Damsel Decisive: Bioshock Infinite and Elizabeth as a Credible Agent

Elizabeth doesn't take too kindly strange Pinkerton agents falling through her ceiling. PHOTO COURTESY Irrational Games.

Elizabeth doesn’t take too kindly strange Pinkerton agents falling through her ceiling. PHOTO COURTESY Irrational Games.

By Alexander Leach

Bioshock Infinite has arrived.

Though it’s been a while, I did a blog post on the game, criticizing the portrayal of Elizabeth in the trailers. In them, and based on interviews with Levine and others, she’s portrayed as having exaggerated mannerisms and features designed to make the players want to protect her, coupled with an outfit that sexualizes her unnecessarily.

This issue’s come up in the foreground again thanks to Anita Sarkeesian’s much-criticized Feminist Frequency video on Damsels in Distress, discussing the trope. I can’t agree entirely with the video, since I don’t think it supports the conclusion it presents, it ignores the actual factors and problems its symptom of, and it doesn’t investigate the trope and why it’s so widely used beyond a very bare-bones historical summary (which should be critical if she’s asserting that it inherently objectifies women and represents a patriarchal oppression of feminine agency). Perhaps I’ll write about it in detail some other time, though given the controversy regarding response to her endeavor on her side and the other, it might be better to leave it. I will say that it’s something that needs to be discussed regardless of why you’re discussing it.

On the subject of Elizabeth, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Impressed, even, with how Irrational managed to take the traditional damsel plot and character, and invert it in a way that doesn’t feel like a blatant attempt at deconstruction. Better yet, I think she’s one of the better female characters in a video game outside of the protagonist model – something that the game industry isn’t known for.

Elizabeth isn’t an extended escort quest, in the vein of ICO or similar games (a game I’m not fond of, due to the focus on escorting a helpless waif through hordes of enemies). Elizabeth is not expressly in danger of being kidnapped during a firefight. In cut-scenes, she fights back when grabbed, punching and kicking, and using her ability to open Tears to escape capture. In fights, she’s immune to damage, and enemies largely ignore her.

Despite being a non-combatant, Elizabeth doesn’t just hide while you fight. She’ll scavenge for gear as you move around the world, tossing you health, Salts, and ammunition for your chosen weapon as you run low. She’ll follow you along Skylines using her own hook, and will even reassure you that she’ll be alright if you leap to a place she won’t follow (though it’s strange she can’t seem to follow you along stationary hooks, but can do so along skylines; I justify it that she doesn’t feel she needs to climb after you). She also opens Tears for you to bring through items, cover, and turrets to aid you in combat and give you new mobility options.

As a character, Elizabeth has an amazing amount of agency, primarily through her relationship with Booker DeWitt. Most of the adventure has you pursuing Elizabeth more than trying to rescue her – aside from the start of the game and near the end, she spends most of her time free, occasionally running away from you. In the times the enemies do try to grab her, she manages to escape, and even fights back. She also acts like a believable, teenage girl, with no combat training – she doesn’t pick up a gun, or become a stone-cold killer in a few hours. Given the time period that the game is set in (which also has female combatants in the army, making Columbia far more progressive than anything else in 1912).

Booker is the passive one of the relationship, spending most of his time blundering along at the direction of others. Aside from the initial job given to him to find Elizabeth, Booker always acts at the suggestion and orders of others, out of necessity. In many cases, this is Elizabeth; she comes up with most of the plans and even enacts them most of the time. Her reliance on Booker is a mutual relationship – he often needs her to accomplish a lot of what they set out to do, such as opening Tears to bring through critical objects, while he helps her in getting past obstacles that require brute force and military training. It should also be noted that Booker is leagues above previous Bioshock protagonists in terms of characterization, in that he has a personality to speak of, and a rather well-written one at that. Their interactions range from emotionally-charged to intentionally hilarious. But it’s Elizabeth who guides Booker, giving him direction, even if he provides her with a means to eliminate obstacles.

And yes, she is sexualized. But to be blunt, we’re not going to ever escape that on either side and it’s not inherently degrading. In this case specifically, it’s doesn’t detract from her characterization.

It’s nice to see a game that doesn’t make use of traditional escort sensibilities. Any mission requiring you to take a person from point A to B is pretty universally unfun by design, because the burden of failure lies with another person besides yourself. Games are supposed to be challenging, but when the challenge is something you can’t reliably control, it feels frustrating and weak.

Having an actual Damsel in Distress example that provides a new twist on the convention and makes the ‘damsel’ a credible agent in and of herself is the kinda thing we need, and is a good step to take. We’ll see if we can see other instances (rather than just copying this without innovation, which doesn’t help).

Gameplay-wise, it’s incredibly fun to play. Combat is fast-paced and varied, and the areas often have lots of options for handling a problem. Skylines are extremely fun, and the Tears are quite useful and entertaining to switch between (having a turret suddenly spawn an distract everyone is great for lining up a Bucking Bronco ambush).

There’s only a few flaws I’ve noticed. There’s a game-breaking bug in the tutorial carnival, in the Vox shooting game, where you get stuck in place when the prize platform won’t activate correctly. Some Vigors are a bit too powerful, as well – a combination of Bucking Bronco, Murder of Crows, and Undertow, when fully upgraded and supplemented by Gear, allows you to decimate every encounter in the game with minimal threat to one’s person. I’ve only played on Medium, so it might be different higher up, but being able to render opponents immobile for lengths of time feels extremely gamebreaking. I’ve only done it on the standard difficulty, so I’ll probably go through that and see if it’s any better.

Perhaps I’ll do a more indepth review at some point, talking about some other elements.

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2 Comments

  1. criticalwrites

     /  March 30, 2013

    I’ve just started playing and I’m astounded at how much Elizabeth can fend for herself. I thought I’d be escorting her through the whole game, having to take care of her, but she really can protect herself as well as you the player.

    Reply
  2. Whew you scared me for a second. I was prepared to come to the defense of my dear Elizabeth. Luckily I kept reading and you were able to see the Elizabeth I saw. It is interesting and frankly depressing how rare strong female characters are across all mediums. And usually they are just handed a weapon and “boys” clothes…

    On one hand, Elizabeth is weak, she is naive, she is in trouble and she does need rescuing. But at the same time she is the smartest person in the room with a strength of moral character to match. It is the main reason she is so real to the player. As much as her visual style screams caricature, she never is.

    Reply

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