Smoke & Mirrors: How BioShock Infinite Tricks You Into Liking Elizabeth

Posted by whatisdelicious (1418 posts) -

AI sidekicks in video games are pretty uniformly terrible. They get in your way, they're incredibly stupid, and they rarely add anything meaningful to the story. That's why escort missions in games are among the most hated, and why I wouldn't begrudge a player for assuming that BioShock Infinite would be little more than a ten-hour game about babysitting Elizabeth and making sure she doesn't run into any sharp corners.

I beat the game a couple days ago, and I'm happy to say that I never needed to babysit her or worry about her during combat. She's a wonderfully written character whose interaction with protagonist Booker DeWitt forms the core of BioShock Infinite's tale and is all the better for it. She's easy to care about and hard to forget. As far as AI partners in games go, Elizabeth is probably the best.

But the developers cheated to achieve that.

I started avoiding anything related to BioShock Infinite in 2010 after the first gameplay demo surfaced, so the last time I saw Elizabeth in a fight, she was an active participant, calling out for Booker to electrify a storm cloud or telekinetically throw a molten boulder of pots and pans. Elizabeth's powers looked painful to use.

"Hey, you don't look so good," Booker said as Elizabeth, slumped against cover, sputtered and coughed like a dying car.

"I'm OK," she responded, getting up slowly. "I just... I just need a moment."

Later in the demo, after using her powers to bring down a bridge, her nose begins to bleed.

That is not the Elizabeth in the game.

You don't combine powers anymore, and the extent of Elizabeth's use in combat is tossing you supplies and opening tears in the space-time continuum to pull in everything from cover, freight hooks, and automated turrets. She can pull in any of these at the press of a button, but only one at time. It doesn't even matter what Elizabeth is doing at the time; it's an instantaneous effect. I tested it by telling Elizabeth to bring in a freight hook while she was preoccupied picking a lock, and sure enough, in popped the freight hook without delay. It never really feels like Elizabeth has anything to do with the tears, and that's because she doesn't.

There's never an element of managing how much stress Elizabeth can take, or how often you can use her powers before her nose begins to bleed. Even the horses in Red Dead Redemption could only be spurred so many times before they'd either die from overexertion or buck you off. Keep a horse alive and it would become loyal to you. It's disappointing that BioShock Infinite chose to play it so safe by letting you treat Elizabeth like a tool rather than a person.

Yeah, I never needed to worry about her in combat in the final game, but that's because everybody just ignores her. Enemies literally don't even see her. They'll run right past Elizabeth to get to me.

And yes, Elizabeth saved me more than a few times by tossing me health or salts or ammo at the perfect time, but it's just another trick. She's not actually finding anything. I'd scavenge every body for money and supplies after a battle, tapping square like my life depended on it on every interactive thing I could find until I was sure I'd picked the environment clean and was ready to move on.

"Need some money?" Elizabeth would ask, tossing me a coin.

Where did she find that? I checked everything already.

In battle, it's the same way. I have a pretty chaotic fighting style in the game, running and jumping and charging and blasting and riding and flying as much as I possibly can, so I usually didn't notice what Elizabeth was doing. Then I decided to watch her.

Elizabeth would follow me around, moving from cover to cover and chasing me whenever I got on a skyhook. But she's never checking bodies and rifling through boxes for ammo. Some if/then statement in her programming decides that since I'm about to run out of shotgun bullets, she'll toss me more. I'm almost dead, so she'll call out my name and throw me a medkit. None of these things were in the environment, waiting for one of us to find them. She just conjures them out of thin air. Maybe she's pulling them from a tear to another dimension where they have infinite shotgun bullets. I have no idea.

BioShock Infinite wants you to notice Elizabeth. It tries its hardest to keep her in frame in natural ways even when the two of you are just idly exploring Columbia. The developers said that "she'll find a way to entertain herself," but in my experience, that usually just meant she'd pick a wall I was looking at to lean against with all the practiced aloofness of a hipster trying way too hard to achieve that "just woke up" look.

The game tries so hard to keep Elizabeth near you that I'd often turn around after examining some interesting poster or sign and find Elizabeth inches from my face.

I want to reiterate: I really liked BioShock Infinite, and I really liked Elizabeth. But the ways that developer Irrational Games cut corners to make Elizabeth as likable as she is also make it really easy to see the seams in her behavior and make her a little less believable as a person.

That is, unless her constant need to get her face as unsettlingly close to my face as she can without me noticing is canon.

