When I bought Bioshock Infinite I was really skeptical about Elizabeth. The promotional materials raved about her, and other players had nothing but positive things to say about how she was utilized. But I really didn’t expect her to be anything exceptional. Up until now I have seen only one game pull off something like this: Half Life 2.
In my mind, Alyx was always the perfect companion. She never got in the way, she could handle herself in a firefight, she was friendly, likeable and personable. She had a bit of a flirtatious relationship with the protagonist (or as much as you can with someone who does not speak, ever) and in general was joy to have around. Traveling with her was fun because she would brighten up what otherwise would be a slog through waves of enemies with funny quips of little bits of exposition. I really didn’t think you could do a better job at this. Or rather that any attempt to create another compelling female sidekick would end up trying to imitate her too much creating only a pale, inferior knock-off.
The early game play promos featured just that kind of a character. This Elizabeth is essentially a carbon copy of Alyx jammed into a sexy corset. But her mannerisms are shockingly similar. She has the same devil-may-care attitude, the same genre savvy humorous quips and the same aura of strength about her. For one, I’m really glad they re-worked her because this incarnation wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as what we got in the final product:
The Elizabeth we got is drastically different from Alyx in just about every aspect. Where Alyx was strong and tough, Elizabeth is vulnerable (but just as brave and capable – seemingly even more-so considering lack of combat experience). Where Alyx was cynical, savvy and world weary, Elizabeth is innocent, inexperienced and full of wide eyed wander. Alyx masks her insecurities with humorous quips and fake bravado, whereas Elizabeth is usually sincere and direct with her feelings. The designers took pretty much everything that Alyx was, and turned it on it’s head creating a character that is almost a direct opposite of her, but just as compelling.
I guess the key here is that she is not a damsel in distress – or at least not most of the time. She is just as brave as Alyx when she needs to be, and even though she doesn’t carry a gun, she still makes herself quite useful in combat. The lesson from Half Life is that the sidekick can be whatever you want it to be, as long as it never feels like a burden or an escort mission. If there is anything that gamers hate almost unanimously is escort missions, which makes me wonder why we still have so many of these in our games. There is nothing that will ruin your enjoyment faster than babysitting a vulnerable NPC with low health and stupid pathing algorithm and a tendency to get in your line of fire.
Elizabeth is great in this aspect. Whenever you aim in the iron-sights mode, she will actually get out of your way. When you are in a combat situation she usually intelligently takes cover, and never takes damage because she has no HP bar. This frees you up to concentrate on the enemy, instead of worrying about her depleting health. She also doesn’t have the common pathing issues that are endemic to video game companions. Whenever she gets separated from you, or gets stuck on terrain she teleports to you. I have actually witnessed her avatar zipping through the level once or twice from the corner of my screen, but most of the time it feels rather seamless and organic. It is never as unsettling as the infamous creepy Dr. Wattson.
The thing about Elizabeth is that she is the central character in this game. She is not merely a sidekick, but rather an integral part of the story. You could take Alyx out of Half Life 2 and the narrative would still make sense (as much as Half Life 2 story can make sense at least). You can’t take Elizabeth out of Bioshock Infinite though. Without her there would be no story. It was a major gamble to make this companion character so pivotal to the entire plot. If she didn’t work – if she turned out to be an annoyance, or if players did not like having her around it could tank the entire game. Fortunately, they nailed it.
It is actually quit impressive how they slowly build her up even before you meet her. Initially she is just a mission objective, but as soon as you get to Monument Island she becomes the main focus. I talked about the excellent foreshadowing in this game, but this is yet another example. The first thing you see after entering the tower is this:
The entire tower is filled with strange signs warning you about this dangerous specimen. You haven’t met the girl yet, and you know preciously little about her but it suddenly makes sense why your employers would go to such great lengths to get their hands on her. There is something about this girl that prompted her handlers to imprison her in this tower and put up all these warning signs around. Granted by now you have seen a lot of bat-shit crazy things in Columbia so the signs might just be a way of keeping gullible people out… But the deeper you venture into the quarantined area, the more you realize that all of this is not just for show. There are actually people here who are both fascinated and frightened by this girl and who are carefully watching her development:
Slowly but surely you begin to expect someone like Alma from Fear – someone powerful but unsettling and monstrous. The grainy observation films do not dispel that feeling, even though they reveal she looks quite normal. Still, these shots look way to much like things taken from some horror movie. Grainy film reels from insane asylums or prisons are a very common and unsettling trope… They do a good job of introducing a little doubt about the nature of your mission and reinforce the idea the girl is imprisoned in this maximum security facility for a reason.
