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May 4, 2013

Let’s discuss BioShock Infinite (Part 3).


And here we are at last -- the ending.  Where to begin, where to begin.

Warning: it all ends here, folks.  If you’re ready to take the plunge, read on.

19) The ending, and everything it entails.

All right.  Let’s start with Comstock.  Booker and Elizabeth finally have their big face-off with the guy on his personal airship, and as you’d expect, it doesn’t go well in his favor.  Booker bashes his head in and drowns him, but not before Comstock can smugly suggest that Booker’s keeping a secret from her and that neither of them know the truth; the crux of all this, of course, is the mystery of Elizabeth’s missing finger.  Granted my instinctual reaction was calling Elizabeth out for starting to mistrust the guy who’s solely responsible for letting her free, saving her life on more than one occasion, and allowing her to see her “parents” in full, but I’ll let it slide for now.  There’s a battle to be won, and truth to be had.

So the duo uses the airship to head for The Siphon, the destruction of which will apparently allow Elizabeth to know what’s really going on.  The Songbird swoops in to try and beat them down, but thanks to a last-minute save by Elizabeth, its loyalties change and it becomes a weapon on your behalf.  And you use The Songbird to strike down any enemies coming your way in airships, in what one could charitably call the final boss fight (congratulations!  You get to fight some more dudes…except there’s A HUNDRED OF THEM!).  Once you get through that, you order The Songbird to strike down The Siphon, so that Booker and Elizabeth can get to the bottom of this and ensure that Comstock’s plans are 100% ruined instead of a paltry 65%.

So the next thing you know, Booker and Elizabeth, and even The Songbird, aren’t in Columbia anymore.  They end up in a new area.  Or relatively new, at least.

They’re in Rapture.



The Songbird -- whose weakness is water, and water pressure -- ends up outside the safety of the city, and has no choice but to welcome death.  With that done, Booker and Elizabeth head on their way and end up at a lighthouse…and not long after, a sea with hundreds upon hundreds of lighthouses.  This, to some extent, is a plot twist: the “Infinite” in BioShock Infinite refers to the fact that there are infinite worlds out there, with each one related by certain connective tissue: “a man, a lighthouse, a city”.  It’s a bit of fourth-wall interaction, I’d argue, in the sense that the game is implying that there’s potential for as many BioShock games as the devs can think up.  They have the grounds to spin what was once a self-contained adventure into a full-on franchise.  (In your face, Beyond Good and Evil!)  That’s a twist that I can deal with, buuuuuuuuuut that’s not the full extent of it.

In addition to multiple worlds, there are also multiple versions of multiple worlds; in fact, while Booker is having this explained to him by a fully-clairvoyant Elizabeth outside a lighthouse, you can see another Booker having the same conversation with another Elizabeth outside another lighthouse.  So in other words, there are multiple Columbias, multiple Elizabeths, and multiple Bookers.  And by extension, there are multiple Comstocks -- so just because one of them is dead doesn’t mean that all of them are.  They have to strike at the root.  They have to find the point where Comstock was born and do what needs to be done…even if that comes down to smothering his newly-born self instead of an old man with a righteous beard.


Okay.  If you’ve made it this far and you haven’t played through the game for yourself, I’ll give you one last chance to back away.  If you have any intention of playing the game for yourself -- if you want to go through it, then come back here for the rest of the discussion -- then do so now.  This is the point where I reveal the real plot twists…and the point where Infinite, in my eyes, very nearly turns into a joke.

If you want to turn back, turn back.  Close the page.  Maybe go find some improbably buxom women online…or in real life, for that matter.  Go.  Get outta here.


…Are you still here?

Are you ready?

Okay.  Here it is.  This is what I predicted as a joke, and this is what happens in the game. 

Booker DeWitt is really Comstock, and Elizabeth is Booker’s daughter Anna.


This is what really happened.  Booker DeWitt was, at one time, standing at a point of divergence.  That is, shortly after committing atrocities at Wounded Knee, he decided to opt for baptism to be purified, forgiven of his sins, find redemption, and be born again.  In one instance -- the Booker you play as -- he chickens out at the last minute.  In another instance -- in another parallel world with the exact same circumstances -- Booker goes through with the baptism, and ends up being born again and adopts the identity of Comstock.  And Comstock (at least one of them, though I’d guess others did as well) ends up discovering the research of the Luteces and uses it to start harnessing the power of multiple universes to become a prophet and rise to power. 

