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.
“That which pretends to art must deal with the weight of that invocation” — nailed it. Incredible article.
Brav-freakin’-o. You even covered the racism angle before proceeding with the rest, which was almost entirely ignored by most of the [white] internet. Good read, hopefully some knuckleheads learn a thing or two.
This is one of the best piece I ever read about Bioshock Infinite and Elizabeth.
This is, without question, one of the most effective analyses (and takedowns) of BioShock Infinite. But beyond that, this is a truly exhaustive and interesting look at how creators build characters. As a writer myself, I think this should be required reading for anyone interested in learning more about telling stories that matter and creating characters that genuinely resonate with the audience. Thank you so much for this piece. I’d be interested to hear your take on my writing project, the protagonist of which is a young female knight thrust alone into unforgiving circumstances — this article has definitely given me a great deal of food for thought with regards to my writing there. Not to shamelessly plug, but you can check it out at http://www.aknightadrift.com.
Holy crap, the author’s attempt to portray a well thought-out opinion is completely lost in the absolutely awkward phrasing of each and every sentence.
The individual who patiently and meticulously crafted this piece of prose need not dedicate a significant portion of the task at hand in completing said work to phrasing their opinions, once internalized, yet now given life, in the cherished and yet subjective form of communication known both colloquially and through its own stated and historically recorded etymology: poetry. It is completely within the realm of acceptable practice (albeit not necessarily a forgone conclusion) when communicating in the written word to not remind one’s reader of the unenviable task of scaling a mountain forged solely of words, only to eventually — yet periodically — tumble into the thoughts that originally gave birth to those words.
Seriously, for someone pointing the finger at an artist’s failings, you bust out this four mile long sentence: “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.”
I sincerely recommend to you that in your future writing you just simply say what you want to say. The brilliance in your words will come through on their own. Don’t dunk every thought in a vat of icing. These sentences will stick to the page just fine on their own.
A well-versed yet ultimately superficial torrent of thought which has completely misread the semantic and narrative caesura at the end of the game.
I’m afraid that your details-oriented critical approach has managed to outright miss the thesis of Bioshock Infinite. This game “is not a pipe”. Like one of those negative-space visual puzzles, you’ve sketched everything around it but failed to see the image that it makes in the middle.
Bioshock Infinite is about games, and the sins of gaming itself, and the nature of the player’s wholly complicit participation in those sins. To speak of the ending as Elizabeth sacrificing herself, or committing patricide, is a misreading of the entire ending sequence. Once enlightened, Elizabeth says nothing further to Booker; the ending is addressed through the fourth wall to the player, which is what that stuff about making alternate worlds which are all the same is about. Then she kills you, the player, not Booker or Comstock or herself.
This opinion may be controversial, but I think the game is repeatedly explicit in making itself impossible to read straight. We’re taken into a museum filled with flat cardboard racist caricatures of Native Americans, to have a gunfight of all things in what is supposed to be an exhibit about the Wounded Knee Massacre? It’s really obvious that this is not just about how racist people were back in the 1920s or whatever. The flat cardboard props are 2D for a reason. Paper fires are “animated” by fans on the floor. Playing this scene, perhaps the player will hear the sound of his Xbox fan. You getting me?
Elizabeth herself, yeah, young pretty Magical Girl in a tower. Go and rescue, heroic man of extreme violence! We will throw some literal birdcages everywhere in case you were confused. How about picking between the birdcage or the bird? Will you notice that there’s no difference?
I’m sure many players will play the game glorifying in all the violence and sexist tropes. They will nod sagely when the populist movement turns out to be no better than the aristocracy. The reality of the AAA market is that appealing to their sensibilities is necessary for your game to be funded, and they are the villain of Bioshock Infinite.
I had a couple lines win my original draft that addressed this dumb meta-context of the game-as-commentary-on-games thing, which is by now cliched enough to almost certainly have a slavish TVTropes article. It’s thoughtless and haphazzard, implement with with little skill, and does not excuse the mountain of idiocy within the title. Pointing out that your game is dumb does not make it any less dumb, especially when it elsewhere takes itself very seriously.
I could taste the smug in this article. There are a number of interesting points, but jesus the language is so concerned with sounding smart that the message is lost.
My thoughts exactly. I can hardly take anything seriously when it’s written this way.
6,500 words that could have easily been 3,000. I’m doubting your claim of being “legally certified as the Citizen Kane of video games.” Welles said so much more with one word.
