Analysis, for me, often brings with it the impulse to reduce. Over the past two entries in this series I’ve tried to identify elements of Bioshock Infinite that I felt were core to the experience I had with it, were unique (or at least remarkable) in the genre or medium, and stood out among the rest of the game’s qualities. In the process, a lot gets left unsaid. Either it ends up on the cutting room floor to keep a piece short or because it just doesn’t fit, or it was never thought through fully in the first place. I’ve seen some complaints about the inability of critics to account for the whole, that they’re always fitting square pegs into round holes by shaving off the edges, but I’ve come to accept this about critical writing. We’re not playing an all or nothing game here, and even if there are exceptions to the rules they present, a strong polemic is often the first, necessary step towards a nuanced debate.Like I said, I accept this. But still, there’s this thing I’ve been struggling to bring myself to say about Elizabeth ever since I beat Infinite.
Here it is: Elizabeth doesn’t exist.
This is not a claim about Infinite’s plot. I don’t think Elizabeth is Booker’s Tyler Durden (and quite frankly, I have very little interest in that sort of theorizing anyway.) What I mean is that when examined as a gameplay element of Bioshock Infinite, Elizabeth is a non-factor. She is not an agent. She is, at the end of the day, just not there.
“She Can Take Care Of Herself”
When Elizabeth joins up with Booker, the screen tells the player “You don’t need to protect Elizabeth in combat. She can take care of herself.” This is an odd statement. It’s a non-diegetic element delivered directly to the player. Elizabeth doesn’t say “Don’t worry about, I can take care of myself!” This isn’t a message for Booker, it’s a message for you. It’s written on the player-facing information layer of the screen—which has thus far shown the player gameplay directives like “Find a way to Monument Island” and play tips about recharging shields and superhuman abilities.
Irrational has to include this message because for most players, the start of every escort mission up ‘til now brings a groan. President’s daughters, fleeing transport ships, infantilized princesses, scared civilians, and injured heiresses have always been albatrosses for players, restricting their standard play styles and creating new, hard to anticipate fail states. This is combined with a broader cultural environment filled with willowy damsels that can’t hold their own. “Elizabeth can take care of herself” acknowledges this (often gendered) history of problems (both ludic and narrative.)
The problem, of course, is that she doesn’t take care of herself. Janine Hawkins summarizes Elizabeth’s behavior well:
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. … 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.
Additionally, Elizabeth is able to summon objects into play from other timelines and realities, and when you die, it’s Elizabeth that has seemingly dragged you out of combat at revived you.
My first read on this was “No, Elizabeth doesn’t take care of herself, she takes care of you.” I’ve seen this argument expanded elsewhere. Elizabeth is maternal: she provides for the player, cares for them when injured, and has the ability to “create” objects in the game world like a mother can create life. As troubled as it is, this parallel is important. The consistency of what Elizabeth “can do” does build (and rely on) the image of the feminine caregiver to create a coherent character. This isn’t only a problematic reading though, it’s wrong.
Elizabeth doesn’t take care of herself, she simply doesn’t exist. She doesn’t pick locks—she is a lockpick. She doesn’t summon in friendly turrets or crates of rocket launchers—you do. She is a tool that you use and then fold up and put in your pocket when you don’t need her. Elizabeth doesn’t “get out of the way during combat”—she was never in combat to begin with because as far as the rest of the game is concerned, she doesn’t exist.
Even Elizabeth’s most useful ability, the way she is able to replenish your diminished resources, has little to do with her. Supposedly, Elizabeth “anticipates and reflects your needs as a player,” notices your sliver of health or your empty clips, and tosses you what you need. But there’s really no Elizabeth in this action, there’s only “your needs as a player.” This is an ability (on a cooldown) that triggers dependent on player state. In fact, it doesn’t even actually trigger, it only lets the player know that they can trigger it.
David Hume famously argued that “reason is … a slave to the passions.” He is not only giving will-itself priority in moral judgments, but also in daily life. “Reason” might be how an agent knows how to achieve a goal, but there’d be no goal without passions first identifying one. Hume’s work is problematic—consider the Sky-Line, which I argued was an agent in part one of this series despite having no will—but it remains a useful lens. Looking at Elizabeth through that lens, it’s clear that she’s all reason, no passion.
This is true for everything Elizabeth “does.” Even the one exception to this rule ends up re-inscribing it. When Elizabeth points out an item for the player to pick up, she is at once succeeding where she otherwise fails, while also giving us the most comprehensive picture of her failure. Here, she is able to turn will into action: she speaks, informs Booker and the player of information they did not have before and would not have at that moment without her intervention. Yet even this belies a second, more fundamental failure of will. Elizabeth sees a lockpick, she is—ostensibly—the one who opens doors. She manages to tell the player that there is a lockpick. She points at it, her finger hanging just an inch or two from the thing. “You should take this!” You take it. Later, you reach a door and give it back to her and she unlocks the door—rather, the resource is spent and the door opens.
At all levels, this is the problem with Elizabeth, this is why she is not an agent of her own. She needs the player to act where she cannot. Only the player has control over resources: she can identify them, but she needs her weekly lockpick allowance before she can use them.
The gendered reading here makes itself, but is limited. One problem with the “maternal,” historically, has been a dismissal of and control over labor performed by women, and I understand the temptation to make that claim about Infinite’s Elizabeth. But the problem with Infinite isn’t that Elizabeth’s labor is controlled or ignored, it’s that she is unable to do work at all. It’s not just that she’s only allowed to take care of the player or that she can only scan data and crunch numbers. It’s that, insofar as she is understood as a gameplay element, Elizabeth doesn’t do these things, they’re only associated with her visually. She’s a signifier for them, she represents them, but she isn’t them. There is no “she healed me,” there is only “I healed”; no “she calculated,” only “calculation.” In a game ostensibly about her, there is no her.
