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Art Itself Is an Act of Play

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Jade is a figure in search of equilibrium – ideological, emotional, and physical balance – and throughout the course of the game she will attempt to attain peace, both in herself and her society, by unravelling the deception under which they all subsist. Thus, once the dust of this latest incursion has settled, and the alien invasion of the DomZ seemingly thwarted by the Alpha Section armed forces, Jade starts to question the veracity of the armada’s omnipresence, tasking herself with uncovering the truth of their motives beneath all the patriotic spin.  She offers he services as a reporter, and soon enough is approached by a band of subversive radicals likewise intent on exposing the military’s elaborate deception.


Indeed, it’s in the means through which you the player actively pursue these unsavoury truths – the manner in which this work is so uniquely a game – that Beyond Good & Evil is most striking. Rather than passively watch this world and its narrative play out before you, as one would experience a film or fiction, this is an experience in which the act of play itself informs the very way through which this fiction conveys its meaning. This is an environment that necessarily must be moved through, lived in, reacted to – the act of interpretation bound inextricably to this cultivation of a bond with the environment you inhabit. 


As Jade, you will sneak. You will explore. You will gather clues. You will learn this land’s secrets, befriend its inhabitants, uncover its seedy underbelly. You will meet hardworking entrepreneurs, pirate looters, soldiers, shell game sneaks, black market merchants, washed up alcoholics, street racers, slavers, subversive rebels trying to overthrow the government from beneath the city’s streets. You will intrude upon clandestine networks and peek behind the masks of the tyrants.


The game invites you to fall in love with this land of Hillys, not only through its visual and auditory splendour, but through action. The narrative compels you to explore its urban centres and delve into its uncharted caverns, to converse with each of its residents (many of whom Jade knows personally), to taste its produce (Starkos bars and K-Bups Berries), to photograph its fauna for the preservation of science and history, to uncover the deeper, unsettling truths that lie beneath the surface of its government and media. 


Through exploring Hilly’s luscious landscapes, cataloguing its creatures, befriending its inhabitants, and learning of its myriad splendour – invited to literally preserve its wonder on film, through study, through social interaction – you invest in this world, belong to it. In doing so, you commit yourself to protecting it.  You see the injustice visited upon the people of Hillys, you see the fear and suspicion of a populace forced to live under an endless totalitarian police state; you feel their loss as they watch their friends and family lost to this endless, Orwellian ‘conflict’. Indeed, it’s for this reason that despite the constant fear of death and loss – the most omnipresent dread depicted in the game is that of kidnapping – of a severing of the communal and familial bonds that are so necessary in the face of such chaos. 


Beyond Good & Evil reveals itself to be a parable about responsibility. Personal responsibility, familial responsibility, social and environmental responsibility.  In this sense the game is about makeshift families built from the wreckage of a society devastated by war. It’s about the commitments such families pledge to each other, the resolve and strength that they draw from this interdependence.  Frequently (though not constantly), Jade therefore works alongside a companion in her journey through these landscapes – her adopted uncle Pey’j; a devoted soldier Double H – further heightening this sense of cooperation and reliance.


Quite literally, were it not for the support of your fellow NPC – in the encouragement and feedback they offer on the journey, and the physical boosts and battling that they offer to assist you – you would not be able to proceed. By travelling alongside them, trusting them for support, you feel even more acutely the sense of communal bond that infuses the game’s fictional world, stirring you to save this blighted land from its omnipresent dread.


It’s no accident, then, that the metaphorical space standing at the centre of this game – Jade’s home, where she, her Uncle, and their orphan charges gather in the shadow of looming corruption – is a lighthouse; a beacon of warning for the ship of state, the searching source of illumination amongst a treacherous, ignorant dark. There is a moment, early in the game, where the poignancy of this space is subtly, movingly acknowledged. As Jade, at the player’s behest, explores this space, watching the children around her mingle and move about, joking, conversing, playing with the lighthouse dog, trying to distract themselves from the daily bombing raids and sirens and whispers of kidnapped citizens stolen away in the night, a piece of music penetrates the quiet to colour the experience profoundly.


Jade – you – ascend the staircase and come upon the orphan children’s makeshift bedroom. Toy’s lay scattered about. A warm slant of sunlight cuts through the air.  And on the walls, sketched in crayon, are clumsy drawings of the lighthouse itself, of JJade and her uncle Pey’j, and the word ‘HOME’ scribbled beside them.


