Bring Us The Girl 17



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elizabeth

This piece thor­ough­ly explores the entire plots of BioShock Infinite and Ico.  Proceed accord­ing­ly.

BioShock Infinite is a video game in which you pur­chase the abil­i­ty to cause peo­ple to com­mit sui­cide via mag­i­cal pos­ses­sion from a vend­ing machine locat­ed in a dreamy, float­ing town square in the year 1912.

It is a game where the only way to enter a house in which peo­ple osten­si­bly live is to steal the fin­ger­prints of the ghost of a woman who has been dead for nine­teen years.

I could do this for ten thou­sand words.  If you’ve played the game, you could too.  For some peo­ple, the dis­so­nance and tonal incon­sis­ten­cy on dis­play in this theme park does not reg­is­ter as a prob­lem.  For oth­ers, it is for­giv­able.  Others still can­not abide what reads as friv­o­lous non­sense.  BioShock Infinite cer­tain­ly allows the crit­ic ample oppor­tu­ni­ty to stress its bound­aries, very few of which are able to with­stand the pres­sure.  But when it comes to “gamey” curios like fetch quests, health regen­er­a­tion tech­niques, or the acqui­si­tion of the player’s toolset, it is pos­si­ble that one’s reac­tion to the nar­ra­tive con­text can ulti­mate­ly be under­stood as sim­ple pref­er­ence.  What is world break­ing to some is con­tex­tu­al­ly per­mis­si­ble or bor­der­line irrel­e­vant to oth­ers.  If you’re Rab Florence, you might even try to twist this state of affairs into some kind of neu­rot­ic apoth­e­o­sis.

It is also pos­si­ble, how­ev­er, that what may be seen as sur­face tensions—and ten­sions of this sort are by now a cod­i­fied part of the “AAA” video game design experience—begin to reveal or even neces­si­tate the emer­gence of deep­er struc­tur­al prob­lems.

In BioShock Infinite, these prob­lems have a name and a face.

For all its bleak shoot­ing and strange sense of inter­ac­tion with the game world, BioShock Infinite real­ly wants to be about a girl.  Series over­lord Ken Levine recent­ly iden­ti­fied “the con­nec­tion peo­ple have to [sic] Elizabeth” as the game’s “most impor­tant thing.”  He sees the way the game por­trays Elizabeth, who acts as the player’s side­kick, as “try­ing to advance the medi­um” by con­trast­ing her rela­tion­ship with the play­er to “the gamey‐ness of the envi­ron­ment.”  Similar points were ham­mered home dur­ing the lengthy and all‐consuming pre‐release press tour.  In this sce­nario, any flaw or incon­sis­ten­cy in the cre­ation and exe­cu­tion of a nav­i­ga­ble envi­ron­ment bound by tra­di­tion­al video game mechan­i­cal sys­tems is to be jus­ti­fied as a means of some­how incu­bat­ing a gen­uine nar­ra­tive con­nec­tion to a sin­gu­lar char­ac­ter who becomes respon­si­ble for bear­ing the weight of the entire edi­fice.  This sounds like a dubi­ous aim to me to begin with, in that it will­ful­ly rel­e­gates the action of play to a foot­note, defin­ing the game’s nom­i­nal suc­cess in terms of the fail­ure around it.  But any crit­i­cal appraisal of the game along these lines must first assume that Elizabeth is worth the effort.  The Internet is gen­er­al­ly con­vinced that this girl is a strong, pro­gres­sive, inter­est­ing, or oth­er­wise pos­i­tive char­ac­ter who is up to the task foist­ed upon her.  She isn’t.  So let’s talk.

The game opens with Elizabeth as your paper‐thin excuse to roam the sky­ways of Columbia, saw­ing the heads off rabid police offi­cers.  Save the girl, bury the debt.  Before you even see her, she is pinned as the rea­son for all the ridicu­lous vio­lence that a game with a hun­dred mil­lion dol­lar bud­get was always going to fea­ture.  In the end, she “saves” the pro­tag­o­nist as a means to erase the entire force of that vio­lence.  All’s well that ends well.  Desperate struc­tur­al irony passed off as pro­fun­di­ty.

Elizabeth begins the game locked in a tower.  She has never seen the out­side world.  She dances (once), she sings (once), a stock touch of joy meant to val­i­date the game’s busi­ness of rag‐dolling anony­mous sociopaths.  Elizabeth is pre­sent­ed as a fairy tale princess, a dash of Disney sprin­kled over a movie star­ring a mur­der­ous wiz­ard with a steam­punk rock­et launch­er, moun­tains of rot­ting corpses, scream­ing big­otry, quan­tum every­thing.  BioShock wants to teach us to save the world by killing every­one in it.  The fairy tale car­toon that Elizabeth bounces around the world awk­ward­ly embody­ing is a dull set up meant to paint a smile of right­eous vengeance on the sociopo­lit­i­cal sci‐fi mur­der sim­u­la­tor inevitably tied to the player’s left mouse but­ton.  Irrational wants Elizabeth to speak to the player’s sense of iden­ti­ty in order to remind him that his actions are con­se­quen­tial.  Her ubiq­ui­ty has to make the world worth killing.  She tries to play off of Booker in order to pre­vent the cease­less and incon­se­quen­tial vio­lence of the game from reduc­ing him to a float­ing firearm.  In short, she has to try to be a real per­son.  We play Doom to shoot things, but we are sup­posed to play a BioShock game for mean­ing.   As a con­se­quence of this aim, Irrational is forced to use Elizabeth as a tool to present a cogent world view.  It is up to the woman, as we shall see, to pro­duce, as a con­se­quence of her being, a post hoc ratio­nale for the actions of a male agent of change.  Elizabeth’s role is struc­tural­ly bind­ing.  It ori­ents the player’s nar­ra­tive expe­ri­ence by attempt­ing to ground incon­gru­ent and dis­parate aspects of the game.

