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Project BG&E:
Of Human Bondage

Dear Sara,

Okay, so I’ve made it through the Slaughterhouse, which, happily, involved surprisingly little slaughter. Well, as long as you don’t include me. I died a bunch.

I can’t totally put the blame for this on the game—I mean, dying is a thing that happens in videogames. No big, right?—but I nearly got stuck a couple of times. In one place all of these blue bouncy manta rays pop out, and I tried fighting and running and climbing but nothing worked. When I tried killing the rays, they seemed to respawn indefinitely. When I ran away, Double H stayed put and got killed, which served as a game over just as if Jade had died. When I tried to climb to safety, I got shocked by a gate and thrown back down onto the main floor, where the rays killed me.

Finally, and seemingly randomly, Double H and I fought the rays and suddenly the soundtrack played a triumph flourish and Double H was praising me for my teamwork. Chances are better that I finally somehow fought the way I was supposed to rather than that the game was glitching into a loop in earlier attempts, but that’s what it felt like.

That’s a weird sort of failure—succeeding in an unsatisfactory way, and in the case of Beyond Good & Evil it might be traceable to the fact that the game includes a number of different interaction mechanics—stealth, fighting, taking photographs, basic puzzles—but doesn’t really emphasize any of them. This is, I think, meant as an early gesture toward games like Dishonored or The Last of Us that allow players to pick between different styles of play and provide multiple possible paths to specific goalpoints.

When it works, it’s liberating, but it doesn’t work when it prevents the game from communicating its own specific expectations to the player.

But everything is starting to feel a bit more rough at this point of the game. To get to the Slaughterhouse, I had to upgrade the hovercraft with the ability to jump and gained access to new areas of Hillys. It did not, however, make the world that much bigger. I’m reporting the logistical details of the Domz/Alpha Section operations, but I don’t have any idea yet of what the big story is. I have the what, the where, the when, and maybe even the how. I’m missing the who and the why, though, and those are pretty big things.

And there are things I was excited about at the beginning that seem to have been left by the wayside. In early impressions, Hillys is notable not just for its heterogeneity, but for the way in which different intelligent species living together seems like a thing so well established that it can be taken for granted. The orphans Jade and Pey’j care for in the lighthouse, the Mamago mechanics, and the patrons of Akuda, every time Jade goes someplace new there’s a new species or three. But at this point in the game, it’s more and more humans. IRIS, with two exceptions, is human. The homogeneity of the Alpha Sections implies that they’re mostly and maybe entirely human. Most disappointingly, until a rhinoceros from Mamago joins the protesters, they’re all human.

I’m sure this is a matter of budget constraints (heterogeneity in character models is expensive) rather than intention and design, but the impact is the same either way—the world is becoming more human, and the contributions of non-human NPCs are less critical to advancing the story.

It’s not a decisive failure, but when I started the game, I thought I was going to be writing a post gushing over the variety and imaginative accomplishment of the world, and I’ve ended up writing this instead.

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Dear Gavin,

I know exactly what you mean. As much as I love Double H—and boy do I—I can’t pretend I wasn’t disappointed when the game not only swapped him out with Pey’j as my companion, but also made him more powerful. I mean, I know that’s how games work—you and/or your companions get upgraded powers as you go—but man I wish Double H was one of those goat guys, or maybe even a shark dude like Rufus.

As you point out, the beginning of the game is so beautiful, with Pey’j and all the orphans at the lighthouse, then the next set of NPCs being a family of rhinos, and then comes the Pedestrian District with its bull-bartenders and walrus-shopkeeps. It’s enough to make you feel like humans are the minority in this world. It’s such well-worn, yet satisfyingly effective, trope of sci-fi to comment on humans’ propensity to hate and fear those that are different by humanizing aliens (and robots/AI, these days). I was totally primed to let that sweet, sweet commentary wash right over me via Beyond Good & Evil.

But no, at this point in the story, nearly every important or actionable NPC is human: Pey’j has been relegated to dude-in-distress (kudos to Ubisoft for the subversion, however), and Jade’s AI assistant, Secundo, appears as and speaks just like a human—even if it is refreshing to have a Latin character be so regularly present and helpful, and cleverer than most other characters, to boot (kudos there, too). Even the governor, whom I desperately wanted to be anything but human, is, in fact, a homo sapiens sapiens. (Though she’s also a WOC, so once more with the kudos!)

Before you accuse me of snarky manipulation with that last paragraph, let me reassure you that the story becoming more and more human-centric really does bug the heck out of me. Why populate the world with all these different animalistic humanoids if you aren’t going to go all in? However, I can’t deny there’s still a silver lining when it comes to this game and representation. I’m struggling to recall any other game that ticked so many of my personal “huzzah!” gaming boxes: there’s a playable female protagonist who is anything but a victim, the world is peopled with lots of well-drawn POC characters, platonic male-female relationships abound, and all the baddies are white dudes.