You with me so far?  Okay.

There’s an unintended side effect to Comstock engaging in space-time shenanigans, though: he ends up becoming sterile.  He does his best to cover up the secret (by any means necessary), but in the end he decides to opt for extreme measures.  If he can’t have a child, then he’ll just have to take the child from one of his alternate selves -- so the whole “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt” bit is actually one of the Luteces (under Comstock’s orders) telling Booker to hand over his then-baby daughter Anna.  In the midst of an ensuing struggle, Anna ends up getting dragged out of Booker’s reach, and pulled into a tear; it closes on him, separating the two and chopping off one of the baby’s fingers.  So with a little help from the Luteces, Booker ends up going on a mission to reclaim his daughter, but under the guise of a simple bounty -- because Booker, either through his own space-time shenanigans or his own grief-bred denial, deludes himself into thinking it’s as simple as that. 


Still with me?  Good.

By this point, it’s safe to assume that Booker’s figured out what’s really going on, even if the player hasn’t.  He’s still eager to smother the life out of Comstock, even though he knows what’ll happen.  So he ends up at the site of his purification -- Comstock’s birth -- but doesn’t run his elderly alter ego through the water.  Instead, it’s Elizabeth -- and multiple versions of her, no less -- that do the deed.  They drown Booker, killing him and bringing his life, and Comstock’s, to an end.  So one by one the Elizabeths that have shown up start disappearing one by one.  And with that, the game ends with a sudden cut to black…outside of a later cutscene where Booker walks through a door in his office and asks for Anna. 

Okay.  Did you follow all that?  Read it again if you didn’t.  Or just find a video of it on YouTube, because even I’m not sure I’ve got all the particulars straight.  I think I have just enough of it straight, though.  I know, because this ending is…

Well, I won’t say it’s a bad ending, because it isn’t.  It’s just extremely problematic, and I can understand why people might take issue with it.  One of my issues with it is a fairly simple one: doesn’t it mean that the entire game was completely pointless?


I hope you’ll forgive my two-dimensional thinking here, but wasn’t I supposed to be accomplishing something here?  Well, to be fair I do, but I didn’t want to accomplish something like this.  Killing Booker might kill off an incalculable amount of Comstocks (and an incalculable number of Elizabeths by extension), but doesn’t that mean that an incalculable number of Columbias have immediately been erased as well?  What about the good those cities might have brought, even underneath all the horror and racism?  It’s a nightmarish place, yes, but it’s a world that’s significantly more advanced than its 1912 contemporaries.  What if its presence and its isolation ended up being the key to creating a brilliant new world or technology?  What if one of the Comstocks wasn’t a madman -- and what if the utopia he created ended up pretty cool? 

It gets worse.  The Booker at that divergence point was responsible for giving birth to Comstock (potentially).  Okay, THAT I get.  But what about the other Bookers?  They might have refused the baptism, yes, but they’re still carrying the potential to be self-destructive, self-deluded agents of chaos and upheaval.  What if there was another trigger that could turn Booker into Comstock -- or maybe someone even worse than Comstock?  What about them?  Why is one Booker killed, while all the rest are allowed to keep living and make ruinous decisions? 

Furthermore, the idea is that every time you respawn it’s supposed to be a new Booker that’s gone through the exact same motions to get to that point in the game (but makes a different decision that lets him survive)…but if that’s the case, then doesn’t that mean that Booker is entirely expendable?  I’m not saying he has to be some kind of chosen one, but isn’t that a little extreme?  What purpose does this character serve in the grand scheme of things if he’s just a replaceable murderer who loves bad decisions and guilt trips?  Is he just there to put his daughter through hell?


