Chungking Espresso

Beyond Good and Evil and Photographic “Truth”

Posted in Game Analysis, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on April 22, 2009

Simultaneously posted on Bogost’s News Games research blog. So go comment there, not here!

It’s time for another post in which I show how a mainstream videogame manages to capture the spirit of a particular aspect of journalism better than any existing edu-game on the same subject! This month’s game is Beyond Good & Evil, an artifact that shares with Psychonauts the distinction of being a relatively late entry in the sixth generation of videogames that didn’t sell nearly as much as it should have considering its critical reception and creative flair.

games_wallpaper_beyond_good_and_evil-156

Everything one needs to know about BG&E is masterfully presented within the first thirty minutes of playing the game. A newscast cinematic opens the experience, with Hyllis’s most popular newscaster Fehn Digler (Fehn, a Scandinavian surname, is apparently the forename of all “goat sapientes”) announcing an oncoming wave of alien enemies called the DomZ (perhaps a riff on Ubisoft’s own Petz series). He transfers control of the broadcast over to the voice of General Kex of the Alpha Sections – an intergalactic military that is purportedly protecting the people of Hillys from the DomZ. He begins, “Loyal Hillians, the impending battle will be a difficult one, but thanks to the Alpha Sections…” before being cut off by a fadeout to the protagonist, Jade, meditating on a rock. Both Fehn Digler and General Kex are instantly set in opposition to Jade by this  somewhat disruptive cut. Although the name “Fehn Digler”  connotes the historical form of investigative journalism known as muckracking, he in fact aligns with the propagandistic Alpha Sections. When the introductory DomZ invasion begins, Jade springs into action and is captured in a series of black-and-white photograph snaps—Jade is a rugged photojournalist, an independent force flying in the face of the Alpha Sections’ media hegemony.

Jade is a spunky female of unknown ethnicity. Her ambiguous features hearken back to the famous 1993 Time magazine cover claiming to show the “New Face of America” and precede by a year the most famous multi-ethnic videogame heroine, Alyx Vance of Half-Life 2. Her name carries with it connotations of East Asian and Mesoamerican ornamentation. The name “Jade” also indirectly appeals to the game’s title, Beyond Good and Evil. The famous blaxploitation film Ebony, Ivory, and Jade features two female protagonists (one white, one black), and a male protagonist named Jade. Ebony and Ivory, black and white, traditionally invoke the concepts of Good and Evil. The third element, Jade, rests outside this dichotomy. Jade is mineralogically “tough,” and its earliest use was as a sharp weapon—thus connoting both beauty and the ability to “cut through” to the truth of a situation. Also important to BG&E‘s endgame is the fact that a 19th century French scientist discovered that what was known as jade was in fact two different rocks.

The game’s secondary protagonist is Pey’j, Jade’s gruff pig “uncle.” Pigs are significant in reference to jade in Chinese history. Some of the earliest depictions of a Chinese dragon, carved out of jade, are the zhulong or “pig dragon” ouroboros artifacts crafted in neolithic China.  The Pig is the final entrant of the Chinese zodiac, having lost the Jade Emperor’s race in mythological times. Accordingly, pigs in the Chinese zodiac are depicted as vulnerable, which explains why Jade often finds herself protecting her rotund uncle.  Another characteristic of pigs in the Chinese zodiac that Pey’j isn’t is naïve: from the beginning of the game, Pey’j is highly suspect of the Alpha Sections. His name is clearly a pun on the word “page,” connoting both a medieval servant to a knight (in this case, Jade) and a unit of print media.

Despite featuring a strong female, multi-ethnic protagonist, BG&E mires itself in tedious cultural stereotyping. A Latino colleague watched me play the opening hour of the game, and the flamboyant simpering of the AI character Secundo made my face flair with shame for being a gamer. Some of the game’s voice acting and sound design are so ethnically fetishistic and colonial that it was hard for me to stomach the opening acts.

The “animal sapientes” that inhabit Hillys are fairly derivative of the tropes established by Gullah folk stories of the “Bruh Rabbit” tradition. I have two words for you, words that I hope are never made manifest in code by a videogame ever again: Gullah Rhino. I get the joke—displaced Africans living on an island—but I’m not amused. So much effort clearly went into making Jade race-neutral in speech and facial features that I don’t really understand why the makers decided to go with such hackneyed ethnic tropes for the Secundo and Mammago characters.

Moving on. The IRIS Network is an intergalactic organization of operatives and “correspondents” that seek to disrupt the machinations of the Alpha Sections. Their primary modus operandi is the creation of counter-propaganda in the form of newsprint and radio. Calling themselves a “network” of course denotes network television news. The fact that their agents are called correspondents only deepens this connection. The root network of the Yellow Iris is used in natural water purification , a fact which might or might not be an intended connection on the designer’s part—the Network attempts to “cure” the media occlusion caused by the Alpha Sections’ propaganda.

