How Bioshock Infinite's Elizabeth Is Built to Breathe Life Into The Most Mundane Moments
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
When you try to break down the technical elements that make Bioshock Infinite such a compelling game experience, it often comes down to a lot of seemingly small elements that have a tremendous impact during play. One example is the style of the texturing (which I wrote about last week) but today I want to talk about Elizabeth. Specifically, a couple of the crucial little details that make her much more significant and interesting than "sidekick" characters in games usually are. Her writing is good, her acting is great, but there's so much more to her than that...
Mild spoiler warning: If you haven't played/finished Bioshock Infinite yet (and plan to) you may want to save this post for later. I'm not going to rehash the ending scene-by-scene or anything, but some of the pictures I'll be using could definitely be considered "spoiler-adjacent."
As I mentioned, Elizabeth is a pretty good character. Okay she's a bit of a damsel, physically she looks as brittle as a sapling, and there are some serious gender issues that keep her from being my OMG FAVE CHARACTER OF ALL-TIME, but all said she's pretty good. Interesting to be with if nothing else. She's clever, dynamic, and most important of all she helps you out rather than being a burden. She doesn't actually fight for herself or anything (even though she has awesome trans-dimensional magic that you direct her to use in such situations anyway) but that's a topic for another day. She stays out of the way during combat, picks locks, points out objects of interest, and even supplies you with money, health, salts (essentially mana) and ammo when you need them most. TL;DR She's not perfect, but she's still pretty cool.
She appears to be programmed to act based on the context of a lot of situations -- not just when you're low on health or ammo, but she always seems to toss a coin your way when you're looting every container in an area with desperate intent, or when you browse a vending machine's contents without buying. She anticipates and reflects your needs as a player, and that's a great way to make a companion that isn't just irritating dead weight through the majority of the game.
But she picks up on more than that. She interacts with the environment, even when you're just loitering yourself. She'll stop to watch a puppet show on the boardwalk, warm her hands by a fire, or take a stick of cotton candy from a vendor in the arcade. She'll lean on a wall or sit on a bench, lean over a railing, even hold her nose in a bathroom.
All these little context and environment-sensitive actions are relatively small details in the grand scheme of this game, and they must have taken ages to program and animate, but the effect is undeniable: These seemingly inconsequential actions breathe so much life into her character. She is not just a virtual robot waiting at your side or trailing after you mindlessly... You know, unlike almost every other companion character.
She also serves as a reflection of what you have both gone through so far. As the story unfolds, Elizabeth's character model doesn't remain as pristine as you might expect. It's a detail that's easy to overlook in other games, but when you go to hell and back with your companion and they look as fresh as they day you plucked them off of their farm or whatever, its a subtle cue. It distances them from the experiences you have supposedly shared. It reminds you that they aren't really sharing anything, because they're just polygons and code (and if you're lucky a passable voice actor.) They may as well be a part of the user interface, because they aren't really in the same world you are.
Elizabeth has easily more than a dozen different models/versions (including those used in the ending) which in itself is pretty impressive. Her outfit gets progressively more spoiled until she finally has to change, though time doesn't treat her second outfit any better. She cuts her hair, she becomes upsettingly bruised and damaged physically as things progress -- as she should, because both she and the player character have gone through a lot, and her changes are as much about her as they are about you. First-person cameras often mean that you rarely get a good look at your own character, you never get the chance to see if or how they've changed as the story has progressed. It's easy to feel invulnerable or removed from it all yourself. Elizabeth's appearance also serves to ground you. She reminds you that shit is indeed going down, and you have a stake in it all.
Beyond the physical changes she has emotional state changes as well. When things are going well she's downright sprightly, but when she's mad at you, it doesn't end after the cutscene. She'll stalk around alongside you, crossing her arms and looking away, huffing and scowling. She'll run ahead or she'll stay back, she'll wander off on her own or cower close by, it all depends.
These may seem like insignificant things to worry about, but they were no doubt a large commitment for developers, and were put in with a great deal of planning, care, and intent. Were these painstakingly-created details it worth it in the end? Absolutely. Elizabeth brings a lot of life to even the most mundane sections of the game, and is far from being a mindless NPC. Even though she isn't everything I had hoped she would be as a character, she's an undeniably dynamic and unique sidekick.
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Iris 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.