must surely go to composer Christophe Héral for the game’s unique soundtrack. From the dreamy Hillyan Suite that wafts over Jade’s clifftop home Slaughterhouse Scramble that accompanies the various hovercraft races, the musical styles are as diverse as Hillys’ population.

Although often written off as a disappointing (if beautiful) failure, Beyond Good and Evil‘s continuing influence means we can still hold out hope that the long-awaited sequel may yet see the light of day. It’s not widely known that game’s Jade engine powered the phenomenally successful Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time trilogy, or that it was Peter Jackson’s admiration for the game that informed his decision to choose Ancel as the director of the King Kong videogame, but these things may yet prove to ease Beyond Good and Evil 2 into post-production.

Most encouraging of all, however, is the impending re-release of the game in HD as part of the Xbox LIVE Arcade House Party promotion. One would dearly hope that the increased interest in the game as a result will give Ancel and Ubisoft Montpellier the boost they need to finish the sequel.

If only so we can all return to Hillys.