An Effin' AI In BioShock Infinite Is More Of A Human Than I Am

A gun. That's it, that's often all I amount to in first person shooters. I might spend time customising a body, I might see myself during a cutscene, my first-person view might allow me to see fingertips holding a gun steady, I might bleed and perhaps die (eventually), but at best I could be said to be a reticule. Scarcely do I feel like a human being.

I don't mourn games making me feel less like a person and more like a faceless force, not usually. It's thrilling; that lack of human element is exactly what makes me feel powerful, borderless. I don't need to be able to see my arms and legs, hell, I don't need to see any of my body while playing a first person shooter: screenspace is valuable, and I'd get in the way. Plus, relative to the AI around me, I can still say I have some free will — and so while I might not look like more than a gun, I'm still more of a person than the characters around me, right? I can do what I want, while everyone around me is trapped in a code prison that dictates their every action.

Well, that's how it usually is. Weird things happen when you become self-aware in a video game, and that's exactly what happened while I was playing Bioshock Infinite. It was all because of Elizabeth, the woman Booker DeWitt — the protagonist — is tasked to capture. FYI, spoiler warning from here on out.

I'd heard much about Elizabeth prior to Bioshock Infinite's launch. Irrational hoped that we'd see her less as a burden, less as a series of scripts and code, and more like person — even though she's not. The player is a person.

It's easy to see the hype around Elizabeth and the see-through attempt at making players care about her and pass it off as a bunch of marketing bullshit. I was sceptical. Surely she's just your typical sidekick? Maybe a well-written sidekick, but a sidekick all the same. I jumped into the game hoping to find flaws in the way she acted, anything that might make it easy for me to dismiss her as either a burden, or shoddy mimicry. Her AI can't be that good, I thought.

And sure, I noticed some hiccups — like teleporting. But on the whole, what I found was that Elizabeth felt more like more of a person than I did. I watched incredulously as she marveled over everything around her — she spent so much time locked up in a tower, she barely had any experience with the outside word — and her sense of wonder felt infectious.

She'll look outside a window. She'll run toward the music and dance. She'll recognise her captor, Songbird, in a toy plush, and become frightened. She'll wince and look disgusted when in an unkempt bathroom. She'll run up ahead and call me to her — she's found something!

I've seen this trope before, the one of the sheltered person experiencing the world for the first time. It's not that I am taken aback by Elizabeth's curiosity and naivety. It's that I look at her, I look at what she can do and how she acts, and I wish I could do the same. Elizabeth emotes, she reacts. I sometimes do too, but at worst Booker is jaded and at best he is a disembodied voice standing in for me. Compared to Elizabeth, I feel limited, faceless, dehumanized.

An AI in a game feels like more of a human being than I do. What in the world? This isn't helped by the sound effects in the game — which, yes, I'm aware are straight out of the first BioShock game.

When I eat something, the sound effect makes me feel like machinery:

And when I pick up cash, I sound like a cash register. No wonder I don't feel human.

Wanting to feel like a human being might make you look at what you can actually do in a game differently. Sure, shooting people can be pleasurable, but it hardly feels humanising. When I watch Elizabeth do things like eat cotton candy or dance, I feel jealousy. Watching her move to the sound of music like a Disney princess made me want nothing more than to go up and join her. I can't dance with Elizabeth. But I could shoot the civilians around her. Elizabeth made me pine for things the game wouldn't allow me to do.

There's another section early in the game that captures this sense of lack well for me. It's when you are allowed to visit an ice cream parlor. I walked in, and to my surprise, the game didn't let me buy an ice cream cone for Elizabeth. I felt similarly disappointed when I walked up to a carousel, and I didn't have the option to ride it, or to encourage Elizabeth to ride it.

Are these ridiculous desires? Maybe, under normal circumstances. But the game teased me with simple pleasures earlier, the kind that endear me to a character — like having Elizabeth eat cotton candy. That's the kind of simple pleasure a real human being might enjoy, and it's often not one a game will indulge me on, so of course I feel hungry for it. These are the types of moments that I wanted to experience moreso than feeling the thrill of landing a headshot, no matter how satisfying the shooting is.

It's not that I wish BioShock Infinite was something other than a shooter, either — I'm wary of playing couch game designer, so I won't go there. But thinking about it, I can't help but feel a sense of disgust when considering what I can actually do, because it often reflects poorly on me. Can I buy ice cream? No. Can I ride the carousel? No. But I can steal from the cash register in the ice cream shop! Just what I never wanted!

