Playlist: Beyond Good and Evil’s Transgressive Economy

beyond

Justin Keever | Jun 26, 2017

My Summer Playlist Project: Every time I finish a game, I write at least 500 words about it. Enjoy!

Beyond Good and Evil opens with its most thematically charged moment; in the midst of a sudden attack by interstellar adversaries, protagonist Jade scurries to activate a shield that would protect her home, only to find that she doesn’t have enough money to pay the power company to actually turn the shield on. A prerecorded message plays, thanking Jade for understanding, as the invaders storm her island home. This ends up being more of a one-off joke than an actual thesis statement, as the plot shirks commentary on how corporations’ profit motive leads leads to tangible loss of life, presenting a somewhat more typical story of resistance instead; Jade is tasked by a local resistance group to provide evidence that the invading Aliens, the Domz, are working in tandem with a private military force, the Alpha Sections, that has taken over the planet in an apparent effort to fight back the Domz invasion. Naturally, the two groups are indeed working together, kidnapping citizens of the planet Hillys in the staged Domz invasions and smuggling them offworld. One villain says that the citizens’ fluids are being sucked out of them, used by the Domz/Alpha sections to prolong their lives – in a way, one can see this as an allegory for the exploitation of the lower classes for the betterment of the powerful, but to read an economic anxiety into the villains’ motive that coheres with the game’s wonderful opening is perhaps a bit too kind.

However, there is a small financial consideration in the player’s resistance to the rule of the Alpha Sections. Jade spends much of the game fighting and sneaking past the Alpha Sections, taking pictures of their illicit operation for the resistance group to publish in their paper. Aside from the combat, which is dreadful, these systems work well enough – but the most exhilarating pushback against the rule of the Alpha Sections is the hovership, which Jade uses to navigate the expansive waterways of Hillys. Jade is able to explore more of Hillys (and thus progress through the story) by upgrading her hovership with illicit parts purchased a the Mammago garage, which must be purchased using pearls, a relatively rare collectable which is used instead of Materia Units, the currency which is used for every other shop. Materia Units are tied to an identification card that must be presented at each of these shops before items can be purchased, while pearls are placed directly into the vending machines at the Mammago shop. Pearls are earned by fighting Domz, completing heists, and donated to Jade by citizens in response to the photos she publishes. Simply put, pearls are a freeform currency established in direct opposition to a less tangible digital currency tied directly to someone’s identity, obtained by transgression against a ruling force and used to fund further transgressions – it is in its alternative economy that the revolution finds its strength.

And as I already mentioned, the hovership upgrades that are purchased with this alternative currency are genuinely exciting to use, as each works in service of breaking through a diegetic boundary which appears at first to be a boundary of the gamespace itself. In most games, security barricades like those of the Alpha Sections would mark an unassailable end of navigable space, and would seem  little more than a contrivance only marginally less annoying than an invisible wall. The revelation that the electric security gate that circumscribes the city can simply be leapt over with the right upgrade hits with surprising weight; the game uses the player’s knowledge of what sorts of images are used to demarcate the end of a world in service of moments of genuine liberation, wherein we resist not only the despotic rule of the Alpha Sections but the visual language of the videogame medium. This brand of resistance reaches its apotheosis when Jade repairs the Beluga, a starship that can freely piloted through the air, all throughout game’s main hub, allowing the player to break free of the two dimensional plane of Hillys’ waterways. The maiden voyage of the Beluga is spectacular. The ship can travel unreasonably close to poorly modelled buildings that appeared as specks in the distance to the hovership – these buildings, nestled into cliffs atop large islands, untouched by collectibles or enemies or any ludic purpose, seem almost impossibly idyllic. The sensation of intimacy with something so auxillary, something devoid of utilitarian purpose, is freeing in a way that can never be matched by modern open world navigation. Beyond Good and Evil anticipates the pleasure of games like Home is Where One Starts, which understand that the ability to travel anywhere is only interesting when it is unexpected: an opened world is much more interesting than an open world.

It’s unfortunate that these transcendent moments are tied to a largely uninteresting plot. Beyond Good and Evil’s story trudges forward mechanically, establishing relationships and motivations efficiently but without flair – the character’s likeability is owed entirely to their colorful design and the timbre of their voices, not the things they actually say and do. There are hints of a smarter game here and there, such as a moment where Jade has a one-sided conversation with her dog to express some thinly veiled self-doubt, but the writing isn’t funny enough, or the characters well-acted enough, to mask the generic plotting. Still, some of the environments you navigate occasionally make up for the deficiencies of the plot; as the environments grow ever more unpleasant in a way that steadily reveals the evil machinations belied by the calm waters and cartoonish anthropomorphic animals of Hillys, taking the player from an idyllic island orphanage to a massive, Giger-esque hellscape. Unfortunately, the environments between these two poles are less interesting – the streets of Hillys’ pedestrian district are woefully unpopulated, and much of the game proper takes place in narrow corridors in largely uninteresting mines and factories.

There is something to Beyond Good and Evil; it has moments of genuine cartoonish beauty, and its focus on letting the player continually break through the boundaries of its world is a consistent thrill. But too much of it is a dreary stealth game that’s not narratively, mechanically, or aesthetically pleasing enough to be acceptable. Too much of the game feels a little too typical, a little too underdeveloped. Perhaps nothing encapsulates this better than the game’s final, post-credits scene. A slow pan over the walls of the ruined lighthouse, covered in the artwork of the children who live there, concludes in a shot of Jade’s uncle Pey’j, who leans over a balcony, staring wistfully out at the horizon. It’s a reassuring, contemplative finale that’s broken by a sudden cut, and a series of quick shots revealing that Pey’j has been infected by the Domz. Beyond Good and Evil’s final choice is to disrupt something genuine with a 2-second sequel tease, which comes so abruptly and concludes so quickly that feels more obligatory than anything else. A sequel is expected of these sorts of stories: so states the formula.

 

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