In the first part of this series, I argued that Irrational Games handled the question about player agency in two ways. One of the ways, as mentioned above, was through their design of the Sky-Line, an environmental object that is more than just area for a player to traverse over and dominate. The Sky-Line is a ludic agent in its own rights because of how it acts on the player and NPCs who use it, and on the rest of the traditional environment it cuts through and reconfigures. I argued that part of its value came specifically from the fact that it doesn’t only bolster the way in which a player can move naturally, but that it also deprives them of the standard freedom of movement: it hinders as it helps. This is how agents work together. It was a point made well by Rohrer’s Passage years ago, and a point fumbled by all those terrible escort missions which only hinder the player, never add to them. A partnership does both.
That a hunk of virtual steel has a meaningful gameplay identity in a way that the player’s “partner” does not is deeply frustrating. Earlier in this series, I praised Irrational’s ability to know when to “sidestep” difficult design problems. Now I’m calling them out: they should have taken this one head on.
To A Loiterer
The cruelest thing I’ve ever told a person was that I didn’t actually love her; that it was only ever proximity plus time. I know I was trying to be hurtful, but I don’t think I was lying about my own appraisal of the situation: I looked at what there’d been, wondered when and how I’d come to have those feelings, and identified these as the primary factors in what I’d felt. In retrospect, I know that this was a reduction—I did love her, of course, and the things I’d chiseled down to epiphenomena of “proximity and time” were much more. My deep fear is that I’m performing a similar reduction here—though a much less cruel one.
Above, I’ve only addressed Elizabeth ludically because Infinite is primarily a videogame, and so I’m primarily interested in analysis of its gameplay. But in the process I’ve rounded off a large part of my experience playing Infinite. Even if “she” is only a collection of abilities, bundled under an artfully rendered visual identity and a sometimes clumsy narrative, that collection had weight. I missed those abilities when she wasn’t “in play,” but I also missed the way she lingered in front of signs and storefronts, examining them. Other games have given me the former experience before—the middle chapters of the underappreciated Syndicate come to mind. But very few have given me the latter. Each of these essays has, so far, included at least one picture of Elizabeth looking at something: the distant amusement park, her home on fire, an encrypted message painted on the wall, right at the player. At no point do any of these looks mean anything in gameplay terms, but they all meant something to me as the player.
Elizabeth does things that simply do not matter to the dominant style of Infinite's gameplay. Hawkins, again:
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.
These things don’t “matter,” but they call to mind that second way in which Irrational handled the problem of player agency. As established in part one, Infinite allows players a limited number of choices in the game, and none of them have substantial gameplay effect. They’re purely performative, allowing the player to author Booker as a character.
This is a very specific sort of agency that most other major games have little interest in giving to the player, specifically because of their separation from gameplay. Elizabeth’s agency, like these choices, is just aesthetic. The difference between the two is that players are given other ways to express themselves in the play, but Elizabeth can only look on.
In his response to argument that Infinite didn’t need all the violence it does, Daniel Joseph reminds us that it isn’t so simple as Irrational wanting it to be so:
I want to stress the absurd bind that the division of labour & mass market distribution mean for videogame production. I really want more developers to play fast and loose with their money and threaten the very existence of their companies because it would mean they aren’t playing by the rules of ruthless capital accumulation. Yet if one’s ultimate goal is to employ 200 people and aim for a mass audience you can’t build an environment simulator (as some seem to be suggesting BioShock Infinite could have been).
No major developer has the executive or shareholder confidence to be allocated tens of millions of dollars to build the game some people wish Infinite was. It is to their credit, though, that Irrational did focus as much as they did on Elizabeth’s idle animations, on the detailed shops of Columbia’s boardwalks, on providing players new ways to express themselves. The reason that so many people now announce their desire for a gunfight-free version of Infinite is tied directly to Irrational’s successes in creating these tiny, nuanced moments. Infinite is not the game those people want, but it is a necessary step in that direction (though I do remain skeptical that such a distance can ever be traveled.)
So, how do I square my critique of Elizabeth as non-agent with my real experience of enjoying her presence in my game? I risk falling into Infinite-apologia here, but I think it’s worth expanding Daniel’s point: it isn’t only the game’s violence that arises due to market concerns. As I said above, Elizabeth does not exist in a vacuum, but in a context of escort missions that very few enjoyed playing. So, in an effort to make a fun game—the market has decided that “fun” is the final arbiter in game quality, even if I disagree—Irrational erased Elizabeth from the game. Instead of engaging with the difficulty of designing a market-friendly, fun non-player-player partnership, Irrational took a collection of your own abilities and put them in an Elizabeth-shaped container. (And before you ask, yes, I do think that this is an interesting way to consider capitalism’s understanding of effective partnerships.)
Infinite ends by trying to complicate the finality of Elizabeth’s non-existence. At the end of a long scripted sequence, a multi-dimensional group of Elizabeths drown Booker, their father, before he becomes Comstock (and before they are born). They are erased in the process. One, and then another, and then another fade away, Back To The Future-style. In a way, this is another shred of ludic agency for the character, as she does what the player wont: end the game.
But Irrational could not even give her that. In a post-credits scene (that I’m sure forum goers have dozens of competing explanations for), Booker wakes up at his desk again, and an infant Elizabeth can, maybe, be heard crying in the other room. Irrational may have wanted to leave Infinite on an ambiguous note about Elizabeth’s existence, but they they just couldn’t resist ending with a fawning confirmation that the player is the one back in control.
As always, screenshots via @bleatingheart. Additionally, one more shoutout to Cameron Kunzelman, whose own critique helped frame this whole series, and whose collection of other great essays and articles was indispensable.