Lately, when I can’t think of what else to do, which usually means that Vanessa is asleep or pretending to be dead and the dog is too busy to give me the time of day, I play a game. And lately, the game that I play is Unreal Tournament 2004, a square dance of death and destruction that pares the concept of “game” down to a skeleton. Run. Shoot. Die. Do that some more. Lest you should think I am deriding said game, let me add that there’s really much more to it than that. Various game types within UT2K4 deliver play that is rich and demanding, requiring the reflexes of a Bengal tiger, the vision of a hawk, the ruthlessness of Matt Damon. It’s both rewarding and awesome, but not as “bookish” as the equally rewarding and awesome Beyond Good & Evil, published by Ubisoft Entertainment.
First of all, it is important not to confuse Beyond Good & Evil with Beyond Good and Evil—although the two are tenuously related. The latter is a dense, pushy tome by critically acclaimed philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. My capsule review: the noble man betrays himself, hoisted upon his own petard. Blah blah blah. I think there’s something toward the end about Pac-Man, for all you Pac-Man fetishists. For its part, the game also deals with some of the dilemmas produced by the clash of morality and lawfulness. Unlike the book, though, the game is a cure for narcolepsy, not insomnia. It’s just that exciting. Furthermore, Beyond Good & Evil is available for all the major platforms except paperback. That’s an honour reserved for critically acclaimed philosophers and Dean Koontz. (My comments will refer to the GameCube version.) I was turned on to this game by a friend who recommended it with a sentiment that came up a lot in my research: this is a lost gem, a really compelling game that on release got lost in 2003’s winter holiday glut. I agree with this assessment. Beyond Good & Evil did bomb. Ha ha yeah! Oh, man, that’s funny.
The game is a mishmash of play styles. There’s some platforming, some stick fighting, some stealthing, some racing and some safari stuff (verbing nouns is fun!). What is really whiz-bang-neato about the game is that none of these elements could be considered its main verb. Instead, that unifying thread is something “completely unique”: narrative. The player must take up the unlikely pursuit of photojournalism to incite a popular uprising against an autocratic government. And that’s sort of cool.
Beyond Good & Evil is the story of a young woman named Jade, who lives on a fantastical outer-space world called Hillys. In many respects, Hillys is a profoundly Torontonian space. Like Toronto, it can be described as ostensibly socialist—everyone seems to be collaborating toward some common good, but in the end you’re on your own. A mixture of humans and animals of various cultural persuasions populate this world. Jade is Latina, her mechanic friends are Rastafarian rhinoceroses, her drug dealer’s a space-bug named Ming Tzu and the world is very preoccupied with showing off how great and multi-culti it is—again, very Torontonian. It’s always distinctly spacey, though. For example, there are these evil aliens, the Domz, who are all about attacking and abducting Hillyans and destroying the planet’s bucolic splendour. You can tell they’re the baddies, because they look nothing like indigenous Earth-life. Also, their design is Giger-y and ominous music plays whenever they come around.
These and other baddies contribute to the game’s two parallel stories. In the first, Jade is caught in a mellow-harshing sandwich, with piece of bread #1 being the Domz. They’re totally attacking the lighthouse where Jade lives with her Uncle Pey’j, a pig, and a bunch of goat children. Piece of bread #2 is the electric company, which is all, “Pay us, or you can’t have electricity for your force field that keeps the Domz out.” Jade, in this metaphor represented by a slice of pastrami, is forced to take a job documenting the disappearing Hillyan wildlife. And that’s what you, as a player, do: run around and take pictures of bugs and birds and whales and shit and get paid for it.
(As a side note, it was right around the time that I exclaimed “Sweet Jesus, her uncle’s a pig!” that Ness woke up and joined me in front of the Cube.)
In the second story, a military ruling class known as the Alpha Section has emerged to protect everybody from evil, except they are actually in cahoots with the Domz and are whisking innocent civilians away to the moon where, as far as we could tell, the abductees just sort of get slimed to the walls and have to sit there riding a bummer. Jade is offered a job as an investigative journalist by the underground resistance and from there on, in addition to photographing all the long-leggedy beasties, the player must photograph and publicize government malfeasance and collusion with baddies to incite the aforementioned revolution. Oh, and there’s also something in there about how Jade is actually some mystical ball of energy. Because apparently you can’t have a vagina in a video game unless you sign up to be the mystical energy source.
Technically, the game is well done but not perfect. It looks fantastic: the environments are meticulously detailed, the character models are expressive and some very complex scenes are delivered with a solid framerate. There are, however, moments when awkward camera placement and tricky controls conspire to make you lose. That probably sounds like whining from a mediocre gamer, which, admittedly, I am. However, many of these problems felt like unresolved bugs, and they frustrated efforts to the point where we may or may not have loudly trash-talked the GameCube, and the neighbours may or may not have called the police. Player alignment with the character is one of the greatest things about this game, so flaws like this do it a real disservice—they remind you that you’ve got a controller in your hands and are in fact not Jade, but rather a computer programmer who lives in the real Toronto and you need to get to work or else the real electric company is really going to leave you without the power to turn on your GameCube and pretend that you are Jade.
Those kvetches aside, let’s talk about the positive. It’s true that there are a lot of different activities to track, but all of them are well managed. The hand-to-hand combat is visually exciting and involving. It will make you do that thing where you lean in the direction that you’re pointing the controller. The sneaking is sneaky. The racing is fast and exhilarating, and also produces that leaning thing. The photojournalism is restaurant-quality, or whatever photojournalism can be said to be. And what’s more, the transitions from one activity to another are fluid and organic, often using subtle cues of lighting and music to communicate some fairly difficult shifts in tone and control. Only a few times did I find myself mashing the “attack” button and wondering why Jade was heading to an expatriate hangout to discuss her latest photo-essay.
Which brings me to my absolute favourite bit. I’ve seen a lot of games “over the years” that try to get the player into the mindset of the avatar character. The most common means for accomplishing this is death: care about whether this character lives or dies because if you don’t the number next to “1Ups” will go down, and eventually the Game Over music will play. In Beyond Good & Evil, every situation you come to requires that you ask certain vocational questions about Jade in order to move forward, and I think that’s somewhat unique. The game is filled with situations where the absence of an obvious person to kick or a scowling mushroom to jump on sent us scurrying for the walkthrough. However, a moment’s reflection on some key questions—What is Jade, as a person, about? Why, ultimately, is she sneaking around this evil factory on the moon?—would probably have led us to the solution: “We’re a photographer. We’re a revolutionary. What can we do with that here?”
Also, “Why am I sneaking around in this evil factory?” is a question I already ask myself every day! To see it dramatized like that really does make it easier to experience the game from Jade’s point of view.
Beyond Good & Evil doesn’t present a universe as morally ambiguous as that posited by its bookish namesake. But that’s okay. That’s sort of why Ness and I like it. The land of Hillys, though marred by some clichéd plotting and an occasionally obtuse interface, has fixity, has rules and has moral imperatives. In that respect, gallivanting around Hillys in your hovercraft liberating your peeps is far more appealing than commenting code or implementing the latest faculty edits or dragging your ass out of bed in a universe that has no meaning whatsoever. On the other hand, Jade is an underpaid journalist who lives with her uncle—who is, literally, a pig, an animal described as filthy by several major religions. So we’ve got her there. We live with a dog, an animal described as filthy by only one major religion. And our homey Nietszche says religious moral imperatives don’t even count, so we’re not sweatin’ it.
David and Vanessa currently live and toil in Toronto--for a large technology corporation and a non-profit, respectively. They met via their blogs, and were married in the winter of 2002. They have a hamster and a dog, but no yacht.