Women In Video Games - Elizabeth (Spoilers)
This is the first page in my selection of articles about women in video games. I'll be discussing the qualities and personalities of some of the women who play central roles in some of my favorite video games. I certainly hope some of them are your favorites as well.
Just a quick note, I will be relating some of the idioms as I see them to tropes. To make this easier on those of you who are unfamiliar with tropes, I will be linking notable ones with their descriptions on TVTropes.org. You should not need to read the page to follow along with my descriptions, but you just might find that it helps. If you find your opinion differs from mine, please say so in the comments, I would love to see what I may have missed.
When First We Meet
Damsel In Distress
When first you hear of Elizabeth all you know is that someone has paid you to grab her and deliver her to them. You have to work your way through the city in the clouds, to find that she lives in a huge tower shaped like a statue in the form of an angel.
When you get to her tower and first enter it, you find that she has been in that tower for many years, with very limited access given for people to interact with her from a very young age. She is considered extremely dangerous, to the point where they demand certain practices when permission is granted to meet with her face to face. Later you find that she was moved to that tower after Lady Comstock refused to live in the same house with her, being convinced that she was the product of her husband having an affair, how else did she appear so quickly?
After climbing the tower to Elizabeth's residence levels you find that, other than being cut off from humanity, she has lived a rather cushy life. She has grown up, taught herself, envisioned her dreams, all while unknowingly under the very watchful eye of her captors. While believing she had total privacy, she actually had none.
Her very sheltered upbringing develops her into The Ingenue, painfully innocent with a very black or white viewpoint of the world, at the beginning of your travels together. If she stayed this way she would very quickly wear out her welcome. Even the post patient of protagonists would eventually be wondering if there was a way to get rid of her, permanently. However as it is played out, this actually ends up creating the perfect opportunity to see some character growth.
Freeing Elizabeth From Herself
After you rescue Elizabeth you'll find that she is very naive, with reason. She sees the world through a very sheltered mindset. When the violence starts she will initially run away in terror, blaming the situation, and the violence, on Booker alone. It doesn't take too much to get her to open her eyes a bit though, after all she has been trying to figure out a way to escape her prison for a good portion of her life.
Once Elizabeth understands the need to defend against attackers, she very quickly learns to make herself quite useful. She doesn't ever help with fighting, but she will save Booker's life if he is dying, and find ammunition, health and salts at need, open tears when asked, and is very handy with a lock-pick. She will also crouch down and try to stay out of the way of the action if fighting is actually occurring, and stand back up once all is clear, giving players an easy method to check if an area is safe if the dramatic music cues are somehow missed, or the music volume is down.
One could argue that she is not as strong as some other video game women because she does not demand to take part in the actual fighting. I would suggest that this is actually much more realistic than freeing her, and then having her instantly demand to have a gun and participate in the fighting when she has never even seen a fight before in her life. Conceding that the fighting is necessary in order for her to become free is a very large first step on her way to becoming a fully fleshed character. Instead of stepping into the role of an action woman, she fits quite perfectly into the role of the Spirited Young Lady.
From here on if you have not played the game yourself and do not plan to, I highly suggest you stop reading and watch a playthrough of the game. Everything up to now you can find out shortly after starting to play, or by listening to a discussion on the game. After this portion I'll be discussing end-game situations.
Things go on this way for quite a while, Booker fights, needs help, Elizabeth provides help and stays out of the way. She knows that she needs Booker if she ever is going to be free of Columbia and be able to live her life the way she wants to live it, without being locked in a tower and without people dying around her, preferably. And this is the way it could have gone on if Elizabeth never found any further determination to change her role in the game. As any Spirited Young Lady might do, she finds her determination in the plight of a boy who was being threatened with death. Whatever his parents may or may not have done, the boy is innocent until he is put in an actual position in which to make the same choices, or chooses not to.
This showdown throws Elizabeth directly into the dilemma of acting with permanent consequences, or to stand by and watch a young boy be shot in cold blood. The choice Elizabeth makes changes her personality and outlook on life even more than when she realized that the people dying around her earlier were dying trying to put her back into her imprisonment. This isn't potential violence against her, but violence against someone innocent who cannot protect himself at the moment. So in this instance, when Booker is trapped behind a door and cannot get through quick enough, Elizabeth makes the choice to be for this boy what Booker has so far been for her.
With New Eyes
Visual Clues Supporting Internal Changes
From here I am not going to go too much into the finality of the story. Suffice it to say that if you haven't and don't want to play the game I once again fully suggest you watch a playthrough about it. However the above event not only changes Elizabeth's attitude and way of looking at the world, but also triggers a change in outfit and image. Not wanting to have to travel around in bloody clothes she finds the first outfit she can and cuts her hair. So lets take this moment to talk about clothes.
Up to this moment whenever you see Elizabeth it is difficult to see her and not see innocent young girl. This is not just because of the way she is animated, it is a very deliberate choice made by how they dressed her and managed her hair, very similar to Dorothy in the film version of The Wizard of Oz. After the change it is very difficult to see her as anything other than a young woman. Again, this is due directly to the deliberate use of wardrobe and hair styling. At first I was mildly irritated at the choice to put her in a rather revealing corset and jacket, however upon further reflection it fits into the timeline, and reflects the mature lessons of life that Elizabeth is absorbing at a rather quick pace, while still not diminishing her personal sense of self one whit. It is impossible to view this Elizabeth as just a child. Of course her main assets as an adult female, at least according to most men, are the most prominent visually, but I won't argue that viewpoint here.
Journey Through Life
The character development Elizabeth goes through is very much a statement on the growth of any young woman, or young man for that matter, as they grow up and mature. You start out through life reliant on the decisions and support of other people, friends, family, occasionally the government. You are more or less bound to the ideas and ideology of whoever is supporting and protecting you. Then something happens. At some point you realize that you are in a situation where those who protected you before either won't, or can't, protect you any longer. At that point you learn that you have no choice but to step up to the line and make your own choices, and maybe suffer the consequences of your decision by yourself. Sometimes this decision is made with the support and approval of your friends and family, sometimes you make the change to live your own life against their support and approval.
For Elizabeth, the time of that choice was based on the life of that child. And like most young men and women, she realized that once she stepped over that boundary there was no stepping back. She could not take back what she had done and she could not forget it. And even worse, if she could she would just be stepping back into the place of allowing other people to decide her life for her. She was stuck with the consequences of her own decisions.
This is the heart of what makes her an admirable video game woman. She is a lesson in what a video game character can truly be, not just eye candy but a study in real, personal growth and development. Not only valued for what she provides for the protagonist in the form of motivation and supplies, but an integral part of the story itself. Booker may be the protagonist of the story, but in reality this story is about Elizabeth, at its heart.
Well done Irrational Games. While there is considerably more to discuss here, and many people discussing it, this only supports my thinking that this is a big step in the right direction. Not only for female characters featured in video games (and potentially other forms of media as well), but for male characters as well. If every video game storylines were based around realistic, complex characters rather than idealized, perfect specimens of humanity, we would never run out of new topics for discussion.