A damsel in progress: analyzing BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth
From Peach to Zelda, the damsel in distress is a classic video game figure. Countless games have featured the helpless princess in need of rescuing, and despite its blatant sexism, the trope is still widely used.
When Irrational Games’ BioShock: Infinite was released March 26th, female character Elizabeth seemed to be just another damsel in distress. She has the wide-eyed princess look, she’s innocent and pure, and she’s locked in a tower waiting to be saved.
But after I played the game, it became clear that Elizabeth is far from a helpless damsel—in fact, she represents a major step forward for female game characters.
The interaction between the player (a male character) and Elizabeth represents an “escort mission” structure (the player must lead an NPC, or non-player character, to safety or to a goal of some sort). Damsels in distress are extremely common in escort missions, and game developers often characterize the damsel as stupid, annoying, and useless (largely because until recently the technology wasn’t advanced enough to create an NPC that wouldn’t get in the way).
BioShock: Infinite’s escort structure is different. Elizabeth is far from baggage; she’s essential to the player’s success in the game. She picks locks, collects supplies, and aids the player in combat.
Instead of following the player around everywhere, she runs ahead, often indicating which way to go. Elizabeth can also handle herself in combat, unlike many NPCs that need to be protected.
It’s true that Elizabeth’s appearance is reminiscent of the damsel. Like most female game characters, her looks are exaggerated, and her cleavage is prominently displayed.
Halfway through the game, Elizabeth changes from her modest dress to an extremely tight corset. It’s certainly not the worst female game costume, but it is pretty uncomfortable looking.
There has been a fair amount of criticism regarding Elizabeth’s appearance (one blogger called her “fetishized”), and some players were disturbed by Elizabeth’s cleavage because of her youthful look. (Really, when have male gamers ever complained about too much cleavage?)
Yet other than the corset, Elizabeth’s character is not overtly sexual. Yes, she’s beautiful, but her proportions and features are fairly realistic. Visible cleavage doesn’t necessarily equal objectification.
Elizabeth is never presented as sexually available and there are no sexual undertones in her relationship with the player. In fact, creative director Ken Levine said it wasn’t his intent to sexualize Elizabeth, and he was “disappointed” that players focused on this.
The most important way in which Elizabeth differs from the classic damsel is the fact that her character is well rounded. She has a lengthy backstory and complex emotions and flaws like a real person. As the story progresses, it becomes more and more clear that the main character is Elizabeth, not the player.
Though the player must save her from danger, she’s not just an object used to further the male character’s storyline—she is the storyline. This differs from many female game characters that are flat, uninteresting, and simply tools or goals for the player.
Bioshock: Infinite’s Elizabeth doesn’t completely escape the damsel in distress trope, but she does push its boundaries to a more equal, empowered place. The next step is for her to become a playable character and get her own game.
Sarah Hansel is a 23-year-old human female. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in Women and Gender Studies from UC Davis. In her free time she likes to read, play video games, draw, and garden.