Sometimes an instruction as simple as "Press X" in a video game can lead to something profoundly familiar, profoundly intimate.
This post contains spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.
I did talk at some length on our recent podcast concerning Bioshock Infinite about my general distaste for the game's heroine, Elizabeth ("The Moving Pixels Podcast Explores the Infinite... Bioshock Infinite", PopMatters, 29 April 2013). I mean, I get the concept of the character. Elizabeth is a young girl who has spent her whole life, Rapunzel-like, sequestered in a tower, and, thus, her wide-eyed innocence and wonder at the nature of a larger world makes some sense. She also, of course, comes off like other fairy tale characters and (as many have observed) more particularly like a Disney princess in her characterization as a naïve, but spunky young person, full of curiosity and ready to take on that new world. Belle comes to mind, of course, due to her appearance, but the Little Mermaid is not far from this character either. Knowing all this is intentional doesn't make the cloying qualities of her character any less bearable for me, though.
This is a young woman in a hyper-violent but still frequently thoughtful and philosophical game who hands apples to orphans as she sings a little ditty. Ugh.
You got your Disney in my socio-political action game.
That being said, I do have to admit that the most powerful scene -- at least for me -- in Bioshock Infinite concerns an interaction with this particularly cloying AI-driven companion. And it is likely due in some way to the representation of her youth and naivete, especially as this character transitions ostensibly away from that original self.
Late in the game, Elizabeth is captured and her power to rip holes in the fabric of reality is inhibited through her connection to a particularly torturous machine.
Elizabeth, of course, has served as companion to my avatar, Booker Dewitt, throughout the game, a relatively unpleasant and tortured man whose past is uncovered as the plot advances, making it clear that he and Elizabeth's relationship is a rather central one to that plot. At this point in the game, I had already foreseen one of the game's coming plot twists, that Elizabeth is Booker's daughter, and, thus, coming upon Elizabeth in pain actually may have meant more to me at this moment than to Booker. I knew that that was his little girl up there, behind a pane of glass, suffering an immense amount of pain.
No matter how annoying I had found the character, I am a father myself and the scene did more than encourage me to try to dispense with the enemies between myself and her to get her out of that rather vile mechanism.
Booker's rescue of Elizabeth is, of course, not presented in a cutscene. It is a violent battle between Booker and the game's “monsters” leading up to a sequence that is also not a cutscene in which Booker disentangles his daughter from a machine that is feeding some chemical that inhibits her powers through a gigantic needle embedded in her back.
Such sequences often seem like throwaway moments to me, moments when the player is tossed the bone of “interactivity” by not simply watching Booker remove the needle from her back, but instead, requiring the player to “actively” participate in setting Elizabeth free by pressing the X button to yank the needle out. Doing so is not especially significant or rewarding. “Press X” is about the simplest quick time challenge that one can throw at a player in a video game. This particular act, while suggesting a somewhat more significant symbolic action than, say, looting a safe by “Pressing X,” is still just about as humdrum to enact.
It was what I was required to do next that added a significantly more symbolic and emotionally evocative element layer to the act of simply “Pressing X.” Elizabeth's corseted dress has been loosened in order to feed the needle into her back. Thus, while facing her back, the player is next prompted to “Lace Up Elizabeth's Corset.” Of course, doing so merely requires the simple press of an X button.
I actually hesitated a moment here, as the act seemed awfully intimate. Maybe it is the fetishization of the corset in contemporary culture that made me feel weird for that moment as I faced this young girl's back, knowing that in order to move on I had to accomplish this rather simple task of helping Elizabeth get dressed. But then I was simply struck by the familiarity of the situation, and I was rather glad that the game hadn't simply shown me Booker doing this, but that it had required me to, indeed, “actively” support Elizabeth at this moment.
I have three daughters, and for the last 18 years, I have spent much of my life zipping up zippers and tying shoelaces. For me, this moment was terribly familiar, terribly intimate, not because it was in any way weirdly fetishistic, but because it was terribly paternal. This is what fathers do. They put their girls back together again when they need help doing so.
I don't know how this scene plays for a younger player, a player unfamiliar with the act of helping someone you love get dressed, get ready for the world, but it definitely played powerfully in its simplicity for me.
In some sense, I wish this had been a touch screen moment, in which I had to put a little effort into the physical act of lacing up clothing. On the other hand, maybe the simplicity of a single button press to confirm my responsibility for taking care of this action is better, less distracting than a series of complex button presses. But I am glad that that the act required something physical for me to do because the moment is physical. Putting on a band aid or a clean shirt after someone you love has fallen in the dirt or re-lacing a shoe that has flown off after some similarly catastrophic fall, these are physical acts that speak clearly and compellingly of our relationship to those we serve as caretakers for, for those we support.
I actually cared about Elizabeth, a character I have so much difficulty with, for a moment because I had to do something for her, something familiar, and something that is very simply profound.