And with that in mind, what does that mean for Elizabeth?  I’m thankful that there’s no romantic tension between the two of them (though that’s probably debatable), but as a father-daughter team doesn’t that make things incredibly complicated?  How many Elizabeths ended up getting put through hell because of Booker’s reckless decisions?  How many different forms of torture did she end up enduring -- and how many of them died before Comstock got a preferable result?  Even if one of the Bookers ended up keeping one of the Annas, what’s stopping a clearly-irrational, clearly-irresponsible father like him from screwing up his daughter with drunken violence?  By extension, how many Elizabeths ended up getting their minds warped by the violence dear old dad exposed her to on a regular basis?  Can you really say it’s a surprise for Elizabeth to think that backstabbing Daisy Fitzroy is the only option when Booker thinks that grinding up the face of an innocent police officer is A-OK and devoid of consequences?

And again, all of this business not only complicates Comstock, but makes him look like an idiot.  What the hell was his plan throughout all this?  If his plan was to have Elizabeth discover the truth and kill ALL the Comstocks (or at least try to), what was the point of Columbia?  What was the point of building up the world, the ideology, the technology, all of it?  If Comstock just wanted to die, then why didn’t he do so himself?  Why take the most circuitous path possible?  And if he DIDN’T want to die, then why would he ever bring up the possibility of the truth to Elizabeth?  If he’s a genuine prophet, why did he let everything play out exactly as he hoped?  What DID he hope for?  If he knew about multiple worlds, why not just jump into a world where everything was up to his standards?  Why not off one of the Bookers and take his place?  Come to think of it, what was the thought process that led Comstock from “born again man” to “LAMB LAMB PURITY PROPHET FAITH PROPHET DEVIL LAMB BLOW UP THE WORLD?”  Is it just because Booker was an inherently violent person, and that carried over to Comstock?  Wouldn’t being born again at least help remove those thoughts? 

This is starting to make my head hurt.


All right.  I’ll admit that there’s probably a lot of content I’m missing here.  I’m almost certain I didn’t get all the audio logs, and even then I only remember so much from those I did collect.  I’ve only played through the game once, and if I went through it again I would be able to pick up on details I missed earlier.  Motivations, interpretations, all that and more.  And even then, it’s very likely that this isn’t the kind of ending you’re supposed to nitpick.  This is the reveal, and you’re supposed to live with it.  Don’t think too hard about it.

Except there are two problems with that mindset.  First of all, you have to think too hard about it because the rest of the game encourages, invites, and rewards thought.  As it should; you’re supposed to think for yourself and come up with some sound conclusions -- about the world, the nature of man and society, of politics and personas.  Shrugging off all the particulars and going “Huh-hyuk, you sure fooled me!” is antithetical to everything Infinite stands for.  There’s some futility to thinking too hard on the particulars, but they’re all more than justified.


The second and biggest problem is one that I have to frame as a question: are the plot twists for this ending really necessary?  Is the ending as it is really necessary?  As it stands, I’m inclined to say no, it isn’t necessaryBioShock and BioShock Infinite are games about “a man, a lighthouse, and a city”.  You’re hardwired to expect a twist, yes, but the focus -- the entire reason for playing the game -- is being able to explore and engage with the world on display.  And for 99% of Infinite, you do.  That’s what we wanted.  That’s what we needed.  The motif is not “a man, a lighthouse, a city, and a plot twist that potentially renders a good dozen hours of effort and exploration pointless”.

The game is about the flawed but fascinating world of Columbia, but the fact that we don’t even get to see what becomes of it thanks to Booker and Elizabeth’s space-time shenanigans is jarring.  The same goes for Elizabeth, for that matter; have all those moments between her and Booker, even those within the last five minutes of the game, been invalidated?  What about Booker, and what he’s learned and been through?  What about Comstock?  What about Fitzroy, Slate, Fink, The Songbird?  Am I just supposed to believe that they’re all in a better alternate universe now?    


I don’t buy it.  Not in the slightest.  I’m not saying there has to be 100% narrative closure, or some kind of goofy “where are they now” montage; I’m saying that if you’re going to provide a strong context -- one of the most intriguing worlds around with one of the best characters gaming has had in a while -- then you start in that context, and you finish in that context.  The first game had that right; even with the whole “would you kindly” twist, it existed with, and worked alongside the narrative.  It changed your perception of events, but it did so without booting aside the context of the game. 