#1 Posted by The_Laughing_Man (13807 posts) -

Video game is video game. And I never had the issue of her being right behind me all the time.

#2 Edited by whatisdelicious (1418 posts) -

@the_laughing_man: You remember that part where the guy with the spotlight face is right behind you when you turn around after opening the door in the prison? Or in the original BioShock, when the splicer doctor is right behind you after you hear a creepy audio log about him?

It was like that, but every time I turned around.

(Not literally. It happened on occasion.)

#3 Edited by The_Laughing_Man (13807 posts) -

@the_laughing_man: You remember that part where the guy with the spotlight face is right behind you when you turn around after opening the door in the prison? Or in the original BioShock, when the splicer doctor is right behind you after you hear a creepy audio log about him?

It was like that, but every time I turned around.

Not for me.

#4 Edited by Icemael (6798 posts) -

I think Elizabeth has ADD or something. When you're just going about your business you don't really notice it, but if you pay attention to the way she's moving she tends to run all over the place like a kid on a sugar rush. Once I just stood still for a minute watching her keep running between two spots, each time stopping for a second or two to look out into empty space before running over to the other.

#5 Edited by believer258 (12958 posts) -

Yes. A computer game has implemented a bunch of tricks to make her AI work correctly and they don't always work out correctly.

We're talking about trying to make what seems like a living, breathing, self-aware character using something that only understands what are essentially on-off switches and that has no idea it exists. While making sure it can work with 8 year old hardware. While making sure that 8 year old hardware can also support a bunch of NPC's running around with their own AI routines and shooting weapons at you. Among several other things.

#6 Posted by Milkman (17998 posts) -

Nothing you bring up had anything to do with me liking Elizabeth. I didn't like her because she was constantly behind me or something. I liked her because she's a character that's written exceptionally well. Your complaints about Elizabeth not meeting the expectation set by a trailer from three years ago are also pretty ridiculous. A game can change A LOT in 3 years. Hell, entire games can be made in 3 years.

The only time I felt a disconnect with Elizabeth is when Booker and her were in the middle of a serious conversation and she would all of a sudden pipe up with "HEY, WANT SOME CASH?", which, admittedly, broke the immersion to an extent. But her being constantly behind me or nearby never struck me as a negative. In fact, it was the exact opposite. I thought it was super smart how the game was able to keep her close by at all times. If you're going to complain about games "tricking" you, you're going to hate all video games. That's the game's job and Infinite does a better job of tricking the player than just about any game I've ever played (in more ways than one).

#7 Posted by benspyda (2123 posts) -

All it takes is a likeable or interesting character really. Most female characters in any form of media are super annoying for the most part. I thought both Booker and Elizabeth were both interesting characters that I had formed a bond with by the end of the game, as I really cared about how things were going to turn out for them. Very few games do I feel that way about the characters, the last probably being Lee and Clementine in the walking dead which was a very similar relationship.

The mechanics of the character were a little jarring of her always being in your face with coins and so forth, but its just a video game mechanic, not really character building. I thought when she played with stuff in the environment and reacted to it, it was just clever world building not really a trick.

#8 Edited by JazGalaxy (1638 posts) -

I feel like you are examining the situation too closely.

I mean, you say the developers "cheat" to achive the effect, but I don't understand what that means in an environment they created. Everything is a "cheat". The baduguys don't really come from their houses, they spawn in right in front of you. Badguys dont' really lay traps for you when you double back through an area, they just appear when your back is turned. It's just how games are made.

I was fine with Elizabeth not "fighting with me" for the most part. Honestly, when they annoucned inifinite and said you were going to have an ai partner with you for the whole game, I didn't like the sound of it at all and it put me off the game. I'm glad they fixed it by making her insubstantial. I mean, in universe, they could write it off by saying everyone knows she's the lamb and you're the false shepherd. They know not to attack her and to kill you on sight. or maybe their early american sensibilities keep them from attacking a woman. Maybe she finds stuff in the environment that you missed because the computer never offered it to you as an object to check.

It's the end result the matters, and the end result is that she was successful at doing what needed to be done for the game to work.

#9 Edited by R3Qui4M (493 posts) -

Pretty good analysis, but the gameplay reasons weren't the reason why Elizabeth, who is now my favorite now playable character in any game. It her story arc. I won't go into too much of what happens but the first moments you have her beside you are some of the most genuine character reactions to their environment that even supersede games like Uncharted. Remember the part she runs of to find the music, and you find her dancing. I was just watching her dance for quite a while with a huge smile on my face, probably a little creepy, but I have never seen a video game character express how happy he/she is in a more believable and convincing manner.

