How Beyond Good & Evil Creates a Culture of Fear
Fourteen years on from its release, Beyond Good & Evil still stands as a masterclass in creating a politically reactive game world. Set in the low-income mining planet of Hillys, the narrative expertly depicts a struggle for control between private citizens and an oppressive governing force that is frighteningly similar to the power struggles we witness across the globe today.
Beyond Good & Evil takes advantage of something many games striving to make a political point gloss over: an understanding of how socio-economic disparity can lead people to be influenced by a culture of fear created by a controlling and malevolent governing body. This is proven in how the game uses right-wing propaganda to create a fear culture among the working class as well as how it reveres independent media in its ability to combat injustice. This leads to a discussion about how the recently announced prequel, Beyond Good & Evil 2, can build a world that informs and reinforces Beyond Good & Evil’s sinister narrative.
Hillys is a unique planet compared to the pantheon of video game space environments. It’s low-income, multi-cultural and grounded - literally in that space travel is reserved for the affluent. The few jobs we encounter across the game are primarily industry based. Most NPCs hang out in the sole Akuda Bar because of the lack of job opportunities. The most profitable source of income is pirating or hovercraft racing since the Factory and Slaughterhouse were closed down - work is good if you can get it and that’s a big “if”. Painting a socio-economic picture of Hillys is important to understanding the culture of fear present in the game, since the reason being that the economic downturn is inextricably tied to the sense of dread that’s inescapable in Hillys.
The game frames the DomZ, the alien invaders that are allegedly snatching Hillys citizens for nefarious purposes, as the enemy. However the true adversary is the military group known as the Alpha Section which is uncanny in its malevolence, primarily because we experience their form of oppression daily in real life: fear-mongering.
According to Beyond Good & Evil canon, the Alpha Section arrived in Hillys long before the events of the game. The Governor of Hillys was overwhelmed and suppressed by the military unit-cum-mercenary force and was ousted from power. The Alpha Section’s clawing for control took the form of an armed presence in the city streets and widespread propaganda; fascistic if you’re struggling to envisage what kind of tactic the Alpha Section employs.
Once the Alpha Section took control of the broadcasting station on Hillys’ orbital moon, Selene, they blocked any third-party transmissions from broadcasting. They forced Hillys civilians to hand over their personal information. Citizens sacrificed their social capital to the Alpha Section, buying lies of alien invaders that only the governing power could protect them from. As we’ve seen first-hand in the last few years in our world, if a person of influence channels fear-mongering through widespread media for long enough, eventually people start to believe them.
So how does one combat social ills like bigotry, fascism and unilateral oppression? In Beyond Good & Evil, exposing the injustice and rallying people together is the only way to overcome this culture of fear. Exercising bravery like we see every day on the streets globally in the face of terrorism and attacks on civil rights where compassionate people of all ilks come together to fight hate. In Beyond Good & Evil, these insurgencies are reported by an independent media network known in-game as the IRIS network.
Before we get into how the IRIS cleared the miasma of fear that plagued the streets of Hillys City, we have to understand how the Alpha Section created this fear climate. Speaking to Eurogamer about his wider influences for the game, director Ancel cited his “own inspirations, politics and the media; the theme of September 11 – the CNN show with army messages and the fear climate.”
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, media correspondents became figureheads of trust and information. In a time where the bedrock of democracy was at stake, information became the last bastion of hope many people in western civilisation could hold onto. It’s beyond maleficent to use this vulnerability, in a moment where media consumers don’t have the emotional resources to exercise scepticism, to seize power. This was the Alpha Section’s tactic.
When the parasitic invaders known as the DomZ came to Earth, the Alpha Section took control of the situation. They plastered billboards and flooded loudspeakers with anti-DomZ propaganda, scapegoating the arrival of unknown parties as the biggest threat to civilisation - sound familiar? The citizens of Hillys weren’t on board initially when their civil liberties were being breached but if it was a means of keeping their families safe then suddenly the Alpha Section become legitimised.
And this is in part why in our political climate there’s been such an increase in the visibility of right-viewed rhetoric. Stability is paramount over liberty when propaganda is promoting and, by proxy, confirming a nation’s collective fears. The dialogue surrounding pro-Brexit campaigns, for example, suggested pulling up the drawbridge to isolate the UK and take back control of the nation. Yet, despite the huge economic and social ramifications of leaving the European Union, fear of the alternative pushed many further to the right and into the blinding hope of promised stability and safety.