At precisely that moment, looking in upon one safe-haven carved out of the detritus of a haunting, ceaseless war, you hear a lilting piano cue.It’s soft, slow, even mournful, but so delicate, and so precious, that it sears itself in the mind. A tune stripped utterly bare. Just solo finger stickling across ivory. A private melody, alone amongst the cacophony of harmony and discord swelling outside those walls. It’s a melody that recurs in various forms throughout the game – particularly in some tragic moments to come, when Jade will again feel profound personal loss – but it also resurges in some resounding moments of defiance and fight, a subconscious reminder of precisely what it is that you are fighting for.


By seeking out answers, Jade will eventually inspire her people to throw off their oppression, to react against the placation of their media, and to rise up to question the preconceptions into which they have blindly surrendered their faith. The game unpacks conventional wisdom and manipulative jingoism in a time of war, revealing an expansive web of collusion and misinformation, inspiring a oppressed peoples to reclaim a homeland stolen from them not by force, but through the pernicious application of lies.


For a game fundamentally concerned with the nature of societal indoctrination, one arguing that such willing apathy has to be examined and overthrown, the conceit of the final level is inspired. Having led her fellow citizens to revolt, Jade confronts the High Priest of the DomZ and is forced to fight for her life. During the conflict, however, the High Priest bombards Jade with a hypnotic pulse, pouring the sum total of the game’s thematic exploration of persuasion and ideological inculcation into one mesmerising blast. 


Suddenly, after having faith in the mechanics with which the game has operated over the preceding hours, the game suddenly flips its control scheme entirely. Up is now down; left is now right; the character suddenly behaves wholly contrary to the system that the player has trained into their muscle memory.


This metaphor for the reversal of convention that has played into every facet of the narrative, and its exploration of social and political dissent, is heightened by this final subversion of the player. Just as Jade, who has had to undertake a journey into the heart of her homeland’s darkest recesses to cure herself of the systemic misinformation that has governed her life, so too must the player, in this concluding conflict, force themselves to unlearn what this game’s universe has gradually convinced them to invest in utterly.


In defeating this beast, symbolically tracing this skewed belief system back to its root and therapeutically dissolving the corruption that it has engendered, both Jade and the player, in a unity of purpose, excise the corrosive limitations that would choke this society, its freedom and its media, into atrophy.


Treading Water


Back in Ming-Tsu’s shop, however, that koi fish keeps turning circles. 


Programmed in an infinite reactive loop, he is forever walled in, enslaved by that emerald glass. In that sense, he offers a fitting metaphor for the transformative nature of responsibility that this game explores. Ancel’s masterwork invites us to see the limitations – both welcomed and imposed – that govern every aspect of our lives. Those glass walls, in microcosm, become symbols of the conventional predispositions and rhetorical manipulations that can hold the uninquisitive in stasis.


In looking down at this poor, ensnared creature, Jade, and I playing her, are suddenly reminded that we are not that fish – not bound to some primitive reactive coding, swimming endlessly in place. No, in this game, in this sumptuous but suffering world, Jade and I can transcend the inculcation of intransigent beliefs. Instead, she and I can be reminded of the true intangible bonds and beliefs that define us, those that bind us in a happy enslavement to the things we hold most precious.


Through its narrative, its play, and the enchanting aesthetic of its environments and melodies, the game enables its players to invest in the world of Hillys, to feel a responsibility to its peoples and its future, and to redefine ourselves through the bond we feel to its familial, spatial and ideological constraints. Indeed, as you are literally a character inhabiting this land, tasked with its preservation, this evokes a sense of ownership and obligation elevated far beyond the detached regard stirred by films or fiction. 


Beyond Good & Evil is a game about and fuelled by empathy, about cooperation and selflessness, about testing the veracity of presumed truths.  Under the facade of its disarmingly innocuous beauty it is a game that compels its audience to question the media – even the media through which the artwork expresses itself. By brushing up against the barriers of this world myself, empowered through my own agency within the narrative to question these restrictions – to scrutinise them – I become attuned to this environment, become one with it.  And in doing so, come to better know myself. 


Ebert, and those like him, who see video games as nothing more than gratuitous, indulgent death-simulators – petty playthings that rob humanity ‘of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic’ – will doubtless never change their minds about this medium.  Ironically, they remain obstinately walled behind their own prejudices, unable to look beyond their bias to see the greater, more diverse possibility they have arbitrarily denied. 


