[25 February 2004]
I’m a Canadian, which means that in between my igloo-building and toque-wearing, I also take part in one other national pastime: worrying about Americans. Along with my fellow Canucks, I fret about things like whether Americans think we’re doing enough to stop terrorism, whether American companies have fair access to our markets, and when Americans are going to retaliate for Céline Dion.
As a journalist, I am especially gripped by this Canadian obsession, reporting on American news as though it were happening in my own country. Here in the Great White North, we’re all strangely comfortable seeing American politicians take over our newspapers’ front pages while our own prime ministers languish in the B section—at least until once they’re inevitably caught swindling public funds.
I think being Canadian has something to do with why I enjoyed and identified with Ubisoft’s Beyond Good & Evil so much. The game takes place on the planet Hillys, which, like Canada, has been taken over by the culture and politics of another people. In the Hillyans’ case, they must constantly worry about the militaristic Alpha Sections, a kind of interplanetary defense force who have come to Hillys to protect them from the invasion of the Domz race.
Beyond Good & Evil follows the story of Jade, a Hillyan photojournalist. The opening of the game finds her forced to fend off a Domz attack with only the help of her “uncle” Pey’j, a half-pig/half-human (Hillys is populated by humans and animal/human hybrids). After the pair defeat the Domz, the Alpha Sections arrive and promptly take credit for the successful defense. An obviously-biased TV journalist—whose unabashed favoritism would offend even watchers of FOX News—records their version of events and later on, Pey’j's denouncement of the Alpha Sections is played over the radio in an altered form. Immediately, then, the game establishes its primary themes: that those who claim to be defending people against a threat are not doing their job and that the media is complicit in hiding their failings.
Through the media, the Alpha Sections broadcast a steady barrage of messages designed to keep the Hillyans in a state of perpetual fear and make it clear that the Alpha Sections are the only ones capable of keeping them safe. The situation feels so familiar, one almost expects Osama bin Laden’s bearded mug to flash across the floating Big Brother video screens that pervade Hillys.
Choosing the latter half of the Alpha Sections’ “You’re either with us or against us” ultimatum, Jade soon becomes involved with the IRIS Network, a galaxy-spanning group that opposes the Alpha Sections’ style of rule-by-intimidation and seeks to discover their real agenda. As a photojournalist, she is assigned the dangerous task of infiltrating the Alpha Sections’ installations and exposing to the Hillyan population their supposed guardians’ true agenda. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but you’ve probably already guessed that the Alpha Sections are up to no good.
Playing as a journalist makes for an original gaming experience and I hope that other developers pick up on this rich and untapped idea for future games. Each mission requires Jade to take certain pictures and as a side quest, you’ve also been assigned by a science centre to photograph as many of Hillys’ animal species as you can. The parts involving exploration, sneaking around, and being chased are so much fun and feel so fresh that it’s a shame the designers also included some really generic combat action as well. All the fighting seems especially absurd when you begin whacking and killing creatures that the science centre tells you are almost extinct. I can happily slaughter pixilated humans all day long in a Grand Theft Auto game, but fighting Hillyan animals gave me a real guilty conscience.
Entertaining and unique gameplay aside, Beyond Good & Evil‘s strong allegorical dimension is what really makes the game stand out. Like the Hillyans, Canadians are caught under the shadow of a powerful force whose public face is benevolent but whose actions seem otherwise. In both situations, the media plays a pivotal role in shaping public perceptions of events. This idea is demonstrated powerfully, if simplistically, in Beyond Good & Evil. The mainstream Hillyan News shows an obvious pro-Alpha Sections slant, trying to make out the IRIS Network as terrorists and Jade’s photos as propaganda tools. Meanwhile, the IRIS Network’s underground paper publishes the evidence you collect during the game, hoping to persuade the Hillyan people to rebel against the Alpha Sections.
If only journalism were as easy as Beyond Good & Evil presents it, though. Jade’s work has immediate results in changing the Hillyan people’s perceptions of the Alpha Sections, but such is not the case for anti-establishment journalism in our world. There’s no shortage of underground media shouting out for popular rebellion and bursting with damning evidence of government corruption. The real question that the game does not address is whether the Hillyans would actually believe the IRIS Network’s claims or simply dismiss them as unpatriotic terrorists. Or worse, whether Hillyans would be too busy watching soap operas and game shows to care.
As a Canadian, I can sympathise with the Hillyans’ plight. With our military dependence on our southern neighbours, Canadians know what a great security risk it is to question the motives and agenda of your supposed defenders. If only the truth could be delivered as easily as it is on Hillys, Canadians could make up their minds on where America really stands. For now, perhaps the only thing that is certain when it comes to the United States is that Canadians will always have something to worry about.