One of the side effects of games being such strange creatures is that they often get remembered for the most incidental things. For every masterpiece celebrated for the worlds it creates, the new mechanics it defines or the visual techniques it pioneers, there are half-a-dozen oddballs remembered because of some quirk of their attract mode, a particularly bizarre bug or a faintly obscene Easter egg. But a greater rarity is a game that will go down in history for something that has nothing to do with any of the code on its disc, but everything to do with someone else’s reaction to it.
Beyond Good & Evil has a lot of code that it should be remembered for: the code that renders the lively haze of its world, Hillys; the code that governs its heroine Jade’s lithe animations; the code which underpins its subtle storytelling techniques. But its place in videogame history wasn’t assured until Ubisoft announced that it was through playing this game that Peter Jackson, then the undisputed king of the box office, had chosen the creator he wanted to work on the game of his next film, King Kong. It was an announcement that bore clear trails of having been spun by a series of PR offices, but at the heart of it was something rare and wonderful. Here was a man at the peak of the world’s biggest entertainment industry finally taking games seriously. Not just seriously as an economic avenue, or a branding exercise, or a marketing ploy, but as a creative endeavour.
So what was it about the adventures of an elfin lighthouse-keeper that made Jackson think Ancel could tame a two-ton gorilla? On the surface it seems a peculiar choice, but while Jade and Kong could hardly be more different, it was exactly because of what Ancel had accomplished with his heroine that Jackson was interested in the first place. Toby Gard, in an odd respect the keeper of videogames’ feminist flame, praised her in an interview in E156 as the only post-Lara female lead to have real individuality and character. It’s a fair point – game heroines are still a rarity, and it’s rarer still for them not to be aggressively sexualised. Jade, with her sensible trousers and serious frown, is a breed apart from the off.
She’s instantly her own woman, with her own job and her own style, whose desirability comes from her beauty and depth of character rather than the depth of her cleavage. With one skilled piece of design, Ancel and his team make you care about her, and since she cares about the fate of her world, you care too. That shock of black hair and slash of green lipstick at once give you a sense of your place in the world, define your purpose in the game and provide motivation for seeing the story through to the end.
And that, surely, should answer the question as to what Jackson saw: a game-maker whose skills as a character designer, world creator and storyteller made him a perfect match for the world of film. Except, on closer inspection, it’s clear that Beyond Good & Evil doesn’t deliver a story to match Jade’s initial appeal. The plot – of a world terrorised by aliens and protected by a brutal and totalitarian army – points towards a story with the darkness and moral ambiguity suggested by the title, but instead unfolds into a fairly mundane world-in-peril game scenario. There is a promising moment of sophistication which occurs when Jade first falls in with the ‘terrorists’ who claim the army is in league with the invaders: who should she believe? The army that claims to protect her or the resistance fighters who claim everything she knows is a lie?
However, this uncertainty lasts a few minutes at best, as the army is soon revealed to be a legion of green-faced, mad-voiced child-catchers. Jade herself is a simple photojournalist who can’t hope to overthrow these oppressors by force. Instead, she must use her camera to collect evidence to fuel the resistance’s propaganda war. Again, it’s a promising premise – a game hero who isn’t super-powered, just super-determined. But this too is undermined as the game progresses, with allusions to Jade’s mysterious hidden identity and preordained fate. She even has a special power-up attack. How much more impact would the game’s story have had if it had really been her quick wit and itchy shutter finger that saved the day?
Worse, the cracks that show in the game’s narrative widen when it comes to the gameplay. BG&E offers the standard adventure game mishmash of exploration, stealth, combat, platforming, collect ’em ups and minigames, except its heart doesn’t seem to be in any of them. Ancel, determined not to let his game become bloated, or to emphasise elements which undermined the story he’d created, in the end only hollowed out much of the interaction. Combat is deliberately hobbled, platforming is automatic and joyless, exploration confined to ensure linear progress, collecting turned to a chore by instructing you on the location of every item, puzzles are rudimentary in their simplicity, stealth simplified to repetitive basics, and the minigames diversions at best. Although everything works together smoothly, and there’s no question that Ancel achieved his ambition of producing a streamlined adventure, there’s nothing memorable, nothing meaty in any of the game’s set pieces.
It’s a game you finish in a happy haze, entranced by your time in Jade’s world, but hard pressed to remember a single fight, puzzle, race, or stealth challenge that stood out. And it’s this, more than anything, that is Ancel’s secret. Jackson, speaking on a ‘Making Of’ documentary included with the King Kong game, makes a very clear distinction: he didn’t choose Ancel because of his story-writing abilities. He chose him because of how good a storyteller he was. And that skill is abundantly apparent in Jade’s Hillysian home.
