Elizabeth is “the heart and soul” of Bioshock Infinite

On Tuesday, I finished Bioshock Infinite.  

According to Steam, I’d sunk 22-plus hours into it but then I realised that about five of those were when I had to go out and left the game paused, so I’m putting it at around 16 hours. 

Since I finished Infinite, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It left me with a lot of questions. And while I felt that the game lost its momentum a little at times and one of the game’s  most hyped “characters” (Songbird) was underutilised, Bioshock is a thoroughly enjoyable game that is one of the best I’ve played in a long, long time.

It’s crowning glory, though is  Elizabeth, the young girl that the game’s main character Booker DeWitt has to rescue from Zachary Comstock, a self-proclaimed profit prophet who rules over the city-in-the-sky Columbia. It’s a game of twists and unexpected events. 

I’ve got a review coming for the game soon but until then, here’s an interview I did with Irrational Games’ Bill Gardner about the game and Elizabeth, one of the best game companion’s I’ve encountered in a long, long time. 

26-BioshockElizabeth-fxOf all the achievements Irrational Games has made in Bioshock Infinite, the one that Bill Gardner, Irrational’s user experience specialist, is most proud of is Elizabeth, the young girl that Booker DeWitt must protect.

Gardner, who has worked with Irrational’s founder Ken Levine for 11 years, said he hoped gamers formed an emotional attachment to Elizabeth.

‘‘We spent a huge portion of our effort in getting her right. She is very much the heart and soul of the story and in a lot of ways in game play. When we initially set out to build the game we said we wanted to have a companion character, primarily because we wanted to find these new ways to innovate in story and to take our unique brand of game play and narrative and merge them together.

“With Booker and Elizabeth we had this opportunity to create this attachment, to create this relationship that the player doesn’t really see in other games. When you see her [Elizabeth] from start to finish and see the path that she goes on I think that is the piece that I’m most proud of and the piece that will turn the most heads.’’

It wasn’t an easy task creating Elizabeth, says Gardner.

‘I think we all have recurring nightmares about the uncanny valley. It’s incredibly challenging [creating a character like Elizabeth] but that was why we were drawn to it: To get a character that’s not only believable but endearing. We spent a tremendous amount of time getting her eyes right. I don’t just mean the look of them but we spent a lot of time studying the human eye and the way it moves and the way it tracks people. There are all these subtleties and you put it into the game.

“‘Eventually people start to react to her as a human and starting to react to her as a character. And when you can do that, and people start talking about her as a person, then you know you’ve done something special. We hope people will get an emotional attachment to her. I really do believe people will.’’

Gardner describes himself as Irrational’s “internal editorial force” and much of his job on Bioshock Infinite was giving feedback and offering suggestions to both game play and narrative.

‘‘How can I try and help the game get better? I look into my crystal ball and find what is and isn’t working. I put myself into the shoes of the gamer, something that is difficult to do. Ken [Levin] noticed that I had the ability to do this.’’

One of the most notable game modes in Bioshock Infinite is 1999 Mode, which, in part, harks back to the game play found in the acclaimed – and scary – System Shock 2, which influenced the original Bioshock. 1999 Mode made player choice matter, says Gardner.

‘‘When you think back to games like System Shock 2 and the way Bioshock evolved as a spiritual successor, in that evolution there were a number of gamers who felt that the choices weren’t as meaningful as they used to be … we got feedback that people wanted some more meaningful choice.

“When I played System Shock 2, I remember standing in front of a weapon or an upgrade station and being ‘‘Oh, my God, what do I want to pick?’’. I’m sweating over that choice so we wanted to make sure that [in Bioshock Infinite] we captured that feeling that when you make a choice it means something and you don’t go ‘Oh, I made a choice. Big deal’.

‘‘To some degree Bioshock was about letting players have a huge toolset and let them have fun and if you make the wrong choice, just try something else. With this mode [1999 Mode] you’re basically forced to make very careful decisions in your upgrades, very careful decisions in what tools you’re using and if you deviate from those positions you’re going to have a much harder time and you’ll probably end up seeing the ‘Game Over’ screen’.‘‘
Gardner says Bioshock Infinite’s game world, set in the floating city of Colombia, has a unique visual feel to it and while it feels ‘‘eerily familiar’’ to Rapture in Bioshock it is very different from the ‘‘dark, dank, oppressive’’ environments of that game.

26-bioshockinfinite-fxThe stakes are high with Bioshock, says Gardner, but Irrational didn’t want to take the easy road with the game.

‘‘We could have easily taken the easy route but we’re challenging ourselves, and gamers themselves want to be challenged. We want to amaze people with a world that they haven’t seen before and with a narrative where they’ve never been before.’’

Gardner believes part of the appeal of the Bioshock universe is the “unique vision and aesthetic” and the interactivity in video games sets it apart from more traditional forms of media.

“The interactivity is what sets us apart so embracing that is important, not only in new ways to innovate but in new ways of storytelling. We pushed the narrative in a different direction by introducing Elizabeth and Booker, two characters that really evolve as human beings, and to see that evolution is really unlike anything that I’ve seen in a game.

“We take these chances because I think gamers appreciate them and I think gamers are willing to take on challenges and new things. Frankly, I don’t think enough games give gamers that kind of credit and give gamers that leeway and they kind of have a tendency to go with what is safe.  We take risks.’’

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