It is easy to believe that most of the praise direct­ed toward Elizabeth’s char­ac­ter is a func­tion of this struc­tur­al impor­tance she car­ries with­in the game.  She may not be the player’s avatar, but there are few games that attempt to imbue a female char­ac­ter with the kind of weight Irrational were forced to lie at Elizabeth’s feet.  But the nature of this role robs Elizabeth of any last­ing sense of being.  Faced with the neces­si­ty of cre­at­ing a real per­son, Irrational instead birthed a mish‐mash crea­ture of bro­ken tropes that oper­ates on the level of mythol­o­gy.  Rather than bridg­ing gaps, Elizabeth exists to cir­cum­scribe the entire­ty of the expe­ri­ence in ways that robs what quick­ly becomes a ridicu­lous story of its remain­ing force.  Ken Levine hopes Elizabeth can be all things to all peo­ple.  She is the “real­is­tic” fairy tale princess with a heart of gold, bequeathed with strength and wis­dom.  She is both a vic­tim and a per­pe­tra­tor of injus­tice, capa­ble of whole­sale destruc­tion, but usu­al­ly lodged in a cor­ner.  She is a social actor and a psy­chopath.  Cursed sav­ior of gam­ing and blessed fem­i­nine Oedipus of the Columbian utopia. The Most Important Thing.

For now, just lock her in the tower.  That’s the premise.  Denied human­i­ty but drown­ing in its entombed knowl­edge, she is deliv­ered to the play­er both per­fect and use­ful, the even‐keeled and slight­ly dis­tressed lock­pick speck­led with a pinch of lazy magic to bal­ance out all the heart. To dis­till the trope of the tower: the world is a ter­ri­ble place; the least we can do is enwomb a pret­ty girl in the name of pre­serv­ing a fad­ing sense of human decen­cy.  Danae is shut in by her hus­band, but she emerges the moth­er of a demigod.  This is how we view women, from the dawn of Western civ­i­liza­tion: from their suf­fer­ing comes hope; from the past, a future.  In this mytho­log­i­cal frame­work, women are under­stood as the ciphers of his­to­ry.  Too impor­tant, too mys­te­ri­ous to be gift­ed the curse and decen­cy of human­i­ty prop­er, we hide them, fear them, pun­ish them, and then wait for them to destroy us and bring about a rebirth.  The tower is prison and womb.  Veneration is gild­ed oppres­sion.  Oppression is born of fear, and fear is igno­rance.  As man acts to secure a sense of his his­to­ry, so woman is to pray and cry and receive, to stitch togeth­er the seams of his suc­ces­sive story with a vast and silent mytho­log­i­cal bind­ing, a near spir­i­tu­al task that codes the fem­i­nine, in its ide­al­ized form, as unknow­able.

In BioShock Infinite, the past that must be atoned for is shroud­ed in a neb­u­lous deter­min­ism.  The fate of the entire nar­ra­tive is already sealed in the sim­ple choice of Booker’s post Wounded Knee bap­tism, which acts as the psy­cho­log­i­cal ground zero of a gigan­tic and silly trans­for­ma­tion that unnec­es­sar­i­ly redou­bles itself via sci‐fi hocus‐pocus, Bookers and Comstocks and sequels as far as the mind can pre­tend to see. But even with­in the pseudo‐hope of the story’s Deus ex quan­tus machi­na, in which Levine imbues deter­min­ism with wig­gle room, the only future Elizabeth can birth is a void.  From death, noth­ing­ness.  The future in BioShock Infinite is one of pure nihilism. The broad social suf­fer­ing that the game inef­fec­tu­al­ly leaves the play­er to sort out with end­less bul­lets and whirly‐blade exe­cu­tions is ulti­mate­ly Elizabeth’s to atone for.  The irrel­e­vant strug­gle between the Vox and the Columbian fas­cist elite is paint­ed in false­ly ambiva­lent moral terms that the game uses as an excuse for Elizabeth’s sac­ri­fice.  The only way out of the sick world of Columbian fas­cism is total annihilation—not mere­ly of the idea of Columbian soci­ety, but of every pos­si­ble per­mu­ta­tion of its con­stituent parts.

This “sac­ri­fice” occurs dur­ing BioShock Infinite’s end­ing.  After a series of unnec­es­sary reveals, Elizabeth drowns the stoic gun‐arm of Booker in the makeshift bap­tismal font of American guilt, which dou­bles as faux‐guilt over the fif­teen solid hours of mur­der that pre­ced­ed it.  The con­se­quence of this mur­der is the com­plete destruc­tion of any pos­si­ble future, all twen­ty six alter­nate dimen­sions of Elizabeth her­self includ­ed.  People focus on this scene’s gotcha!! moments: Elizabeth is actu­al­ly Booker’s daugh­ter, which I would have pre­dict­ed in 2009 were I inter­est­ed in fol­low­ing video game pro­mo­tion­al mate­r­i­al, and Booker is actu­al­ly Comstock, which is what hap­pens when your lead writer loses a drunk­en game of darts.  But what does Elizabeth accom­plish here?  Many of the argu­ments in favor of her strength of char­ac­ter focus on her role as actor dur­ing these few moments.  Is she good because she kills Booker to kill her­self to kill Comstock‐who‐is‐already‐dead to kill Columbia to kill any­thing that could pos­si­bly exist?  Wrong ques­tion.  The deci­sion is not hers.  Western his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tion neces­si­tates that women con­tex­tu­al­ize and pre­serve the actions of men.  Morality is irrel­e­vant in the face of the tower.  Agency is dic­tat­ed from above.   Are you afraid of God?  she asks dur­ing the cli­max, apro­pos of noth­ing.

