Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
Gaming has it good this year, having two GOTY contenders come out within the first half of 2013 in Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Both games have a couple of important similarities that make the inevitable comparisons worth the discussions. The most obvious one would be the older male-younger female partnership dynamic, something that the two share with another story-driven game and my personal 2012 GOTY The Walking Dead.
[There will be spoilers for both The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite here on out.]
In The Last of Us, you play the role of 50-something-year-old Joel who’s been hardened by life in the post-apocalypse, becoming a professional smuggler just to get by. You’re forced to accompany 14-year-old Ellie across a cordyceps-infested America in the vague hope of finding a vaccine to the virus that has ravaged the world by way of Ellie’s unexplained immunity.
In Bioshock Infinite, you play the role of 40-something-year-old Booker DeWitt who’s been hardened by life in the post-American Indian Wars, becoming a private investigator (and an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler) just to get by.You’re forced to bring 20-year-old Elizabeth back from a technologically-advanced-yet-ultra-fundamentalist version of America in the sky in the vague of hope of wiping away your debts by way of Elizabeth’s unexplained reality-warping powers.
Delving even further into each game’s plots, you can draw more parallels between the two. Joel and Booker start their relationships with Ellie and Elizabeth on a professional level. No more, no less.
Both just see the two as “things” to be delivered so they can resolve a problem that’s got nothing to do with anyone else but themselves. Joel needs his guns from the resistance group the Fireflies, and Booker needs a clean slate. They’re just looking to get the job done, treating their female partners rather coldly.
Booker straight up lies to Elizabeth about his intentions to get her to go with him after they meet up. Joel simply refuses to entertain any of Ellie’s curse-filled rants and sarcastic quips, giving her the silent treatment when he isn’t commanding her bluntly to stay close and quiet.
But as the stories progress, the tough exteriors of our leading men crack as they grow fond of their co-protagonists. They become thoroughly attached, moving them to place their trust in their companions and accomplish herculean feats for the sake of the people they’ve realized to be their partners in their journeys. Even their original wholly selfish goals get thrown aside.
It’s also worth noting that Joel and Booker both come from a place of loss that creates their shells and drives them to do everything for Ellie and Elizabeth respectively.
Joel loses his young teenage daughter Sarah in the beginning of the end of the world, and once he grows close to Ellie, sees her as his own flesh and blood to protect.
Booker is revealed to have lost his infant daughter Anna who is actually Elizabeth. This starts off the events of Bioshock Infinite and his quest for redemption that has him fighting to bring down Comstock to prevent his own flesh and blood from becoming a destructive pawn of Columbia.
In any other typical AAA game, the focus would be all on the male leads while the women would be relegated as mere plot devices to justify the men’s gratuitous acts of violence. Fortunately, the guys at Naughty Dog and Irrational aren’t your typical AAA game developers.
Ellie and Elizabeth share the spotlight with Joel and Booker, having their own personal motivations and character quirks not defined by their co-protagonists. They develop through the course of their respective stories in step with their other halves, giving you reasons to actually care for both characters.
It’s in the differences in how both the female leads are handled that had me connecting so much more to the teenager with a potty mouth than the bright-eyed reality-warping young woman.
Elizabeth is introduced as a picture of perfection. She’s eloquent, graceful, caring, beautiful, well-read, witty, highly knowledgeable in various fields of arts and sciences, and even knows how to decipher codes and pick locks. Oh and there’s the whole opening-up-tears-to-parallel-universes power that is central to the plot.
When it comes to the gameplay portions of Bioshock Infinite, she is ever the helpful AI-controlled partner. She throws you ammo, health, and salts when you’re in dire need. She brings supply caches, mechanized weaponry, and cover from alternate realities to help you in combat. She knows where exactly to hide, although she is technically invisible to enemies, requiring no protection whatsoever so you can focus on fighting without any worries of her dying.
She gives you money she stumbles upon in the areas you enter. She can read the Vox Populi’s secret messages, giving you more insight into the group’s motivations. She can pick locks that lead to hidden goodies and to the next stages of the game. She is even the one that revives you when you get killed.
Unsurprisingly, she is genuinely curious about all the things Columbia and the rest of the world has to offer, reacting to the pretty oddities in the game’s world much like how the player would. Her only flaw is naivete, and it’s totally understandable considering she’s been locked up in an angel-shaped tower her whole life. And through the course of the game, she grows to be a strong woman who makes tough decisions including having to take a life on her own and sacrificing her freedom for Booker’s safety.
