Why BioShock Infinite's ending doesn't work
28th Mar 2013 | 11:10
You shouldn't be reading this unless you've played the game, right? Played it and finished it. Then played it again, to enjoy how the world fits together with your new knowledge, even if the plot is flapping raggedy up a flagpole. This article is replete with spoilers, from the very second you make the jump.
OK, last spoiler warning. Spoilers will definitely begin after the image we've dropped in under this paragraph, to give you precious last inches of ruination-free content.
Good. Now it's just us. I can only assume that you're all in the same hot-pot of bewilderment as I've been stewing in, along with Craig Owens, Edge alumnus who's been helping around the OXM offices recently. He's sat next to me now, if that helps you imagine the scene.
We've been talking about what does and doesn't work for what feels like an expressible percentage of our lives, now. And before we peck lovingly at the plot threads, let's tip the respect hat: some things work wonderfully. The battle with Slate is brilliantly rewritten when you know that Slate's accusations are false, and he's been driven mad by living in a world whose facts don't match his memory. And as Craig pointed out, Comstock's bile towards DeWitt becomes much more poignant when you know it's a man hating what he could have become. Much of it works: we're not sure the ending is included in that. Here's why, and much else that has left us stumped or unimpressed.
1. Booker's Death
Log asks: Why does it do anything?
This is a symptom of other assumptions that don't make sense to me. For example, when Booker plans to kill Comstock as a baby. The number of universes is as close to infinite as makes no odds. So how would killing one baby, in one universe, help? Any choice is doomed to futility, knowing that you're simply one of infinite people making that decision, while an infinite army simultaneously makes the opposite decision.
Given that, how did killing one Booker remove any more than the single Elizabeth he fathered? Is it different, when Elizabeth does it? And surely the very act of drowning Booker, given that we've accepted a multiverse, creates another universe in which the Elizabeth mini-hive didn't drown him? This is no solution. This is fixing nothing.
The real ending shouldn't be one of death and sudden, fake resolution. The only possible sane ending in Bioshock Infinite should be one where DeWitt appreciates the endless scale of these events, and his impotence within that framework. The only possible conclusion can be: stick to your own universe. It's the place you're least negligible. I suppose that's one possible interpretation of the post-credits reset, to Booker in the office with Anna. But even then, I gain no satisfaction from seeing that, after the drowning of my Booker. It reduces the multiverse to a stock of extra lives. This Booker might be an absolute arsehole.
Craig asks: Why drown Booker?
My problem with this is that it seems to break the rules that have just been established. The first time Booker and Elizabeth come across the baptism scene, Booker rejects the submersion, as he did all those years ago. We're given to understand that there's a "branch" at this point: in all the universes where Booker wasn't born again, he became a Pinkerton agent, had a child, and gave her away. Meanwhile, in all the universes where Booker did accept the baptism, he became Comstock, founded Columbia, and ended up stealing his own daughter from an alternative version of himself.
We already have proof, in other words, that even if Zachary Hale Comstock doesn't emerge from the waters in one universe, he's still going to do so in an infinite number of others (okay, technically Elizabeth says "millions and millions", but let's face it, the clue's in the title). Why then, does killing Booker change this? Surely it just creates a "third branch", another offshoot of universes in which there's neither a Booker nor a Comstock? Obviously these worlds would be very different, but how does this change things for the people, the Columbians and the Elizabeths, in the first two universe branches?
I think there's some significance to do with the fact it's Elizabeth doing the drowning. Indeed, it's multiple versions of her. Perhaps the idea is that all these infinite Elizabeths are bringing infinite Bookers to this point in space and time, using their interdimensional powers to make the effects of the drowning spill across every universe. But I am reaching, desperately and without evidence, to make that theory work.
2. The Gender-Swap Statue
Log asks: How come that changes so neatly?
At the beginning of the game, the statue of R. Lutece, fizzes, and transforms from Robert Lutece into Rosalind. Do you spot it? We've got evidence here:
This was the first sign that Robert and Rosalind weren't siblings or spouses, as you first assume. They discovered each other from their individual studies, across universes where the difference was a single chromosome.
So: how come the statue changes gender? Has their work created a J.J. Abrams Fringe-bridge between these two particular universes? Has their co-existence on Columbia, that fulcrum of quantum activity, destabilised this one detail - the recorded gender of R. Lutece?
The reason this grates, and this is something I haven't been able to shake since you first mentioned it, Craig, is that this creates the suspicion that this was originally a story about two universes. A Robert/Comstock and Rosalind/Booker duality.