In contrast, I watch that koi fish circle and am reminded of how effortlessly this game proves such dismissive ignorance a lie: of the way that it renders an organic, breathing culture, in order to watch it fray under the threat of war; how it speaks to the nature of civilisation and the duty of personal responsibility; of the manner in which it so elegantly evokes and celebrates empathy as our greatest treasure (in videogame-speak: the greatest ‘skill’ we human beings can seek to ‘upgrade’). 


Culture, civility, and empathy – all while necessitating that the player be an integral part of progressing the narrative and allowing them to be complicit in the enunciation of this altruistic theme; videogames, when crafted with the elegance and care of a work such as Beyond Good & Evil, more than prove themselves to exceed every arbitrary ‘requirement’ for Art demanded of them by those prejudicially inclined to deny them worth. Despite being dismissed off hand, there are many such examples that transcend these limitations in their moment of experience, becoming something profoundly, intimately expressive in the act of granting the player agency within their worlds.


Does that mean that all videogames are therefore worthy of being held aloft alongside the pantheon of great composers, playwrights, and poets? No, of course not. But that is and always was a disingenuous argument to begin with. The world of cinema has produced Vertigo, but it also gave us Norbit. Music granted us Brahms, but it also gave us Rebecca Black. 


Arguing that every single text has to justify the value of its entire medium or else they are all suspect is a reductive act of sophistry that knowingly chases its own tail. It debases the whole discussion of Art by making it some rote test dictated by elitist patriarchs whose prejudices are already irrevocably calcified. But just as Shakespeare’s artistic expression is not demeaned by the shaky 4th grade Christmas pageant I once participated in as a child, the entire span of potentiality evident in the videogame form is not dismissible because one thinks Call of Duty 19 looks like indulgent gush.


If, in contrast, those who imprudently disparage videogames actually bothered to try them – to free themselves from the mire of lazy bias and prove themselves capable of re-examining the constraints of imagination that such works so frequently embrace, they might not only find something worthy of exploration, but could well find a whole new experiential medium through which to explore the endlessly shifting limits of human expression. Otherwise, they just continue to spout the ‘conventional wisdom’ that games are indulgent toys gratifying insularity with nothing worthwhile to say. As Beyond Good & Evil articulates so adroitly, there’s nothing less beneficial to the progress of society, criticism and Art than simply regurgitating the same old tired party lines without ever exhibiting the capacity for self-reflection that they would demand of others.


They, too, reveal themselves to be like that fish – not urged to test their limitations, not inclined to seek for more; instead trapped in the same tired, contrarian routine. They circle their definition of Art in an infinite self-justifying stagnation, emboldened by their own limitations as they deny it the capacity to evolve. As for me, I don’t presume to know definitively what Art is. I’m too stunned by its diversity and magnitude to want to try. And in here, in the living diorama Michel Ancel and his team have brought into being, I’ve got a head full of sweet melody, a pocket full of pearls, and a world to treasure. I’ve been invited to help directly enact a message of audacity and hope, to fall in love with a land, and to believe that both it and one’s own curious, indomitable will are things that are precious, things worth preserving.


I know that might not be Roger Ebert’s definition of Art. He would (and did) cry ‘selfishness’ and ‘time-wasting’ – declared them uncivilised, corrosive and childish. But in truth that’s what all Art has always been. Art itself is an act of play: the selfish imaginative pursuit of an artist, the indulgence of an enraptured audience; a sublime waste of time that consequentially reflects something resonant about the human condition, something enduring, back to us. We are creatures that have stirred pigment into paint to decorate our caves; transformed religious festivals into the history of theatre; cultivated the carnival curiosity of moving pictures into the diversity of cinema; exploded the boundaries of Art to soup cans and signed urinals and sharks suspended in formaldehyde. 


Why then must we be frightened off by our capacity to weave new environs to explore – new emotions, new engagements to inhabit – in pixels and electronic code? It seems the height of complacent stagnation – a fish swimming up against the same glass walls, content to never extend beyond them, terrified to lose its way.

Colin Dray is a Lecturer in Literature at Campion College of the Liberal Arts, Australia, and has taught Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, Australia. His writing and criticism has appeared in Australian Literary Studies, Meanjin, Voiceworks, Antipodes. His blog can be found here: http://drayfish.wordpress.com/


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