No, but I’m afraid of you.

The void hungers.

***

In 2001 a man named Fumito Ueda and his team at Sony made a 3d puz­zle plat­former called Ico.  Most peo­ple who fol­low video games today have at least heard of it, though few played it then.  Ico is about a boy and a girl, each inde­pen­dent­ly locked in the same remote and empty cas­tle.  They do not share a com­mon lan­guage.  You play as the boy.  The girl fol­lows you for almost the entire game.  He is dogged and naïve.  She is pale, ethe­re­al, almost auto‐luminescent when nes­tled in the game’s over‐exposed aes­thet­ic.  He runs around clum­sy and unafraid.  She fol­lows with a weary but hope­ful timid­i­ty bred by the coa­les­cence of a life of abuse and a strange but indomitable matu­ri­ty.  There is an entire but­ton on the con­troller devot­ed to hold­ing hands.  You hit switch­es, climb ropes, light torch­es.  It’s all rather fool­ish in the con­text of the nar­ra­tive, but these are the only pos­si­bil­i­ties in this gen­tle but bleak video game envi­ron­ment of blocks and ram­parts, patch­es of ver­dant pas­tel smeared by noise­less inkblot‐black invaders.   There is more mean­ing­ful nar­ra­tive devel­op­ment in the ani­ma­tions of these char­ac­ters than in every word, cutscene, and bul­let of BioShock Infinite com­bined.

In 2001, I was 18 years old.  Ico was the best video game I had ever played, even when it wasn’t.  But I didn’t quite know what to make of Yorda, the girl.  The kid is easy.  He’s young and dumb, dumped in the cas­tle dur­ing the intro and lucky enough to escape his tomb.  Take con­trol, walk for­ward, solve puz­zles.  It’s a video game.  Good things will even­tu­al­ly hap­pen.  But the girl has always been in the cas­tle.  She’s vis­i­bly older.  Why does she so read­i­ly fol­low this boy?  It is clear from her man­ner­isms (you can­not under­stand what she says, and even if you could she speaks rough­ly twen­ty words over the course of the game) that she does not think he knows what he is doing.  And yet, she needs him.  She is use­less with­out his naivety.  In 2001, this both­ered me.  In 2013, I have learned to parse nuance.  Yorda’s phys­i­cal weak­ness does not denote sub­servience or incom­pe­tence.  Strength can dwell in hope­less resolve, in the will­ing­ness to attack cir­cum­stances in a man­ner that runs counter to the logic of knowl­edge.  The play­er is meant to grad­u­al­ly iden­ti­fy with the girl instead of the boy.  Ico ele­vates the ridicu­lous­ness inher­ent in video game expres­sion to some­thing mean­ing­ful.

The mys­tery of Yorda is not a ques­tion of why she acts as she does, but one of how she was ever able to act oth­er­wise.  There is a sense of his­to­ry beneath her actions that we grav­i­tate toward.  Ico does not save her so much as he jos­tles her from an ascetic state of intro­spec­tion.  She doesn’t fol­low him in order to escape—she fol­lows him in order to guard his naivety against the crash, to avert his video game‐like gaze of opti­mism from the con­cept of fail­ure.  It’s a sub­tle mater­nal force that guides the player’s per­spec­tive.  Yorda illu­mi­nates the unguard­ed, triv­ial sense of inevitable pro­gres­sion that under­girds video game level design by con­trast­ing it with a matu­ri­ty that allows for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of res­ig­na­tion in the face of the void.  Hers is a philo­soph­i­cal chal­lenge.  She is a thinker in a medi­um against all thought, a fig­ure of pos­si­bil­i­ty in a per­func­to­ry space where bina­ry modes of lin­ear pro­gres­sion dis­till life into a series of rei­fied obsta­cles, each dic­tat­ing that we either jump or walk away from the TV.  We are forced to con­tem­plate Yorda’s posi­tion with­in this mechan­i­cal space, and in doing so an entire ecol­o­gy of thought emerges in a way that shifts the player’s focus away from his avatar.

