Building a Human Universe: The Ambitious Vision of Beyond Good & Evil 2

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the demo I saw for Beyond Good & Evil 2 had reminded me of the open-world adventure of Breath of the Wild, or of The Witcher 3’s efforts to tell human stories in a vast landscape, or of how The Last Guardian’s mechanics emphasize cooperation between characters. I certainly didn’t expect the game I walked away thinking of most to be No Man’s Sky. But here we are.

For so many of us who loved the original Beyond Good & Evil, it’s the endearing humanity of its characters (even those, such as dear Uncle Pey’j, who aren’t, strictly speaking, human) that has kept the game alive in our hearts. It’s the way that Jade, by definition, was an altruistic character who cared deeply about those orphaned by the conflict raging on her homeworld, and the way that she and her friends worked together, a warm camaraderie between them, in an effort to liberate the oppressed and expose the truth.

In Beyond Good & Evil 2, you create your own character, who starts at the lowest ranks of space pirate society and rises through the ranks, eventually assembling a diverse crew to sail around the solar system, exploring new worlds and, one imagines, fighting for what’s right while also getting into no small amount of trouble. Clearly, the developers want Beyond Good & Evil 2 to explore cooperation and camaraderie as the first game did; one player’s crew may end up looking very different from another’s, but almost inevitably, each crew will include a diverse assortment of people and hybrids from different cultural backgrounds. However, I’m skeptical as to whether a game in which you not only create your own character but make countless choices about how to behave — Do you attack that slave ship and liberate the hybrids it’s carrying or do you let it continue on its way unhindered? — can possibly center concepts of cooperation and unity the way a game can when you are, by definition, playing an altruistic character who wants to work with others for the common good.

The behind-closed-doors presentation I saw began with a perusal of some of the game’s striking concept art, full of characters whose looks tell a story: human beings and hybrids of all kinds, some stern and steely-eyed, others like Knox, the monkey hybrid featured in the reveal trailer, bristling with energy. (Particularly exciting to me was Shani, the black woman also featured in the trailer, who I’d initially thought, and hoped, might be BG&E 2’s protagonist.) This beginning seemed to be a way of reassuring me that, regardless of everything I was about to see, Beyond Good & Evil is still a series concerned with characters, and with the value of each individual life. It was important to start there, because it would have been very easy to believe, based on what was to come, that the individual had been lost in the vastness of Beyond Good & Evil 2‘s scope.

What followed was a tech demo of the game, which is being built in Voyager, a new engine designed for BG&E 2 with a focus on scalability; the vision is for the game to move seamlessly from the intimacy of one-on-one interactions (the sort that might take place in neon-lit noodle houses on cramped, bustling city streets, for instance) up into the skies above, and from there, into the stars, where, provided your ship has the technology, you can shift into hyperspace and arrive at a distant planet that may have its own rich, bustling cities to explore. During the demo, creative director Michel Ancel and other team members started by inspecting the gigantic statue of Ganesha that looms over Ganesha City so closely that I could see the rivets holding its metallic panels in place, before zooming out to show the whole sprawling city, and then further still, until I was looking down on the curved surface of the planet from space; and as night fell on the part of the world below, scattered cities all over the globe became visible, glistening like stars.

Then they actually took me up into the stars, in a smooth shift that made it impossible for me to not recall lifting off from a planet’s surface straight into space in No Man’s Sky. And with that recollection came the question of whether a game of this scale can actually give us characters worth knowing and worlds worth exploring. Of course Beyond Good & Evil 2 isn’t aiming for No Man’s Sky’s seemingly infinite number of procedurally generated worlds, a number of worlds so vast that it wound up feeling meaningless in its vastness and sameness; the developers made a point of saying that they want the game’s universe to be full of locations that are designed, places like Ganesha City, with character and history.

Speaking of history, that looming statue of the Hindu god Ganesha hints toward Beyond Good & Evil 2’s backstory. The game takes place in a distant future in which India and China became global superpowers and humanity relied on the slave labor of genetic hybrids to colonize deep space. The presence of Indian and Chinese cultural influence in so much of the game’s artwork lends it a captivating flavor, but I did wish that the team of people I met who are involved in the game’s development and who were here at E3 representing its vision reflected the range of cultures the game is drawing from. The game is ostensibly about a bunch of pirates from different backgrounds, races and even species coming together, yet everyone I met who is working on the game is white.

Still, Beyond Good & Evil 2’s concept is thrilling. It just all sounds like so much. Maybe too much. I don’t know if I think it’s possible: a game with all the thrilling freedom of a galaxy to explore, that’s actually worth exploring, and that has a huge cast of richly developed characters who you can grow deeply attached to over time. I could believe in the vision of the character-focused game that creates a sense of solidarity and camaraderie among a diverse crew of pirates united by common cause, or in the vision of the game that sets you free in an extraordinary galaxy. But how can one game do it all? How can a game successfully balance these elements?

It’s not that I don’t like Beyond Good & Evil 2’s vision. I love it. For the moment, however, I remain skeptical that the game can come anywhere near achieving its ambitions, though I’d love nothing more than to find out someday that all my reservations were misplaced, and that its vast galaxy actually does possess all the individuality and humanity of the first game, and then some.

(Watch our video on what makes Beyond Good & Evil‘s Jade such a wonderful protagonist.)

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