Rapture was still a key player, as were the Big Daddies, the Little Sisters, and all the rest.  For Infinite to skip merrily away from that lesson seems ill-fitting.  Sure, it’ll probably make more sense if you play through the game and find all the audio logs, but what if you don’t want to?  What if you liked the game as it was so much that you stopped caring about the plot twist -- that Columbia and its characters as they appeared were all you wanted?  How would you feel if you were enjoying and digesting a book in one way, but then when you reach the final pages the text says “Nope, sorry.  You’re wrong, and here’s why.  But don’t worry -- if you go back and look over everything again with this and this and that in mind, you’ll appreciate the ending a lot more.  Trust me on this.”


You went too far, Infinite.  You went too far.  Don’t pull me out of the world to get metaphysical on me, and then show me that it was not only pointless for my Booker to do anything in the game, but that it’s pointless for thousands of other Bookers to do the same.  Otherwise, people are going to get mad at you and say the ending sucks.

But in spite of that little spiel --

Hold on, I need to go smoke a McMansion’s weight in cigarettes.

In spite of that little spiel, I still don’t think that Infinite’s ending is worth any hate.  It’s irritating, sure, but again, it all comes down to a matter of preference.  I know what I prefer, and what I got with Infinite isn’t it…but damned if I’m not impressed.  It takes guts and ingenuity to make an ending like this, and in that regard I can’t help but applaud.  They took a risk, and while I don’t think it worked as well as the developers might have hoped, I still think it’s serviceable.  It’s still more than enough to get people thinking, and talking, and posting glowing praise or blind fury on their blogs.

…It still pisses me off, though.

20) You can probably do better than this…but not for a while.
I hope they don’t make any more BioShock games.


Okay, that’s not entirely true.  I will gladly accept one more game in the franchise -- one that manages to fix the perceived shortcomings of the gameplay, if nothing else.  They really have done a great job with this game, but I’m worried the developers only have so much steam in them.  Where are they going to set the next city, if not under the sea or in the sky?  Underground?  On a mountain?  A volcano?  You can only get away with so many analogues to established characters; Infinite cribbed off of Big Daddies and Little Sisters and Andrew Ryan, but if they do it a third time without a sense of awareness then the veneer will start to wear down.  We got our second verse.  If they do a third, it either has to be significantly different or have its references so subtle that it’s difficult to draw the parallels.

But the reason I say “no more BioShock games” is because Ken Levine and company have real talent.  Foresight, reason, creative vision, the works; they’ve done some good work here, and as such they’ve more than earned the right to branch out.  In making Infinite, my fear is that they’ll be forever constricted to the franchise label, and their eventual successors -- or the team itself -- will run the name into the ground.  Essentially, I think it’s time for them to move on.  Make something new.  What would be their take on fantasy, for example?  A game set in the seventies, maybe?  I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind seeing them dipping into some kind of high school comedy (assuming they don’t make a Big Daddy a star player…no wait, that’d actually be kind of awesome). 


The point is that these guys and these games have shown us the power of creativity.  Granted that creativity can go a little haywire, but for what it’s worth the product they’ve offered is more than satisfactory.  I’m satisfied, and thankful that it exists.  Is it perfect?  No.  Not even close.  But I like it a lot.  And so do others.  Intellectual bankruptcy isn’t even a concern, so long as a game like this exists.

Then again, this isn’t the only game that encourages thought and dissection.  Nor is it the only game that’s worthy of accolades.  It’s the newest, yes, but it’s not the greatest.  What is the greatest might be subjective -- and spark lots and lots and lots of arguments -- but I’m guessing you’ve already have an example in mind.  There’s a game out there that got your mind whirring, and whirring even more than Infinite ever could.


But even with that in mind, Infinite is an important game.  I’ve played thoughtful titles before, but I suspect that there are those that haven’t.  There are those that haven’t embraced the potential of video games -- those who think they can only be a certain way, or do a certain thing.  And I’m not just talking about eight-year-olds who con their parents into grabbing them the latest version of CoD; I’m talking about people from all walks of life with even the vaguest connection to the industry.  If you’re reading this post, there’s no doubt you’re doing so with an open mind, because by default you have an open mind.  But the key to opening one’s mind is a spark.  In a lot of cases, all it takes is one powerful moment.  A shining example.  A good story.

And BioShock Infinite provides in full.  But don’t take my fifteen thousand words for it.  Try it out.  Try it again.  And most of all?  Think for yourself. 

Do it for her.


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