The only answers given to us arise from the ontol­ogy of the fairy tale that pro­vides the foun­da­tion of Ico’s nar­ra­tive.  Fairy tales speak to us in the lan­guage of time­less inevitabil­i­ty, which may explain their his­tor­i­cal­ly com­fort­able rela­tion­ship with video games.  The char­ac­ter­i­za­tion in a fairy tale is mytho­log­i­cal, focused on place and func­tion with­in a defined sys­tem, a series of steps meant to lend mean­ing to the social sta­tus quo.  When Yorda’s nar­ra­tive mys­tery strains against the sys­tems of game design that enclose it, the struc­tur­al reci­procity between fairy tale nar­ra­tive design and video game notions of progress is brought into relief.  While the mys­tery behind her char­ac­ter pow­ers Ico by com­pli­cat­ing sys­tems of progress, she also func­tions as the game’s mechan­i­cal crux.  The puz­zles revolve around manip­u­lat­ing the envi­ron­ment in ways that allow her to tra­verse spaces that her phys­i­cal weak­ness would oth­er­wise not allow; in turn, there are bar­ri­ers that are impass­able with­out her touch.  So in pon­der­ing Yorda’s nar­ra­tive role, we engage her mechan­i­cal neces­si­ty; in deal­ing with the mechan­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions that she exerts over the game’s spa­tial struc­ture, we are forced to acknowl­edge the nar­ra­tive ten­sion she rep­re­sents.  If all goes right, each puz­zle exists as a nar­ra­tive event: the play­er is organ­i­cal­ly com­pelled to work with Yorda as a means of dis­cov­ery.  The boy acts as a kind of inter­pre­tive force, a tool which the play­er uses to read Yorda’s place with­in a struc­ture that would decay to sim­ple geom­e­try with­out her pres­ence.  This silent reci­procity fills in the game’s blanks in the mind of the play­er.  The game’s mag­nif­i­cent sense of scale and intense qui­etude encour­age an inward reac­tion.   Ueda slows things down to give them room to grow.

Like Yorda, Elizabeth is mechan­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant to BioShock Infinite.  She is the lit­er­al key to “secrets” in that she is capa­ble of pick­ing locks where­as Booker is not.  She mate­ri­al­izes ammu­ni­tion and money from the ether.  Her magic pow­ers allow her to manip­u­late the envi­ron­ment in a lim­it­ed fash­ion.  Her char­ac­ter hap­pens to read like Yorda’s because they are both cut from the same broad mytho­log­i­cal cloth.  They are tower girls impris­oned by their pre­sump­tive par­ents and guard­ed by mys­te­ri­ous beings.  They take delight in sim­ple plea­sures upon release.  They each have spe­cial pow­ers they do not under­stand, and they both use those pow­ers to affect the direc­tion of their respec­tive game’s final acts.  But while the weight of Yorda’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and func­tion­al design are brought to bear on the entire­ty of Ico, Elizabeth is stripped of any sense of worth.  Elizabeth is pre­sent­ed as extreme­ly capa­ble, but she never fights; and while Yorda’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to the castle’s guardians rep­re­sents the only fail state in Ico, Elizabeth is both com­plete­ly invin­ci­ble and func­tion­al­ly invis­i­ble, a state of affairs that under­cuts all her sup­posed nar­ra­tive import.  Within the bub­ble of BioShock Infinite’s story, she flees the bru­tal­i­ty of Booker on sev­er­al occa­sions, only to aid it moments later.  She laments the sta­tus of the poor and mar­gin­al­ized in the most cliché and over­bear­ing of terms, but Booker is the only per­son she’ll ever give a Sky Dollar to, and even then only to help him pur­chase weapon­ry.  She vows vengeance while pas­sive­ly allow­ing Booker to solve all her prob­lems.  She is all‐knowing and per­fect­ly judg­men­tal in her moral rhetoric despite hav­ing lit­er­al­ly never inter­act­ed with a human being before you res­cue her.

The struc­ture of BioShock Infinite is sim­i­lar to that of Ico, but the reci­procity is miss­ing.  The pac­ing is oblit­er­at­ed, the sim­plic­i­ty fold­ed into a mess of spa­tiotem­po­ral dis­tor­tions, the fairy tale smashed against what pass­es for social com­men­tary.  The mechan­i­cal devel­op­ment is drowned in a hail of monot­o­nous and atyp­i­cal­ly vio­lent (yes, even for a video game) gun­play.  In so bla­tant­ly striv­ing for import and pro­fun­di­ty, Levine approach­es art the way one might approach con­struc­tion: a series of func­tion­al parts laid down one rote step at a time.  He com­pletes his house, but there is no one around to turn it into a home.  Where Ico is craft­ed around Yorda’s sub­tle­ty, BioShock Infinite con­structs a mono­lith and asks Elizabeth to put a face on it.  Life is replaced with noth­ing­ness.

The wide aim and absurd moment to moment action of BioShock Infinite asks too much of Elizabeth, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly giv­ing her too lit­tle. There is no reli­able, steady nar­ra­tive ground against which to view her char­ac­ter devel­op­ment because the story is a mish­mash of incom­pat­i­ble aims that she para­dox­i­cal­ly exists to sta­bi­lize.  One can­not sim­ply rec­on­cile the forces of Capital R Racism And Religion with a rescue‐the‐magic‐girl plot.  Elizabeth waves her hands in front of the cam­era time and again, des­per­ate to weave every­thing togeth­er, the abused girl look­ing to birth hap­pi­ness in strife. She will kow­tow to one strand of expo­si­tion and con­ven­tion at one moment only to crush it the next as she twitch­es between princess, moral agent, polit­i­cal actor, vic­tim, and mys­tery.  She has no con­sis­tent trait, no dis­cern­able val­ues, and offers no con­se­quen­tial actions with­in the scope of a coher­ent nar­ra­tive vec­tor.  She is sev­er­al arche­types from sev­er­al sto­ries bound by the con­ven­tion of the player’s F key.  All her attempts at agency are born of an obse­quious vacu­ity inex­tri­ca­bly tied to all the struc­tur­al iden­ti­ty prob­lems that pre­vent BioShock Infinite from ever decid­ing what it wants to be.  Booker rum­mages through trash­cans for cake; Elizabeth inter­rupts scenes of despon­dent mor­al­iz­ing to glee­ful­ly throw him a nick­el.  Here’s a rock­et, I know you want a rock­et.  All’s well that ends well.  Welcome to Columbia.