I suppose it's possible that it's just a gimmick programmed into the statue, a vanity project by the people who floated Columbia and discovered parallel universes. That would be cool - if the Luteces were just a pair of flashy sods.
Craig asks: Where did all the other glitches go?
I hadn't actually considered the fact that the statue changing genders could just be some quantum show-offery on the Luteces' part. That actually makes a lot of sense.
BUT HANG ON. Early trailers for the game featured a lot more of this stuff. There were hidden details like paintings transforming, or a politician's badges switching from being stars and stripes to a hammer and sickle, all with a similar shimmery effect. There's every possibility that this stuff is still in game, and we've just missed it, but if so it doesn't really make sense. It's made pretty clear that Elizabeth is necessary if you want to move between universes or smush bits of them together, but the spontaneous change of the status would suggest that the universes are collapsing into one another without Liz's help.
One last possibility - the game's opening sequence hides its twist in plain sight, quoting from Robert Lutece's book on trans-dimensional travel. Lutece's argument is that a dimension-hopping aberration like Booker will go through a process where their brain makes new memories in order to adapt to the new world. Perhaps the statue changing is Booker's perception - he's gone from a world with a Robert Lutece to a world that originally had only a Rosalind Lutece, and his perceptions are slowly catching up to this fact.
3. Universe-Hopping: The Rules?
Log asks: What happens when Elizabeth opens a super-tear?
At first, it seems like Booker and Elizabeth simply step into another world. But when you encounter the shimmering semi-deads, it seems that the two worlds are superimposed. All the people you killed are restored to a mentally broken state of life, within which is the debilitating memory of death. This is backed up by Booker, who begins to have memories from the other universe, accompanied with a nosebleed.
So how come this doesn't happen with Robert and Rosalind Lutece? If they're alternates of themselves, how do they coexist? And more crucially, how can Booker and Comstock meet, with these rules?
Furthermore, how come Booker, when he enters the universe in which he died a heroes death for the Vox Populi, doesn't begin to shimmy and phase like the others?
I can try to answer my own questions, here. The Lutece's aren't using the same method as Elizabeth - their portal is more solid than Elizabeth's tears. Their system might be more protected, allowing Booker and Comstock to co-exist in the same way they do. And I suppose, if Booker's jump into the universe where he's dead isn't his first superimposed messy Liz-jump, he might have a higher than 50% alive-rating, protecting him from death-shock. You see? This is how good BioShock Infinite is. I really want it to work.
Craig asks: Why is Comstock so special?
At first, I thought the idea was that Booker and Elizabeth were hopping from one world to the next, but I'm not so sure anymore. Her powers definitely have a different visual signature to the Luteces' cleaner portals, and I like the idea that she's somehow smushing two realities together, doing untold damage in the process. But either way, Booker gets his first nosebleed before he's even met Elizabeth, at which point he's only passed through a Lutece portal, so why he and Comstock seem to be selectively immune to the quantum suffering of Columbia's other residents (like the people who are both dead and alive at once, or the lady sweeping her shop floor even as, from our perspective, it's on fire) isn't clear.
Also, by the end of the game Elizabeth can clearly make clean jumps across the multiverse. She even gets to visit Rapture.
Log chips back in:
Perhaps that's because she's free of the power-draining effects of the siphon? So many things going on...
4. Universe-Hopping: The Motives
Log asks: You destroyed a universe to move some guns?
When Booker and Elizabeth realise how difficult it would be to move a bunch of guns, Elizabeth notices a tear. Inside that tear, they see that there are no guns. Bold assumption: the guns must be where they want them to be.
Aside from the fact that this is one dementedly optimistic assumption, why would you enter that universe? In doing so, you haven't completed a mission, retrieved someone's guns, and earned yourself the use of an airship. You've stepped into a universe where that mission would never have been offered, because the guns were never taken. Are you hoping that the Vox leader will say "oh yeah, I have started to have memories about giving you a mission to retrieve the guns that we've already used to liberate Columbia." And then NOT say "wait a minute, you're dead in this universe, the deal I never really made is totally off."
5. The Introduction Of Ghosts
Log says: Ghosts? Oh come ON.
When Elizabeth first mentions wish fulfillment, it fits into the fiction. She has access to an infinite number of universes, so if she's guided by her desires to find a world where there's tea instead of coffee, or different coloured towels, that's fine. I'll buy that. It also makes sense that she'd have more casual access to universe with smaller changes. (The fact she has access to universes at other time periods multiplies the complexity by itself, but never mind, let it ride.)
