I want to thank my fellow Beardcaster Matt Pierce for reminding me that there is a distinct difference between the concepts of “cult classic” and “art house”.
These examples are most frequently encountered in the realm of cinema. Fans love The Evil Dead for different reasons than fans of Mulholland Drive. The Evil Dead is a terrible, terrible film that more people need to see simply because it's so much fun. Fans of Mulholland Drive meanwhile, recognize David Lynch's opus never saw the commercial nor critical success it deserved despite its obvious standing as a work of cinematic art.
This concept readily translates to the world of gaming. Red Faction Guerrilla was a terrible video game full of poorly thought out missions and heaps of open world glitches with an incoherent plot, but it also provides an immense amount of free-form sandbox fun that has never been replicated elsewhere. Every gamer in the world needs to own Red Faction Guerrilla, especially up-and-coming game developers looking to see exactly where the boundaries of player freedom exist while still holding onto the bare fringes of a functional video game.
Similarly, gaming has its own art house endeavors. Usually we find such works on downloadable services where tiny budgets and little editorial oversight are not a hindrance to getting a game out to a wide audience. Fez is probably the best recent example, a game whose adherents adamantly insist deserved universal critical acclaim as well as more support from Microsoft.
But not long ago one could find art house games on disc, sold alongside video games destined to turn a profit. This was the PlayStation 2 era, and while that was but a single console cycle ago, the industry has so completely changed. Now a single full-priced commercial flop can mean bankruptcy for a publisher, and almost certainly massive layoffs for the poor studio guilty for chasing an artistic vision.
Which is why you will probably never see another game like Beyond Good and Evil ever again. It is the sort of game the industry has no use for anymore: A high budget, high quality labor of love.
I want to go back to the art house game concept and talk about games that fans insist deserved more success than they received. As a fan of Beyond Good and Evil from when I first played it in 2004, I always felt the game deserved more critical and commercial success than it had earned. Ubisoft were fools for not giving BG&E the marketing it deserved, critics were fools for not seeing Michel Ancel's masterpiece as a bold new direction for 3d games to follow, and consumers were fools to ignore a game out of hand simply due to an obtuse title and a non-sexualized female lead on the cover.
But as I played through it again as our inaugural Nitrobeard Illiterate's Book Club selection, I began to wonder if perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps the real unfair dismissal was my own, when I dismissed widespread popular opinion. Perhaps Beyond Good and Evil was that rare case of a game being neither overrated or underrated. Instead, due to a combination of good writing, unique universe, compromised design and frustrating gameplay flaws, Beyond Good and Evil was correctly judged as a limited-- albeit beautifully realized-- Zelda clone.
In short, perhaps Beyond Good and Evil received exactly the popularity it deserved
The reason Beyond Good and Evil carries an art house lineage, the reason so many of us fell in love with it, the reason we wanted it to succeedhas little to do with its gameplay. Instead, Beyond Good and Evil brings a certain personality with it. It is a very winsome game, it very much wants you to love its universe and the characters within. It is cartoony, but not in a mascot platformer sort of way, but more like a socially conscious early 90's animated special, as if some out-of-control arm of Ted Turner’s empire contracted a gaming studio and told them to produce a game with a message that was strongly pro-diversity and anti-establishment. But somehow still charming and never overbearing with that message.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Beyond Good and Evil’s universe are the things it steadfastly refuses to address. There are humans in the game, and indeed the playable character Jade is herself human, but you feel like you're in the minority, albeit a shared minority.
Instead, there are a half dozen or more distinct races that populate the land of Hillys, from Rhino-people to Bird-people to Pig-people to Walrus-people, and many more, but no one race overwhelming the others. It is simply accepted that this diversity of species inhabit the islands of Hillys, no mention is made of how or why or even the presence of their obvious differences in shape and color and creed.
The main character is Jade, of no last name. She is Human, but no one remarks on this fact, instead she is judged by the people of Hillys entirely on her skill and bravery. Her best friend is Pey'j. Rarely is it addressed that Pey'j is a sentient, bipedal, talking pig. Instead, his most remarkable feature is his skill as an engineer. There is a family of Rhino-people who run Mamago's Garage. Pey'j distrusts them as they run the only successful garage in town, not because of some deep seated hostility between pig-people and rhino-people. A young lady by the name of Mei operates the underground newspaper Jade will eventually work for, and no mention is made of Mei being a sexy cat-lady, despite Mei totally being a sexy cat-lady.
The world is cleanly drawn in that modern Warner Brothers style where no lines are wasted and most of those lines are bold and serve a clear purpose. This may have been a concession to the limitations of PlayStation 2 hardware, but this style is a welcome sight in our modern dirt-and-detail obsessed modern gaming world. Everyone has a personality that is immediately conveyed by their silhouette, sort of like Team Fortress 2 before it was infected by hats and guns.
