Thursday, April 18, 2013

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Bioshock Infinite's Damsel Dilemma: Hey Girl, If You're So Omnipotent Why Can't You Find Your Own Damn Airship?

Elizabeth 15
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

When I last wrote about Bioshock Infinite, I was practically gushing about how interesting and dynamic companion character Elizabeth is. All her context-sensitive interactions and visual cues make her one of the best companions I've ever had in a videogame. That said, she's definitely not one of the best female characters. As I mentioned in my previous post, she's... Problematic. Today I want to talk about why, and get a few things off my chest in the process.

Spoiler alert: I can't write about this topic without mentioning the ending. Sorry folks. Avert your eyes. 

Bioshock Infinite 8

Anita Sarkeesian has done a good job at making many of us even more aware of the Damsel in Distress trope lately. Don't get me wrong, I don't think anyone thought it wasn't an issue in games, but after so many titles and so many damsels it all becomes a bit of a blur. Sarkeesian's brought it all back into sharp focus and as much as I wish it wasn't true, Elizabeth fits the damsel model perfectly... And I'm far from the first writer or player to point it out.

Elizabeth cower

When you first partner up with Elizabeth, you're told that you as the player don't need to protect her during fights. "She can take care of herself," the game tells you, and that's... Uh, I guess it's not untrue, but it definitely didn't live up to the jolt of excitement I felt when that tip flashed on screen. She does take care of herself, and she takes care of you too. She cowers behind cover for the duration of your fights, waiting to toss you supplies or open up a strategic tear if you ask her nicely. Grrl power!

Not that it matters anyway, since no one else seems to even see her.

She points to useful items for you to pick up, including lockpicks which you dispense to her when there's a lock you need her to pick open. When she finds money, she surrenders it to you immediately. While a couple people I've talked to about this read it as a sort of maternal caretaking behavior, I read it more as the behavior of a submissive wife. Everything goes to Booker and he doles out what she needs when she needs it. He's the one responsible for managing resources, even when she's the only one who actually needs or uses them. Booker remains the provider, even though Elizabeth is providing too.


Elizabeth 12

So we can agree that the lockpick swapping is silly, but what would Elizabeth need with money if she doesn't fight or get hurt? She doesn't need supplies or upgrades, that's all that money's used for anyway. But why can't Elizabeth fight? When she gives you ammo, she tosses you a whole gun she was presumably carrying around. Why not use the damn gun?

"Well," you might say to me, "She doesn't have experience with guns. Booker does. He's a professional fighter, but she's just some girl who grew up in a tower."

Luckily the world of Bioshock Infinite has a whole array of potions that grant magical powers ideal for combat, advertised for use by even the layman. The bottles are all over the place, couldn't Elizabeth down a couple and lend a magically charged hand?

"She already has magic," you could interject.

Yes. She sure does. Magic she uses in fights, even. When you tell her to. This is the part that really got under my skin: Dearest Liz, when we're fighting two dozen soldiers and all the civilians are hiding away safely, do I really need to tell you that summoning a friendly gun turret would be helpful? Do you really need to wait for my okay on that manoeuvre? It's issues like this that can make Elizabeth feel more like an offhand weapon or a power-up than a person, outside of those carefully constructed story moments.

Elizabeth 17

It's not just that she's a damsel, saved from a tower and entirely dependent on the player character for almost all progress and action. It's that she has so many opportunities where she could or should be acting for herself, but instead she just shrugs, empties her pockets into your hands, and deposits herself somewhere out of the way.

She might run off ahead of you, but only when she already knows which direction you're going.

The plot itself reveals Elizabeth to be headstrong and impulsive. She runs away from Booker when she disagrees with him, she has her own agenda distinct from his... But only in those scenes. None of that manifests itself during actual gameplay as anything more than crossed arms or pouting. When she's with you, she's with you. She's still just as helpful, and just as helpless, even when she's mad at you or when she ought to be in a mood to kick some ass. She shouldn't even need Booker at all. Come the fuck on, she can essentially split the fabric of reality and even calls it "a form of wish-fulfillment", and you're telling me that when we spent hours chasing our tails to get access to an airship she couldn't just find a tear where the airship happened to be in another reality (or whatever we're calling them) and hop on? "Nice knowing you, Booker! *FWOOSH*" Honestly, this girl could probably manage just fine on her own if the story didn't artificially demand otherwise. She has to get through all this with Booker for narrative reasons, but that's a really unsatisfying excuse.

Elizabeths

Even the moment in the end when Elizabeth seems to be saving herself... or herselves... She's not. Booker is still saving her, by letting himself be killed. In the lead up to that last scene, she asks again and again for permission, even though it's not entirely clear what she's talking about. In the end it's still Booker telling her/permitting her to do something, and not her doing it for herself.

