Spoilers for BioShock Infinite are discussed below. The previous part of this series can be found here.
One feature of BioShock Infinite that got a lot of attention leading up to its release was the nature of the character Elizabeth. She’s the story’s deuteragonist (if this story were ever adapted in a non-interactive format, I’d like to see it rearranged to make her the protagonist; I think it could be easily accomplished with a simple perspective shift), and there was a ton of hooplah surrounding the fact that she wouldn’t just be an NPC, but a companion to the player through the majority of the game. The developers went to a lot of trouble to emphasize that they wanted the player to feel a strong connection with Elizabeth, and because of that they worked really hard on her AI as well as her general treatment by the game’s story.
Of course, that’s the same thing that the developers of Fable II said several years ago about your canine companion in that game. To be fair, when I finished Fable II and had to decide which of the three endings I wanted, I picked the one where the dog gets resurrected; yeah, it was monstrous to pick the dog over all the innocent people who were killed in the background, but the dog actually had an impact on gameplay. I liked getting free items while wandering around doing stuff.
Come to think, I liked that about Elizabeth too. It was really convenient having her there tossing me healing items and ammo when I needed them. I mean, I could have lived without it. But it was definitely convenient.
Does anyone else see a problem with the fact that I can compare the utility of a dog from a game released six years ago with the utility of a girl from a game released last year?
This is not a step forward for game design.
Now, there is more than game utility to Elizabeth as a character. I happen to think she was particularly well written (which is unusual, because there’s typically something about any female character that I can find problematic). Yeah, she starts off as a Rapunzel type damsel, but that gets subverted pretty quickly when we learn that she has the capacity to alter reality to fit her whim, and she’s really angry about being used as a pawn in Comstock’s legacy scheme. Elizabeth is a very human character.
But she’s also a glorified item fetcher.
The problem is that I can see the conundrum the developers would have been in when they were thinking about how to incorporate her into the game mechanics. Booker is a violent man trying to resolve a violent conflict, and it’s established from the start of his and Elizabeth’s relationship that she’s repulsed and horrified by his behavior. It would go completely against character for her to be an active combatant, so she can’t assist by killing enemies. Also, it’s established pretty quickly that while she doesn’t like the violence, she’s realistic about encountering it and can’t just cower away from every fight that happens after that point in the story. With those character restrictions, there’s really not much else Elizabeth can do to ‘help’ Booker in fights other than to provide him with scavenged supplies. Still, I probably wouldn’t have gone on and on about how cool this AI companion was going to be (I should clarify that most of the talk about the niftiness of the AI was related to how Elizabeth interacts with the environment, which is pretty cool and goes a long way towards good characterization, but from a utility standpoint, she’s just not that remarkable).
So essentially, Elizabeth is a far better portrayed character than the dog, but if you were to strip away all the story and just talk about the mechanics, they’d be the same thing.
Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Elizabeth is the female character who gets the best treatment. The other three major female characters feel incredibly flat in comparison. Daisy Fitzroy is angry about the treatment of Columbia’s underclass, but anger’s really all we see from her. The same is true for Rosalind Lutece, who’s essentially a one-note plot device along with her quantum twin Robert (I enjoyed every scene where they appeared, but the only reaction they ever seemed to evoke was “huh, weird.”). The Lady Comstock is an interesting idea (literally; Elizabeth speculates that the ghost of Lady Comstock is more a projection of how Elizabeth imagines her rather than any real reflection of the woman), but she’s not really anything more than that. She’s dead from the outset, and her brief quantum resurrection is little more than an extended boss fight that revolves around Elizabeth getting further character development.
Of course, I think the problematic elements of the female characters in this game just continue to feed back into my point about this being a paradoxical game. The developers clearly wanted to do better by Elizabeth than other female characters in games, but it seems they couldn’t help hamstringing themselves with a devotion to the form of a big budget shooter.