These clips also foreshadow some of her future in-game abilities. You see recordings of her learning about code breaking and lock picking which is something that an imprisoned person would probably want to know more about. Thus it is not a huge surprise when Elizabeth later becomes a game mechanic for unlocking doors that were previously inaccessible.
When you get closer to where she is held, the game funnels you through a number of “observation rooms” where you can snoop in on her. The great part about this sequence is that they don’t just show you her standing in a room staring a ta wall, but rather make her go through interesting scripted sequences that reveal a lot about her hopes, dreams and about her personality:
For example you learn she has this fixation on Paris which is actually very interesting from the storytelling perspective. It actually works on many layers. Superficially, the city seems to be just the type of place that a young, naive, innocent girl would dream about. But there is also a lot of symbolism in the fact she is not dreaming about, for example, New York or some other American city. It is probably not a coincidence that she consciously chooses France – the other great revolutionary, universalist democracy as her the place she wants to escape to. It puts her very much in the opposition to Comstock’s Americana, manifest destiny ideals. For Elizabeth US seems too close and too familiar for comfort. Seeing how Columbia’s great prophet is by now clearly the game’s main antagonist, this paints the girl as a potential ally.
Not to mention that you get an early glimpse at the reason why she is imprisoned: her strange powers:
These powers are not particularly combat oriented, but I’m actually really glad she did not end up the X-man like superhero from the early game-play clip above. No one likes a kill stealer, and making her really powerful telekinetic would completely change the dynamic of combat. Also, it looks like her powers would be heavily scripted making for rather boring, linear combat sequences.
In the final game her contribution to combat is subtle but useful. She can supply you with ammo and sometimes whisk new terrain features into existence, providing you with extra cover or an allied turret. I usually didn’t rely on her powers that much in combat – if available I would have her spawn a turret or a patriot to provide covering fire, but that’s about it. The great part was that the game allowed me to mostly ignore her powers. They didn’t try to force me to use it and left it completely optional. A lesser game would put in a combat area that would be impossible to win without juggling Rifts. It is a trend I see in video games a lot: we made this mechanic, and by God, you are going to use it or die. I don’t like that – I prefer to find my own play style and do things my own way and I’m glad Bioshock Infinite designers had enough clue to allow it.
By the time you actually get to meet Elizabeth in person, you actually get a pretty decent idea what she is all about, and how you are going to handle her. You know she is a prisoner, you know she has been locked up in the tower for most of her life and she yearns to get out. It ought to be pretty easy to make like a knight in a shining armor and whisk her away from there. But despite her situation, she doesn’t seem to take it very kindly when you barge her library. She literally hits you with the book on Quantum Physics over the head. Which, by the way is yet another great bit of foreshadowing:
After a short, and mostly scripted escape sequence from the tower, you actually get to spend quite a bit of non-combat, quality time with your new companion in Battleship Bay. I mentioned this in the last post, that this level is probably one of my favorite locations in the game. However, on my first play-through I was a little bit annoyed with it. When Elizabeth hears music and runs off to check it out I was beginning to suspect that the game just pulled a fast one on me. I rescued the girl, now she will run off, get in trouble and I will have to gun down bunch of people to save her. I was not looking forward to this sort of game play. I was actually overjoyed to find she actually just pulled River Tam and went dancing with the natives:
This is a charming, heart warming bit of pure character development. They did not need to include such a scene. In fact, Alyx never really had such a revealing moment. The closest you get to this in HL2 is playing ball with Dog, but that was mostly just a really well built gravity gun tutorial. Elizabeth’s dancing is exposition and character building. It really firmly establishes her as this joyful, innocent, unassuming and happy individual. A perfect foil for Booker’s world weary cynicism and disillusionment. It is further reinforced by how much it freaks her out the first time she sees you kill someone.