The sinister environment of Beyond Good & Evil feels palpable when played in 2017 because the choices the citizens of Hillys made are echoed daily across the world. The cross-section between fiction and fantasy feels narrow which is a testament to Ubisoft’s narrative design and makes it all the more frightening.
In-game, the IRIS network is an underground rebellion force which our emerald-eyed protagonist Jade joins in an effort to overthrow the Alpha Section. Revolution founded solely on violence is futile and Beyond Good & Evil knows it. The game’s awareness of systematic power dynamics and injustices are echoed in its narrative as well as its multicultural NPC representation. The IRIS network uses guerilla journalistic tactics to infiltrate Alpha Section institutions, photograph condemning evidence and broadcast the truth to the Hillys citizens.
The Alpha Sections dismiss these anti-fascist broadcasts as ‘fake news’ as they see their grasp on blind and ephemeral power slipping. A culture of fear is only sparked by the powerful but is built and fortified by those willing to go along with it, or worse, those too cowardly to speak up. When the most vulnerable in society are being exploited, as a person with individual power, remaining silent is complicit to the crime. The recent events and the tragic loss of life seen where counter-protesters were attacked by white nationalists in Charlottesville was made possible by a fear-driven ‘there are good people on both sides’, centrist point-of-view that shifts culpability from the individual. The IRIS network functions as a failsafe to disallow these viewpoints from becoming mainstream, from becoming the fear-mongering rhetoric that people start to accept as pragmatic ideology.
Our world’s political landscape is far more complex and diverse than Hillys’ and since 2003 the rise of social media, and therefore an increased visibility of the extreme right wing, has drastically altered the socio-political landscape. Grass-roots social media campaigns have somewhat replaced the insurgency tactics used in Beyond Good & Evil. The recently announced Beyond Good & Evil 2 has a lot of pressure on it to make intelligent and world-reflecting narrative choices to inform the environment of its predecessor.
More than a decade in development, our first official look at Beyond Good & Evil 2 arrived at E3 this summer. Fans were elated to see an incredibly detailed CGI cutscene featuring an adrenaline-fuelled chase sequence and a liberal smattering of swears. The trailer didn’t show a huge amount of detail regarding the world of the game but we saw a distinctly Eastern influence on the surrounding city. Game Director Michel Ancel demonstrated more of the vastness of this unnamed city in a follow-up tech demo the same week.
Ancel revealed little about the characters and the world, but did allude to the prevalence of human trafficking and slave trade and notably revealed that the game would be a prequel. Themes of kidnapping and slavery were present in the first game but given the huge leaps in technology and video game storytelling, we can expect, hopefully, some nuanced depictions of the socio-economic damage of these crimes on the wider city.
It was also revealed that the ability to share information across the planet immediately was available to the player. This information could inspire incredibly detailed and choice-reflective rallies in-game depicting the grassroots nature of today’s social justice campaigns. Presumably you’ll play a similar role to Jade, documenting injustices and overthrowing tyrannical power structures - maybe combatting a nascent organisation that goes on to become the Alpha Section?
The game should also deal with how poverty and crime coerce the lower-classes to turn against one another to create a power vacuum, one obviously to be filled by an Alpha Section type. These themes are inescapable and necessary to inform the already powerful adversary of Beyond Good & Evil. If the Alpha Section’s reputation precedes it before it arrives in Hillys, it would give wider context to why the people of Hillys allowed themselves to be so complicit in the Section’s rise and gravitated toward the right-wing ideal of what stability means.
The Beyond Good & Evil series should embolden us to use our influence as individuals to stamp out fear and dismantle a culture perpetuated by governing forces but maintained by us. We need games, now more than ever, to pull the curtain back on the cowardice of oppressors; those that promise to protect us but instead exploit. Beyond Good & Evil 2 has an incredible opportunity to use AAA resources to build a world unafraid to call out fear-mongering and transparent tactics used to force the vulnerable into a culture of fear. The through-line between these games we’d love to see is an emphasis on how the power of insurgency in independent media is attainable above all. Beyond Good & Evil creates an unsettling environment and an inescapable fear climate but, arguably more so, it showcases bravery and uprising as wholly possible through grassroots reporting; it shows that hope is never too far from fear.