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.
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.
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.
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.
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.