Warning: game spoilers.
Beyond Good & Evil is one of the few games that features a hero who just happens to be female. Whilst the feminism is cloaked, it can be argued that this game is much more subversive than it appears.
Beyond Good & Evil is an action-adventure game available on a wide array of platforms. Despite good reviews, it did not sell as well as expected.
Beyond Good & Evil has an emphasis on plot, but not at the expense of action, with plenty of fighting and scouting around the otherworld landscape. The setting is a peaceful mining planet called Hillys. There are plenty of puzzles and obstacles, and the game rewards stealth, patience, curiosity, and perserverance. You can can access maps, which help you navigate the Hillys world and find hidden areas, and you are able to buy and carry items and food. While the game is driven by a narrative, there's plenty of time to explore the world and pursue auxiliary quests.
Stylistically, the game is well-crafted. There are beautiful landscapes and vistas, although not all the environments are pleasant: there are some dark and creepy settings as well, particularly as the game progresses. Jade and other characteres are well-rendered, and the musical score is used to great effect, in terms of creating a fantasy world and heightening the drama.
The most unique aspect in Beyond Good and Evil is that it features a main character who just happens to be female.
The hero and main character—the character that you closely identify with and the only character you're able to control from beginning to end—is Jade, a young woman who lives in a lighthouse orphanage.
The narrative is constructed from Jade's point of view, and generally we learn new information when she does (although the game leaves clues that the savvy player can pick up on). Jade's parents are deceased, and she has only her Uncle Pey'j as family. However, while other characters are important, they are subordinate to the character of Jade.
This is quite a switch for action/adventure games, where central characters are usually male.
You're not The Woman, but a woman
Jade isn't surrounded by male characters, either. The Governor of Hillys is a woman (what's more, a black woman), as is the Museum Director, who pays Jade for the photographs she takes of new life forms. At least one character of a underground rebel cell is female (a cat woman) as well.
Although the proportion of female to male characters is still weighted towards the male, female characters are placed in positions of status and power and, more importantly, risk.
Tension between traditional and modern narratives
Some elements of the narrative provide tension between a more traditional female role and a more modern, feminist understanding of Jade.
Firstly, she's given permission to rebel, sleuth, break rules, and explore through a traditional "protector mother" narrative. She's doing this all for the children - that is, the orphans at the lighthouse.
This is a non-threatening role for a female character, as it gives her special license to act up and act out, in a way that women usually aren't allowed. Think Sigorney Weaver's maternal motive in "Alien 2", or, more recently, Jodie Foster's character in Flightplan. Audiences are more comfortable seeing women as acting upon the world when their motivation is child-based.
And yet Jade-as-protector turns out to be a pretense that is dropped fairly quickly. Sporadically, she thinks of the orphans, but this motivation is on-parr with her need to know the truth. While the game appears to cater to conservative views of gender roles, it is actually some pretty thin wallpaper. The real puzzle, for Jade and the player, is:
Under whose control is she living?
This is the core of the game.
No Love Lost
Additionally, Beyond Good and Evil is equally notable for what it leaves out: the "love narrative." Jade's quest is not to be subsumed by a love interest, nor is she to be the object of someone's desire. Those stories usually imply that the most interesting thing about a female character is how men regard her, and what happens in her personal life; but Jade's story is larger than that, extending to governments, underground political groups, and military forces.
This is a significant departure, given that in the gaming world the female character is usually assigned a stock love narrative, and that is all that is done to develop her character. It is significant, then, that Jade is first and foremost a person, who is solving a problem that is larger and more complex than her personal world.
What does she look like?
The physical form of Jade is conducive to a woman-as-person-not-sex-object reading. Bear in mind, the gaming world brought us Lara Croft, which was wildly popular. In comparison to Croft, Jade is more human and less feminized. While she wears some sort of lipstick, it is green , not red or pink, and this slightly undermines the erotic meaning attached to lipstick. Her anatomy is matter-of-factly female: the breasts are just there - a part of her like every other part. She wears military green combat trousers and a lightweight t-shirt with a green jacket. The clothing appears comfortable and functional. Her headband, too, emphasizes practicality rather than a concern with looks.
All in all, judging by how Jade dresses, I would venture that Jade regards her body as a tool, and as long as that tool functions properly, it serves her well and she is happy with it.
And her body is very important for the progress of the game.
Beyond the Physical: Jade the Framer
The opening of the game establishes (in a comical way) Jade's poor economic status. In fact, Jade belongs to several lower-status groups, assuming that Hillys does not differ too much from modern first-world countries:
- She is a woman (assuming Hillys is patriarchal).
- She is young (the website states 20; playing the game, I guessed 18 or so).
- She is poor.
Because Hillys operates under a capitalist system (and the market stalls and businesses in and around the Pedesterian District all suggest it is), Jade bears the stigma (and implied ineffectual position) of poverty.
Not that the game makes much of it; there's no self-pitying on Jade's part, and a chipper, determined can-do attitude about her. It all serves to emphasize the power imbalance between her and the powers that control Hillys. Those powers are militaristic and governmental, but there is a great degree of slippage between the two. Jade battling Domz alien.
Jade's use of the camera (obstensibly to earn money, later to effect political change) is obviously signficant. She is the framer of this tale. Either somebody's been reading Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (see opening chapters) or I'm reading too much into this. But the camera does position Jade as the looker - and not the "looked-at".
While the writers and developers of this game adhered to some traditional gender roles, for the most part these elements are underplayed. Instead, Jade's agency is emphasized. This positions Beyond Good & Evil as a subtley—and not so subtley—feminist game. The feminism is through the back door.
Note: I meant to incorporate Nietzshe but never got around to it. Incidentally, both entries at Wikipedia for Beyond Good and Evil and Friedrich Nietzche need polishing up and expansion. If you're knowledgeable in these areas, please consider contributing.