I am not the first to point out that Elizabeth is lit­er­al­ly objec­ti­fied in that her ludo­log­i­cal, util­i­tar­i­an role as item dis­penser con­stant­ly con­flicts with and super­sedes her mono­logues and com­men­taries.  But the point is that her lack of a cogent or con­sis­tent belief sys­tem reduces the char­ac­ter in unfore­seen ways.  The game courts mys­tery by ide­al­iz­ing Elizabeth’s nar­ra­tive role.  It gives her pow­ers that are a step beyond any of the magic‐science or beau­ty of Columbia.  The cir­cum­stances around her impris­on­ment are mythol­o­gized not just to the peo­ple of the game world, but also to the play­er dur­ing the 4 hour build up to her res­cue.  Her suf­fer­ing is aggran­dized while the suf­fer­ing of those around her is vil­i­fied. Her moral arc attempts to add depth to Booker’s actions, but it ends in nihilism by way of abuse and mar­gin­al­iza­tion.  She is so supreme­ly func­tion­al in the way that she ori­ents the actions around her that we get no sense of her being.  When she speaks, we do not see a per­son, but a script.  When she acts, we see the tool of a video game sys­tem.

When Yorda sac­ri­fices her­self at the end of Ico, as these char­ac­ters inevitably do, she does so as the one com­plex and mature char­ac­ter with­in the game.  She does so as a means to pro­mul­gate life in the face of fool­ish­ness on the part of the boy and cold nar­cis­sism on the part of the antag­o­nist.  The sac­ri­fice is a neces­si­ty of genre, but it is also a con­crete action with a real char­ac­ter behind it.  When Elizabeth sac­ri­fices her­self at the end of BioShock Infinite, she can’t even do so as a cogent actor.  Her sac­ri­fice is mur­der.  Patricide, even.  It is com­mit­ted in order to pay for the guilt of Booker.  She kills her father in order to kill her­self so that she does not end up killing in the future as a robot­ic man­i­fes­ta­tion of Comstock’s zeal and vio­lence.  She is both vic­tim, in that her life is out­side of her con­trol, and guilty party, in that her actions at every step lead to death.  The famil­ial sci‐fi roller coast­er of guilt and abne­ga­tion with­in the game reduces Elizabeth to a tool in the same way that her coin‐flicking, portal‐popping util­i­ty does.  The two rein­force one anoth­er in a way that plays off of long held cul­tur­al beliefs regard­ing the role of women with­in the social nar­ra­tive.  She is above—and because above, para­dox­i­cal­ly sub­ject to—the vio­lence and guilt of man in his abject­ly human ele­ment.  It is not her fault that she was locked in a tower, that Booker gave her away, that Comstock abused her, that she became a zealot and a tyrant, that she killed, that she cut off the fam­i­ly line, that she is cursed.  Because men have failed her, she must in turn be a fail­ure.  She has no say in the mat­ter.  The tower exists with­in the nom­i­nal story of the game in order to pre­serve Elizabeth for her role as Comstock’s suc­ces­sor, but the real idea of the tower is to iso­late women in order to pre­vent their cor­rup­tion.  Compliance is fos­tered in order to trick the psy­che into imbu­ing suf­fer­ing with mean­ing.  The lack of agency is implied.  And so there’s our princess, chuck­ing ammo.  Singing a lul­la­by to the poor before mur­der­ing them.

***

The scene in BioShock Infinite that osten­si­bly “changes” Elizabeth by set­ting her down the path that will end in either pat­ri­cide or tyran­ny is, pre­dictably, one of mur­der.  Elizabeth stabs Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of Columbia’s racial/proletariat rebel­lion, in order to pre­vent her from killing a child of priv­i­lege.  The scene’s out­ward val­ues are clear: mur­der is always bad, unless the mur­der is com­mit­ted by the good guys (so much for those lit­er­ary aims).  The moral equiv­o­cat­ing at the cen­ter of this scene, which extends to an entire branch of the story, is deeply prob­lem­at­ic in a num­ber of ways that have been writ­ten about exten­sive­ly.  More trou­bling to me is just how force­ful­ly the play­er must white­wash the entire expe­ri­ence of play­ing the game in order to even con­ceive of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of mur­der alter­ing Elizabeth’s mind­set this late into the pro­ceed­ings.  A game in which mur­der is a reg­u­lat­ed mech­a­nism for progress and a mechan­i­cal end in itself should not then ignore those real­i­ties to such an extent that a given point in this con­tin­u­um of death is forced by delib­er­ate cir­cum­stances to stand apart from—and thus nullify—the whole.  That this is the first mur­der Elizabeth direct­ly com­mits is irrel­e­vant.  To argue oth­er­wise is to aggres­sive­ly deny agency by triv­i­al­iz­ing the role she has played up until this point.

But the focus here is on what occurs after this mur­der.  Stabbing an evil black per­son with scis­sors leaves Elizabeth’s mod­est cloth­ing coat­ed in blood.  She runs off.  This is the “big moment” in her char­ac­ter arc.  Her first actions on the other side carry sig­nif­i­cant sym­bol­ic import, whether or not the play­ers or design­ers are aware of that fact.

So what does Elizabeth do with her new­found world‐weariness?

Like any woman, she fash­ions a new look.