It's stuff like that that makes a gamer a slave to compulsion. There's a dramatic moment late in the game, after Elizabeth murders Daisy Fitzroy. Elizabeth is in shock, hell, I'm in shock. She stares at her murder weapon for a while, and then she runs away. I'm supposed to run after her. That's not what I do. Instead, I look around me and loot what I can — Elizabeth will wait. What if I miss something by running after her right away? Sure enough, I would have:

The design, which rewards exploration, is at odds with the narrative, which makes you care about Elizabeth. Worse, the design makes me feel ashamed for being unable to resemble a normal human being in a game — because if it was real life, there's no way I'd stop and ransack everything before running after Elizabeth!

When playing games, I will pick up every coin, every consumable, every weapon I come across merely because it's an option and that's what you DO in games. But that sounds like I place the blame wholly on my compulsions as a gamer: why are there so many damned lootable trash cans in the first place?

In this case, a Voxophone didn't need to be near the room Elizabeth murders Fitzroy in, and even if I needed to restock on supplies, both of these things could have been placed anywhere at all — maybe after I catch up to Elizabeth. Instead, they're in a place that makes me choose between being faithful to how I feel — concerned about Elizabeth — and faithful to my compulsions as a player, who wants to find all the collectibles.

Elizabeth makes it impossible not to become self-conscious about a lot of things, really. Because she's so lively, the rest of the people in BioShock Infinite's world seem dead by comparison. Kirk puts it well in the comments section of his article about BioShock Infinite's combat: "Characters stand stock-still, repeating the same animations over and over, everyone looks and speaks the same way. The game only comes to "life" when it's time to start blowing shit up."

It's not like I can do much about the world around me, barring, you know, killing people. Elizabeth did cause me to alter some of my behaviour a bit, though. I felt so ridiculous about my indiscriminate looting midway through the game that I refused to look into any trashcans I came across anymore.

I know that sounds silly, trust me, I'm in disbelief that I felt so self conscious about looting — I mean, I do it in just about every game! It was all because I felt weird about what Booker's actions must look like to Elizabeth.

Picture: Loldwell

Beyond that, I feared that by virtue of having all these 'gamer tendencies' — the one that tells me to search everything, the one that looks at a game as a series of objectives and enemies as a series of moving targets — I am less of a person than Elizabeth is.

I'm not surprised, of course. Those are all the things that shooters let you do more than anything else: to loot, to destroy, to ransack, to kill. But approximating a human being with simple pleasures? Naw, the companion AI can do that. Let the player live vicariously through her.

WATCH MORE: PC Gaming News


Comments

    They did a great job with her, but she regularly points out items to me that are at least a floor away, also gets emotional and then interrupts herself to flip me a coin.

    They did so much with her, that when it doesn't work, it really boots me out of the situation.

    Great game though. I'm really hard on it, and talk about it a lot, because I like it so much.

      She crouches, lockpick at her feet. The room is silent, while she's intensely focused, I am watching her, wondering what it is she's doing. Finally, Elizabeth speaks.
      "Booker, I think I see a lockpick over there."
      It is literally at her feet.

    Great article, Patricia. After the initial flood of positive reviews the game was inevitably going to get, I'm absolutely enthused to see the amount of articles pointing out how at odds the gameplay and narrative really were.

    It isn't that the game wasn't incredible on its own merits, it was just pointed out that there's this massive dissonance between the impact the narrative has on a player and how the game backs you into a corner when you want to respond to the world in various ways. It's this frustrating peek at what the game (or a game) could be. I mean, for a game that emphasises variables, constants, the choices you make and their impact on the world; it doesn't allow you to make many choices that impact the narrative. This includes bonding with Elizabeth.

    Gamers are growing up, and the narratives in games are trying to grow up with us, but the gameplay and marketing are lagging sorely behind. I am so very happy that a game like Bioshock Infinite has opened this dialogue among gamers. I just hope the publishers and developers are listening.

      I know that when one person spouts an opinion on the internet, they rarely ever care about someone else's but i'll share mine anyway. There's this thing called "story" that people pretend to understand what it means. (Not you, dude) The most irritating of all is the misconception of choice. It's hard to argue against the idea that gamers consider choice to be the paramount of narrative art. We're getting to a point where gamers just want as many different choices as possible, regardless of what exactly they are. When choice is denied, gamers lose their shit, as if it's completely unfathomable that someone could have the audacity to actually try and tell them a story. Choices don't make things better, they're just another mode of storytelling. Nothing annoys me more when a game like Bioshock Infinite comes along, handles the arduous task of making a game and crafting such a passionate story only for everyone to say there's this one little thing that makes your game less interesting. And it's different from the last guy. And i'm right. I mean if you have any real knowledge of story then you'd know why choice is denied so often. Because if you have a point, if the author has something particular they want to say, if there are particular interactions that they want to keep intact or a metaphor to retain its meaning then at times, yes, you're denied choice. Because that's the technique they thought was best suited. The worst thing is that the question of "ok, what is this story really trying to tell me?" Doesn't exist in video games, which is unfortunate. Usually we resort to "WHAAAAT?! NO CHOICE? BLAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!" When something doesn't go the way we planned, as if we're assuming complete knowledge over the game story and its development, we tell everyone what's wrong with it rather than ponder at the possibilities and maybe give writers the tiniest little bit of credit.

