Of all the female protagonists who now inhabit the landscape of gaming, there is one who stands apart: Jade, the central character in Ubisoft’s Beyond Good & Evil, exhibits an admirable kind of cosmopolitan verve. She has somehow been freed of genre expectations. With her green lipstick and a powerful sense of loyalty to her family and the people around her, she cuts an idealistic but believable figure against the absurd backdrop of games.
Beyond Good & Evil is a melange of styles, and Jade’s personal depth is a reflection of that philosophy. She is not an action heroine, a creature of firepower or a fantasy goddess; instead, she is a journalist with a dash of martial arts training and a lighthouse full of orphans. She is a strong, desirable woman who is not far removed from the possibilities of the real world. Jade is also a protagonist with a strange secret – an essential quality of the sci-fi heroine.
Beyond Good & Evil‘s world is one of allegorical science fiction. It is a world under siege with a mainstream press and government who are conspiring to alter the perceptions of the people they are supposed to protect. It is a caricatured world with a very serious sense of paranoia, but still has a sense of humor when dealing with serious issues. A pig-man with rocket-boots somehow makes the perfect foil for a confident, independent young woman.
The game itself is determined to be confident and versatile. Even though we are left with that itchy feeling that it could have reached a little higher, it is routinely and intuitively entertaining. Numerous genres are introduced as plot elements: Racing arrives as a social necessity; shooter action appears in travel sequences; melee combat with dramatic slow-motion lets you know that this is a game with a story. Even photography and platform puzzles make sense and do not seem to take place in spite of a narrative.
Beyond Good & Evil avoids Tomb Raider‘s leaping and jumping repetition. An action adventure with a female lead it might be, but recognizable as a clone of previous genres leaders it is not.
Crucially, Beyond Good & Evil takes big risks by stepping outside the axis of American and Japanese games. It is not identifiable within the aesthetic or thematic trends of either of those cultures, and instead it seems to access the European sensibilities of its parent company, Ubisoft. There’s something distinctly French about the game, both visually and aurally. It’s a quality that is detectable in other titles from the same stable, such as Rayman (whose producer, Michel Ancel, worked on Beyond Good & Evil) and Flashback. Furthermore, they seem to access something else in France’s rich comic book and science fiction materials. The world of Hyllis is reminiscent of the contemporary Mediterranean, as if the Riviera were to be re-imagined by the creators of architecture fantasy <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Cit%C3%A9s_Obscures” target=”_blank” title=”Les Cit
Jade’s photos are proof of what is taking place, and it’s only by bravely performing acts of journalism (sneaking and stealthing where a fight will lead to disaster) that she is able to defeat her enemies. It is a game about the power not of guns or magic, but of information. It is the propaganda machine of the enemy that finally leads to its downfall, and the scene is set for a wider adventure and further-reaching philosophy. Would you expect anything less of a game with such a loaded title?
There is no evidence to suggest that Beyond Good & Evil‘s story was an explicit commentary on the way that the Iraq war was manipulated by both the American and British government, but the lessons can nevertheless by read from the actions of Jade and her friends. Like the most elegantly constructed novels, Beyond Good & Evil suggests something about life without being so clumsy as to spell it out for us. It’s a tool for learning – an action-packed lesson about life, if we choose to see it as such. Such games are worth playing as much as family entertainment as they are exercises in the margin of our own experiences. Sure, it’s not exactly a philosophy lecture, but its gentle storytelling is nevertheless imbued with implication.
The tragedy of all this is that Beyond Good & Evil sold rather poorly. It was immediately drowned out at the time of its release by a string of high-profile titles across console and PC platforms. Prince of Persia and Splinter Cell were particularly overbearing at the time and were, unfortunately, both Ubisoft titles.
This is a game that should never have been overlooked by the game-hungry public, and I myself feel a twitch of guilt at the very mention of its name – a feeling that I didn’t make enough of this provocative and entertaining game at the time I reviewed it. “Quite clever,” I said of the game I was to talk about for another three years …
So I’ll consider this my penance to a game ill-served and ask you to point this browser at Amazon and demand a copy be couriered to your door. You’ll be doing us both a favor and, perhaps, if that long tail of extended sales is long enough, Ubisoft will be able to continue the planned Beyond Good & Evil series. I think we owe Jade that second chance, and I, for one, want to see what she does next.
Jim Rossignol is a writer and editor based in the South West of England. He writes about videogames, fiction and science.