The game is full of little bits like that. There is another rather charming scene where you get to play a guitar, and watch her do a little song and dance and share an apple with a little boy hiding under the stairs. This part is actually a little bit off the beaten path, and very easy to miss if you are just trying to power through the game and are not exploring every corner.
Booker and Elizabeth have a very different relationship than Gordon and Alyx – one that is much more complex and layered. They are circumstantial allies, but they don’t fully trust each other. For Booker she is initially just an objective – a means to an end.
Elizabeth is grateful to Booker for helping her escape from her tower, but she has obvious doubts and second thoughts about him. She does not approve his methods, and is rightfully fearful of the violent efficiency with which he dispatches their pursuers. They are not always honest with each other and they don’t always work together. A lot of this is possible because Booker is not a silent protagonist and therefore the writers can explore their relationship through dialogue (rather than one-sided monologue). The other part of it is because Elizabeth actually becomes a real person for us. She has hopes, dreams, weaknesses, she gets scared, she disagrees with you, she even double crosses you a few times.
In comparison, Alyx seems rather pale. She is mostly just an action chick. A really great one, but still rather shallow. She doesn’t actually have much of a character arc. The girl you meet in Kliner’s lab is very much the same girl you spend the Episodes with. She doesn’t have a bit turning point like Elizabeth does when she kills Daisy Fitzroy to save the boy. The closes to that is death of Eli Vance but that scene happens in the cliff-hanger of Episode 2 and we don’t know what happens next yet. We do however get to see what happens to Elizabeth:
This is such an amazing sequence. It literally gave me the chills. The facial animation and motion capture here is absolutely top notch. The clip I posted above is from X-Box so it’s actually much lower quality than what I had on my computer but it does give you an idea of how well it was done even in the relatively outdated current gen console hardware. That moment when you try to comfort Elizabeth and she just stands there, clutching the scissors, lost, scared and confused… That is such a real moment. It makes her seem like a real person. It really hits you right in the feels when you realize this is the same girl who mere hours ago was having the time of her life dancing with strangers on the beach. And that it is ultimately your fault.
I believe the outfit change and the new haircut is the equivalent of what is known as “growing a beard” trope. It is a symbolic appearance change usually prompted by some traumatic event. It usually indicates the character is done fucking around and ready to take names and kick ass. It also symbolizes loss of innocence. This is the moment when Elizabeth gives up on her dream of escaping to Paris and instead decides to make things right in Columbia. This change is very moving. You’d expect her to fall apart now, so it is awesome to see her cope with the situation the best she is able to. It is a testament to her inner strength. Then again, you realize that the wide eyed Elizabeth who got excited when she saw the new “Duke and Dimwit” story machine died along with Daisy Fitzroy.
It is even more heart breaking when you realize that this particular event was the catalyst that led to creation of this Elizabeth:
I actually don’t want to spoil the ending of the game. I have a few more things to say about Elizabeth but I have already written over two thousand words on this. It is best if I save the end game discussion for another post.
Suffice to say, in my honest opinion Elizabeth is the best video game sidekick in existence right now – if not one of the best NPC’s I have ever seen. Her combat AI is great, rivaling that of Alyx: she stays out of the lane of fire, and provides useful support. Where she outperforms Alyx is the story department. She is just a better written character. Whereas Alyx is mostly just a wise-cracking action chick, Elizabeth has a real character arc. She experiences joy and fear, she is traumatized, does some terrible things, is pursued, captured, tortured, imprisoned, saved a few times and much more. She changes and grows as a person – mostly for the better, at a terrible price. Her early wide eyed innocence is stripped off her, and brutally stomped into the ground. And you not only get to watch that, but it is all mostly your fault.