      Gamers are one of the few communities that basically lack the ability to look at the entire piece of work instead of segregating it into components. You see, in movies at times you are denied something to make you feel but with games, if you tried to do that, you're metacritic score will plummet within minutes. To me, i chose to interpret Booker as a violent man in a violent place, a place where he's denying himself happiness for obvious reasons. (If you've played to the end) This means that he doesn't play around while he kills things and only responds emotionally to Elizabeth. I mean, these were my first impressions of the game and both this article and comments are talking like my natural interpretation is impossible, that it's flat out wrong. Within reviews it's cool but i never see so many articles trying to convince everyone that something is inherently wrong with something that's entirely subjective. I understand people are trying to grasp what they can of the bond between gameplay and story but i'd like a little optional optimism to go with the default pessimism at times.

      "There’s a dramatic moment late in the game, after Elizabeth murders Daisy Fitzroy. Elizabeth is in shock, hell, I’m in shock. She stares at her murder weapon for a while, and then she runs away. I’m supposed to run after her. That’s not what I do. Instead, I look around me and loot what I can — Elizabeth will wait."

      I Just wanted to point out that that's not what I did. I ran after her.

    Very interesting read.

    I'm a 'looter' in most games, (I will scour a dungeon in Skyrim, and kick myself if I find out I missed something), but watching my housemate play through Infinite and looting every single trashcan I couldn't help but feel this detracted from the situation. It's not like your going to miss some unique item by not looting every trashcan.

    Guns aren't really unique as they are pick-up-able at 100s of different locations throughout the game. Vigors will show up again, if you missed the previous one, but often will force you to get them to progress through the game. The only unique things you can really miss are gear, and they are generally only placed as a reward for unlocking a special area, (lockpicks etc). So the only thing looting a trashcan gives you, is food, a few silver eagles and maybe some ammo (which most of the time is everywhere).

    It really breaks the immersion (gamers love imersion...) to see after a massively dramatic cutscene/fight/plot point that booker returns to sifting through trash for a few silver eagles.

      But in Columbia people throw out so much money. You'd be mad not to go through all the trash!

    It would be nice to see a character actually act like an even halfway human would if they witnessed a psychopath murdering a few hundred people in the space of a few hours.

    Foetal ball quivering, crying, screaming, denial etc.

    not OOOH A LOCKPICK!

      Elizabeth does run away from you when she first sees you kill some people. Then she keeps talking about redemption and stuff.

    What have you done to Patricia? This article made too much sense and didnt mention sexism enough.

      I get where you're coming from, but when someone does something you like, it's not especially classy to rub their face in the earlier stuff they did which you didn't like.

      I'm sure you probably meant it as a good-natured jibe so I don't wanna pile on, but I'm guessing the folks who voted you down were disappointed that the compliment was delivered on the back of your hand.

    I accidentally blasted a drunk homeless guy with fire and Elizabeth didn't react at all. Neither did she react when, on the second play-through, I interrupted the man encouraging his wife to jump onto the sky-ferry-thing with a shotgun blast to the face. I then rampaged amongst the crowd of people who did nothing but shield their faces and shout a little bit, sometimes one of them would run. Still, not a single disapproving glance. I feel like they should've done 'something' there. Like, even if she just told me off a little bit for wanton murder.

    You should really put the spoiler warning first. I got excited to be reading an interesting article only to be shut down at the end of the first paragraph with a spoiler warning.

    Not really sure about Elizabeth has that much of a "human" factor in it. All she does was occasional scream when I use execution melee attack, giving me items and spawning tears.
    the worst part is that she would randomly gives you items when she is talking some emotional talks, completely breaking the immension.
    those special moments like going off dancing are SO scripted and in actual gameplay, her existence feels very weak since she won't die, doesn't do anything to distract enemies, and she teleports and always next to you in battle.

    I feel the same way. I want to run after Elizabeth but there is loot to be missed and things to see. I feel that the looting system really distracted from the game itself.

    Dunno if "an AI" is the best term for it. Plenty of the parts you like are just a collection of scripted events, voice acting and character development. Nothing to do with any sort of intelligence- like Luke.

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