#10 Posted by BoOzak (1047 posts) -

I think it's funny how she runs away from you whenever you approach her. I know she does it because it's faster then waiting for you to overtake her and to then lag behind. (that and Booker's a lunatic) But it's still kind of weird.

I liked all the small touches even if they arent dynamic. The problem is the more advanced you make AI the more chances it has of going wrong and getting in the way. Yes they played it safe but better that than have a broken game.

#11 Edited by awesomeusername (4535 posts) -

Yeah, sure. Elizabeth is one fine set of pixels. That's why we like her.


#12 Edited by SirPsychoSexy (1364 posts) -

I see what you are saying, but if you are just watching and following her every move for mistakes, of course you will find flaws and things that don't quite make sense. However if you are just playing the game, I found Irrational did a marvelous job with how she works in combat and story, and that is all I ever wanted.

#13 Edited by DeathbyYeti (788 posts) -

im waiting for the blog that says Smoke & Mirrors: How Game Hype Tricks The Internet to a 5 Star Game

#14 Edited by Tarsier (1491 posts) -

youre freaking out man

#15 Edited by myketuna (1785 posts) -

I actually didn't remember a thing about that 2010 demo when I played the game. I was just sad that she couldn't seem to control her powers (which is explained in the story) to help me more actively. Tearing things in is great, but come on Elizabeth, warp this fucking Handyman to Kansas or something so I can focus on these turrets. Besides that, I thought she was a great character.

#16 Edited by whatisdelicious (1418 posts) -

@believer258@milkman@jazgalaxy: I was mostly referring to liking her as an AI sidekick rather than the writing or voice acting or whatever. All that stuff is super great, but it's undermined by her behavior occasionally. I just saw an article on Polygon about how her behavior put off the writer's wife because of stuff like when Elizabeth is super bummed after the conversation with her ghost mom, then two seconds later, she's cheerily bringing you coins and ammo. That stuff matters to people. Elizabeth's programming fighting against her sense of character and believability breaks the sense of immersion the game so painstakingly strives for (and achieves, usually).

@r3qui4m: Yeah! And remember when you pick up the guitar and she sings for the kid? That was great stuff. Felt like something out of a Disney movie.

@deathbyyeti: I definitely wouldn't give it 5-stars myself. The stuff with Elizabeth I described holds it back a little bit, but the combat had so much unrealized potential. I loved experimenting with powers initially, but as it went on, it stopped giving me the necessary space to keep trying new things. And the first few hours really felt like business as usual. The stuff at the end was so phenomenal it almost completely 100% makes up for all flaws in the rest of the game though. I read a fantastic analysis of it that made me enjoy the ending even more than I already did. It's an awesome, awesome game, but it still has its fair share of flaws and missed opportunities.

#17 Edited by Milkman (17998 posts) -

@whatisdelicious: Yep, as I said, the disconnect between the events going on and Elizabeth's tone with stuff like throwing you money definitely stuck out to me. It's a fairly minor complaint but it's noticeable.

#18 Posted by ll_Exile_ll (2131 posts) -

Game design is all about "cheating", as you put it. The best game developers use the tools at their disposal to create the illusion of a realistic world with realistically behaving characters, but in every instance it is just that, an illusion. If you look too closely at any game world, even the most well realized ones, you'll notice things that remind you it's a game. However, the best games make that fact as invisible as possible, and I felt like Elizabeth's portrayal in Infinite was one of the most seamless and believable digital representations of a person I had ever seen.

We are still quite a ways away from having an AI character that acts and feels completely real, but Elizabeth is definitely a step in the right direction.

#19 Edited by Aurelito (792 posts) -

I really started liking her when she changed into those absolute-cleavage cloths. Yes, I'm attracted to a set of polygons representing boobs, sue me.

But then, after the big reveal, I kinda felt ashamed, I really shipped Booker and Elizabeth in my mind.

#20 Edited by believer258 (12958 posts) -

@believer258@milkman@jazgalaxy: I was mostly referring to liking her as an AI sidekick rather than the writing or voice acting or whatever. All that stuff is super great, but it's undermined by her behavior occasionally. I just saw an article on Polygon about how her behavior put off the writer's wife because of stuff like when Elizabeth is super bummed after the conversation with her ghost mom, then two seconds later, she's cheerily bringing you coins and ammo. That stuff matters to people. Elizabeth's programming fighting against her sense of character and believability breaks the sense of immersion the game so painstakingly strives for (and achieves, usually).