She is a Disney princess through and through.
Did I mention she can also dance and sing beautifully?
The woman is a saint.
Ellie, on the other hand, is a rambunctious kid with a dirty mouth and a rebel streak. She doesn’t back down from arguments with adults, dropping f-bombs with no reservations to show just how much respect she has for some of them. She drives Joel crazy in the beginning with her behavior, and her exchanges with the solitary paranoid survivor Bill is just as antagonistic as they fling insults at each other during their uneasy alliance.
And yet she has become my favorite female video game character.
Having been born well into the fungi armageddon, she knows nothing of the life a typical teenager would experience. Instead, she lives in a world where cynicism and hardship rule. Her parents die early, and she winds up in the care of Marlene, head of the anti-government militia group “Fireflies”. Survival is supposed to be all there is.
It’s her spark of youth that keeps her from being a depressed nihilist. Living within the borders of Boston for most of her life, she yearns to see the world beyond the the city’s tall grey walls and the suffocating control of the military. There is no denying her spirit for adventure and her desire to know more about human civilization before the fall.
This makes her such a joy to watch and listen to when you’re out in the country, stumbling across artifacts and monuments of days gone by. Every piece of human history is met with awe and wonder. From arcade machines to comics to chess boards to ice cream, she’s always got something to say that shows an endearing innocence and a rather sharp wit. In those small moments, she’s gets to be a normal kid.
Elizabeth makes her own comments about the beauty of Columbia as well, but never amounting to as much as Ellie’s, and there isn’t much of a rapport between her and the mostly silent Booker. Their interactions are mostly limited to the combat dynamic, and they frame Booker solely in the rescuer/protector role. Joel is dismissive of Ellie’s attempts at banter early in the game, but he learns to love telling her stories about the past and even leaves open a crack for her to get a peek into his own painful personal history. Bioshock Infinite‘s twist-heavy plot just can’t allow for a closer look into Booker’s true source of grief that drives him throughout the game, and his bond with Elizabeth suffers for it.
There is also a sort of disconnect with Elizabeth and the people of Columbia, as she interacts with them mostly from the perspective of an observer (dancing and singing in one-off moments aside). Comstock and Songbird are the only other characters she gets involved with for any meaningful time, and it’s never for more than fits and starts that only hint at their shared pasts. Despite her importance to the plot, she isn’t even given more than cursory acknowledgements by the Luteces, Slate, Fitzroy, Fink, and the rest during conversations, making her seem just as invisible to the majority of the cast as she is to the nameless goons you mow down.
Ellie establishes a link with each person you meet in the journey. Marlene is her second mother. Tess, Joel’s smuggling partner, teaches her the ways of the world. She and Bill exchange jabs, and they eventually earn a begrudging respect for each other. She trusts Henry, and she feels like a teen again with Sam whom she can joke and play around with. Maria sees her courage, and they get to bond over horses.
And of course, David shows just how strong Ellie really is.
In-game, Ellie isn’t as immediately helpful as Elizabeth as a partner. She hides for the most part, and if you do well in that regard, you won’t really need her to do anything. Although she’s “invisible” to the enemies like Elizabeth when in stealth, she’ll need a little saving when a fight breaks out and she’s grabbed by hunters or the infected.
She can, however, assist you in the heat of battle. She’ll pop out of cover to throw bricks or bottles at enemies, and she’ll even fire a shot or two once she’s given a gun. Brawling with hunters can have her jumping on their backs to stab them to death with her switchblade. If you’re life meter’s running low, there will be times when she’ll hand you a health kit if there’s one lying around nearby. She doesn’t have superpowers, but she’ll take an active role to aid you in battle.
Where she truly shines though is in “Winter”, my personal favorite part of the entire game. After Joel gets rebar’d through the abdomen and passes out, you get to control Ellie in the most beautiful and most thrilling chapter. Her time with Joel has made her competent with weaponry and survival tactics, and you get to test your skills with a physically weaker but faster character.
Video games are at their best when they can tell stories through the player’s own actions, letting them experience agency instead of yanking control from them so they can watch a pretty cutscene or listen to lengthy dialogue. This whole section showcases just that, as you have to adapt to a slightly different playstyle reinforcing the doubts, weaknesses, the quick-thinking, the bravery, and even the hardening of Ellie’s heart.
