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BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth isn't just a damsel in distress

We didn't necessarily think that we were going to be able to pull off the kind of emotional grab that we wanted to get.Irrational Games user experience specialist Bill Gardner

Late summer rain pours down upon the city, the grandiose Town Hall structure hunches, contrasting amongst the skyscrapers, smack bang in the middle of Sydney's Central Business District. Bill Gardner and I are talking about Elizabeth, the heroine of BioShock Infinite. He's explaining how she may be more than just the tired trope of a damsel in distress.

The steady rain makes the old-world building as ominous as ever. It would fit perfectly within the BioShock universe and sets the tone for Infinite's preview session, which takes place deep within the bowels of the 97-year Australian old building.

When the game opens, soon the catalyst of Elizabeth's change, the game's main character Booker DeWitt, is in a rowboat on choppy gray open water complete with miserable rain. His keepers, two chirpy bickering characters accompany him but he obviously is the third wheel.

Booker is delivered to a lighthouse and with vague instructions, he scales the stairs. He finds and sits atop an industrial Chesterfield-like red chair and is shot into to the sky. The chair breaks through a cloud canopy, the sun shines and you get your first long, lazy look at the floating city of Columbia.

"I mean it is pretty clear that things are rough for Booker. He's got this debt that he's got to pay off, so he's desperate, at that point," Gardner said. "This is his last chance to set the wrong things right, so he has to get to Columbia to take care of business."

And that's why he was sent there, to rescue — or kidnap — Elizabeth. To the player, why the unknown party wants to blackmail Booker to acquire Elizabeth isn't immediately known. But, as Gardner says, glimpses and hints do appear to fill in the story.

"She is unlike any character that I have seen in a game, especially when you play through the entire thing and you see how she evolves."

"When you have a question, stick with it, pay attention, there is a lot to get across. Sometimes the answer will be in a diary or in a Kinetoscopes. The answers do exist so you will find it out," he says.

Kinetoscopes, the old-world motion picture technology that allows for a single person to view movies at a time, are scattered around the city offering quick glimpses of the city's history.

As soon as Booker gets himself free from the rocket chair, he is tasked with getting to an immense floating statue where Elizabeth is locked. You are aware of her in-game presence long before you see Elizabeth in person. The propaganda of her is saturated throughout stunning Columbia — dolls, statues, posters — it seems that she is the city's revered golden child.

As beautiful as Columbia is on the surface, the city is in strife because of its two increasingly warring factions: the Vox Populi and The Founders. The Vox Populi are an underground resistance movement who want to overthrow The Founders, the xenophobic political party. Both factions want Elizabeth for their own agendas.

It is there, admiring Elizabeth's world, wandering weaponless around a fair and drinking in the delicious environment, when the player gets into a spot of trouble with The Founders. In the scramble, the player obtains an officer's grappling hook, a SkyHook, and sends it gouging into someone’s neck.

The blood flows prodigiously and being a fan of unabashed gore, it appeals. Not just that though, but because the subsequent brawl instantly shows the how melee attacks have been improved upon since the last game.

"Stuff like the animation counts, like in Street Fighter and things like that, we have never had before," Gardner said. "In general this time around, we were really able to focus on all of the different pieces and trying to polish them up as best we could.

"Where as in BioShock one, it was just like we tried to get it to a level that was good enough. It would pain us because either we didn't have the time or the specialty to really nail it."

Gardner pointed out that BioShock games and their combat are known for its improvised nature. The gamer is provided with opportunities and tools to be as creative as they want. During the preview session time with Infinite, it became apparent that they took the combat to the next level.

Quite a few battles were encountered along the way to Elizabeth's tower, each with increasing difficulty and each time with increasing options to use in combat. It was fun to restart sections to experiment with different techniques.

In place of plasmids, there are the different vigors to try out. These drinks give Booker different powers drinks to give him power, such as allowing him the capability to possess humans and robots, control of a flock of carnivorous birds or blast out fireballs from his hands. Most of these vigors also have secondary attacks.

To add to combat options, items of clothing and gear could be swapped out for different perks and attacks. A favorite I encountered was when a SkyHook melee attack would set an enemy alight. Other basic gear unlocks the ability to speed up and slow down on the Skyline. Players can create subclasses in custom load outs with gear to suit their play style.

"The gear is very similar to the tonics in BioShock one, it fills the same role where you slot things in and out," Gardner said. "We were able to really push them in really interesting ways and extend their use a lot further."

The Skyline, Columbia's zipline transportation system when used in conjunction with a SkyHook, is the only way to get to Elizabeth's prison. Elizabeth's plush quarters are in the statue's pinnacle, hidden away by a maze of metal blast doors and concerning experimental laboratories.

Along the way you start to piece together Elizabeth's nightmarish childhood and now you really want to save her. Before meeting her face-to-face, the player is given a voyeuristic moment to observe Elizabeth though the one way Mirrors that stud her plush prison. In that time, she briefly opens up a time rip, known mechanically known as a tear, to Paris circa 1983.

