On The Level examines one small part of a larger video game.
Note: This piece discusses the endings of BioShock, BioShock Infinite, and the downloadable expansion to the latter game, Burial At Sea.
BioShock Infinite ends on what is probably the most grandiose idea possible. In the span of only a few minutes, it reveals that the game’s main villain, a religious zealot named Comstock, is actually an alternate reality’s version of your own character, Booker DeWitt. In order to truly defeat Comstock once and for all, then, Booker must be killed at the exact moment in time when he could have become Comstock, thus negating the possibility of all existences in which he does become a villain. Also, the world he inhabits is but one in an infinite sea of possible realities, making his existence only significant because he sometimes turns into an evil bastard.
All of this information gets dumped on you by Elizabeth, the girl whose rescue is the crux of Infinite’s plot until the parallel-universe shocker. Comstock kept her locked up in a massive tower and tasked a giant bird robot with keeping her in, but she doesn’t need rescuing anymore. Her ability to tear portals into alternate realities (and grab extra ammo or other items of interest) has been pushed too far; it expands into a near-omniscient awareness of all possible alternate realities at any given moment. She becomes something like a god and then kills Booker—who is also her father—in order to make it so Comstocks never exists. The scope is Big with a capital B, and while that makes it suitably fantastical for a BioShock ending, it does a disservice to Elizabeth’s character by making it harder to sympathize with her. She’s extremely powerful, but she’s no longer the excited young woman who will duck away from you so she can go dancing.
The original BioShock’s story looks a bit more reasonable in comparison. In that game, you play as a personality-free guy who finds himself in the underwater city of Rapture a year after an uprising leaves the former Objectivist paradise full of psychotic killers. You soon discover that Rapture’s economy—what’s left of it—is fueled by a magical superpower-granting goo, ADAM, that is collected by mutated children called Little Sisters. You can kill the Sisters and become stronger or save them and be a good person. Eventually, a nice Irish guy named Atlas agrees to help you back to the surface, and he convinces you that the best way to do that is to kill the city’s founder, Andrew Ryan.
Before you can do that, though, you find out that you’re actually Ryan’s genetically manipulated son and that Atlas has been manipulating you subliminally with a Manchurian Candidate-esque trigger phrase—“Would you kindly?”—to make you do whatever he wants. Namely, killing Ryan. Once you’ve been forced to bash Ryan’s skull in with a golf club, Atlas takes control of the city’s ADAM supply and acquires immense power. But thanks to you being a good person, all of the Little Sisters you’ve rescued come in and kill him, allowing you to return to the surface world as the adopted father of an army of now-human little girls.
Okay, so it’s not “reasonable” per se—and it’s probably more complicated—but the stakes are more grounded, at least. Either way, it’s important to know the story of Atlas and Rapture because BioShock Infinite’s downloadable add-on quest, the two-part Burial At Sea, takes you back underwater to solve a few mysteries just before the city goes to Hell, and along the way it manages to salvage Elizabeth’s character by turning her back into a regular person.
The first part of Burial At Sea isn’t especially noteworthy, but it sets up the events of the second. In the beginning, you play as another version of Booker DeWitt. This time, he’s working as a private investigator in a still-thriving Rapture. Elizabeth comes into his office one day—our Elizabeth, the same one from Infinite—and asks if she can hire him to find a missing little girl. Booker tracks the girl to an old department store that Ryan is using as a prison for Atlas and his gang (dun dun dunnn), and the heroes come up with a plan to flush her out of hiding. Once the little girl is almost in reach, Booker starts acting like a jerk and we learn that—even though he’s not currently a bad guy like Comstock—he still has the potential to become one (or something like that), so Elizabeth kills him. It turns out she wasn’t in Rapture to save a little girl; she was there to give this Booker/Comstock a chance to prove he’s a good person, and to destroy him if he fails. She’s rather far removed now from when you first meet her in Infinite, where she wants nothing more than to be free from her tower and to visit Paris.
Elizabeth presents a more cold and calculating psyche in Burial’s first part. While she’s fascinated by the world in Infinite, she’s disgusted by it in Burial At Sea. Part of this can be chalked up to the fact that she appears to be a bit older than she was at the end of Infinite, but more to the point, Elizabeth’s power has taken a toll on her. As she puts it, she can “see behind all the doors,” and it must be exhausting to endure a constant awareness of crazy alternate timelines and possible realities.
Also, while the game never explicitly says so, there’s no reason to believe this is Elizabeth’s first time infiltrating an alternate universe and killing its version of Booker/Comstock. Something is different about this time, though, because even after finishing her job, Elizabeth chooses to return to Rapture. As explained later in the game, Elizabeth had to sacrifice her omniscient awareness in order to do this because it meant crossing back over her own timeline. So in part two, when Elizabeth finally becomes the player character, she has to figure out why she would choose to give up her infinite knowledge and return to such an awful place.
Upon waking up back in Rapture for part two of Burial—after a too-good-to-be-true Paris dream sequence—Elizabeth finds herself held at gunpoint by Atlas himself. Thanks to some advice from an imaginary Booker ghost (which I’ll gloss over, because this story is complicated enough already), Elizabeth manages to convince Atlas that she can help him escape and get back to the rest of Rapture, where he plans to stage a violent takeover. Throughout part two, Elizabeth wonders aloud why she would come back to Rapture just to help someone who is obviously an asshole, but by the end of the story, it becomes clear: Atlas needs to return to Rapture and stage his rebellion so that the events of the original BioShock can happen.
See, remember the part where Rapture’s economy was built on the backs of little girls? Elizabeth rightly saw the monstrousness of that reality, but she also knew that if Atlas managed to attack the city and kill Andrew Ryan, then he’d get killed as well, and a bunch of Little Sisters would be able to escape and live normal lives. She went back to “help” Atlas only to ensure his eventual defeat, because she wanted to save a bunch of children from having to spend their lives in captivity the way she did in her tower.
Elizabeth’s mission at the end of Infinite is revenge on a multiversal scale. But in order to become strong enough to punish the man who hurt her in every possible reality in which he exists, she loses the bright-eyed joie de vivre that characterized her for much of that quest in favor of a more distant demeanor. Being omniscient, after all, means that nothing can surprise her anymore. With Burial At Sea, however, Elizabeth finds a new meaning for her life and discovers a cause for which she’s willing to sacrifice her power: making sure other children don’t suffer the way she did.
Suddenly, the Big-with-a-capital-B finale of Infinite gets pulled back, and the BioShock series refocuses on a goal that’s simultaneously smaller and more important, which in turn re-humanizes Elizabeth. What’s more human than giving up something so you can help a few kids? BioShock Infinite’s ending did a disservice to Elizabeth by abandoning what made her special, but Burial At Sea makes her the proper hero she always should have been.