The mechanics of variety instead of skill in Beyond Good & Evil. Spoilers abound.
Since video games must often devote a lot of time to teaching the player how to play, it is rare to see a game that relies on variety to engage the player. Beyond Good & Evil does not just teach the player one specific skill set and then have them apply it in new ways. Each level is a stream of new activities and skills, combined with a world map that we are continually finding new ways to explore. Combined with this game design is a narrative composed of layers. Our impressions of these characters and factions is continually refuted as we uncover more of the conspiracy, until even the protagonist herself is ambiguous. As the game’s title implies, it is borrowing form Nietzsche’s notion that the true scholars are ever-questioning of morality and society. Inspiration to work on this game came from Michael Abbott’s Vintage Game Club or VGC, whose discussion I did not participate in often but I drew on heavily for this essay. Their forums are a great resource for any careful analysis of a video game they’ve discussed.
The game begins with a news broadcast explaining a classic video game story: alien invaders are besieging the planet of Hillys and only the army can stop them. Our view is of the planet itself during this exposition, before the camera zooms down to the surface and we see the protagonist, Jade, practicing Yoga over a glowing sunrise. Right on cue the aliens attack and yet the army is nowhere to be found. The player takes control as the aliens abduct several of the orphans and our friend Pey’j. The tutorial defines what will be the teaching motif for the rest of the game: you learn a skill as soon as you need it. Jade is surrounded by aliens, you learn to fight by pressing A and swinging at them. You need to use your super move to beat one of the monsters, so you then learn to charge the attack. Narratively we are taking on the role of savior to these characters which will be played with later by our failure to fulfill this task. The army arrives once the crisis is over and the reporter we saw in the opening credits has no interest once Pey’j is frank about how useless the soldiers are. The tutorial continues by providing another need for the player: we’re broke and we need to restore power to our home. To do this we must take pictures of various wildlife, being paid per photo. The photo design is the game’s strongest feature, they introduce it early and provide incentives to keep taking pictures to the player. Doing this means that every animal, friend or foe, has a name to the player. Every tiny detail in the world that would’ve gone unnoticed or unappreciated will instead be photographed. Contrast this to Bioshock’s camera, which lacked both non-hostile creatures to appreciate and offered a weak reward for taking the picture. The design was introduced so late in the game and gave such a minor edge in combat that it mostly goes forgotten by players.
Eurogamer did a decent retrospective on the game where they aptly summarize the game’s variety of activities, “The secret to the success of the game’s differing approaches is the simplicity. This does occasionally lead to a muddling of the controls, with multiple options assigned to buttons, switching in and out as the circumstances require. But it also means Jade’s capable of an array of different styles without your needing a third thumb.” In the vehicle sections you can explore the map, go racing, blast through obstacle courses, and eventually fly. Most of the driving sections all rely on the basic skill of driving but the third-person portions of the game vary things up much more extensively. In terms of playing as Jade you’ll do platforming puzzles, stealth, close combat, sniping, dialogue options, and even a few mini-games. What binds all of these activities is that they are typically easy to handle and require only a single button. The game’s missions can be boiled down to 4 levels mixed with exploration in the larger world map. Each mission is to take certain incriminating pictures of the Domz to reveal the greater conspiracy to the public. After Jade proves herself capable at taking photographs and dealing with the Domz she is recruited by the IRIS network to investigate the corrupt military.
User baf from the VGC points out that Jade handles a great deal like the princess from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, pointing out that both games were made at the same time by the same studio. Jade can slide through cracks and access portions of the map the brawler partner can’t. Adding to her range of skills is an engaging NPC who adds more abilities. What this NPC does is enable an additional layer of puzzles and interaction that don’t actually involve the player. Just as the game is filled with numerous activities that can be directly solved, it adds variety by having the NPC be a necessary component as well. You need Pey’j to open certain doors or Double H’s slam ability to knock enemies off the ground. Part of how the game avoids needing the player to learn a dozen commands is by having other characters be the source of them. This relationship with the NPC is built up in a variety of other ways. The narrative creates a constant banter between the two parties. The game design requires us to give our heart containers and health to them, connecting the player in a literal way by actively caring for them. When Jade leaves Pey’j behind temporarily, he reminds us to not forget him. The level design mirrors this by having a puzzle where we need Pey’j appear almost immediately. After Pey’j’s abduction, Jade rescues her new partner Double H from the Domz just as she did Pey’j at the game’s start. The game design has us rely on them in combat and puzzles, connect by giving them health & items, and the narrative matches this by having them take on roles where they depend on you.
This is a game that brings its premise alive with details. The Alpha sections scream propaganda whenever we enter the city about how Hillys needs the army. With each mission, these propaganda statements become more intense all while protests form thanks to your photographs. By the time you’ve fully documented the corruption, you will even begin to recognize the people in the crowds. Like any hub game, there are countless items to collect or animals to photograph. Equally refreshing is the fact that the game brings out these moments without the use of quick time events. Smaller levels such as catching raiders or breaking into the Alpha sections warehouse in the city are both easy and fun break-aways from the main plot. When Jade is fleeing the Alpha sections the outcome is pre-defined but the player is put in a miniature race course. As lasers and soldiers race after her, the player feels a real sense of chase before she crosses the invisible line and the cutscene kicks in. The game’s flaws are usually when these invisible hands don’t quite work. Stealth sections often have linear solutions which are enforced through insta-kill turrets, leading to constant trial and error while you figure out what the game wants. The level design occasionally spoils the story itself, as Kimari points out at the VGC. If you’re going to have a character supposedly die yet I’ve seen a puzzle that requires them to solve it, the player is going to know that they will be back eventually. A tricky fight that should occur just before you discover the orphans have been kidnapped can potentially be missed if you run into the house directly. Having the combat before Jade’s dramatic speech about failure is essential, otherwise the feeling of hopelessness falls flat from facing against the tricky flying enemies.
The last level does away with most of the stealth and combat sections in favor of a different experience. Complimenting the sense of smallness and inferiority that Jade has struggled with, the final level has huge spaces and sections of running across long distances. We are made to feel what Jade is feeling as she tries to rescue Pey’j. Our own photos are used in the final cutscene as the populace finally sees all of the Domz corruption, leading to an uprising. The ending’s final plot revelation is that Jade herself is the source of the Domz. She is the reason they have been attacking Hillys and her humanity is only a sham to cover up her true nature. This ambiguity and role-reversal is shown in the game design by having the controls suddenly invert. Just as Jade is now suddenly the source of the conflict, up is down and left is right. Freezair noted that she potentially even infects Pey’j later on with the Domz, using her powers to heal him and subsequently corrupt him. When she defeats the final boss and uses her powers to heal the abducted orphans, Jade demonstrates the core idea of the game’s title. Just as Nietzsche argued in Beyond Good & Evil that the true hero can see beyond morality or social conventions, Jade can see past the revelation about her own origins. She does not blindly accept the Domz’s desire for power or that she is a part of it. What has been true throughout the game has been her friends, so that is what she sticks with despite her origin.