Game Changers: Beyond Good & Evil
Critically acclaimed, commercially unsuccessful, and yet still an important touchstone for the evolution of action games. We take a look at why
Critically lauded and commercially stunted, Ubisoft’s ambitious adventure has still gone down in history as a major pillar of gaming’s mature evolution as an art form. We reflect on why that has happened
NOT All game-changers are major successes. Alas, sometimes even time doesn’t necessarily prove their final quality, but somehow, against the odds and their own nature they help to shape the future of games, and become a must-play experience for the impact they ultimately had on all that follows. Beyond Good & Evil is one such game.
michel Ancel’s ambitious adventure had its issues and it would be fair to say that time has not been kind in some respects, but the ripples its release sent out through the industry cannot be denied. Ancel and Ubisoft montpellier’s singular vision, its art direction, its commitment to a particular tone and to the clear definition of its characters have left a lasting impression on the games that have dared to follow in its footsteps. It may not have managed to complete the journey it set out on, but it certainly lit the path for others to follow.
So, let’s be more specific about this path. Coming off the success of Rayman, Ancel put together a team of about 30 people with a wide range of creative backgrounds.
There was game-development experience, of course, but also team members with backgrounds in animation and comics. There was a clear focus on world building and narrative coherence – things that had been explored, certainly, but perhaps not in something quite so outlandish and not combined with such a simple,
WITH SO MUCH OF THE WORLD AND STYLE OF BEYOND GOOD & EVIL BEING SO OUTLANDISH, IT IS JADE WHO GROUNDS THE EXPERIENCE
clear focus: to give us as players a pure feeling of freedom and exploration.
Now, those concepts are rather abstract and perhaps freedom seems like an odd thing to cite when Beyond Good & Evil is a relatively linear experience, but this isn’t freedom in the sandbox sense. What Ancel wanted to impart was a sense of a free-form world where you were making movements and choices within set parameters that felt organic and naturalistic, despite all of the outlandish things happening around you, and that was funnelled through the game’s heroine, Jade. Your experience playing as Jade is so multifaceted and diverse that it can’t help but feel freeing compared to the more restrictive ability sets and activities of most action games prior to Beyond Good & Evil. While the 3D Zelda games certainly achieved some of this, Jade did it in a very different style to link.
With so much of the world and style of Beyond Good & Evil being so outlandish, it is Jade who grounds the experience with her approach and toolset. She’s a highly capable individual, but there’s not much about her that seems implausible in reality. her fighting style is based in something recognisable as martial arts. She doesn’t use a gun, but a stick, which implies she’s not combat trained in the traditional sense, but perhaps has some self-defence knowledge instead. She moves fluidly and with great agility, but not superhuman levels of either.
In fact, there are many similarities in how we would describe Jade to what we would also say about someone like Nathan Drake (apart from the firearms use). Both are capable, but not impervious. Both are professional, but often in way over their head. And both offer deep and abiding connections to not only themselves, but the characters around them. Perhaps one area in which Jade greatly differs from Drake, however, is in the fact that she can’t bring down the huge conspiracy
she helps to uncover single-handedly. The best she can hope to achieve is to contribute to its downfall through her dedication and bravery.
Which really brings us to Beyond Good & Evil’s defining game mechanic and the one that has had a pretty significant and lasting impression on the industry: Jade’s camera. As a professional photojournalist Jade takes it everywhere, and it is simultaneously her best source of consistent income (which you’ll need for upgrades through the game) and the weapon she needs to utilise to bring down the Domz. Ubisoft montpellier was beaten to market by Metroid Prime with its scanning technology, but Jade’s camera feels far more relatable thanks to its practicality. Through the lens of this device you see the world as she does while simultaneously having it revealed to you. It might not be as densely populated and emergent as worlds that would follow, but it is diverse and strange enough to offer surprises along the way.
many of the topics and ideas that Beyond Good
& Evil tackled were not necessarily new to gaming.
Political corruption, conspiracy, alien invasion, secret societies and revolution have all had their role to play in action adventures and future dystopian fiction, but the combination of these ideas with such a unique lead character, with such a relatable world that was at once alien and familiar, was new. While graphically the game may have dated, its art direction, character design and setting remain incredibly strong. It felt more like a Studio ghibli world than something we had seen from Ubisoft before, and that was special.
Beyond Good & Evil imperfectly attempted to do a lot of things, but like so many games that attempt to merge many genres and mechanics into one cohesive whole, the sum of the creation is greater than its parts, and in the attempt it helped to form a new benchmark for action games. It was a game about storytelling and immersion in a game world perhaps more than it was about puzzle solving or combat, and that shift in balance was significant for the games that would follow. michel Ancel lit the way for those who would follow, and that’s a big reason why BG&E is so beloved.