Choke

Earlier, she asks Booker to kill her out of mercy should their escape fail. It's a disturbing and poignant scene... But it's also kind of bullshit. There are guns absolutely everywhere, maybe even in her hand in case you happen to need it. And what about the scissors she killed Daisy with? Where did those come from? There are weapons literally everywhere but no, even that is left in Booker's hands.

Honestly, just about every significant action Elizabeth takes in those big story moments is enabled by Booker, one way or another. He boosts her into a vent to stop Daisy Fitzroy, he turns off the siphon allowing her to destroy the lab, he destroys the giant tower siphon so she can use her full power even though she could just as easily use the damn whistle herself instead of handing it over to Booker... She can't even pick out a piece of jewelry without your input. You could easily argue that Booker as Comstock enabled future Elizabeth's attack on New York long after his death... Not that we even see any action on her part when all that's revealed. All we see is an old woman acting as passively as Elizabeth ever did, reaching her hand out to Booker for help one more time.

Future silhouette elizabeth

She has the power to manipulate the millions of facets of existence, but she still needs Booker to fix shit. I know, I know, narrative reasons, gothic romance and girls with dead mothers and daddy issues, blah blah blah... If this game had come out 6ish years ago I promise I would have found a way to work it into a paper for my 19th century lit course. It's all by the book and I can appreciate that, to a point.

But it's not the 19th century. I want and expect more, which is why she is just so damn frustrating to me.

Elizabeth stars

Elizabeth is a perfect example of how bad a good character can be, and we shouldn't ignore her shortcomings just because everything else about her is so polished. Elizabeth herself is undeniably a step forward compared to innumerable female companion characters in the past, and you can bet your ass I'm still adding that Elizabeth action figure to my collection, but that doesn't mean that we're done, that the hard work is over. It's okay to want and expect more, so that maybe the next Elizabeth will be just a little better, and make just a little more sense -- that's what progress looks like.

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Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.

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val kendal

just curious, have you played and reviewed the new Tomb Raider? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the 'new' back story Lara

Kevinsyel

I suppose you have some valid points, in saying she relied on Booker too much, but the amount of anger you put into your writing long before making a tiny concession at the end almost lead me to be a bit off-put by your argument. I would like to argue some points that I feel logically interact with the game world and character as a whole, with some rhetoric interspersed (please read, I don't want to insult you, but offer us a chance to persuade eachother)

What of her inability to fight in a battle? She's read books her whole life, she hasn't practiced fencing or Archery. If the scene where she flips out about Booker killing people for the first time is any indication of her character, I'd say she's genuinely opposed to it until the moment Fitzroy forces her hand by risking a child. Even after she was so hurt by the thought of what she did, and I'm sure she's aware she'd have felt that way had she killed sooner.

As for warping things into the universe, We have a basic rule of it has to exist, and it has to manifest from her feelings. She's not a killer, and therefore is a lot less likely to manifest multiple weapons, as she mostly pulls out cover and vantage points. She is in no way meant to reflect the bad-ass Woman you want to be, because she's not the player. As a secondary rule to her powers, She has a "Siphon" severely limiting her power output, to the point of "one tear at a time." In this case, and the case that she's leaving the fighting up to Booker, it's more tactically sound that he determine whether he wants cover up, or maybe secondary artillery instead. She's not dumb, and I'm sure is versed in tactical logic. She even mentions how capable Booker is in a fight after the Handyman fight in the Finkton shanty town. This, I feel, shows she has the confidence of him leading her in battle.

You mention she lets Booker do the final call for Songbird to Destroy Monument Island. THAT was her home, and Songbird, that was her only real friend. She's already stated she couldn't kill him. It's a real life paradigm of "So your loved one is a zombie, do you kill them?" I'm sure there's misplaced sentiments put in there and she's given a bias based on Stockholm syndrome, but she certainly does not mistake Comstock for a friend. Similarly to the Fitzroy problem, Elizabeth in turn doesn't have the live with the pain of destroying her home, and it's only in a final, knee-jerk reaction to save her own life does she finally pull the plug on Songbird. The amount of despair she feels afterwards is immediately reflected, where off in the distance you see a little sister mourning the loss of a Big Daddy.

There are tons of tiny details all around the world the lend itself to the way Elizabeth acts that going into a game with blinders on prevents you from experiencing. Maybe I'M wrong, but I'd at least like you to see these facts and see if it changes your opinion a bit.

Iris Ophelia

@val I've heard really good things but I haven't had a chance to play it yet for myself. I know last summer there was a lot of concern about the story based on some comments in the press, but all that seems to have worked out from what I've seen/been told.

@Kevinsyel I should be clear that I didn't go into this game "with blinders on". I was excited as helllllll about it, not just looking for shit to complain about. I mentioned how excited I was when the game told me she could take care of herself, for example. I was SO HYPED about Elizabeth. If anything my problem was that I was prepared to put her on a pedestal from the very beginning. I was looking for any and every excuse to adore her, not because I wanted her to be some sort of badass videogame reflection of myself or something, but because I'm just so damn bored of seeing the same handful of women in every game I play.

