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.
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.