Elizabeth, the girl trapped in the tower.
In video games, it’s pretty to determine who the protagonist is: just look at who you’re controlling. Put in the shoes of the character, it’s easy to drive home story beats since most action and dialogue will center around you (not to mention unattached narration may seem odd whereas they fit just fine in other mediums). Movies can have complex hero/villain/sidekick relationships to where none of the roles are all that clear. Television shows often change from week to week to explore character arcs over the course of a season. But video games almost always stick with the one we control.
There is no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of gaming. There is no disjointed, pseudo-plot that merely allows observation—or something close to it—in a story-driven vehicle. That would be a terrifyingly amazing thing if someone made a game like that, but it would almost surely be relegated to the indie game circuit and miss mainstream hype, which seems oddly appropriate for something inspired by an absurdist stage play.
The primary signals for determining the protagonist is change and influence. Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, while formulaic and reductive, is a fairly good place to start. You’re looking for someone who encounters a catalytic event that puts the entire story in motion, someone who has direct influence on the outcome of the plot, and someone who overcomes adversity by making a dramatic realization or change in themselves. That is what makes them the hero. Villains start out bad and usually die bad. Ancillary helpers and mentors also have little to no arc and, more than that, have no agency in the matter.
In an interview with Tom Bissel of Grantland, Ken Levine discussed how Elizabeth came to be in BioShock Infinite. She wasn’t originally part of the plan, but Levine thought it was odd to have a speaking character (a necessary contrast given how often Irrational Games had already done silent protagonists) talk to no one in particular as they went about the game. And eventually, as development on, Elizabeth emerged as a vital part of the story. But she is less of a single strut within the walls and more like the only pillar holding the entire thing up.
“As we thought about Booker … it is his story to some degree, but it’s very much her story, too,” says Levine. That, perhaps, is the most important line in the whole interview. BioShock Infinite is not about Booker DeWitt or Father Comstock or anyone else; it is about Elizabeth.
Elizabeth, the curious curiosity.
Consider that Booker, in his own story, gets his MacGuffin from a box containing a note that says, “Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt,” a choice to do as it says or face the consequences. It’s a simple premise that forces Booker from his everyday life of gambling, drinking, and pining to ride a rowboat with an odd couple to a strangely isolated lighthouse in the middle of a rainstorm. Along with all that, though, is a key.
This key is Elizabeth’s MacGuffin. Without this, she would have been in the tower until, well, forever. Her normal, banal world of dreaming about Paris and tearing holes into alternate realities was broken by this aberrant occurrence, the first step in a protagonist’s journey and their story. There needs to be this thing, whatever it is, that breaks the daily cycle and forces something new. That key is it.
SPOILER WARNING: to keep talking about the matters of Elizabeth and what she means to the game, I am going to have to talk about portions of the game beyond the first 15 minutes. I’ll stop just short of the ending, but those of you that plan on playing but haven’t yet should stop reading. Or keep reading. Whatever. I’m not your mom.
Then think about the transformation Elizabeth undergoes over the course of the game. She starts out wide-eyed (literally and figuratively; I mean, my god, those peepers are ginormous) and optimistic. Her archetypal Prince Charming has come to rescue her and whisk her away to France where she can dance and sing as much as she desires. But then, when it comes down to it, Booker has no choice but to kill to protect her, and she sees. And she runs.
This is the first break in her shell and, consequently, the first failure of Booker. His job becomes not to just free her from her physical constraints but also to protect her emotionally, and he fails. Repeatedly. Elizabeth, as the protagonist, faces adversity and overcomes it. The question, of course, is at what cost. In the alternate Vox-controlled reality, she climbs through a vent and gets the drop on a ranting Daisy Fitzroy, the rebellious leader turned all sorts of backwards by Booker’s apparent return from the dead. With a child’s life on the line, she stabs Daisy. She runs her through with a blade. Clean and uncertain on one end, crimson and final on the other; it is a visual metaphor for the internal change and tragedy in Elizabeth.
Elizabeth, the killer.
The thing about stories is that change is the only constant. Even stories about how things don’t change like No Country for Old Men still require change to illustrate how little impact it has in the grand scheme of things, but none of them require a happy ending or a bad ending. Sometimes they can just be complex and create emotional bonds simply for the sake of twisting and bending them until they shatter. All of that manipulation is what we feel because change is what we know.
A protagonist doesn’t have to be the good guy or the bad guy. A protagonist is just the center of the story, the focal point of all the change that gets roped around and tangled up with all the sameness of the before and after. This is the person who you feel for, the one you watch encounter obstacles and hurdle them or face a mountain and barely manage to drag themselves to the top. This is the person you feel for because this is the person who changes.
Bissel asks Levine about the heart of the game, about the driving force of BioShock Infinite. Playing the game, you begin to ask yourself the same question. It’s hard not to like Booker and it’s hard not to sympathize with the outcasts of a floating utopia, but it’s even harder not to love her. It’s even harder to not feel every stumble and fall she makes, harder yet to not lie awake at night questioning why.
Elizabeth, the true heart of BioShock Infinite.