January 26, 2009
When Jade first appears in Beyond Good & Evil the camera sweeps down from the trees to discover her sitting in a lotus position on a large rock overlooking a lake. Next to her sits a small humanoid child. They are meditating.
Our view cuts to a close-up of Jade's closed eyes and lingers there. Suddenly, she senses danger and her bright green eyes open wide. The sky darkens and grows ominous. "They're coming!" she says, and her attention turns immediately to the child: "Quick, Fehn! Jump up," she exclaims, and the small boy (or possibly girl) jumps on her back and wraps his arms securely around her shoulders.
Jade runs toward the safety of the lighthouse where they both live. On the way, the action freezes and Jade is captured in a rapid-fire sequence of black and white camera shots. On the final freeze-frame the word "Jade" appears, and we know we have met our hero.
I can't think of another video game that communicates so much about its main character so quickly. Jade's peaceful, contemplative nature is conveyed, if only briefly, as is her willingness to act decisively to protect the child in her care. She is a photo-journalist, and the game captures her in much the same way she captures the stories she pursues: candid, in-action, on-the-go photographs. The beautiful world she inhabits and the colorful art style chosen to depict it are both underscored by a flute playing a lilting, faintly Asian melody. All of this atmosphere contributes to a presentation of Jade that suggests simple beauty and quiet spirituality.
We soon learn much more about Jade when the game hands control of her to the player. But before that happens, it's worth considering the game's presentation of Jade's appearance. A couple of years ago Chris Kohler at Wired wrote a story called "Jade Is Black?!": Racial Ambiguity in Games" in which he reported on the confusion among gamers regarding Jade's race. Some people think she's black; others think she's Asian; yet others see her as Latina. Conversation over the last few days on the VGC continues to reflect a range of interpretations. Kohler believes designer Michel Ancel purposely designed Jade as racially ambiguous to enable players to project whatever they choose on the character.
That may be true, but Jade's race is only one part of her presentation, and it's clear that Ancel and his designers decided to present a female protagonist that defies many of the visual tropes we've come to expect from video games. Jade's teensy waist, exposed midriff and somewhat oversized breasts (I'm on shaky ground here, but they seem so to me) conform somewhat to stereotype; but her green lips, boyish hair, utilitarian clothes and equipment strapped across her body distance her from all that. Voiced by Jodie Forest, she speaks matter of factly in a decidedly non-breathy, non-exotic, non-sexualized manner. In other words, she sounds like a regular person. Her animations contribute to this overall impression. She walks, runs, climbs, and jumps efficiently and with great athleticism. Jade is her own woman, comfortable in her own skin, and not at all interested in striking a pose for others' approval.
She's a skilled fighter too, and her combat animations are subtle, varied, and easy to control. I find it telling that combat is a breeze in Beyond Good & Evil, but taking photographs can be difficult. Fighting requires little skill beyond hitting the A-button (I'm playing the Gamecube version), but taking a good photograph requires precision, careful positioning, and a bit of luck with your subject. In other words, taking pictures is more interesting than fighting in Beyond Good & Evil, and that seems appropriate given the nature and sensibilities of its hero.
We learn even more about Jade in this opening segment of the game. We learn she can't pay the electric bill. We learn she runs an orphanage with a menagerie of children and animals that have become her family. We learn she loves them all, homo sapiens and "capra sapiens" alike. And we learn that she's teaching these children how to care for each other. If you take the time to wander around the lighthouse and grounds before setting off on the first mission, the game continues to flesh out Jade's character, contextualizing why she must take on these dangerous missions and what's at stake for her.
And we also get a small taste of her relationship with Pey'j, a pig-like creature she calls her uncle. This relationship, which I'll explore tomorrow, goes a long way toward making Jade a fully 3-dimensional character the likes of which few video games can match. I'll explain why I think that's so and continue to explore the game's presentation of Jade in my next post.