Character close-up

The pig's with me

Peyj11 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?

Here's Jade

Jade222 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.

Character Close-up: Jade


I'm launching a new recurring series here on Brainy Gamer called Character Close-up. I intend to carefully consider selected characters from narrative games in an effort to better understand how they convey meaning to us through their design, presentation, storytelling, and interactive relationship with the player.

I've focused on characters here many times, but never in a truly sustained way that tracks the arc of a character through an entire game. Don't worry, I'm not interested in recounting a blow-by-blow account of plot-points so much as chronicling a character's path through a game, taking into consideration the ludic, narrative, and aesthetic elements of that journey.

As is often the case with video games, we're all figuring out how to do this as we go along (which is half the fun, I think). Artists and scholars have well-honed tools for analyzing characters in books, plays, and films; but we continue to invent, borrow, and modify the tools and language needed to carefully scrutinize video games. Part of my effort is to see if I can help advance that ball a bit farther down the field - without drowning myself in jargon or academese. Mixed metaphors there. Sorry.

I've chosen as my first subject: Jade from Beyond Good & Evil. Jade's stature has continued to grow among gamers in many circles, and she is routinely listed among the best video game characters of all time. She's a smart, intrepid photo-journalist who busts open conspiracies and rescues orphaned kids. She even meditates. Five years after she first appeared, Jade still stands out from the crowd. She was a breath of fresh air to me back in 2003, and I'm eager to give the game a closer look to understand why. Perhaps, with dozens more games under my belt, I'll perceive her differently now. We'll see.

For my first time out, I'll be assisted by the members of the Vintage Game Club. We began our playthrough of Beyond Good & Evil today, and I'm sure I'll learn a great deal from the many informed opinions I always discover there. If you'd like to join us, please feel free to pop over and sign up. We'd love to have you.

I hope you will find this project interesting and useful. As always, I value your comments and feedback...especially on a series that I'm sure will evolve as I go along. I'll return tomorrow with some thoughts on Beyond Good & Evil's expositional presentation of Jade in the early stages of the game.