The first thing that strikes you is the total confidence and cohesion of his vision. Hillys should be a mess of contradictions. It’s a world which welds the mundanely modern together with elements of sci-fi and traditional fantasy without the slightest attempt at explanation or rationale: Jade may communicate by email and pay by credit card, but her friends are talking walruses and she flies around in a spaceship. These vibrant ideas find a perfect expression in an art style which is as grounded in the traditions of European architecture and bande-dessiné as it is liberated by the freedom of game technology. The canals and coffee shops of the main city are drawn with familiar affection, the sharks, pigs and people that frequent them represented with simplicity and charm. At a time when many designers are chasing hyper-realism, and others are labouring over perfectly consistent visions of alternate universes, the BG&E team had the nerve to present Hillys as pure invention, confident that the warmth and solidity of their absurd world would enable players to take it at face value.
Other games, however, have produced charming worlds which haven’t succeeding in wooing players (and movie moguls) as effectively as Ancel’s. Where Beyond Good & Evil differed was in the simple tricks it used to integrate you into that world. For a medium whose claim to fame is that it’s interactive, games are all too often unable to allow their players to have a lasting impact on the worlds they explore. With new technology and bigger teams, next-gen games may be the first to move towards the creation of rich, graphical worlds where the player’s actions have persistent and varied effects, but most gamers long since stopped holding their breath. It’s an enormous and unforgiving undertaking that games may never perfect. But what Ancel shows is that with the slightest of touches, games can use their own limitations to reinforce the sense that their worlds are alive and changeable.
Beyond Good & Evil’s main minigame is hovercraft racing, and the tracks snake around the main playable areas. Midway through Jade’s investigations, she discovers that to access one highly protected installation she’ll need to sneak through a shortcut only accessible from the middle of one of the race tracks. It’s a simple ruse, but an effective one: your experienced gamer brain has already marked those areas off as furniture – locations which can be seen but not interacted with. Lining up on the starting grid with seven other eager NPC racers, knowing your purpose is so much more devious and substantial, does a surprisingly sophisticated job of conveying why her bundle of polygons is so much more valuable than theirs. It makes her autonomy – which is the other side of the coin of your control over the game – unusually visible.
There are similar touches throughout. As Jade’s photographs filter out to the populace via the resistance’s underground newspaper, discontent grows and protesters gather in the main square. Jade – although they don’t know her real identity – has become a hero to them, and they chant her name and parade her slogans as she stands right in front of them, confronted by evidence of the impact of her earlier actions. It’s exhilarating and a tiny bit eerie, despite the fact that it’s the simplest bit of gaming sleight of hand, only a few generations down from 16bit RPGs playing tricks with the names you type in for your characters.
At the game’s climax, after Jade has taken control of the army’s (mysteriously unguarded) orbiting antenna, the resistance broadcasts her photographs to the whole world, filling the huge screens that loom over the city streets and replacing the army’s propaganda with its own. And so, in place of the ‘news’ programmes that you’ve been watching since the beginning of the game, you’re now seeing the photos that you’ve taken throughout, compete with out-of-focus fuzz and heads-chopped-off and whatever other incompetences you displayed while guiding Jade through her adventures. Again, it’s a simple trick, but it elevates the images you’ve created to the same status as the rest of the game’s preprepared content, and it makes your presence in the world feel meaningful.
It’s this which makes Ancel such a good storyteller, and it’s this that Jackson likely found persuasive when looking for a game-maker who could extend his own tale. Ancel may not be a master of story-writing, he may not map out the most sophisticated character arcs, and he may not have the instincts to set taut and rewarding game mechanics at the heart of the experience he creates, but he has an ability to create characters with instant resonance – and, if you doubt that, you only need to hear ‘Carlson and Peters!’ echo in your memory to convince you. In a videogame world – where those characters will be acting under their creator’s control for so much less time than in other media – this is unusually vital. And, once established, he can place those characters – and therefore the player – in a world that feels real and responsive to their actions – regardless of how limited those actions actually are.
However, the proof of Jackson’s choice of pudding is in the playing: King Kong recieved Metacritic ratings of 82 on both the Xbox and PS2. Whatever that game’s achievements, however, his determination to work with someone who treasures the emotional connection between player and character above all else means Ancel’s unique skill shines out as clearly from Kong as it does from this. And, as a consequence, for all the historical footnotes their relationship may produce, the game’s real impact will remain in the minds of those who remember their time at Jade’s side with pride, satisfaction and, perhaps, just the tiniest touch of boyish infatuation.