On Bioshock Infinite
Despite the wide success of Bioshock Infinite, it suffered heavily from a rather divided response. On the one hand, critics and game journalists universally praised it calling it an instant classic and reveling in its apparent perfection. On the other hand consumers and average players of the game were a bit more critical. While many did in fact think highly of the game, a great percentage found the game inconsistent in many areas and largely did not see it as the perfect game critics seem to believe.
While I personally loved the game, it did have clear flaws and most of the complaints were valid points. It was quite possibly one of the worst recent cases of ludonarrative dissonance with an obvious disconnect between segments of gameplay and narrative development, switching from a populated lively Colombia to shooting galleries where the civilian population seemingly vanishes into thin air ultimately rendering the once intriguing setting into simply window dressing. The gameplay itself also felt out of touch with its primitive shooting mechanics that lacked any finesse or complexity. Quite possibly the most visually stunning aspect of the game, the grandiose setting was also a point of criticism as it ultimately lacked substance in the larger scope.
Colombia, with its American Exceptionalist utopia, should have provided an intriguing locale for the game with its own singular and multilayered sociocultural facets but never played any huge significance. Coupled with an overabundance into time/dimensional travel made the narrative more needlessly messy then it had any right to be, and ultimately made more logical inconsistencies then it could conceivably address. And lastly the game’s ultimate conclusion was seen as both pretentious and abrupt, failing to provide a satisfying degree of closure.
Despite these criticisms I still found Infinite to be both a memorable and engaging experience. The characterizations of the two leads Booker and Elizabeth, and the subsequent relationship development between the two is mainly what made Infinite work. The performances by Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper are easily some of the most impressive I’ve ever seen in the medium and it’s coupled with some solid writing. The scope of what made Infinite the memorable experience that it was, doesn’t lie within the larger holisms, but rather the more focused and personal narratives of its characters and how they interact with the world they have been placed in.
Lastly the “Infinite” in Bioshock Infinite does seem to hold some relevance when examining the game’s ending sequence. The branching pathways, repeated lighthouses, and multiple instances of Booker/Elizabeth and ultimately her comments on it all seem to point to the notion of infinite emergence and replayability within the medium as a whole. As a player we interject our own aspects into the game, and even repeated plays of a game as linear and closed as Bioshock Infinite may lead to quite differing experiences each time.
So the issue with Burial At Sea.
Burial At Sea, the games continuation and conclusion in DLC format is where things take a drastic turn for the worst. It’s worth noting right off the bat that Burial At Sea was Irrational Games’ last project before disbanding, and if any one element completely overshadows the DLC, it’s this. Ultimately Burial At Sea serves as a celebration of the studio that made it, its history and in retrospect a glorification of the work that put them back on the map, the first Bioshock. In doing so, they completely negated much of what made Infinite work and unfortunately render it pointless in the process both from the context of narrative and character development.
Colombia was as vital to the identity of Infinite as its characters to the sudden shift to Rapture, the location of the first two Bioshock games is immediately troubling. This relocation cuts out most of the content from Infinite with brief cameo appearances by a few side characters who are often redefined in their roles instead of elaborated upon.
Daisy Fitzroy is the most obvious example of this, with her death being revealed as staged instead of a natural result of where both character and narrative development was heading in Infinite. While it makes sense in the DLC’s internal logic, it seems to point to the notion that Infinite was largely preordained with limited possible outcomes in direct contrast to the game’s conclusive statements.
Most troubling however is the relevance (or lack of) of Elizabeth and to an extent Booker within Rapture. We left off in Infinite with the reveal of Booker needing to be sacrificed in order to prevent a Comstock from ever being created and in turn building his dark twisted utopia of Colombia. Elizabeths (plural) then proceed to converge on Booker helping him take one final baptism drowning him under water. Ultimately Booker’s death should have resulted in the prevention of much of Infinite‘s story as well as this following DLC. At the very least, it seemingly should have stopped the creation of any more Comstocks. Otherwise one would have to ask from a simple conflict resolution standpoint what was actually achieved in Bioshock Infinite. If Booker’s conclusive death failed to prevent both Comstock or Colombia from all possible divergent dimensions, it would have been utterly pointless.