She emerges from this trial reborn, her long princess hair shorn above the shoul­ders.  Her blood­ied school‐marm regalia evap­o­rates, replaced by a corset and an open blouse.  Her breasts heave them­selves into the light of day.  She presents her­self to Booker.  The cam­era gawks, because we’re play­ing a video game.  This is all they had.  Thanks for the apol­o­gy, Levine.

The out­fit used to be her mother’s.

The nar­ra­tive trope at work here is the loss of inno­cence.  When faced with star­va­tion and dis­ease in the help­ful­ly named Shantytown, Elizabeth’s reac­tion is to burst into song.  But when forced to kill a would‐be tyrant (note the prece­dent), the con­se­quence is some nihilist’s view of a sud­den mat­u­ra­tion.  In a strange world that I do not inhab­it, this turn of events is labeled pro­gres­sive, because Elizabeth’s trans­for­ma­tion from demure and delu­sion­al equiv­o­ca­tor to deter­mined psy­chopath is an arc nor­mal­ly reserved for male pro­tag­o­nists.  But note the sym­bols of this sadis­tic matu­ri­ty: bloody cloth­ing, cleav­age, fash­ion­able hair­cut.  It is not vio­lence that caus­es or even sig­ni­fies her sud­den shift in mind­set.  Nor is it the result of a con­science choice to lift the sto­ry­book veil that has col­ored and lim­it­ed Elizabeth’s per­cep­tion of events.  The mur­der is not much of a choice, first of all, and the veil by all rights should have been oblit­er­at­ed six hours and a thou­sand corpses ear­li­er, at the lat­est.  This girl has lived her entire life in a con­di­tion of oppres­sion.  It should not shock her that oth­ers might share a sim­i­lar fate.

Elizabeth’s real “change” is socio‐sexual.  Blood, cleav­age, fash­ion.   Her wide‐eyed rela­tion to the world in the game’s first half is vir­ginal.  The nar­ra­tive rup­ture at the point of phys­i­cal and men­tal change mir­rors that of sex­u­al mat­u­ra­tion.  The shock of blood is, well, the shock of blood.  Incredibly, men­stru­a­tion is even obscure­ly ref­er­enced in the game, hid­den away in the ill‐conceived creep­er den at the base of Monument Tower.  Cleavage and fash­ion­able hair, how­ev­er, are not even direct signs of sex­u­al matu­ri­ty; rather, they are signs of signs.  Upon expe­ri­enc­ing phys­i­cal mat­u­ra­tion, a young woman is expect­ed to dupli­cate her phys­i­cal change in the social realm.  Cleavage is not the appear­ance of devel­oped breasts; it is the appear­ance of the acknowl­edg­ment of devel­oped breasts.  The corset assumes a view­ing party.  Its value lies in sig­ni­fi­ca­tion.  For its part, a haircut’s asso­cia­tive value is arbi­trary, which imme­di­ate­ly denotes it as a com­mu­nica­tive arti­fact.  In west­ern cul­ture, a pony­tail is coded as imma­ture, which log­i­cal­ly forces its removal to sig­ni­fy the oppo­site.   These signs—one philo­soph­i­cal­ly pos­i­tive, the other negative—congeal in order to present a young woman as both “ready” and desir­able.  Elizabeth holds her own debu­tantes ball under the watch­ful eye of a direct­ed cam­era, which serves to mag­ni­fy the sig­ni­fica­tive pur­pose of the visu­al change.

Altering her appear­ance in this man­ner iden­ti­fies Elizabeth with her moth­er, which imme­di­ate­ly robs her of fur­ther agency.  Up until this point, the game at least pre­tends that Elizabeth is allowed to make deci­sions that might alter the flow of the nar­ra­tive.  She runs away from Booker sev­er­al times, she voic­es con­cerns regard­ing pover­ty and vio­lence, she express­es per­son­al desires that extend beyond the scope of the game, she objects to the play­ers actions with vary­ing force, and, of course, she kills Daisy.  But once she assumes the man­tle of a mature woman, her devel­op­ment is lim­it­ed to com­ing to terms with her role with­in the story of Comstock, Booker, and Columbia.  She is alter­na­tive­ly under­stand­ing and venge­ful, impris­oned and destruc­tive, but the story increas­ing­ly hinges on her abil­i­ty to acqui­esce to the fated cir­cum­stances of exter­nal par­ties.  As the moth­er, she exists to pre­serve the social frame­work that men butt up against in their role as agents of change.  That is the ulti­mate social con­se­quence of female sex­u­al mat­u­ra­tion in the clas­si­cal west­ern tra­di­tion, and BioShock Infinite clings to these pil­lars as a way to fun­nel mean­ing into an increas­ing­ly non­sen­si­cal game.  As nar­ra­tive tropes, “mat­u­ra­tion” and “loss of inno­cence” are social­ly coded as sex­u­al events for female char­ac­ters.  To ignore these real­i­ties, either as a “read­er” or a writer, does not make them go away.  One holds a cer­tain respon­si­bil­i­ty for the way in which tropes that call upon social real­i­ty play out with­in one’s work.  That which pre­tends to art must deal with the weight of that invo­ca­tion.