But ghosts? She can summon a ghost of her mother out of nowhere, because she's angry, all of a sudden? Are you telling me that the constants of the multiverse includes something as specific and dependent on the current laws of physics as a lighthouse, but all of a sudden you can create ghosts? I'm really not buying this bit. And yes, I know you put ghosts into the original Bioshock - and System Shock 2 - but they were echoes. Not massive bloody boss battles.
Wait! I've just remembered that the possession animation is a ghost. That's a clever way of foreshadowing the whole huamn soul/machine melding thing that's implied with Songbird and Handymen. But there's still a yawning chasm between a ghost controlling metal and meat, and a ghost flying around a Garden and summoning monsters out of nowhere. As much prep work as was done, this anger-fuelled boss nonsense came jarringly out of leftfield.
RT @mudron: Excuse me, I gotta get back to my totally realistic game where I shoot sexy ghosts out of my hand while fighting Sky Racists.
— Ken Levine (@IGLevine) March 28, 2013
Stop that, Ken, you brilliant sexy monster. There's a difference between realism and sticking to your own rules. Or, maybe, letting us know the rules with enough clarity to give infinity-spanning epic endings the impact they deserve.
6. The Rapture Cameo
Craig asks: So what the trans-dimensional conflagration has Rapture got to do with all this?
You know how the original game's Would You Kindly twist offered some wry commentary on game design without actually breaking the fourth wall? Well, Infinite's closing act is doing the same thing, even though the fourth wall does look a bit battered by the end.
When Liz are Booker are going for their mind-bending walk around the lighthouses, Elizabeth states there's always a lighthouse, always a man and always a city. Columbia is just one of the possibilities. So is Rapture. The BioShock multiverse, then, just happens to function like the BioShock franchise - constantly offering variations on the same core motifs and themes. The game doesn't actually make this meta-commentary, but it's hard to escape it.
For the purposes of Infinite's plot, however, Rapture is a distraction, since Booker and Elizabeth's main concern is the many universes in which Columbia and its hate-filled prophet appear.
There's a chance, however, that Rapture is a bit more woven into the story of Columbia than it first appears. Two thirds of the way through the game you can pick up a Voxaphone that strongly implies the technology behind Songbird came from one of Elizabeth's tears, just as so much of the Columbia's musical culture arrived. It's possible that the tear actually led to Rapture - and that's why so much of the city's technology (the Handymen, the Songbird, and Vigors) function like that found in Andrew Ryan's city. This would also make the Songbird's eventual fate rather fitting, as the monster is returned to ocean from whence it (indirectly) came.
Of course, because it's already been established that this is a multiverse stuffed full of these weird, isolated cities, perhaps the idea is that they share all these similarities because, well, just because. Perhaps the full text of Elizabeth's speech should have gone as follows: "There's always a man, there's always a city, there's always plasmids - vigors, whatever - there's always great big bastard-tough enemies in suits, there's always vending machines. And there's always plot twists."
Log says: My head's beginning to ache.
That'd be great. "Hacking mini-games," she'd continue. "There's not always hacking mini-games. And ammo types, that's definitely a variable. But there's always magic in the left hand, and guns in the right. That never changes."
On another issue, I quite liked the CAGE twist, where it wasn't a cage, but the musical notes, C-A-G-E. That fit quite nicely with Elizabeth's role as a cryptographer. But wouldn't it have been better if the note sequence had been CABBAGE? Then Songbird could have arrived with his tongue hanging out, saying "Oh boy oh boy! I lurrve cabbages". You could make him go away by playing "A DEAD BAD EGG". And he'd go "eerrrrgh, bad egg, smelly" and fly off. Missed an open goal there, Irrational.
It's easy to talk yourself into a state of angry confusion with Bioshock Infinite. But the fact it's such a great game only lends a poisonous edge to that confusion. At the end of the game, we both wish it had stayed a story about Elizabeth, Booker and Comstock, and not turned into the grand unifying theory of BioShocks.
In the review, I said that BioShock Infinite felt like Irrational leaving their series behind. I said that because you can't expose your constants (city, lighthouse) so explicitly, then re-use them convincingly. And that feels rude, here. You can't leave us like this, and just walk away.
Here's hoping that the end was a mid-season finale. I'm buying my Season Pass, and I'm hoping what follows is great.
Got any answers to our questions, suggestions, doubts, worries, or questions of your own? Come on, let's hug it out in the comments.