Elizabeth, a troubled 19-year-old, is the emotional centerpiece of "BioShock Infinite"
Creators wanted a unique companion character to increase emotional investment
The game was delayed more than a year to get Elizabeth right
"BioShock Infinite" will be released Tuesday worldwide
When the highly anticipated “BioShock: Infinite” hits stores on Tuesday, a naive 19-year-old with special powers and book smarts – but little true grasp of the complexities of the world around her – will meet a gaming public that’s been awaiting her debut for years.
Elizabeth may be the most talked-about video game character who’s not controlled by the player since “Portal’s” wry, sarcastic killing machine, GlaDOS.
Her creators were so concerned about getting her just right that she almost never happened.
“When I first started working on her, she was horribly broken. There was a lot of internal opposition to her,” said Amanda Jeffrey, a designer with Irrational Games, the publisher behind the wildly inventive “Bioshock” franchise. “Almost everyone in the office was saying out loud, ‘We should just cut her.’ How on Earth do you begin to deal with this (type of) character who nobody has had any experience with?”
Enter the Liz Squad.
So devoted was Irrational to creating a companion character like none other that they built an entire team of developers from different areas of the company with the sole purpose of making Elizabeth “real.”
“Once the creation of Liz Squad became official, we had what was called The Liz Hammer,” Jeffries said. “If Liz Squad, or Elizabeth herself, needed something from the development team, then she got what she needed.”
In the game’s story line, the teen Elizabeth has the ability to change the world around her. But she’s also been locked away from the rest of that world since birth.
As Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent, the player must rescue, or kidnap, Elizabeth away from her predicament. The game portrays their journey together from a futuristic city in the sky into the post-Victorian world of 1912.
Building off the successes of “BioShock” and “BioShock 2,” creative director Ken Levine wanted to further ramp up the player’s emotional involvement in the game.
“We kept coming back to having a partner in the experience and as we looked out onto the field of partners that existed (in other games), the air gets pretty thin,” Levine said. “We wanted a character that would be absolutely central to the narrative.
In video-game terms, that meant creating someone the player would connect with emotionally but who would also be useful to them during gameplay.
“The biggest challenge of this entire game wasn’t the skylines and it wasn’t the open world,” said writer Drew Holmes. “It was making her real because she is the game. If she doesn’t work, everything else we’ve been shooing for is meaningless.”
The realistic look and feel of Elizabeth didn’t fully come together until within the last year. But gamers who already loved the expansive, altered-reality world of the series first met her in 2011 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the world’s largest video-game gathering.
Levine said that demo of the game showed what Elizabeth could do from a narrative standpoint, but that he still wasn’t comfortable with how she behaved.
He postponed the game from its original release date of March 2012 several times, specifically because Elizabeth wasn’t right.
“She’s the extension of what we were trying to do with the Big Daddy, which is more to me about an emotional resonance than a combat experience,” Levine said. He was referencing characters from “BioShock” who are painted as both deadly monsters and loving companions to the “Little Sisters” they protect.
“What made the Big Daddy work was the emotional impact it had on the player. Same with Elizabeth. The goal was emotional.”
It seems to be working.
When Elizabeth was again revealed to the world in videos displaying her personality and emotional range, she was an instant hit. Fans and players clamored for more and seemed to form a bond with the wayward young girl.
So much so, in fact, that when later videos showed Liz in different clothing or with a different hairstyle, the outcry over the changes was swift and harsh.
The Liz Squad took that as a sign their work was on the right track.
“The fact that people are already so concerned about what Elizabeth is doing, how she’s reacting, what she’s wearing is just incredibly powerful,” Jeffrey said. “If nobody cared, it would just be a horrible place to be.”
Emotional resonance aside, animation director Sean Robertson said the toughest thing to make Elizabeth look and move like a real person was her dress – which comes with a long, flowing skirt that originally wouldn’t behave.
“You don’t see a lot of companion characters wearing dresses – at least not of the non-miniskirt variety,” Robertson said. “Liz’s character is important as she is a character of the time and women wore dresses then. We put a lot of work into the physics of the dress so it behaves correctly, the way it needs to and doesn’t put her in any embarrassing positions.”
While Robertson struggled with a dress, Holmes, the writer, said his greatest task was making gamers ultimately care as much about the teen companion as her creators did.
“She was the hardest thing we could have possibly tried to do,” he said. “It’s one thing to get her in the game and get her to move around the world. It was another to then breathe life into her.”
“BioShock Infinite” will be released worldwide on Tuesday, March 26, and be available on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC. It is rated M for Mature due to blood and gore, intense violence, language, mild sexual themes, and use of alcohol and tobacco.