The male per­spec­tive of Booker (and osten­si­bly the game’s tar­get audi­ence) cir­cum­scribes Elizabeth as she presents her new­found matu­ri­ty.  The change does not “take” until is acknowl­edged by a male pres­ence.  The cam­era briefly pans over her to rein­force that fact.  Older first per­son shoot­ers in the Half‐Life mold allow the play­er to con­trol the per­spec­tive in story scenes, but the greater focus on char­ac­ter and pro­duc­tion value in con­tem­po­rary titles tempts design­ers into script­ing the cam­era as a nar­ra­tive tool.  In BioShock Infinite, this usu­al­ly results in the game fram­ing Elizabeth in key moments.  She’s the focus.  But the per­spec­tive in a first per­son video game is not that of a dis­em­bod­ied cam­era, it is the eyes of a spe­cif­ic char­ac­ter.  When a sex­u­al­ly tint­ed scene is framed by this per­spec­tive, it can­not be done neu­tral­ly.  That the role of cam­era belongs to Elizabeth’s nom­i­nal father only deep­ens the prob­lem.   Booker is set to give his lit­tle girl away now that she is social­ly use­ful.  And that is, in fact, exact­ly what hap­pens.  The entire plot hinges on two instances of Booker giv­ing Elizabeth away: first, when she is baby; sec­ond, imme­di­ate­ly after van­quish­ing her moth­er, at which point the ini­tial scene is recalled.   The trap is sprung.  All we can do is wait for the sac­ri­fice.  The game has already estab­lished its world as unwor­thy of being saved, and it will soon reduce that lack of worth to the psy­cho­log­i­cal after effects of its protagonist’s guilt.

Elizabeth’s loss of agency is enforced in the sci‐fi mess that would leave her as inevitable tyrant lest she mur­der Booker and the entire pos­si­bil­i­ty of her own exis­tence.  In the lit­er­al waters of Booker’s mind, she is revealed as the long‐form result of a guilt that estab­lish­es her as a bit play­er in the over‐complicated arc of yet anoth­er gruff, point­less video game pro­tag­o­nist.  At no point is she able to escape the idea of what she sig­ni­fies in a story and a life that is not her own—It is assumed, as a con­di­tion of her being, that she is not capa­ble of mak­ing inde­pen­dent deci­sions of any con­se­quence.  She will con­tin­ue on the “tra­di­tion” of Columbia and Comstock in any real­i­ty in which Booker is not able to save her, because as the locus of past and future, she is woven, a pri­ori, into the nar­ra­tive fab­ric she comes to rep­re­sent.  Choice and con­se­quence are the domain of men.  They shape extreme social nar­ra­tives in which women are sit­u­at­ed where con­ve­nient.  Men forge his­to­ry through action.  Women are in turn wor­shipped and debased in order to cleanse them of con­trol and install them as tools of social main­te­nance. In this struc­ture, women are impor­tant in that they exist as cul­tur­al guardians, but entire­ly periph­er­al in that both this role and its con­se­quences are dic­tat­ed by the actions of men.   A woman is both a role, in that she pre­serves, and the key to that role, in that she sig­ni­fies the need for preser­va­tion.  Hence the tower.

When Elizabeth attempts to assume the male role of agent of change by mur­der­ing Daisy Fitzroy, she is imme­di­ate­ly cleansed of inde­pen­dence and installed as sym­bol.  This is both why and how the game entire­ly aban­dons its polit­i­cal back­drop in favor of famil­ial drama and meta­phys­i­cal con­de­scen­sion.  Elizabeth is no longer able to choose–This is all they had—any­thing but what is set before her, and what is set before her are the psy­cho­log­i­cal strug­gles of her imme­di­ate fam­i­ly mem­bers.  The moth­er side quest is pure arche­type, the out of con­trol emo­tion­al witch irra­tional­ly tak­ing her anger out on an inno­cent party.  But Elizabeth’s moth­er loses her emo­tion­al sta­bil­i­ty as a result of her pow­er­less­ness.  The goal of this side plot from the per­spec­tive of the game’s writ­ers is to demon­strate Elizabeth’s strength by allow­ing her to men­tal­ly over­come and emo­tion­al­ly for­give her mother’s resent­ment.  But that aim is lost when the vic­tim is made the vil­lain, which is an unfor­tu­nate and insid­i­ous real­i­ty of our reac­tion to abuse and mar­gin­al­iza­tion.  The mis­take is com­pound­ed when Elizabeth her­self (in her mother’s cloth­ing, no less) is reduced to a tool in the psy­cho­log­i­cal bat­tle that takes place between Booker and Comstock.  The real rea­son the mar­gin­al­ized moth­er must be dis­posed of is because Elizabeth has to take her place.  The goal is sta­bil­i­ty at any cost.  Succession as moral imper­a­tive.

When the mother’s bag­gage is not enough to dis­suade Elizabeth from doing what­ev­er it is we are sup­posed to be doing in BioShock Infinite, the father’s must be added to it.  Women are emo­tions.  Men are action.  And so while the moth­er is an incon­se­quen­tial rag­ing ghost who assails Elizabeth men­tal­ly (while we fire our guns off, of course), Comstock’s trial is direct and phys­i­cal.  Elizabeth is tor­tured.  She screams, tied down, wait­ing for the man to save her.  She is pun­ished for con­fus­ing her mat­u­ra­tion with the right to agency.  The tor­ture involves an anony­mous man lit­er­al­ly insert­ing a for­eign object into her while Comstock slings taunts and an asso­ciate watch­es from above.  It is a ridicu­lous scene built entire­ly around help­less­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty col­ored with sex­u­al imagery in a way that is meant to invoke rape.  When we tem­porar­i­ly (tem­po­ral­ly, per­haps?) res­cue her, the first thing she asks us to do is tight­en her corset.  She cries out in pain while we do so, a trans­par­ent attempt to tit­il­late a male audi­ence by sub­li­mat­ing the desire to fuck into the desire to pro­tect.  Elizabeth is once again reduced to an object in order to pro­vide moti­va­tion and self‐reflection for a male char­ac­ter and a male audi­ence.  Violence and sex come togeth­er to paint a crude pic­ture of fem­i­nine iden­ti­ty as parsed by male desire.  Men are to express them­selves vio­lent­ly and be reward­ed for doing so with the own­er­ship of sex­u­al sat­is­fac­tion.  Physical vio­la­tion of fem­i­nine ide­al­ism exists as a call to action. For Elizabeth, the appear­ance of nor­mal­cy in the form of the corset mat­ters because the appear­ance sig­ni­fies the main­te­nance of the social exchange.  Her men­tal state is imme­di­ate­ly sup­pressed by a recog­ni­tion of male desire, the same as it was after she mur­dered Daisy.  This is pre­sent­ed as strength and matu­ri­ty.