The irides of our eyes control the amount of light that reaches our retinas by expanding and contracting the pupil. Diseases of the irides directly affect one’s ability to see; similarly, the IRIS Network also controls the information that Jade receives throughout the course of the game. Although a seemingly benevolent force (perhaps the Good to the Alpha Section’s Evil), players and Jade immediately question the motivations of the IRIS Network after they introduce themselves to Jade through a deceit: they send Jade on a fool’s errand into the heart of an ancient mine as a test of her abilities. Mr. Hahn’s ridiculous transformation from the Cadillac-driving Mr. De Castellac to a blue collar taxi driver both confirms player suspicions that the Network is not to be trusted while connecting the organization to working class values. Jade finally meets with IRIS in the Akuda Bar, inside of which a dub song constantly drones a one-word chorus: “propaganda.”

The gameplay of Beyond Good & Evil is almost entirely derivative of two Nintendo products: Ocarina of Time and the Metroid Prime series. That said, the fracturing of the self-contained adventure game protagonist into units of Jade/Pey’j and Jade/Double H is both a vital move on the part of more and more recent game designers and cause for quite a bit of realtime narrative and engaging puzzle platforming. The important connection for us is that derived from Metroid: Jade’s camera functions almost identically to Samus’s scanning visor. Not only can it take pictures, but it can also access data terminals. Photography comprises roughly 1/6 of one’s time in the game, as players are practically required to snap nature photographs of plants, animals, and DomZ for a preservation society in order to maintain a steady stream of revenue. Perhaps predicting the recent crisis in print journalism, Jade’s career as a photojournalist has fallen on hard times. The pictures in her studio are of the orphans she takes care of—not what one would usually expect to see in a professional reporter’s darkroom. Before acquiring the nature photography job from Secundo, Jade doesn’t have enough of a line of credit to afford basic power needs or transportation costs.

The use of nature photography, in which verisimilitude is demanded by the needs for preservation and education, is important in understanding the naïve assumptions about photographic truth upon which Beyond Good and Evil rely. Jade’s mission from the IRIS Network is to infiltrate key Alpha Sections installations in order to photograph their unmasked faces and the plight of their hostages:

Every proof we can find relating to this conspiracy will bring us more and more support from the people. A general uprising would allow us to overthrow the Alpha Sections; if the revolt spreads we may be able to end this war, but we need photographic evidence to find out exactly what’s going on[…]

Alpha is the transparency value in digital image manipulation. As a cohesive, unquestioned whole the Alpha Sections are completely oblique. By disrupting and photographing their operations, Jade will increase media transparency and arrive at “the truth.” At the end of the game Jade’s photographs, published under the pseudonym “Shauni” (a name which apparently shares a Hebrew root with Jeanne, meaning “God’s Grace” and therefore associating Jade with Jeanne d’Arc’s goal of driving the invaders from a homeland), do in fact bring about a revolution against the Alpha Sections.

Which leads one to ask, “Why, in a distant future full of anthropomorphized space animals and flying cars, would anyone believe in the integrity of a photograph?” Tweens know how to use Photoshop. Critics questioned Robert Flaherty’s construction of early documentaries such as Nanook of the North roughly an entire century ago (in the 1920s). The game’s title references Nietzsche’s own Beyond Good and Evil, which demands that not that morality be abandoned outright but that philosophers throw away dated (neo-Platonic, Christian) concepts such as “truth,” “knowledge,” and “free will.” Unfortunately, the game only serves to affirm the completely outmoded concept of documentary reality. The game’s ending is somewhat revelatory,  but it can’t honestly be described as “cutting through to the truth.” Players are hand-fed the narrative conclusion and its moral. What the game never explains is how the Alpha Sections gained power in Hyllis, we are told only that “the government was caught off guard.” It doesn’t explain why seemingly the entire populace suffers and accepts the blatant, omnipresent propaganda of Fehn Digler and General Kex. We don’t learn much about how media control comes about, and we don’t learn a feasible modus operandi for independent journalists.

In order to evolve, journalists might one day have to throw their claim to being able to discern and disseminate “truth.” On the other hand, so-called “citizen journalists,” if they hope to succeed in the fragmented environment of newsmaking on the web, are going to have to learn that objectivity is more difficult to attain than the simple snapping of a picture. If only a game so apparently concerned with disrupting propaganda and news media hegemony could have helped light the way.