Hillys is Saturday Morning cartoon futuristic, with hovercraft and spaceships commonplace. Forcefields and other elements of fanciful technology are used without caution to the effect they would have upon the world, yet the world itself remains charmingly antiqued, with wooden homes sprouting quaintly misshapen doors and windows. Your enemies have lethal hammers and even-more-lethal laser guns, whereas you're stuck with a stout quarterstaff and an absurdly ineffective disc throwing device. You possess no guns save for those mounted on your personal hovercraft, and even then the bullets only rarely travel exactly where you aim.
Hillys is an earnest, sincere sort of world, all the more effective in the rare cases where the brutality of your enemies is made fully known. In a modern game we're expected to show sympathy for our character when a close comrade has been shot dead, despite clearly witnessing that same comrade having been shot in the face a dozen times before. Meanwhile, when Bad Things happen to the people you care about in Beyond Good and Evil, you take notice. Suddenly, you care.
Few games have done a better job in investing the player in its world or its characters. I can only name a few, and they're virtually all Japanese games. Suikoden. Final Fantasy Six. Shadow of the Colossus. Metal Gear Solid 3, Persona 3. Lunar: Silver Star Story. I can't explain those games showcase without spoiling them, but if you've played those games then you know the moments I'm talking about.
Even the lauded works of Bioware fail to hit this same emotional level. Perhaps it is because Mass Effect and Dragon Age are so big, so overwrought, so loud that you tend to lose the emotional cues. Perhaps the lesson here is the best way to make people invested in a story and the characters that inhabit it is to keep things as simple as possible. Use broad strokes. Maybe simply stop trying so damned hard to be important, and focus instead on being intimate and immediate.
There is something else Beyond Good and Evil is still remarkable for, something that absolutely should not be remarkable in the eight years since BG&E’s release: Jade. A confident, brave,, charming main character who also happens to be a pretty lady.
As I mentioned above, Jade is judged by her fellow Hillians based entirely upon her skill and her uncommon bravery, not on how strange it is to be a woman who is skilled and brave. No mention is made on how well she fills out a pair of jeans. She is not a quest to save her boyfriend, nor is she Secretly Lesbian. At no point does any part of her jiggle.
If Jade were developed by a typical Japanese studio, there would be pantyshots and fanservice. If made by most American companies, the camera would focus lovingly on her ass. If produced by Warner Interactive, there would have been attempts to get her butt and her boobs in the same frame whenever possible. If developed by Bioware, she would have an implausibly large chest that would make it difficult for her to see her own feet, much less clamber about in air ducts. And in any of these cases, wherever she went in the game world she would be judged on being a woman.
It is sad that Jade is still rare in that regard, and indicative of how much progress we still have to make. Jade is not a frail princess in constant need of rescue, nor does she need a man's approval to validate her existence-- in fact she's usually taking orders from her newspaper editor, aforementioned cat-lady Mei, or from the Governess of the Hillys. Nor did lead designer Michel Ancel commit Joss Whedon's most annoying bad habit in making the female lead the most competent (or indeed only competent) character in the world. She is merely the bravest person in the world. And that is what makes Jade one of the best video game protagonists of all time.
Now, if I'm sitting here gushing about BG&E's universe and its characters and its story and the singularly impressive main character, why do I suspect it may have reached the largest audience and critical success it could have reasonably hoped to have achieved?
The problem is, despite Beyond Good and Evil being a universe that very much wantsyou to fall in love with it, as a video game it is actually quite limited.
BG&E is presented as a Zelda-like game, but it is also the most annoyingly linear Zelda game ever produced. Beyond a hidden dungeon area or two, the game does not encourage exploration, and you cannot visit mission critical areas without the game's prior approval. There is no possibility of sequence breaking as the game will simply keep areas behind locked doors until the story allows you travel there. At least if Darksiders wanted to keep you away from a cave it'd put an ice crystal in front of it that you could not break without first giving you a hammer. BG&E instead simply refuses to spit out the door lock code. There is some exploration, but it's very limited, at most 3 or 4 hidden platforming areas that lead to stashes of the game's meta-currency.
What's worse, sometimes those hidden areas are blocked off by key cards. It is terribly disheartening to finally stumble upon one of the game's rare hidden areas only to discover that you don't have the right key yet, and that there's little point in exploring at all until the game finally hands over over all the keys.
I would be remiss to neglect that BG&E actually has one well-handled exploration mechanic in its camera mini-game. Jade is tasked by the local public museum to catalog any interesting new species she may come across in her adventures-- that is to say, you are rewarded in meta-currency for taking a picture of each species. Some of these are hidden in interesting ways and must be coaxed out in puzzle-like fashion, and some simply won’t come out at all unless it is the right time of day or other conditions are met. It adds a much needed layer of interaction and intimacy with the game universe.