That said its immediately inconsistent when at the end of Episode 1, its revealed you are a Comstock in hiding and Elizabeth was apparently here to kill or exact some very uncharacteristic revenge upon you. Much of the rest of this episode is largely inconsequential and will simply be glossed over. For the most part, not a whole lot happens and this first half seems to lean towards introducing players to the location change and also to refamiliarize with the two characters.
Worth mentioning here is that both characters in contrast to Infinite are as interesting as wooden blocks. In retrospect while this makes sense as Booker isn’t in fact “Booker” and Elizabeth wants nothing to do with him, it was still disappointing to see a lack of any sort of “opening up” between these two characters as that was the main strength from the base game.
Episode 2 of Burial at Sea is where things both start to become interesting but also present a dissonance to the base game more heavily. With you as Comstock now dead, the player takes control of Elizabeth. Its worth noting that this is the same Elizabeth from Infinite and not an alternate version. Its hard to make the connection though because while this Elizabeth is older, she is also drastically different to the character we knew prior. She seems colder, more calculating, and is also given a wardrobe change to match.
This second half starts immediately with you discovering your own dead body. Elizabeth sees her own corpse impaled on a piece of rebar. Without getting into exactly how this part even makes sense, the relevance of this discovery in regards to the narrative is that she has now lost her clairvoyant and dimensional travel abilities she had prior. In result of this, she has also suffered some sort of memory loss not knowing or understanding anymore why she came here past getting rid of Comstock.
The rest of Burial at Sea deals with Elizabeth slowly piecing together her original motivations and larger plan while hunting down a missing girl Sally, that was turned into a little sister. All the while Booker manifests within her mind to give her assurances and guidance along the way.
The worst irony of Burial At Sea is that it largely works well on its own. Most of the threads just mentioned tie in cleverly by the game’s end, and the narrative is both engaging and thought-provoking. Elizabeth with her recent loss of memory is also a much more interesting character then in Episode 1. She is constantly questioning her actions and why she would have ever decided on coming to Rapture since it seemingly is leading to her own death.
The gameplay as well makes a huge shift from Infinite and the franchise as a whole, relying on a a new stealth mechanic that meshes wonderfully with the player control of Elizabeth. Instead of the trigger-happy Pinkerton agent Booker, we are a smaller woman who isn’t comfortable with violence nor very capable performing it. Thus the game allows you to sneak through most of the game using abilities and mechanics aimed towards staying out of sight and causing distractions. It even limits the amount of ammo you can find or have on hand, further incentivizing you to play by avoiding combat.
All in all, at least in regards to Episode 2 of Burial At Sea, it is an incredibly well-crafted work. The dilemma though is that it isn’t standalone and is meant to serve as a continuation or final cap upon Infinite‘s groundwork, and this is where it utterly fails and proceeds to demolish itself in the process.
A Return to Rapture
The problem with Burial At Sea is that it introduces a new conflict to justify its own existence. Threads from Infinite are either outright ignored and never addressed, or bastardized or redefined to work to the benefit of the new conflict. Internally it works well when taken as a seperate non-canonical work or something akin to a fan fiction. But as a proper wrap-up to Infinite, it’s extremely troubling.
Burial At Sea ends with Elizabeth knowingly walking into her own death. Without getting too heavily into the specifics, it is revealed that Elizabeth before her “other” death knew about this all along and was motivated by concerns outside her own world or that of anything in Infinite. Harkening back to the happenings and conclusion of the first Bioshock, players played as Jack, a man who found himself in a dying and decaying Rapture. While the game could end in one of two ways, Burial at Sea implicitly establishes the more “positive” ending as canon. In this ending, Jack saves the Little Sisters, returns with him to the surface where he seemingly raises them as his own daughters living out a happy life. The game ends with Jack on his deathbed surrounding by the now grown up Little Sisters who thanks to Jack, were able to live full and normal lives.
