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Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 10.22.51 AM
the many different faces of Elizabeth that exist

I want to start this out by saying that I love the Bioshock series. It's rare to come across FPS's that are so smart and so brilliantly designed. Like most things that end up with a ton of sequels, I think that the story quality has kind of gone down over the course of the series (I think I'm in the minority in that I didn't think BS Infinite was the best game ever created ever), but I also think that is to be expected. The first game was a scathing take on objectivism that had a horrifying twist 3/4 of the way through, and they sort of ran with the horrifying twist 3/4 through bit while dropping the politics.

Anyway, I could talk about the series for pages and pages and pages, but I'm not. Instead I'm going to focus on BS Infinite and the DLC for it, which as a gamer, as a woman, was just incredibly unsettling to experience, and honestly kind of ruined the whole series for me, at least for the moment. As a gamer, I've often found situations that have made me uncomfortable as a woman. In a lot of ways, sadly, gaming and feminism are sort of at odds with each other. In the same vein though, I am loathe to turn every moment of pop culture that I expose myself into a platform to discuss how women in media are treated, since it often seems like low hanging fruit, however what I just played has been possibly one of the most horrific story arcs of a female protagonist I've ever seen. This is sort of exacerbated by the fact that it happened in a series that overall has been lauded for being above the typical bro-bullshit that tends to permeate gaming, especially FPS games.

Bioshock Infinite
Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 10.37.51 AM
you can even just see from this screenshot that a lot more effort was put into this character aside from "damsel in distress", you can see that her character oozes personality

In BS Infinite, the goal of the game is to save a character named Elizabeth from a tower in the sky-city of Columbia, doing so will erase a debt that your character (Booker) has somehow incurred.. Once you meet her, you learn that she's a self taught genius (in addition to her inherent intelligence she has spent her whole life cooped up in a tower reading), she's caring, smart, funny, just overall very endearing and sweet. In addition to all of this, she is in touch with some sort of multiverse, which means she can create objects and shift timelines at will, she exhibits remarkable and untapped power. Overall, even though her life as been pretty miserable and isolated, she's an optimistic individual who mostly just dreams of going to Paris. Ken Levine and the staff at Infinite said that they took great pains to model her after a Disney princess, in fact she looks not unlike Belle from Beauty and the Beast. She's adorable. Instead of the game feeling like one giant escort mission with AI only slightly more capable than an ice cube, she's an engaging and capable character that you want to see succeed. Truthfully, it's made very clear early on that if she wasn't with you, you wouldn't make it out of Columbia alive as she's incredibly helpful and powerful in her own right. By the end of the game, she has learned some horrible truths about her lineage and has had to make some terrible and violent choices, but in the process also gained inordinate power, knowledge and most importantly freedom. She ends the game as an almost demigod like character aware of the future and the present and the past. You think if there is an character in the Bioshock universe that stands a chance at happiness or fulfillment, it's her. She's one of the few characters that isn't a mindless drone or driven made by a lust for power. Even though she -is- essentially infinitely powerful, she doesn't seem corrupted by it, she just seems at peace.

Burial at Sea Episode One
Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 10.26.03 AM
a markedly darker and cynical character has taken her place

Then the DLC happened. The first episode of Burial at Sea was kind of a trainwreck, but the long and short of it is that you play another version of Booker (again remember the multiverse thing) who is living in Rapture. Elizabeth appears to him and tells him that they need to find and save a Little Sister (a massive plot point in the first two games, young girls who have their bodies hijacked to store ADAM which is a source of power for the city and its inhabitants). Elizabeth is clearly hostile toward this iteration of Booker, and at the end of the episode, it turns out that her sole intent was to kill you, which she does by having a Big Daddy attack you (the whole multiverse thing makes it complicated, but she's essentially trying to go and kill very specific versions of Booker that exist throughout all the parallels, however in this instance she decides to turn it into an epic game of cat and mouse). It's grim and surprising and the whole episode was poorly paced and kind of nonsensical with a ton of loose ends and little understanding as to what made Elizabeth become so cruel. It felt sort of cheap since it relied on the whole twist ending, but a gamer the whole thing seemed more like a prelude to the second episode which sounded a thousand times more exciting because we'd actually get to play -as- Elizabeth.