"She is unlike any character that I have seen in a game, especially when you play through the entire thing and you see how she evolves," Gardner said. "She starts so little and she is completely naive to the world and by the end she is just a completely different human being.

"You start from a place where she is isolated, and that is her thing, she starts off completely isolated and cut off from the rest of the world, and she is thrust into this world with Booker. Very quickly she has a rude awakening, she has been set loose on the world."

While her strong personality and simmering strength is intriguing, it is easy to scoff that she is pigeon-holed as a naive character that needs protecting and rescue. At face value, the story doesn't seem to wander far from the tired trope of "rescue the hot vulnerable chick, you big brave burly man!"

"Well, you can certainly argue that every single story has already been told, that we are just telling the same story over and over again," said Gardner. "In a lot of ways BioShock is Robinson Crusoe, right? You are shipwrecked, you are lost, essentially on an island. BioShock has always been about drawing from all of these different inspirations.

"There is a familiar touchstone there and from that you start with something familiar and you try to twist it, try to put your own spin on it and push it in different directions. When you go through the entire game and witness Elizabeth's arc, it'll make a lot more sense."

While Elizabeth seems vulnerable at the start, her control of the tears are implied to be the tip of the iceberg for her full potential. Gardner also explains that Elizabeth's tears create an invaluable tool for the players as they create game play opportunities that dynamically change the combat as players see fit.

"So specifically with this, we had this opportunity, we knew early on what her background was and how tears played a role and why she is important to Colombia and we wanted to find a way how to leverage that in gameplay," says Gardner. "There was a natural evolution there, like I have all of these Vigors, all of these weapons and the Skyline, it's like "How do we leverage that? How do we enhance that?"

Gardner said developing the mechanic involved a lot of trial and error. Some tear experiments were the more obvious uses, such as using tears to transport a turret to the player, which was a ‘’no brainier’’ using a turret for offense and defense capabilities. He said they tried out a lot of tears that didn't work because they were either overpowering or were no fun.

"It is really about finding ones that are going to compliment your tools," he says.

Where Irrational gleamed their inspiration from for the mechanic was hard to peg down for Gardner, unsurprising given the studio’s creative process that involves drawing inspiration from eclectic sources. Was Elizabeth created to use the tear mechanic or was the tear mechanic created for Elizabeth to use?

"It is an opportunity for Elizabeth to enhance the players game play experience and it turns the tides of combat," Gardner said. "We were really looking carefully at the things at what Elizabeth can do to help in combat. That was very important for us to make sure that she never hindered the player, that it was always about empowering him."

"That's why you never have to escort her or protect her or anything like that. It's really about when she is in combat, she's tossing you items to help you out or she's is giving you opportunities with these tears. But we decided to focus on that and it's a huge part of the narrative and that's really what the game is all about - marrying the gameplay and the narrative in new ways."

As Elizabeth and her powers are the focus of the Founders, the Vox Populi and shadow faction, it is fair to question why Elizabeth isn't the playable character. The game could easily be about Elizabeth rescuing herself, thereby making Booker's character redundant. But as Gardner explains, their primary reason for not doing this was that they wanted her "front and center".

"It is very much Booker's and Elizabeth's story but it is a first-person game and we wanted to put her where the person can see her emotion, her reaction when she interacts with the world," he says. "There are a lot of narrative reasons that once you play through it, you will be able to see it a little clearer.

"It is just so she will get a little more screen time, we don't break to third person ever, because we think that it is important that you play the role of the person you're filling the shoes of."

"It is very much Booker's and Elizabeth's story but it is a first-person game and we wanted to put her where the person can see her emotion, her reaction when she interacts with the world."

Gardner says the reason she was created was because the team wanted to find new ways that would push that narrative and game play. They wanted to evolve from the notion of a solid protagonist with no voice and no backstory because they felt like that had played out in BioShock and System Shock already.

"We wanted to go into the game with a full backstory and make an actual character that you could empathize with," Gardner said. Irrational sought to achieve that through the creation of a companion character for Booker to play off of and to react to what he was doing within the worl

So having a companion character for Booker was one of the first things that the team decided upon. But they also realized that it would be a huge undertaking, especially with what they set out to do with Elizabeth, her story and the level of fidelity that she has.

Gardner explained that Elizabeth constantly evolved throughout the development process towards its worldwide release for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC on March 26. At one point earlier on in the development, they decided that she was going to be mute.

"We didn't necessarily think that we were going to be able to pull off the kind of emotional grab that we wanted to get," Gardner says. "The type of facial expressions that we wanted that really push on that to the degree that we wanted it too."

The studio built up speed and strength like a perpetual motion machine, as did Elizabeth's character construction, as the game’s development progressed.

"But we started to build up our confidence, we started to build up our animation team and build up the narrative and we thought ‘OK, screw this we can actually do this full bore' to giving her a voice, giving her a whole personality.'"

The next level of puzzles.

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