Ultimately Elizabeth’s sacrifice was motivated by her concerns to ensure that this ending took place by setting up the groundwork for the first Bioshock game. While it might seem to offer a nice cyclical symmetry to the game series, it doesn’t take into account virtually anything from Infinite. Instead Elizabeth and other elements act as mere transplants into a diversionary prequel tale to the first Bioshock.
This ultimate conclusion also makes Booker’s death all the more hollow. Guided mainly by guilt and then by a desire to make things right for his daughter, Booker ultimately dies to prevent himself in other realities from ever becoming Comstock. I honestly doubt he would have been happy to hear that Elizabeth would die horrifically anyways a few years later by first suffering through a transorbital lobotomy and then proceeding to get her head caved in with a large wrench by a madman.
It’s obvious that the return to Rapture and the linkage between Infinite back to Jack in the first Bioshock serves more as a retrospective of the franchise’s history and successes, rather then actually offering proper narrative closure. It’s a shame that Irrational Games chose to do this however, as it makes much of Infinite now seem arbitrary and pointless.
Thematically it’s incomplete conflict with Infinite‘s notions of “infinite” possibilities and outcomes with the sense of predestination in Burial At Sea, where everything is meant to happen and in a very specific and rigid way. The statements upon the medium that Infinite made no longer are applicable, since its own DLC seems to point in the opposite direction. It is truly unsettling that a game such as Bioshock Infinite which could easily stand upon its own strengths has been retroactively been turned into a mere precursor for a past work.
It would honestly be a bit more forgivable if this had been Irrational’s intentions all along but there are no signs that point to this being the case. I’ve personally played through the game thoroughly and listened to the majority of the voxophones within, and there was never a glimpse into the happenings in Colombia cycling back to Rapture in the manner presented in Burial At Sea.
More then likely aside from the mentions of this being Irrational’s last work, there were likely motivations centered around spatial interactivity and the narrative being secondary to that. Quite possibly the new stealth gameplay or location change were not in response to the narrative, rather the opposite. Because as a commercial commodity, interesting spatial interaction is what sells, Irrational may have felt some changes were in order to create an incentive to pay the extra money for something one would think should have been in the base game.
It’s tragic since attitudes like this are why games have largely been unable to create any serious works at least at the studio level. Narratives are often self-sabotaged and ignored in favor of including new mechanics or gameplay systems. And then there is simply a fear by developers and publishers to close off narratives too tightly as it would hinder future titles in a currently successful franchise. Assassin’s Creed IV was a recent case of this. Where the ongoing conflict in the prior titles was poorly mishandled and concluded in Assassin’s Creed III. IV, simply ignored it and essentially the series as a whole with a largely diversionary tale that should have been more fitting as a sidegame like Liberation.
But this also leads to another questionable aspect of this, that of not including a game’s conclusion within the retail release, rather cutting it out and releasing it months later as an extra DLC that requires yet again another purchase. While personally I don’t typically find DLC unethical since companies have the right to charge what they want and sell what they want, I do find it troubling that a large portion of the main experience is held back. This isn’t uncommon and if anything has become an industry standard with day-one DLC, preorder exclusives, or “collector’s editions” which includes content normal customers have no access to, as seen with the recent fiasco with Elder Scrolls Online.
Pretend that movies now only covered 3/4 of the film’s duration, the last 1/4 could be viewed weeks later at an additional expense. I doubt that would fly over well with most people but its somehow become acceptable within the video game industry.
Strangely enough, Burial At Sea is still a DLC I would tell others to play regardless of these problematic issues. It’s still expertly crafted and probably to a better extent then Infinite. It does a much better job of addressing its various narrative threads and also having the gameplay actually mirror the narrative. It’s just a shame that this level of expert craftsmanship couldn’t have been utilized toward something that actually addressed Infinite on some level instead of serving as a self-masturbatory exercise in linking back to the glory of Bioshock 1. Infinite was an incredibly powerful and intriguing work, and it definitely deserved a DLC that actually paid attention to itself or none at all.