Burial at Sea Episode Two
Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 9.28.24 AM
see this bold and potentially kickass woman that they used to promote the second episode of Burial At Sea? Yeah, well this is the only time you'll see her. She never shows up in the game.

The idea of getting to play as Elizabeth was thrilling. While all the characters at the end of the Bioshock games turn into overpowered machines that can easily get you through boss battles, Elizabeth was different. I knew her personality as she was such a vibrant and constant character in the game when she was AI (in the first two Bioshock games the character you play is completely silent) and her powers were vastly different. Instead of relying on guns or plasmids, it seemed like a whole other world of possibilities would be open when I picked up the reigns as this pseudo demigod character. It seemed like it was going to be awesome and I was really -really- excited. The obvious icing on the cake was that I'd get to play as a girl*, something you don't often get to do enough of, but I was most excited to see what playing with her infinite powers was going to be like.

Well I shouldn't have had my hopes up because in the first five minutes of the episode, it turns out that Elizabeth has given up her powers to return to Rapture out of an overwhelming sense of guilt based off of her actions in the first episode. In addition to that, you also find out that she, with all her powers and foresight, was somehow -also- killed by the Big Daddy, something you discover when you find her body smashed through a wall. But you don't just find her body, the camera lovingly pans over her corpse, beautiful and stone white in death. It's incredibly morbid and unsettling how lovingly this scene plays out, but it's nothing compared to what is about to come.

Since she is guilt ridden over killing Booker and leaving a Little Sister to a fate unknown in the first episode, as I said, Elizabeth has chosen to give up all her powers to return to Rapture to set things right. Apparently in the Bioshock universe, returning to a world where you have previously died will do that to even the strongest and most powerful individuals (this is extrapolated on by two other characters, but if you haven't played the game it's going to sound really convoluted so just trust me on this) In addition to being rendered human, Elizabeth is incredibly weak. Her healthbar is a fraction of what any other previous character's had been, she takes damage incredibly easily, she can only carry a portion of the ammo other characters can, she's just really nerfed. She is also somewhat delusional and spends most of the game talking to herself by pretending she is conversing with an idealized version of Booker throughout the game. Not even just conversing, she is constantly turning to him for help, help that SHE had previously provided. So right off the bat, our strong, demigod character has been reduced to a weak, bordering on insane character, one who needs to turn to the projection of a strong male character that doesn't even exist.

Since she is so weak, the game is also way more of a stealth game than any other previous installment of the series, which in and of itself is kind of stupid, but is made even worse by the fact that Elizabeth is trying to be stealthy and decides to keep her high heels on. Because that totally makes sense. This is made even more ridiculous by the fact that the game takes place in a department store so Elizabeth easily could have found more sensible shoes to sneak around in, but whatever, this is a minor point.

So the game goes on and Elizabeth spends a good chunk of it wallowing in self doubt about pretty much every task she has to accomplish and is constantly turning to fake-Booker for reassurance that she can do anything. At one point fake-Booker even tells her that people are always underestimating her, in an effort to make her feel better...which yeah, that sums it up pretty well. She went from this veritable goddess who could control time and space to a sniveling twit who needs to be told by her imaginary friend that everyone underestimates her in an effort to make her feel better. The more she travels through the universes of Columbia and Rapture respectively, the more disillusioned and unhappy about everything she gets.

But it just gets worse.

Without getting too deeply into the plot, Elizabeth end up on a mission to help a man named Atlas in order to save the Little Sister she is searching for. It is clearly an uneasy alliance. Throughout the course of her mission she finds out she was essentially tricked into killing a character from the main game, something that is explained by some bullshit analogy to menstruation, where only blood would "change her from a girl into a woman", a revelation that is completely gutting for her. After that cheerful scene, of course the man she is working for double-crosses her, something she was anticipating but does nothing about. She ends up getting knocked out and tied to a chair for a lengthy interrogation sequence. She gets injected with sodium pentothal in an effort to get her to tell her captors information she is unaware of. At this point, it struck me how much attention was paid to the aggressive way in which she was injected with the drug, a clear emphasis on the penetration of her skin. I usually am not one to get massively into phallic symbols or perceived phallic symbols, but this seemed (to me) to be pretty clear and kind of uncomfortable. This goes on for two weeks apparently, though she spends most of it unconscious or delirious.