Still, I trudged through this and despite the laborious read (which admittedly engendered a bias due to your pedantic composition), I found myself agreeing with several of your points.
However, I think there is a fundamental flaw in your basic argument in that Elizabeth is indeed a relevant and believable portrayal of a young woman placed in such circumstances. Her actions, though illogical, are entirely reasonable. Her passive-aggressive behavior towards Booker does not make sense and her final decision is preposterous: I will remedy the problems I believe are plaguing this world by destroying it. This is the human condition and even those of us endowed with great power can be (and often are) idiots.
This idiocy offends us because we expect characters in games to be heroes. When our hero does something stupid, they lose credibility. If they aren’t smarter, stronger, and braver than us, what good are they? We might as well play “Lester the Unlikely” instead.
“I’m doubting your claim of being ‘legally certified as the Citizen Kane of video games.’ ”
You don’t say.
And Welles had a camera.
That which is illogical is, by definition, not reasonable. Perhaps my pedantry is a function of my desire to use words that actually say what I mean them to say.
This idiocy offends me because the game does not take it to be idiocy. It believes Elizabeth is a hero, and it believes this while explicitly painting her in slavish, historically predetermined, mythic terms that reinforce rigid and thoughtless social roles for women. The strips Elizabeth of control while sincerely believing that it does the opposite, and the entire point of the 3500 words you don’t understand is that the unconscious (and profoundly uncreative) perspective through which the game’s creators view Elizabeth subsumes her under normative values from the start, uses her to provide the structure to those values, and then pretends that their inability to provide a heroic or even competent female under the terms of this perspective is in some way progressive or edifying. The result is both 1) a dumb and poorly constructed sub literary work attached to a broken game, which I played down as a result of my critical aim, and 2) socially dangerous, which is the conclusion that tries to pull this thing together.
And if the game did take its idiocy to be idiocy, which is a mark it half-heatedly aims at with regards to its casual racism, then the game is a nihilistic mess, not a profound commentary on agency and human fallibility. The-world-is-terrible-so-I-must-destroy-it is the casus belli of just about every villain in every JRPG, anime, comic book, or YA novel. It is also not the particular aim here, though I would be amenable to a reading along those lines if it weren’t so critically empty.
Apologies for the late reply, but I only just now found that I’d bookmarked this. I’ve read your response and I felt I should respond in kind.
“That which is illogical is, by definition, not reasonable. Perhaps my pedantry is a function of my desire to use words that actually say what I mean them to say.”
For a man whom I’d expect to value the subtlety of meanings in purported synonyms, I’m disappointed that you’re so quick to say that logic is equivalent to reason. That is an absurd and indefensible stance. Worse yet, you support this stance with a second sentence that is completely contrary to your first.
Also, to assuage my oh-so-wounded intellectual pride, I must point out that I never said I didn’t understand the 3,500 words which I mentioned were unnecessary, I only mentioned that they were unnecessary. I’m sorry that you misunderstood.
“…the unconscious (and profoundly uncreative) perspective through which the game’s creators view Elizabeth subsumes her under normative values from the start, uses her to provide the structure to those values, and then pretends that their inability to provide a heroic or even competent female under the terms of this perspective is in some way progressive or edifying.”
Whether the perspective is unconscious or not is debatable but I can agree with you that it was uncreative in that it has been employed countless times before. Still, any change on an old story makes a new story. “You could not step twice into the same river” said Heraclitus and that concept applies even to storytelling.
As for the “inability to provide a heroic or even competent female” I must ask you how you know that is what they truly intended to do? As I said before, we expect the characters in games to be heroes and your statement certainly supports that this was your expectation. However, my stance is that she is a realistic representation of a young woman in these wild circumstances (of time paradoxes and alternate dimensions et cetera ad naseum) regardless of your disappointment with her as a hero.
The story far from perfect. The characters are flawed. The theme is a mess. There is no literary value. In fact, the very concept of Elizabeth is “socially dangerous.” The game is broken and the premise is stupid. Mona Lisa has no eyebrows. The satire in A Modest Proposal is applied too thickly. The Walking Dead is the same episode over and over again.
We can tear anything down. Everything down. Destruction is easy! We don’t really have to do anything. There’s no real effort. Smash the clockworks and point to the broken pieces. You don’t even thank him for the opportunity but only thumb your nose and walk away.
But when you do smash that clock, you betray your envy of the clockmaker. And everyone can see it.
your “argument” is that criticism is an invalid discourse. ok, then. nice talking to you.