Again, I still really really like her, but that doesn't make her immune from criticism.

There are always ways she could theoretically help without killing. There are Vigors that function as stuns/crowd control for example, why not use those in incapacitate without killing? And yes, the siphon limits her power, but the amount that it limits her abilities is sort of at the designers' convenience. When she needs to be weak she's weak, when she needs to be strong she's strong. She can still throw open a tear for them to step right into even if she struggled to do something significantly less impressive a few days prior.

If we accept that these things manifest somehow from what she wants, if she wants everyone alive but simply subdued, that should be a possibility. Remember that just about everything about a game is crafted very, very deliberately. If they wanted her to be more active, they could have designed the game to allow that without necessarily compromising on her character's values or wishes.

I suppose I come off angry about it because the more I think about her, the more frustrated I get with how she's handled. I do have a lot of positive things to say about her as well, but I've already written about them in the other article I linked. I already wrote my article about the bird, now it's time to write an article about the cage, you know?

Aliasi Stonebender

Given the hints that (a) vigors are newly introduced and (b) somewhat based off plasmid technology (meaning that in the long run, they're probably as hazardous as splicing plasmids for one's sanity) it's probably for the best Elizabeth NOT use them.

Also, as for Elizabeth's varying power levels - isn't that a bit like someone who has walked around all their life with weights on their arms and legs building up strength and then finding how very strong they are when they finally have the weights removed? Elizabeth is working out her powers to a far greater extent while with Booker than when she was in her tower, it makes sense she'd get better over time.

Similarly, her ability to open tears is based on her emotional wants. She wanted to see Les Miserables in real life, and you get the "Vox Populi revolt" time, you want to get the airship, so she smooshes two timelines together so you can get the guns they want, etc.

That's not to say it's perfect by any means (vigors do remain the biggest 'wha?' in the game, there because hey it's a Bioshock game and you need some magic powers) but I think it's important to note that Elizabeth is not a hardened killer; Booker is.

Kim Anubis

I just wish I could play a female character rescuing the handsome leading man instead of the other way around. I don't know if men get tired of rescuing damsels in distress, but I sure do.

Jo Yardley

Sounds all very cliche indeed.
So the boy does fighting, she does reading and doesn't like violence... but when a child is hurt her mother-instinct or something kicks in and she suddenly gets a bit involved?

Yes that would annoy me too.

Bel

Why should Elizabeth fight? Why does the fact that Elizabeth DOESN'T fight mean that she's less worthwhile as a character?

Elizabeth doesn't fight because she doesn't want to fight. Elizabeth doesn't fight because she doesn't want to kill people, and she's happy to let Booker do that for her. And by the time she DOES want to kill people, Booker intervenes to handle it for her. Because really, you're right - Elizabeth is a damsel in distress. But you're not saving her from people who want to hurt her, not really - you're saving her from herself.

There is without a doubt a dissonance between the gameplay and the story. I don't disagree that Elizabeth could stand to open tears autonomously in the way that she gets you weapons autonomously, or that you should be able to engage with her more fruitfully outside of the cutscenes so that the transition back and forth between them is less jarring.

A lot of that seems to be what you're complaining about. Elizabeth does things to engage Booker in the story when he doesn't necessarily need to be there at all. But now that you've noticed that, that you've noticed it's Elizabeth who involves Booker in occasionally irrelevant decisions, why are you arguing that the problem is that Elizabeth is too submissive and should take a part in the combat when this is literally Booker's/The Player's central contribution to the entirety of the game?

As for Old Elizabeth - Booker-as-Comstock does create a catalyst for her to behave in the way that she does, in the same way that Elizabeth-as-Anna creates the guilt that motivates Booker to behave in the way that he does, in the same way that Rosalind/Robert enables the entire game to take place. When you judge her for having an influential character inspire some of her actions, you're holding her to a higher standard than you hold all of the other characters, and you're denying her the agency she certainly has. When she summons Booker to this dystopian future, reaches out a hand to him, and shows him what she's done, she is not helping him - she is helping herself. He is simply the agent of change. There is nothing passive about this scene just because she isn't raining fire down during it.

Similarly, during the ending - she asks Booker's permission because it's his LIFE. Why shouldn't she ask permission to murder him? Why does it make her a better character to kill someone she cares about without giving him the chance to understand? How would that be at all consistent with everything we know about her? What dimension does it add?

I'm not saying there aren't problems with Elizabeth, but they aren't the problems you seem to think they are. Many of them come down to the problem of trying to work with an incredibly powerful character in the narrative, while also trying to involve the player in a story that increasingly belongs to Elizabeth. Perhaps she should have been the main character - and I'd certainly love to see that take - but you would wind up with similar complexity and a very different game.

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