She is no match against the physicality of David and his men and the animal strength of the infected, so she has to sneak to survive. She can’t afford to hesitate, so she has to get violent. She has to grow up, and she does so rather quickly, taking her fate into her own hands and not waiting for the incapacitated Joel to wake up and rescue her.
She keeps up with David, tricks him to escape, and overcomes his every being to stay alive. The only thing Joel has to do is take the machete away from her hand after she has taken David’s life.
Elizabeth for the most part gets to make significant actions only after she has been rescued by the player, which by the way happens over and over. Her only choices that don’t lead to captivity are killing Daisy Fitzroy (a problematic symbol that needs a whole ‘nother post for discussion) to save a child, and knocking out Booker after finding out his original plan to take her to New York instead of Paris. They make up after he chases her, realizing that he’s her only ticket out of Columbia.
Ellie makes a similar choice when she realizes Joel will leave her to his brother Tommy on the last leg to the Fireflies’ lab. However, they reconnect not because of pragmatism. Ellie doesn’t want to be alone, and even brings up Joel’s dead daughter Sarah to try and convince him to stick with her. Although he gets pissed initially, he comes to the realization that Ellie isn’t like Sarah after that confrontation. He stays with her.
The ending can be argued as having robbed Ellie of her own agency. She’s knocked out cold for the latter half of the final chapter, and it’s up to you to keep her from being sacrificed by the Fireflies. At the very end, Joel lies to her about the events that transpired. The decision to doom mankind in exchange for her life and Joel’s fragile psyche wasn’t hers despite her own body being the crux of the issue.
Her reluctant “okay” to finish the story could be seen as her falling victim to the tired tropes against women in video games. Even if her tone and her body language seems to suggest she knows Joel isn’t telling the truth, she doesn’t desert him for his dishonesty.
But I find the ending entirely reasonable because Ellie isn’t reduced to a simple object to be saved. The entire game builds her up to be a fully fleshed-out character that manages to penetrate the emotional wall Joel put up to deal with her own daughter’s death. She isn’t there merely as a tool to show how conflicted a character Joel is and to justify his violence. She is the one that actually gives meaning to Joel. Without her, he is nothing.
The game makes it a point to display Joel’s cold brutality as a sort of defense mechanism to keep him from reliving his loss, and the relationship he develops with Ellie is a complex push and pull on both sides. He lets his guard down to laugh at her jokes, and he also tortures those in league with her captors. He is presented as both caring and selfish in his actions. His unconquerable love for Ellie doesn’t demand praise when it extinguishes hope for humanity, nor do his blood-soaked hands condemn him when done for the sake of a young girl’s life. He’s just someone who has found his reason for living.
And in return, Ellie finds her reason to go on in Joel. Ellie learns how to survive and forges a lasting connection with someone. She grows to see Joel as her own father, willing to go to any length for her sake, even if it means lying to her in the end. She accepts that because she knows he loves her, that he can’t suffer losing her like he lost Sarah, and that she loves him in spite of all that baggage. He proves it time and again throughout the game, and she proves her affection through the Fall and Winter chapters.
Ellie’s ultimate fear is being left alone. Joel’s ultimate fear is having to relive his loss. Both are ultimately self-centered motivations, yet they are emotionally resonant, as they reflect how most of us come into our own relationships. They’re just two broken people keeping each other from falling apart.
To show how much Elizabeth has grown to care for Booker, she lets herself be captured by Songbird to be locked up once again and experimented on so that Booker might live. Although that sacrifice is still worthy of respect in its own right, it adheres to the regressive plot point of having the female give up herself for the sake of the male lead. It also turns out that she does transform into the megalomaniacal leader of Columbia as Comstock always wanted because Booker fails to save her in time in one reality.
Her final act of drowning Booker in the river where Comstock was born should have been her biggest moment, but it hinges upon Booker making the decision to “smother the son of a bitch in his crib”, not Elizabeth. It’s done for the sake of the rest of the world that the game doesn’t really put in much of a sense of urgency, focusing more on Columbia’s cracking artificial reality instead of the impending doom the world below will face in future Elizabeth’s wrath. It’s done out of pity for Booker’s moral failings, to put him out of his misery, instead out of a love that will last against all odds, Bioshock Infinite’s epilogue be damned.
Elizabeth, for all her perfections and powers and the twists and turns of the mind-bending plot, never truly escapes the cage Mr. Levine and his team locked her in at the start by creating her as the idealized heroine. Ellie gets to break through the proverbial mold by being fallibly human.