Beyond The Damsel In Distress: Elizabeth In Bioshock Infinite

”Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” Sounds simple right? Yet Bioshock Infinite is a game that relishes in subverting expectations. What begins in a rescue the princess style mission unravels into a complex and affecting experience.

Anyone who has read TV Tropes will know that the most interesting examples are where a trope is subverted. In this article we’ll examine how Elizabeth sets up and flips over our expectations for both damsels in distress and for AI companions in video games.

Read only if you’ve finished Bioshock Infinte – spoilers ahead.

The damsel in distress trope is tenacious, having lasted for centuries and is found throughout all mediums; from tales of dragon slaying and princess rescuing through to King Kong and beyond. Video games often use a kidnapped woman (often a lover or potential or implied lover) as a launchpad for the narrative and end goal for the gameplay. From Mario to Dishonoured, damsels are everywhere. The problem is that these characters can sometimes by little more than a human trophy; lacking their own personality or power.

Likewise AI companions can be problematic; often hindering more than helping. They may step in front of bullets, wander off and get killed and fail the mission for you. There are some notable exceptions, such as Uncharted and Ratchet & Clank – both of which primarily use cutscenes and the occasional buddy mechanics to make them a useful ally.

From Mario to Dishonoured, damsels are everywhere.

Elizabeth of Bioshock Infinite is a damsel in distress who then becomes an AI companion…which on paper sounds awful. Where Bioshock Ininfite succeeds is by having Elizabeth integrated into both the narrative *and* the gameplay to an unprecedented degree. But before breaking the formula, the game first sets up and plays to our expectations.

”Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” Elizabeth is initially a faceless object of value; something to be obtained and traded. She is protected by Columbia and locked away in a tower – needless to say, it’s likely her resemblance to a Disney princess is no accident. Upon rescuing her from her lifelong prison, Elizabeth becomes your ally – even if you’re sometimes at odds. Her first defining moment is in the airship when the player, in the role of Booker Dewitt, puts in the coordinates for New York. whereupon she calls the player out since she recognises the latitude and longtitude. From that point on she fights and struggles for what she believes in, against the wishes of Columbia and even the player. Eventually she becomes more powerful than the player and more powerful than even Songbird and Commstock. Her knowledge is second only to Lutece and Lutece as she explains the nature of the timelines to the player in the final mind bending moments of the game.

Her resemblance to a Disney princess is no accident.

Of course, Elizabeth’s significance to the plot is self evident. What binds it together is her interactions with the player during gameplay. Rather than just being another gun slinger; doing the exact same thing the player is doing, her abilities complement your own. Elizabeth is the white mage to Bookers’ black mage; together they are a formidable team.

Summoning vital gear and throwing you supplies is just the tip of it. She doesn’t need protecting and has no health bar – which is neatly justified by her animations where she keeps low and seeks out cover during a fight. Should you die, she revives you. Though functionally the same as the Vitachambers of the first Bioshock, this has more of a personal touch. It’s more akin to how a human player would assist in any other game with a revival system, such as Left 4 Dead.

Outside of combat, Elizabeth will draw your attention to key features in the environment and make meaningful interactions and comments. She also further encourages exploration by pointing out alternate locations to visit and by her ability to open locked doors and safes. Rather than just being a tool for the player to use, she is actively interested in the task and points out any spare lockpicks she sees.

Cryptographer, doctor, locksmith, summoner and more, Elizabeth is as much your guardian as you are hers. In addition to making combat more dynamic and fun, her strength of character makes her the best video game companion since Alyx Vance of Half-Life 2. Regardless of gender, she’s an awesome character – but having more strong and capable females characters is always welcome in the male-heavy relam of video games and is another reason Bioshock Infinite deserves much and more praise.

For more on Bioshock Infinite and fatalism I recommend this article.
For more on the damsels in distress trope in video games check out this excellent video.