Disclaimer: The opinions and viewpoints expressed by the various authors (including me) do not necessarily reflect the opinions and viewpoints of Neoseeker.
BioShock Infinite has been out for over a couple weeks now. No doubt many of you have already played and finished it, or at least had someone talk your ear off about how incredible Infinite is. The game definitely has a lot going for it, and I can't delve into every aspect without basically retelling the whole story from beginning to end. So how about I focus on characters instead? More specifically Elizabeth and her relationship to Booker (you) from a storytelling standpoint.
First, I'm going to state the obvious: some spoilers ahead.
Now that we've got that out of the way, let me also affirm my love for Elizabeth as a character. She's incredibly well-written, and I can't imagine anyone playing through Infinite without falling in love with her. Some of us might take longer to really warm up to Liz, but it'll happen eventually. Her charms are devastating, more so than that of the most ridiculously-endowed sex bomb.
When speaking to others who have also played BioShock Infinite, I consistently heard this sentiment: "I want to protect her."
Coming up with such a sympathetic character is no small feat. Liz isn't just another pretty face and a pair of tits, but an fully-realized character designed to appeal to us on multiple levels. Given my sensitivity to such issues (anyone who follows my writings regularly shouldn't be surprised), I'm incredibly grateful for all that she is. Yet at the end of the day, Liz remains a damsel in all kinds of distress.
Not that the Damsel is always a bad thing. As I expressed above, Liz is a brilliant character, and I love her immensely. Think about it, though; for all her prodigous power, Liz still needs you to hold her hand for almost the entire game. Booker finds himself playing the role of rescuer on more than one occasion, too, whether he's saving her from Columbia's finest, Songbird, or herself. Heck, I went into this game expecting to have to save her at one point or another, and I did -- multiple times.
Sure, Infinite goes a good job of justifying all this. After all, Elizabeth spent nearly her entire life locked up in a tower (Damsel!) with no inkling of how the outside world operates. And she does grow as the story progresses, as any proper character should when thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Kudos to Ken Levine and his team for allowing her to evolve and giving us the opportunity to watch her development over time, but that doesn't change her role in relation to Booker (and the player, by extension).
For storytelling purposes, this relationship is often necessary, even if it is overused. But what if Elizabeth had a Y chromosome, and was instead "Elijah"?
What's the point of this gender flip, you ask? Some variety in video game characters and tropes. Sure, games have come a long way in how they represent women, both in terms of character portrayal and appearance. We've seen a very visible movement that pushes for more realistic women that might better emulate the men in terms of audience appeal. But deeply ingrained perceptions are difficult to overcome.
I do understand why writers always fall back on a female character to be the Damsel. Our culture has taught us that it's a man's job to protect, and a young girl is the most obvious template for creating a sympathetic counterpart to any grizzled bro-tagonist.
The character dynamic could complete shift, sure, if a male hero were tasked with protecting a young boy. In the case of BioShock Infinite, however, I don't see the protagonist acting differently to a boy. Booker's clearly a troubled man, and he doesn't start off treating Elizabeth with very much care. And if he'd had a son, this hypothetical Elijah would've sparked the same painful memories Elizabeth did.
The Lamb metaphor wouldn't need to change, either. Since the game loves its religious allegories, I'll also note that in The Bible, Jesus is the "Lamb of God", so the visual metaphor isn't tied to either gender to much as a set of traits and ideals.
The swap isn't totally outrageous and may actually work, though Elijah would likely need to be a few years younger than Elizabeth in order to inspire those same protective instincts. We perceive women as weaker by default, and innocence is commonly associated with the fairer sex, even in older women. By contrast, naiveté isn't a trait we expect men (or older boys) to have; it could even be seen as more of a character flaw than an endearing quality, unless he's at an age where it's considered "appropriate."
Why shouldn't a little boy be allowed to dream of Paris?
Despite this social progress within the gaming industry, even the coolest of ladies are often delegated to supporting roles, while the narrative spotlight remains cast on tough guys. Even rarer is a male companion character for a female protagonist, someone whose sole purpose is being a plot device for the fem-hero's development.
Yes, Elizabeth is a wonderfully three-dimensional character, which excuses her from whatever tropes she does end up fulfilling: a damsel, and the tiny counterpart to larger male figures like Booker and Songbird. She's a flawed, believable character, with far more depth than we'd normally expect from the Damsel type, but she remains a shade of this literary device. Stories, as we understand them, seem to need tropes, and to employ these isn't always indicative of laziness. Familiarity helps us, as an audience, better relate to what we see, read, and hear, and by challenging these, writers run a very real risk of alienating us. Perhaps this is why BioShock Infinite doesn't stray nearly as far as it could from that narrative safety net.
Elizabeth's femininity doesn't feel important to her character, except as an immediate solution to making the player care. But would you feel so differently about Liz and BioShock Infinite if she weren't a girl? After all, doesn't a parent love their child regardless of sex?
Video games, unlike so many other forms of media entertainment, are uniquely suited for literary experimentation, thanks to the level of immersion they provide. We become deeply involved in the games we play and experience them to a much greater depth than we would a book or movie. Some players might be initially turned off by the idea of rescuing and watching over a young boy, but over time, they can be taught to think differently. My views of Elizabeth changed in a similar fashion, where I started out somewhat resistant to her, but eventually learned to love her as a character -- as a person.
Follow Lydia on Twitter @RabidChinaGirl or check out her news and reviews every day here on Neoseeker.