It’s an excellent piece, if not only for the fact it’s well-written in a manner reserved for Vanity Fair or Salon instead of, say, your anime forum. This isn’t meant to be an insult to either anime forums or modern American magazines, but the caliber of writing is very high indeed.
I’m not sure if your critique works entirely. On many points you hit the nail, though I don’t mind some of the nails (yes, the vending machines.) I don’t believe that Levine thinks of himself as a great auteur. If anything, he takes an almost Dylan-esque “song and dance man” defensiveness when asked about his artistic aspirations. He admits to being a man who loves b‑culture, with all its robots and superpowers and ridiculous dramatic situations, and this is found in his games.
“The pacing is obliterated, the simplicity folded into a mess of spatiotemporal distortions, the fairy tale smashed against what passes for social commentary.”
The word “passes” is an interesting choice. Simply put, this article is soaked with a very acidic, sarcastic tone. Perhaps this is meant to be a rebuttal to all the sanctimonious praise of the game when it was first released, but at times it comes off as too self-assured and lacking enough justification for such harsh phrasing. Several times throughout the article I found statements that gave motivation without evidence.
“Elizabeth doesn’t work because she was never designed to work.” Whatever that means. You give a few debatable points, this is very much your opinion.
You call Booker a “boring man.” Again, without much explanation as to why this is so.
The reason this piece rubs me the wrong way is the utter conviction in the tone without much admittance that the author could be wrong. I admire the attitude, but I would have liked for a little more…humility?
But, besides that, I admire how you understand the narrative in the context of myth and fairy tale, and the comparisons to Ico were both accurate and thought-provoking. Much of it was spot on, including (sigh) stealing the ghost fingerprints.
You take a different and, if I may say so, courageous angle with this game. Even though I may not agree with you on some points, the fact something like this essay exists is a good thing.There needs to be more variety in the voices heard about any piece of art , besides overly-gushing reviews and snide, emotion-laden rants to the contrary. Your piece is neither, and it better for that fact. It creates a dialogue and opens up parties for debate, which is always a good thing.
I look forward to reading more of your work. Keep it up.
A good read. Certainly as thorough as Clint Hocking’s critique of Bioshock was.
I don’t necessarily agree with your comparisons to Ico, because its meaning, beyond the fairy tail structure is very subjective. It’s like reading into Journey and somehow finding complex religious meaning. Maybe it’s there for you, but it’s not there for everyone. BI on the other hand has more concrete text and subtext that isn’t really up for interpretation.
I agree that Elizabeth’s existence as a passive player in most of the game’s events is a problem, but it’s one that exists for good reasons. I think her utility as helper, was born out of a need to make her seem useful to the player, rather than just letting her tag along or be an annoying sidekick. Helping the player is a way to endear her mechanically and not just narratively. Furthermore, Elizabeth’s invisibility in combat is a way to prevent a limited AI from becoming a nuisance in the game’s combat scenarios and avoid a 15 hour long escort mission.
I consider these smart concessions to gameplay that just have the side-effect of creating ludonarrative dissonance. I’m not happy about it, anymore than I was happy with The Dark Knight Rises teleporting Batman back to Gotham City for the 3rd act, but I realize it was necessary to keep things moving.
Initially, I too was disappointed that BI, nor any of its characters, didn’t take the time to critique the jingoism and xenophobia of Columbia in more detail. However, now that I’ve thought about it, I don’t think it’s significantly more underwritten than Objectivism was in Bioshock. It would have been nice for there to have been more of it, but the main theme of these games is centered more on choice and consequence than making social or political statements. So, that everything is allowed to end on a more personal “all in the family” kind of way rather than with some epic contest of ideas where one ideology wins out, is acceptable to me.
I think most of the problems you have, and lord knows that I have, begin in the second act of the game’s story. Instead of filling out more of the world’s mythology and characters, and giving Elizabeth a more gradual arc that culminates in decisive moments, like killing Fiztroy, time is wasted on tertiary characters like Fink and the gunsmith. As a consequence, a lot of nothing happens in between Elizabeth’s first real betrayal by Booker and her sudden maturation into womanhood via the murder of Fitzroy.
Perhaps it’s bad form, and self-serving in appearance, but here’s a link to some of my criticisms and changes I would make. It was written before I read this blog, but funnily enough I think it addresses many of your concerns. (Though at 2500 words is somewhat less detailed.)
I know I’m late. I just wanted to say this was stunning.