Yesterday I wrote about the character design choices that color the presentation of Jade in Beyond Good & Evil. Her appearance and animations separate her from stereotypical depictions of women in other video games; and the opening sequences establish her spirituality, nurturing instinct, and bravery. We also discover she's broke, she runs an orphanage, and she's a professional photographer. Not bad for the first few minutes of the game.
This is all useful information, but it's still mostly exposition designed to communicate the facts we need to know about our protagonist. Bits and pieces of Jade's personality emerge in this opening segment (and I confess I was already smitten by this point), but good writers know that characters are best revealed through their relationships with other characters. Nowhere in the video game universe is this more true than in Beyond Good & Evil.
As I wrote a few months ago, my affection for Jade has less to do with her appearance or personality than with her devotion to the orphans in her home and, especially, her warm, playful relationship with Pey'j, an anthropomorphic pig she calls her uncle. We learn more about Jade's true nature through these interactions than from any of the investigations or action sequences in the game.
When Pey'j first appears in the game, we hear him yell "Hang on, Jade, I'm comin'!!" as he bursts through a window to rescue Jade from the clutches of a monster. But he doesn't rescue her. Instead, he creates a diversion that enables Jade to escape. She must fight and destroy the monster herself while Pey'j encourages her (meanwhile teaching the player a useful maneuver).
The crusty Pey'j can't fight or get around like he used to. Battling with Pey'j at her side, Jade must not only defeat enemies, but also protect Pey'j. He needs her to survive, and the fact that they both know this without ever speaking of it adds a subtle empathetic dimension to their relationship. Pey'j is a proud character ("Maybe this old pig can't fly, but he's still got a bounce in his step."), and Jade skillfully helps him without making him feel dependent. After all, he's still pretty handy with a wrench.
As I noted a few months ago, I can't think of a moment in any game that grabs me more than when Jade hears Pey'j being attacked by soldiers and races to rescue him. The game cuts between shots of Pey'j being brutally beaten and Jade running in slow motion, helplessly hearing him receive each blow, desperately trying to reach him and ultimately failing to do so. The game has successfully earned our empathetic response by this point, so the scene avoids feeling cheap or manipulative. It's not an interactive moment - unlike a similar one that occurs in Fable 2 with Hammer and her father - but it still packs quite a punch.
Jade and Pey'j's relationship purposefully reverses the one we find in Half-Life 2, for example. Alyx and Gordon function as a team, much like Jade and Pey'j, but in HL2 their interactions tell us more about the NPC Alyx, than about the ever-mute avatar Gordon. The deeper we penetrate the story, the more we discover about Alyx: her past, her skills, and her personality. The same might be said about Link and Midna in Zelda: Twilight Princess. But Beyond Good & Evil reverses this arrangement, revealing ever more details about Jade's true nature based on her selfless actions on behalf of Pey'j (and later Double H), and her affectionate behavior with him. In this case, the sidekick reveals the hero.
Finally, I think it's worth mentioning that Jade and Pey'j work as a cooperative team in ways that also enhance the gameplay elements of Beyond Good & Evil. Plenty of games have employed sidekick characters that assist the hero in solving puzzles or overcoming environmental obstacles. Part of BG&E's unique charm is how it engages these two characters in dungeon challenges that deliver both gameplay and narrative rewards. Jade and Pey'j communicate their relationship to the player at the same time they are overcoming these obstacles. The recent Prince of Persia game (also by Ubisoft) attempts something similar, but more ambitious, in the gameplay/narrative depiction of the Prince and Elika...with mixed results.
There's more to say about Jade (hope I'm not overstaying my welcome here), and I'll return in a few days with more on how she evolves through the game. I'll also offer a few thoughts on what I see as missed opportunities in the game's depiction and in the player's interaction with Jade and the world she inhabits. But first I need to play some more. Now where did I park that hovercraft?