One of the side effects of this lack of exploration is that the game itself is pretty short. There are only four or five mission-critical exploration areas to the game, and you don't have your full set of skills through at least two of these. As a result the game feels condensed. If you fall in love with the game and try to ekeout every moment from it you can, there's a good 12-15 hours worth of adventure to be had, but this could just as easily be a five-to-eight hour long game if you simply slogged through from point-to-point-to-point.
On the rare occasion that you get into a dungeon, the core gameplay revolves around stealth and espionage. Lots of console developers were trying to produce stealth games in the wake of Metal Gear Solid but no one would ever get it right until Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory in 2005, and then arguably never touched on that again until Arkham City.
Lurking about in Beyond Good and Evil is a competent enough attempt at Link-meets-Sam Fisher, but the enemy sentries are little more than giant, invincible camera mounts with large hammers and very little AI. Which is good in that the game actively discourages you from solving encounters via brute force, but bad in that if you do trip an alarm all you need to do is break line of sight until the enemy sentry resumes normal patrol. That’s provided you've not glitched the game and forever set the poor sentry outside of his route. While amusing this also hopelessly breaks the game and requires a reload.
This wouldn’t be so bad if Beyond Good and Evil did not beset the player with the worst camera seen since Ninja Gaiden. The camera switches between cinematic and over-the-shoulder seemingly at random, and all too often Jade is given no warning that she is on top of a sentry until the alarm is triggered, leaving her little choice but to flee the area. Worse, the camera commits that unforgivable sin of changing the axis of movement for the player as the camera changes perspective. All too often Jade will shimmy along the side of a wall, only to have the camera shift, and her direction of movement shift along with it. Now she is traveling the opposite direction, resulting in the camera resetting back to it's previous position while the player very patiently suppresses the urge to throw the gamepad through the nearest load-bearing structure.
Combat is workmanlike: effective and inoffensive although terribly boring. There is one attack button, one weapon, one combo. It is only useful against a certain few enemies and attempts to attack the sentries head-on rarely work. There is a kick attack that will kill a sentry in two blows, but you have to get the jump on them first, and the initial kick will alert any nearby enemies to their friend's plight. The flying disc weapon is only applicable in very specific fights and is of negative usefulness otherwise.
The rest of the game is filled out with hovercraft racing. A lot of hovercraft racing. It is fine for what it is, but you also get the feeling the developers wanted it to have turned out better than it did. As it stands any race is easily won provided you're willing to invest in a handful of speed boosts beforehand.
All this exploration and racing is in service of collecting pearls you later use to buy upgrades to the hovercraft, the last of which is used to access the final area of the game. This can be a bit of a slog, as you will not uncover all the pearls Jade needs through normal play. In that way exploration isn't really exploration at all, as Jade has to go through all of those hidden areas and find the pearls within. At any rate there are only so many islands to discover in the hub world-- chances are if there's a hunk of rock sticking out of the water you will need to go there at some point, but there's no use in going there until the game directs you to do so.
These unfortunate gameplay limitations lead me to conclude that, sadly, Beyond Good and Evil reached exactly the success it could ever hope to ever achieve. Those who were susceptible to its charms fell in love with the world of Hillys instantly. Everyone else saw the limited combat mechanics, the poor camera, the autopilot platforming mechanics and wandered off to play something more immediately rewarding such as Okami, or Psychonauts, or even an actual Zelda game.
In defense of BG&E, I would point out that most of these limitations are actually limitations of game design of that era. Third person cameras would not be fixed until developers gave up on the concept of cinematic cameras and gave direct control of the camera to the player. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of console games that did stealth gameplay correctly, and at least two of those are Batman games. Exploration would definitely be handled better nowadays as the concept of a Metroid-like hub world is old hat and mastered by any number of indie developers.
I'd wager that the perfect Beyond Good and Evil game looks a lot like Batman: Arkham Asylum. Replace the grim n’ gritty art with Michel Ancel's gorgeous cartoonish style, strip out (most) of the violence, all of the guns and psychopaths, give it a 3d traversal mechanic similar to Prince of Persia, give it the original game's charm and heart, and you'd have possibly the finest game ever made. Or more likely a nightmarish clash of genres that were never meant to work correctly together. At any rate it has to be better than that godawful machine-gun filled Jason-Bourne-meets-Lara-Croft mess that was leaked back in 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31QEERV4Rdc&feature=player_detailpage
If you've yet to take a chance on Beyond Good and Evil, I implore you to try it. It sells for a pittance these days and is widely available. The mechanics are poor but they were also poor in Mass Effect and no one really holds that against it. If you've already played BG&E and were never smitten, you likely never will be. Like any good art house film, you know right away.