Your adoptive uncle is pinned on the clammy ground of a wet cave by a rare, snarling creature. The saliva of the vicious snake-like beast drips and mingles with the sweat on his terrified face. The crazed animal’s serrated teeth are millimeters from his piggy jugular. He screams for your help, desperately fending off the monster trapping him.
You could help him. You could attack the creature and liberate your uncle instantly from its deadly grip. But what if you killed it? You know people who would pay stupid amounts of money for a photo of this thing. And you need to get that money. Even your endangered uncle knows that. Why would you risk losing this chance? You take a step back, raise your camera’s viewfinder to your eye and release a flash at the struggle. You achieve an outstanding photo of the creature. Your name is secured in animal behavior history. More importantly, the money is yours. Only then do you turn your attention to helping your beloved relative and fight off the monster.
This is the sort of ethically warped decision you may find yourself making if you ever play Beyond Good & Evil. In this and many other ways Jade, the central character, reflects the morally gray character of the news reporter.
Beyond Good & Evil was conceived by Michel Ancel, the mind behind Rayman, and developed in the French studios of Ubisoft back in 2003. The game’s story puts you in control of Jade, a female photojournalist whose home planet, Hillys, is at war with an alien race known as the Domz. Jade gets recruited by the IRIS Network, a group of free-media activists driven underground by the militaristic government, to take photos for the group. Naturally, the powers that be treat any questioning of their wartime methods as unpatriotic and condemn the IRIS Network for being guilty of nothing less than out-and-out treason.
The elite Alpha Section units of the army are entrusted with the protection of the Hillyan people. But there’s something amiss about the Alpha Sections. I mean, apart from the fact they never take their helmets off and march in a manner worryingly reminiscent of a Nazi SS division. So Jade is contracted to investigate these shady characters. With stealthy discretion and judicious photography Jade reports the morbid truth of the Alpha Sections activities.
The game did not sell well. Exactly how badly it performed commercially is not widely known. For a company who made a game centered on a journalist searching for the truth, Ubisoft didn’t make it easy for game journalists to get accurate sales numbers. Even six years after its release, no reliable sales figures are available. Michel Ancel was right when he discussed the game’s theme of digging for the truth in an interview with GameSpy. “Whether you are on one side or another,” he said, “it’s very hard to get real information.”
Whatever the sales for Beyond Good & Evil, the game captured the praise of any gamer who played it. It easily earned the admiration of the mainstream media; Metacritic averages the scores of 40 major reviews at 87 percent. Many magazines were happy to praise such a fresh take on the adventure genre. Others were doubtless keen to promote a game that presented their journalistic careers in such an idealistic way: the underdog reporter as the arbiter of justice, taking on the might of an oppressive government.
It’s true that Beyond Good & Evil‘s primary theme is the freedom of the press. In the game the media is ultimately represented as necessary for individual liberty. Yet for such an essential organ of society, the press still retains a remarkable amount of moral ambivalence. The staff of IRIS and the reports of their rivals at the Hillyan Word characterize this.
In a parody of the fickle real-world media, the Hillyan Word, long having peddled the government line and branded the IRIS Network as terrorists, change their tone following a conclusively damning broadcast by their rivals.
“The truth has finally been revealed by our trustworthy colleagues from the IRIS Network … once again, the honourable journalistic profession was able to show that it had a preponderant role in history.”
The echoes of media faintheartedness by no means end in the offices of the Hillyan Word. An early investigation sees Jade infiltrate the slaughterhouse and abandoned factories of Hillys that have been commandeered by Alpha Section troops. There you discover an elaborate human trafficking operation. Jade witnesses all this firsthand. From the shadows she positions herself for the best photos, perfectly documenting the torture and transportation of her fellow citizens.
Upon returning to the IRIS headquarters Jade expresses her guilt after leaving the victims to their fate: “I couldn’t do anything,” she tells her editor. “There were guards everywhere. Impossible to get close to the victims.” Her excuse seems valid enough. But you can’t shake the feeling that Jade and her fellow reporter Double H – someone more than capable of holding his own against several foes – were taking a utilitarian gamble, hoping their undercover photos and reports could do more good than any physical attempt at rescue.
Jade is no stranger to utilitarian reasoning. She is prepared to steal for her personal mission of informing the public. Early in the game she takes a pearl from the sealed stash of Rufus, an aggressive barfly. “Sorry Rufus, but Hillys needs this more than you right now,” she says to herself as she makes a discreet getaway.
Utility is certainly an excuse reporters use in reality. Following utilitarian ethics will lead journalists to report on affairs they believe are in the public interests, regardless of whatever harm it causes to individuals. But often reporters do not need to resort to this justification. It is much more common for journalists to cite the importance of objective detachment.
Detachment is highly regarded in journalism. In the U.K. the BBC issues guidelines to its program makers that they should be “impartial” and “dispassionate” in their reports. The argument is that a reporter should be a trusted observer of the facts but not a commenter on them. He should present the facts and allow the viewer or reader to make up his own mind. He should be the eyes – not the mind – of the public.
In this respect, Jade’s photography is the purest form of reporting. There is no slant or deviousness behind her photos. They are not altered in any way. They are a truthful and accurate representation of the facts without any personal comment. But it is the employment of impartiality in atrocious circumstances that will trouble most people. When the Alpha Sections are draining their victims of any energy with which they might resist the horrific process of being packaged into boxes, is it still understandable for Jade to practice the journalistic creed of impartiality? She would be guilty of what Martin Bell, former BBC war correspondent calls “bystander’s journalism.”
“It is not only impossible but inappropriate to be thus neutralized – I would even say neutered – at the scene of an atrocity or massacre,” he said in an article in which he championed what he termed the “journalism of attachment.”
Jade’s coolness of tone and clarity of thought are very much journalistic attributes. At the beginning of the game she is not easily overwhelmed and retains the traditional detachment of real-world broadcast reporters. As the game progresses her character develops, and she is given to displays of emotion. She shows an affection and attachment to other characters that in turn wins her the affection of the player. While the rest of the staff of the IRIS Network seem more interested in putting the next issue to bed and consolidating its readership, Jade becomes genuinely concerned for the Alphas’ victims. Her development is representative of journalists like Bell who have seen it all first hand and who associate buzzwords likes “objectivity” with plain old indifference.
The name “Beyond Good & Evil” itself is a misnomer. It refers to the 19th century work of moral philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw modern morals as a byproduct of eons of religious practice. The game does not go as far as Nietzsche’s final rejection of a Christian-based moral framework; instead it simply presents its characters as shades of moral gray and not purely good or purely evil. Jade is far removed from the good-guy cliché of the industry. At times her actions can be cowardly. At other times they can be valiant. She can be underhanded and unscrupulous in her methods, but her emotions and sensitivities to other people are by no means lost. In her fight against an oppressive militaristic state she struggles to retain her humanity, in more ways than one.
In that respect one statement of Nietzsche’s resonates with Jade: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become one.”
Brendan Caldwell is currently seeking employment after being fired for ‘unethical journalistic practice.’