Bringing BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth to Life

Ken Levine, Irrational Games, and the IGN team got together Saturday afternoon in a panel discussion to talk about BioShock Infinite and, in particular, the job it took to bring the character Elizabeth to life.

Elizabeth is a unique character in the video game industry. While most games make AI partners a chore to babysit, Elizabeth acts like a helpful, intelligent, and realistic asset essential to protaginst Booker DeWitt’s survival as he explores the city of Columbia. The panel discussed how they accomplished such a task.

When walking into a new room or location, Elizabeth will explore it with her eyes, a natural reaction for any person in a new place. Programmers actually trained her eyes to focus on the same places a real human’s would in the same situation. For instance, when glancing at a portrait, a person’s eyes will dart around the face and outstanding features and colors of the painting; Elizabeth;s eyes will do the same thing until a more essential object or action draws her gaze elsewhere, adding a subtle realism to who she is.

Another asset to bringing Elizabeth to life is how she interacts with the world as whole. Never will you feel like she’s charging ahead or lag behind, forcing you to play catch-up or wait for her to reach you to progress. Enter a new setting and slowly explore, and Elizabeth’s AI will take that as a cue to begin exploring the area on her own as well, touching objects, looking at different things, and so on. As soon as you make the motion to move on, Elizabeth will follow instantaneously. She interacts with Booker, talking to him at random intervals, further adding on to her sense of realism.

Elizabeth isn’t just a passive addition to your journey; she’s a dynamic character as well, taking action when needed. If you’re in the middle of a fight and you run out of ammo, you may hear Booker’s name yelled from behind only to turn around to Elizabeth tossing a weapon your way. Elizabeth is fluid in the environment, reacting like a true person would, rather than an artificial intelligence. The mere fact that she yells to get your attention in battle rather than silently throwing helpful objects at you is an accomplishment in itself.

Irrational Games did a lot to bring life to Elizabeth. A combination of three actresses—one for her voice, another for her motion capture, and a third for her face design—were necessary to create this realistic character. I was surprised to see how far voice actress Courtnee Draper was willing to go to nail a scene. In a video shown at the panel, Draper was trying to finish a scene in which Elizabeth breaks down, but being exhausted from jet lag from traveling the day before, she wasn’t invested enough to nail the scene. So what did Booker DeWitt’s voice actor Troy Baker do? He yelled at her until she cried.

It was interesting. Baker yelled at Draper, telling her to get herself together (however, in a much less polite way, sprinkled with expletives), and Draper sat there and took it. After Baker backed off, Draper giggled between sobs and asked him to continue, which he did. Finally, after being humiliated enough, Draper said Elizabeth’s lines between real tears and nailed the scene, channeling her real emotion into Elizabeth’s breakdown. It’s passion and dedication like this that will take AI partners to a level not yet seen in games.

As I listened to the panel, my thoughts were drawn to Tomb Raider. Lara Croft is the strongest female character to be released this year, and Elizabeth is sure to be up there alongside her. Both games have succeeded in shedding a new light on female protagonists but in different ways, considering Lara Croft is the playable character of her game while Elizabeth is not. However, even though you won’t see Columbia through Elizabeth’s eyes, I have a feeling she’ll end up being a far more interesting, realistic, and lovable character than Booker DeWitt. The amount of work, effort, and vision that went into creating her is simply too much to be outshined. We’ll have to wait until Tuesday to know for sure how well Irrational Games succeeded.