That last one’s a joke. Sort of.

Even though I wish Ubisoft didn’t boil it down to humans being the best, most important players in this rich, diverse world, I am glad they chose to show a rich, diverse cast of humans while doing it.

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Project BG&E: D.B.U.T.T.

Dear Sara,

I’m finding myself trying to recreate 2003 a bit as I’m playing BG&E, especially to make sense of its peculiar model of mass media. We’ve already touched on the fact that making the protagonist a freelance journalist was an unusual (and for us at least, compelling) choice for a videogame, and this week I went on my first recon mission for the resistance, IRIS.

Except that describing my mission as reconnaissance is itself not entirely accurate. Reconnaissance normally consists of gathering information to direct future activity, and in this case, bringing the information to the public is the activity. Jade, in particular, is not a saboteur. She doesn’t infiltrate the factory in order to shut it down directly. In fact, I spent more time making machinery work than breaking things.

It might be a concession to videogame conventions that publishing the photos from the factory makes its operations (apparently) untenable, and it is immediately abandoned—so that even if shutting down the factory isn’t directly Jade’s mission, it’s treated as the necessary outcome of the player’s actions.

But for me, the greater impact was the presence of protesters on the streets of Hillys City when I made my way back to town. I don’t know if that has something to do with the fact that I’m a writer, and so the demonstration that Jade’s efforts were having an impact on the people of the world holds a special appeal for me, or if that appeals to a broader audience in the same way.

Continue reading Project BG&E: D.B.U.T.T.

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Project BG&E: Propaganda!

Dear Sara,

When I play older games, I seem to have a terrible habit of starting them again and again before I make any progress. With Beyond Good & Evil, I have, in fact lost count. Between the Playstation 2 version of the game, the HD demo, and now the full HD version, I’ve played the first hour or so three and possibly four times. Even so, I still feel like I’m just getting the hang of things.

This time around, I was pretty sure I’d exhausted all the little things that you can do in the lighthouse after the opening battle with the invading DomZ and before boarding the hovercraft for the first time. I managed to complete a roll of film and collect the telephoto lens before even reaching the Mammago Garage.

I still have to remind myself, though, to pull out Jade’s camera before attacking enemies. There’s no way to take a picture of the first DomZ Jade fights beneath the lighthouse, but I didn’t think to even try to photograph that big snakey DomZ that attacks once Mammago fixes up the hovercraft.

And taking pictures is really the core of Beyond Good & Evil, isn’t it? I can think of other games that include an in-game camera—Wind Waker, Fatal Frame, or more recently Grand Theft Auto V and Life Is Strange—but out of that group only Fatal Frame uses photography as more than a minigame, and even Fatal Frame turns photography into a form of combat.

Beyond Good & Evil on the other hand asks you to fight, but usually just to get you where you need to be in order to take a picture.

Continue reading Project BG&E: Propaganda!

lightning returns vs bravely default

It’s All Pleasant Jiggles ’til Somebody Gets Hit with a Bolt of Lightning

Roughly one year ago, Square-Enix released two games: one, the refined version of an attempt to bring their flagship series into a new generation; the other, ostensibly not a Final Fantasy game at all, but a fresh start with a new series, drawing on their roots. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII and Bravely Default released within the same week of one another in North America, almost forcing a comparison between the two.

It’s true that Square-Enix did something remarkable with Bravely Default—they made a Final Fantasy game without any of the twenty-five years of baggage and expectations that are associated with the name. Despite SE’s claims to the contrary, however, Bravely Default is a Final Fantasy in everything but name. As an RPG with job classes, airships, a large overworld map, a four character party, and a crystal-centric narrative, all it’s missing are a Cid and some chocobos.

Then, there was Lightning Returns, with the almost impossible task of redeeming two games that Western gamers were decrying as the the “death of Final Fantasy,” despite no one actually agreeing what constitutes a “true” installment of the series, while Bravely Default was praised for its old-school Final Fantasy feel. In fandom tradition, opinions became polarized and extreme, and the games were raised up as examples: Lightning Returns was everything that was wrong with the series, and Bravely Default was a chance to start again. Bravely Default was the future of Final Fantasy.

But if we are to take seriously the comparisons between these two games, and present each as an option for the future of Final Fantasy (and, subsequently, JRPGs as a whole), then I sincerely hope that it is Lightning Returns that Square-Enix decides to emulate.

Continue reading It’s All Pleasant Jiggles ’til Somebody Gets Hit with a Bolt of Lightning

Indiecade

Flying Solo

So I’m going to IndieCade East.

And I’m pretty excited—not just because it’s a videogame conference and the last videogame conference I went to, Kill Screen’s Twofivesix, was practically life-changing (maybe not life-changing, but life-affirming, at least)—but because I’m going solo.

That may not be true—I’ll put out a few more calls on social media asking who’s going over the next few hours or so—but so far, so just me.

I like to play. I like to play, even alone.

Continue reading Flying Solo