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8 Responses

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  1. deckard47 said, on April 22, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    I’ll be honest: I skimmed this, because I’m at work, but it reads pretty sweet from a brief viewing. I’m excited to come back and read the whole thing. Oh, and we need to get it going with the 360 L4D. We have enough people to make a team, right? It would be excellent.

  2. Simon Ferrari said, on April 22, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Readin through the post again, it could use some editing and a some better transitions. I did about 8 hours of research yesterday on every word and name in the game, clicking links at the bottom of Wikipedia pages, so I’m a bit burnt on the subject to work more on it now. One week left of school, and I only have 1 and 1/4 projects left to work on! That translates into roughly 8000 written words in a week, which is pretty easy mode.

    After next Wednesday, all I do for the entire summer is co-write a book and play videogames. So, yeah, we’re going to get on the L4D train and enjoy some fukkin’ Survival mode. I know John Mills @ Academy of Doctor X is always up for some 360 L4D because his brainysphere buddies play on PCs.

  3. deckard47 said, on April 22, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Yeah, the sad thing is, I can’t disagree with anything you said. The characterizations are hideously stereotyped and we’ve all seen them before in the worst kind of “character”-full fiction (especially the guys who run the shop). Anyway, it does remind me of all of the game’s problems, including its unthinking reliance on photography as an infallible, unfoolable fact-finding device. Nice.

    And yes on the L4D, I’ll download the update after I’m done downloading Demigod. I hear survival mode is crazy tough.

  4. Simon Ferrari said, on April 22, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    I have a convert! tjk/lol I mean, I enjoyed the game. There were parts I hated, but I think some of the decisions they made (like I mention, fragmenting the adventure game protagonist) are really important and demand more attention. I’m actually writing about this in my final paper for Ian’s class on The World Ends With You. I’m arguing that games with these useful AI companions constitute a new thematic genre that wars against the common videogame valorization of individuality.

    Here’s to Ubisoft, and here’s to BG&E 2!

  5. Nick LaLone said, on April 23, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    I started writing a comment but it ended up being way longer than I wanted it to be. So, I just made it into a blog post. I want to play BG&E with all the comments i’ve seen on it lately but I have never been able to get into it.

    I applaud you for looking at the stuff that went into this game’s message. I don’t see this a lot as most people seem to not think that it’s relevant.

  6. Krystian Majewski said, on April 24, 2009 at 5:54 am

    Nice one. I started playing BG&E some time ago but abandoned it after the first dungeon. I was trying to get back to it but somehow always something else popped up.
    Excellent digging on the name “Jade”. However, do you REALLY think the game’s creators intended all that references? I always thought it was just an excuse to put some green lipstick on her.
    I never get what the big deal is about ethnicity in BG&E. I don’t quite see the ambiguity and why it would be beneficial for what the game tries to archieve. I thought she was rather a simple copy of a Disney character (crossover between Mulan, Pocahontas and Jasmne). I WOULD buy that the ambiguity was originally created at Disney and copied over to BG&E. I remember that there was a great deal of thought that went into Pocahontas. I think she was a mixture of different famous fashion models.
    As for your main theme: the photographic truth – great reasoning. I never got that far in the story. Judging by the title and the games’s acclaim I always expected the game to tread that topic more intelligently. Quite the disappointment.

    On the other hand: what do you think would have to be different to show a realistic idea of “truth”? How would the game work then?

  7. Simon Ferrari said, on April 24, 2009 at 10:00 am

    On Jade: yeah, I was digging. I really only made connections when I thought they were relevant to my understanding of the game. There’s two ways you could take it. One would be the postmodern spin that I can make any damn connection that’s meaningful to me. The other way would be to say that when you’re making a game with the same title as a book by Nietzsche, someone somewhere along the way was probably thinking very carefully about what names to pick for characters and institutions in the game.

    In particular, since this was made at Ubi Montpelier, I thought the french connections were important. The fact that it was a French mineralogist who discovered that “jade” was actually both jadite and nephrite seems significant. Also, the fact that Shauni is this random name whispered to Jade by her inner DomZ demands some explanation, yeah? I checked on a baby naming website, and lo! Shauni and Jeanne share the Hebrew root Yochana. French people love Jeanne d’Arc.

    That said, +1 on the green lipstick and the Disney comment.

    I think the best way to go about depicting the “truth” would be to cast truth as subjective. Since this was supposed to be a game about a reporter, it should have relied on interviews to construct a version of the truth, instead of photography. Of course, that would require a complete re-working of the game. It wouldn’t be nearly as exciting, but it also wouldn’t be nearly as ridiculously childish in its assumptions.

  8. Tom said, on May 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    That’s possible, but if you had dynamic, well-written interviews, that could “prove” the truth of matters in different ways (depending on how you as the interviewer pushed the interview), it could be kind of exciting, I think.


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