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gdc 2014

By Your Side: Irrational Discusses How It Kept Players Connected With Elizabeth

by Kimberley Wallace on Mar 18, 2014 at 08:37 AM

In BioShock Infinite, you had one constant at your side: Elizabeth. It was hard not to connect while you watched her experience the world and grow while she helped the quest. But it was hardly an easy task from a development perspective. Today at the Game Developers Conference, BioShock Infinite’s lead programmer, John Abercrombie, discussed his work with the team at Irrational to make Elizabeth feel more human than an AI robot.

Irrational’s goal, and Abercrombie's most challenging and satisfying work, was to make Elizabeth part of the game's world and have people lose themselves in the character. Elizabeth had to express herself in a believable and entertaining fashion, so players would buy into the fantasy and be immersed. To keep them tuned in, Elizabeth had to face and directly engage the person holding the controller. Elizabeth couldn’t just follow, because there would be no direct interaction; they instead would have to stop, turn around, and look at her. That’s why Irrational created certain scenes that forced players to catch-up to Elizabeth, like when she’s dancing on the dock, asking Booker to dance.

Moving through the world, Elizabeth is often “goal side” to the player, staying just ahead of them. You’re always reminded that she’s there, but she also doesn’t stay attached at the hip. Irrational made her go off in the world and interact with it to avoid this, like having her pick up cotton candy. It was important to not have Elizabeth be merely a guide in Columbia, “We wanted her to be part of the world and explore outside of her tower,” Abercrombie says. It worked to the benefit of the narrative to show how unworldly Elizabeth was through her experiencing different elements of Columbia; it humanized the character and made her less robotic. “[It’s] the transition from naïve girl trapped in her tower to an empowered woman ready to face the reality of her situation,” Abercrombie says. 

However, that meant making Elizabeth’s interactions with the world authentic, taking into account what real people would be drawn to. It also meant programming her AI to have different timers and cool-downs to look at  a variety of objects. After all, it had to feel like she was looking at objects naturally. It also meant that if she did go off screen to find something, she’d have to cue the player to what she found. Irrational often made Elizabeth “sigh” or say “hmm,” to lead the player to her.

It took a lot of work to get Elizabeth down to pat as your companion in the world. But Abercrombie is pleased with the team’s results. “I believe we made the player feel more like a participant in the world and not just an observer,” he says.