I know. I was saying that an AI like Elizabeth's is really impressive. It would be insane to expect her AI to be completely realistic; things like cheerily throwing you ammo after a sad moment are unfortunate and it can take you out of it, but you must understand that a computer doesn't understand the difference between a "sad moment" and a "cheery one", and finding a way to program that in was probably pretty difficult.

I'm not saying that you can't complain; I'm saying that stuff like this should probably be expected of a video game AI because computers are still very limited as far as mimicking human characters goes.

#21 Posted by Dagbiker (7022 posts) -

Im going to let you in on a little secret about programming

All programming is just if statements there is no real other tool to use. The real trick is how to write code without having to write out every single if: then: by using functions, switches, for loops, while statements, and other operations.

#22 Edited by TooWalrus (13341 posts) -

I honestly don't think the game would have been dramatically better if instead of pulling a medpack out of her hair or whatever and passing it over, she walked over to a corner, picked up a medpack then tossed it over.

#23 Edited by Colourful_Hippie (5004 posts) -

Looks like you have no idea about the troubles Irrational had to make Elizabeth "work". I'm not surprised that they had to make changes with their original plan for what Elizabeth was supposed to be.

#24 Posted by Skytylz (4070 posts) -

I don't understand peoples complaints about the enemies not shooting Elizabeth. It makes perfect sense why they don't story wise and if she was in risk of dying it would not be a very enjoyable experience.

#25 Edited by whatisdelicious (1418 posts) -

@colourful_hippie: I'm well aware of their troubles. Doesn't change the final product.

Honestly, going by a lot of the responses, it seems like a lot of people think this is my grand indictment of the game, my rationale for why Elizabeth is bad and BioShock Infinite is bad and the whole project failed, and that's not what I was doing here. You can examine how and why something works the way it does and not be "complaining" about it. You can admit something you love has flaws and still love it all the same.

#26 Edited by JasonR86 (10028 posts) -

Elizabeth was fine. Her ability to appear out of thin air worked fine with what was going on in that game to me. Shit was weird and her ability to be at the right place at the right time just felt like a symptom of that weirdness.

#27 Posted by whatisdelicious (1418 posts) -

@jasonr86: It was pretty funny having her appear out of nowhere, but I do think the game takes too many liberties sometimes in how things spawn. There were a couple times when enemies literally spawned in front of me before a battle would start, but like, facing the other direction, so they wouldn't notice or attack me for a little bit. I kind of wish they'd just justify it in-game by having Comstock in multiple dimensions sending guys after you, so they'd just spawn through tears or something. But oh well. Still an awesome game.

Sidenote: what's your avatar from? Looks like something I'd see on a poster in Rapture.

#28 Posted by JasonR86 (10028 posts) -


A really stupid episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That's "Data with a dumb mask on that made him take on the personality of a bad spirit. Here's what Picard had to do to save him;

#29 Edited by TheManWithNoPlan (6344 posts) -

At a certain point a developer has to reign in their ambitious ideas and make something that works. I'm sure Elizabeth did more involved things mechanically throughout the development process, but the most important thing is to make an AI that isn't constantly pissing you off because they didn't do something correctly or got in the way of the player's experience. I was satisfied with Elizabeth's role in the gameplay because her role was a positive one. She would throw me items when I needed them and altered the level to aid me in my fight. I was able to suspend any other disbelief when the actual game part came into place. I never had to worry about her well being and she was made positively relevant to the gameplay.

That's my opinion from a realistic perspective. Of course I would've loved to see her role in the combat fleshed out more.

#30 Posted by TheMasterDS (2469 posts) -

I think the things you take issue with are things that a video game has to do to work at all. You say you have issue with her magically finding supplies at the right moment. That's crazy because it makes the game more fun since you don't have to worry about running out of salts or ammo ever and can just cut loose for a change. It doesn't matter where she's finding it because that doesn't matter. Similarly you take issue her not having some sort of tolerance for her magic. When has any character in a video game ever had that? Every main character takes a million bullets, runs a million miles, and kills a million dudes without any complaints unless the story demands it. The reason why this is is the same reason why damaged cars don't handle poorly. Because that's not fun.