Finding the sodium pentothal route to be unsuccessful, her captors decide to threaten her with a trans-orbital lobotomy. By threaten I mean that they slowly penetrate her ocular socket with an icepick, disturbing her visual field, and repeatedly hitting it with a hammer, just lightly enough to be absolutely terrifying while not breaking all the way through her skull. This literally goes on for minutes, Elizabeth strapped to a chair with an icepick penetrating her eye socked, being threatened that it can and will get worse if she doesn't do what her captors want, each threat punctuated by the pick being thrust further and further into her bone. I've played a LOT of videogames and my preferred genre is survival horror, and I can honestly say that this is one of, if not the, most unsettling thing I've experienced in a game. The attention to detail is both astounding and stomach turning, the way her vision changes when she has the icepick inserted under her eye, the way it distorts with every thrust, her cries of pain each time it goes's pretty revolting and even though there is absolutely no sex involved, it completely feels like a rape scene, which I am assuming was the intent.

After this, she goes and finishes her mission to help Atlas (knowing full well he is going to kill her) with even more help from her imaginary friend Booker, and finally does get killed by Atlas, bludgeoned to death with a wrench. But all is not lost, even though -she- failed to help or save the Little Sister, she put events in motion that would eventually result in Jack (the protagonist from the first game) could make it to Rapture and save ALL the Little Sisters and make the world a better place with little to no repercussions, something she was apparently completely incapable of doing.

Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 10.31.27 AM
Sorry about that champ, it'll be over soon.

What bothers me the most about this game, aside from the fact that the last hour or so feels like complete torture-porn, is the absolute and utter destruction of Elizabeth. Ken Levine et al made a -huge- deal out of the fact that she was a strong female character, she wasn't going to just be an annoying AI bot, that she was smart, resourceful, powerful...They spent all this time and effort creating this vibrant character, and then spent the last episode, the last Bioshock the studio would ever make, systematically destroying her in every way possible. We get -two- instances where the camera focuses lovingly over her corpse, once at the beginning of the game, and then once again at the end...and it's not just two instances of seeing her dead body, due to the mechanics of the multiverse theory, it's two different dead bodies, killed at two different points in time. Pretty much everything she thought she was doing of her own volition turns out to be orchestrated by other people. She gets beaten, drugged, almost lobotomized, and finally beaten to death. But it's all done -so- lovingly and with so much attention to detail while also seemingly out of character for the entire series that it's REALLY fucking disturbing. This "strong female character" spends the first huge chunk of her life held hostage in a city in the sky, and once she is freed from her jail, she goes off and gets killed in the most horrific way possible. In one fell swoop Irrational Games manages to make both her character and pretty much the entirety of Bioshock Infinite feel completely futile. Instead of finding real freedom, instead of making it to Paris and living out her life, Elizabeth goes off on a completely out of character vigilante killing spree which results in her own gruesome death which wasn't even a result of her actions, but of her guilt over them.

So yeah, I just left the second episode feeling disturbed and unsettled and not in a fun way, in an icky "I can't help but feel that these guys really don't like women" type way. I mean, none of the Bioshock games are particularly happy affairs, and terrible things happen to all of the protagonists, but Elizabeth is the only time where it felt like every moment of her suffering was relished by the storytellers. She's just set up for failure from the start of the episode and things just get worse and worse for her every minute that goes by...

*While I dislike the lack of female characters in videogames, it's not something that bothers me as much as it should maybe? I'm hoping as more women gamers become more outspoken that this will change, and I find articles like this kind of silly since there was no real way to insert a female character into that universe without screwing up the dynamic of the game and of the south park universe on a whole
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