Ever since Beyond Good & Evil released back in the distant year of 2003, it has held a soft spot in my heart as one of my all time favorite games. A largely linear adventure set in an explorable hub world full of human animal hybrids, you play as Jade, a photojournalist who does paid nature photography, helps her uncle to run an orphanage, and reveals corrupt politicians via damning photography every chance she gets. Oh, and when aliens attack, she’s ready to beat them up with a big stick.
The setup for Beyond Good & Evil’s plot is remarkably simple; A resistance organization called Iris recognizes Jade’s talent as a photojournalist and contacts her, in the hopes she can uncover proof of a conspiracy effecting the population. The government is kidnapping people, boxing them up, and shipping them to the moon to be drained of their essence by the very aliens they claim to be protecting the populace from. Go find evidence, broadcast it to the population, and help the civilian populace see the need to rise up.
Before I get into my feelings about the game’s plot, and the ways it has aged over the years, I would like to start by talking a little bit about why this game grabbed my attention so strongly back when it first released. As someone who had always been a big fan of the Legend of Zelda games, I was already a fan of pseudo open adventure games where you had enclosed dungeons to complete with a combination of puzzle solving and combat, interspersed with side quests to complete hidden around the wider world. However, one area where Beyond Good & Evil managed to rise above the Zelda games I already loved was in the sheer variety and polish of different types of side activities to be found in the game’s world. From fighting to stealth mechanics, hover craft racing to futuristic air hockey, photography to airship flight, Beyond Good and Evil wasn’t afraid to throw a bunch of polished gameplay ideas at the wall, knowing fully well that many of them might only be used for a few minutes before being set aside.
Beyond that, while the Zelda series combat was very focused on being a solitary fighter, locking on to one enemy at a time and fighting them essentially one on one no matter the enemy crowd size, Beyond Good & Evil introduced secondary party members who could help you in combat, and featured a much more fluid combat system not reliant on lock on. You could essentially change the direction you wanted to attack mid combo string, and Jade would fluidly reposition herself, hitting the next enemy without missing a beat. So long as you were keeping an eye on enemy placements, you could fight off groups of enemies in a way that felt deeply satisfying.
Additionally, it’s hard to ignore the fact that getting to play as a confident, strong, caring female protagonist in video games was a rarity back in the early 2000’s. Sure, there were characters like Lara Croft with her stoic demeanor and pointy boobs, but Jade was the first female video game character I remember strongly identifying with, and wanting to be more like growing up. The idea of being strong enough to fight off villains, caring enough to protect the weak, and smart enough to see through evil people’s deceptions was incredibly compelling to me as a child lacking in good playable representation.
However, the main appeal of the game was the story, which was just the right kind of optimistic for my younger self to cling on to. In the world of Beyond Good & Evil, villainous people do horrible things. Much like our real world, human trafficking, organized crime, shady underhanded deals, and abuse of those worst off in society take place frequently, and stopping those actions before they begin is a fools errand. However, all it takes to stop those kind of actions is for someone with a good moral compass to shine a light on those doing things wrong. Sure, the people of Hillys may blindly follow the government’s rule right now, but if shown evidence of what those in power are doing they’ll realize who the true villains are. Sure, the newspapers are running headlines about how your resistance cell are terrorists, but if you can prove the government were covering up crimes, you’ll be seen as a hero. Proving that someone did a crime is a enough to see people rise up to stop it.
Undoubtedly, some of my fascination with the game’s plot came from being a bullied child. I was teased and beaten mercilessly by my peers growing up, and it was empowering to imagine a world where the people tormenting me would no longer be able to hurt me if someone walked in on the act. But, additionally, I just kind of assumed that was how the adult world worked. In a proper world, politicians who did things wrong would be held accountable, and proof would help the people see their need to rise up and demand change. I think to a greater or lesser degree that was true of the world at the time, at the very least more so than today.
Beyond Good & Evil is one of those games I make time to replay every couple of years, and it’s always a delight. There was that one time I foolishly decided to try playing the terrible PC port of the game, but otherwise my experiences revisiting the game have all largely been as positive as that first experience. However, during the past couple of years, the world has forced me to face the naive optimism of the world BG&E portrays.
After watching Brexit get voted through by a campaign of misinformation and lies that crumbled under scrutiny the second the vote passed, I expected furious marching in the streets. I hoped to see the people who had voted for Brexit marching when it became clear promises of millions of pounds in funding for the NHS were never going to be followed through on. I expected them to march in the streets when it became clear that the nation had been lied to over and over again about the financial impact Brexit would have on the economy.
I sat and watched Trump get elected, watched evidence mount that had had used his position as the president to personally benefit from under the table actions aimed at impacting an election, fire those investigating him, and pardon those who supported him. I watched a completely partisan vote keep him in office, and waited for the people to see him for the clear criminal he was. Nothing happened, nobody changed.
Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, I watch people claim that the virus is a hoax, while people die in truly terrifying numbers. No display of evidence will prove to them that this situation is real, and some even believe conspiracies that phone towers caused the illness, or that an eventual cure will contain mind control chemicals to sedate the populace.
Replaying Beyond Good & Evil today, in the midst of everything happening right now in the world, one of the biggest things I take away is how far we have fallen. Sure, things were not always perfect, but we today live in a world where not even direct evidence is enough to get the population to rise up against those in power. We heard literal audio of the United States President talking about how he could “grab ’em by the pussy” and nobody would stop him, an admission of non consensual sexual contact, and it didn’t stop him getting into power. Facts and evidence simply don’t cut it anymore for taking down those in power.
In Beyond Good & Evil, Jade managed to convince the population of her planet to raise weapons against their own government with fewer than ten blurry JPEGs distributed through a fringe resistance news network. Today, I suspect we could see Boris Johnson kick a child in the face on live TV and would somehow still see newspaper headlines about how he actually did the right thing. A piece of fiction in which photojournalism can impact real change feels very different today than it once did. I don’t know if I’ll get to experience it the way I used to again.