On the other hand I think you severely underestimate Elizabeth's appeal outside of battle. She was just a great character who was super well written. Hell, she was not only a great character who was super well written but also one who didn't take you out of your typical Bioshock routine which is just what you want from an AI Partner. Consider the times she'd say things like "Wanna go forward with the plot or explore that bar for loot?" Those times made it clear you she doesn't want you to change the way you play Bioshock (e.g. methodically) just because logically she might want to get to Paris faster which was great. Made you feel more immersed since instead of ignoring her desires you get to act as if she came up with the idea to bum around for a while. Really nice little detail that. Plus all the little character moments. Plus the reveals towards the end. Amazing stuff.

#31 Edited by whatisdelicious (1418 posts) -

@themasterds: I mostly meant likable from a gameplay standpoint. One of the first things I said in there was that she's great and well-written and easy to care about, and then I reiterated all those points at the end to make it clear that I totally did like her. But from the standpoint of "where is she getting all this stuff?" and "there are no limits to her powers," it breaks some of the immersion and pulls me out of the experience. In gameplay, she's not a character, but a gameplay mechanic you can use as you see fit. Yeah, it makes the game more fun and I appreciated that, but they also could have just given you a better shield and then put more restrictions on how you use Elizabeth so it does feel like there are limits to her powers and she's more of a person. Again, in Red Dead, spur a horse too much and it dies. Is that a "fun" mechanic? Not really. But it really adds something cool to that world.

Like, I don't mind that enemies ignore her in combat. Me pointing that out is not me saying "this is bad; how dare they?" It's just examining how the game works. That's an obvious concession they made so that Elizabeth can work properly without them delaying the game another two years. And I'm OK with that.

Though in regards to her not having limits to her powers, I don't think "well, other games do the same thing so it's fine here" is very good justification. Most games have cooldowns and limits to how much you can use something like Cole's electricity or a gatling gun before it overheats or even Songbird late in the game. I think it's pretty disappointing that Elizabeth doesn't have anything like that, like if you try to overextend her and use her powers too much, she needs to take a breather. Push her past that and she gets a nosebleed. Keep going and she passes out. That works well with how well she's written because, since I like her and care about her, I'm not going want to push her that far, but sometimes I'm in a jam and I really need to. Decisions. Hell, even Blitz: The League had that mechanic where you could either bench an injured player and let him heal, or juice him up and send him back out (but he might get injured further). That was the example I was originally going to use in the blog post instead of horses in Red Dead, but I wasn't sure how people would respond to me comparing BioShock Infinite to Blitz: The League.

#32 Posted by gaminghooligan (1709 posts) -

@jasonr86 said:


A really stupid episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That's "Data with a dumb mask on that made him take on the personality of a bad spirit. Here's what Picard had to do to save him;

He had to wear the mask from Buckaroo Banzai?

#33 Posted by TheMasterDS (2469 posts) -

Cooldowns for Elizabeth's tears would've made the game more complicated than it needed to be and, therefore, would've been a blight on the game and on the gameplay. Think back to the podcast last week where Jeff was explaining how Tears work. Notice how when he said there was no cool downs or nothing the rest of the gang is instantly on board. That's because the powers are simple, they just work. As for basic reliability, like I said, it's the same reason cars don't handle poorly when you do poorly in driving games. Because no one would think that fun.

On an unrelated note, on the topic of Elizabeth doing nothing in battle, I know you don't take issue with it but I want to just say hey, Donkey Kong Country 2's enemies also ignored your AI Partner and couldn't harm her/him. And if DKC2 did it than it's perfectly valid in my books. That's not for you, that's for the other people who take issue with that sort of thing.

#34 Edited by whatisdelicious (1418 posts) -

@themasterds: I appreciate it from a gameplay standpoint, just like how I liked how on point she was about throwing me medkits and salts and ammo, because it keeps the game flowing, but I feel like it'd be emotionally satisfying to have that internal conflict. On the Polygon reviewer roundtable, one guy mentioned how when Elizabeth is being tortured, he wanted to pick up this Voxophone off to the side, but it killed him to do that because of the urgency of the situation.

Imagine that in combat. It wouldn't be as simple as a cooldown meter. It'd be like, ask her to bring something in or heal you in a pinch and she can do it, but it's painful for her to use her powers. You have to balance using her powers with her well-being, which you care about because you care about her. Push her too far and it could hurt her.

Would that make the gameplay more fun? No, probably the opposite, but it'd be engaging on a different level. I think it'd be worth the trade-off.

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