This fusion of tor­ture and super­fi­cial nor­mal­cy is also the cor­ner­stone for the emer­gence of Elizabeth the Tyrant, immutable pro­tec­tor of the Columbian social val­ues that pre­scribe her mis­er­able exis­tence from cra­dle to grave.  Egregious vic­tim­hood has left Elizabeth with a desire to pro­tect the insti­tu­tions of mar­gin­al­iza­tion that have assault­ed her.  Because mat­u­ra­tion brought her the pre­tense of agency, vio­la­tion of that agency in the nom­i­nal form of phys­i­cal tor­ture and sym­bol­ic form of loss of chasti­ty turns Elizabeth into a vil­lain.  The story brush­es these asso­ci­a­tions away by drag­ging them through the murky waters of alter­nate dimen­sion chi­canery, but in the only nar­ra­tive arc that mat­ters the tor­ture direct­ly results in Elizabeth first acqui­esc­ing to and ulti­mate­ly pro­tect­ing and advanc­ing the Columbian way of life by mor­ph­ing into the dread­ed arch‐mother, an entire­ly sym­bol­ic and mytho­log­i­cal crea­ture whose loss of agency is total.  From the past, a future.  The twist­ed ossi­fi­ca­tion of mater­ni­ty at play in the scene with the aged matri­arch ver­sion of Elizabeth is the log­i­cal end of BioShock Infinite’s nihilism.  It is what neces­si­tates Elizabeth’s actions dur­ing the game’s end­ing, and what final­ly sub­sumes both her and the entire­ty of the game world under the psy­cho­log­i­cal scope of the Booker/Comstock dual­i­ty.

With her corset tied, Elizabeth threat­ens to kill Booker if he gets in the way of her revenge on Comstock.  He responds by claim­ing the onus of mur­der (read: agency) for him­self, like any noble gun‐arm con­trolled by some­one who paid sixty dol­lars for the priv­i­lege should.  When the shoot­ing begins, she’s back in her cor­ner throw­ing ammo, fol­low­ing, doing as she’s told.  When it’s time for mur­der again, she backs off.  Booker takes one for the team.  Hit F to drown Comstock in a minia­ture foun­tain.  Save the girl.

***

I know what Elizabeth is sup­posed to be.  She’s the hook, the talk­ing point, the Little Sister and the Would You Kindly all togeth­er.  She is so made‐to‐please that the world cos­played her before any­one knew any­thing but a name and a ridicu­lous out­fit.  And that’s the most damn­ing part of all, real­ly.  Elizabeth doesn’t work because she was never designed to work.  She exists because it was assumed by all par­ties that the attempt was enough.  Just as the sim­ple invo­ca­tion of racism‐as‐theme was sup­posed to jus­ti­fy the empty death and actu­al racism with­in the game by imbu­ing it with social weight, Elizabeth’s char­ac­ter is sup­posed to be pro­gres­sive and inter­est­ing sim­ply because she exists, talks, and even pre­tends to hate you.  She is a poor char­ac­ter because the obse­quious­ness inher­ent in her design seeps through all the struc­tur­al cracks in the game that she was cre­at­ed to repair.  Elizabeth was never sup­posed to be a per­son, only a meta‐symbol of progress and dif­fer­ence, a per­verse inver­sion of the pre­cious fem­i­nine fairy princess nailed in place in order to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly bare our bur­dens and wash them away by giv­ing up her human­i­ty.  When the game sees fit to give Elizabeth the final word it comes off as apol­o­gy.  Her deci­sion to drown Booker is sup­posed to empow­er her by nul­li­fy­ing the thought­less frame­work that gov­erns her actions, but the entire nar­ra­tive arc works to ren­der that deci­sion inevitable and ulti­mate­ly incon­se­quen­tial.  So when her sac­ri­fice is unwit­ting­ly buried by the knowl­edge that it was neces­si­tat­ed in order to salve the psy­che of a bor­ing man and his neb­u­lous psy­chopathol­o­gy, the nihilis­tic con­clu­sion is maybe the only one we deserve.  Elizabeth is clum­si­ly defined by a fairy tale, sure, but the real fairy tale here was the idea that this was ever going to work in the first place.

You can’t save the girl.  She is already gone.


Justin Freeman

About Justin Freeman

Justin Freeman is an internet vagabond and general malcontent. He has degrees in English literature, getting banned from video game forums, creative writing, and demonology. He recently opened a twitter account @jsfreem, which he may one day even be persuaded to use. He has been legally certified as the Citizen Kane of video games.