Game * Michel Ancel * Whimsical Dystopia * 2003
First the good news: this game has very little to do with Friedrich Nietzsche’s dreary 1886 treatise on relative morality. You know, I say that having read it once about ten years ago, so maybe it’s snappier and more engaging than I remember. Right now, all I recall is Nietzsche calling out other philosophers for essentially being sucka MC’s. Now the bad news: this game doesn’t feature ANY rap battles between German philosophers. I understand the disappointment, but there is plenty else going on here, especially for a game of this vintage.
Beyond Good and Evil is a bright, whimsical science-fiction story about good-natured citizens fighting against the evil aliens which have infiltrated the planet. In other words, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of what you’d find in Nietzsche’s book of the same title. The game’s protagonist is a young woman named Jade who is an up-and-coming photojournalist who also runs an orphanage with her uncle, a pig-man named Pey’j. As the game begins, Jade protects those under her care from an alien attack whereupon we’re introduced to the world of Hillys and their struggle with the DomZ, which is what the aforementioned aliens are called. Once Jade has taken care of business, the cops eventually arrive and start spouting a bunch of patriotic nonsense. Jade, who has the skeptical instincts of a good investigative journalist, figures something is not quite right.
The first mission of the game is to photograph one of the alien creatures for the resistance movement, IRIS. What follows from that is a war of propaganda for the hearts and minds of the citizens of Hillys. Jade has a personal stake in her battle with the Alpha Sections, but the end goal is to end DomZ aggression and expose the Alpha Section’s role in the attacks. Most of the game has you infiltrating various installations and attempting to expose the truth. In addition you have a dope hovercraft, so of course you race it and other assorted side quests. I enjoyed taking pictures of the various critters found around Hillys, which I feel goes a long way toward validating the game world as an actual, inhabited place. Aside from having a strong, sympathetic lead character, the game also has a bright, crisp aesthetic which holds up 13 years later. The whimsical design of the world, both in visual appeal and in the music, offsets the darker themes of propaganda and human trafficking that the game is based on.
I refer to the game as a whimsical dystopia, but that’s only because I’m not aware of a more appropriate term for what is going on here. The government of the planet itself isn’t a totalitarian state. Further, the society is comprised of a diverse population and there seems to be an abundance of personal freedom. I mean, the goat-people seem to get along with the shark-people and everyone likes to gamble on the hovercraft races. Later in the game, once Jade starts publishing her incriminating photos, we see the population taking to the streets and staging very public demonstrations. So Hillys is not a classic dystopia. Rather, it’s a society that is on the cusp of transitioning to an authoritarian regime. The spark of this transition is the rampant alien attacks. The DomZ has apparently declared war on the planet, and it is later revealed that they need fresh human brain-meats to recharge their alien whatevers. It’s not terribly important why the aliens are hostile, what’s significant is that they use the Alpha Sections as a means to carry out their abductions. At first, the Alpha Sections are presented as a protecting force, although it isn’t clear if they’re an institution created on the planet or if they’re outsiders. Whichever the case, there is resentment towards them from certain sections of societ. Pey’j in particular has little use for them, which makes sense in light of the end-game revelation that he’s actually the PIC (pig-in-charge, naturally) of the IRIS Network. Regardless, the Alpha Sections are not what they seem, and are actually the first step towards a police state.
Jade isn’t having it. The game makes a strong case for the importance of a free press and free speech. Information is the strongest weapon in the game, and Jade is the most adept at wielding it. While Jade can handle herself in a fight, the priority is on exposure and the dissemination of information. Once the population begins to understand the particulars of their situation, they reject the impending dystopia and fight against the power of the Alpha Sections and their alien overlords. The game, of course, is taking an idealistic view that a single photojournalist can undermine an effective propaganda campaign, and makes the assumption that the general population is willing to risk safety for freedom, but this is an optimistic game. Frankly, as someone who consumes a lot of apocalyptic fiction, the optimistic view is refreshing once in a while. This belief in the willingness of citizens to rise up in the name of truth and freedom meshes nicely with the overall look of the game, as I’ve mentioned, and is consistent with the colorful and fun characters you interact with throughout the game.
In the end, Jade is validated in her belief that her reports can change the world. Yes, she saves the day by whaling on the Big Bad Alien’s noggin with her whackin’ stick, but Jade would never have been in a position to do so without the support of the population. She earned that support via her brave reporting from inside some very dangerous places, but also by her reputation as a good citizen. Throughout the game she shows concern for those who can’t defend themselves, and while being a steward for orphans might be a little on the nose, it’s clear she’s a selfless individual. If anything, Jade might be a little too strong as a protagonist. I don’t mean strong in the typical video game sense, either. This game is in no way a standard power-fantasy. What I mean is that Jade is a protagonist without much in the way of moral failings. She’s Good. Yes, there is the scene where everything seems to be going wrong and she has a breakdown… but it’s short-lived and of course she gets up almost immediately to see the job through. That said, I suppose if the harshest criticism I can muster for Jade’s character is that she’s not nuanced enough, that’s pretty fucking good for a video game that came out thirteen years ago.