The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

Bioshock Infinite and Burial at Sea: The Extraordinary Comstock Theory

What follows is my attempt to understand and explain what I now think is going on in Ken Levine’s crazy little mind as it pertains to the mechanics of the Bioshock universe after the events of the first part of the Burial at Sea downloadable content. As such, there will be heavy spoilers for the endings and twists of both Bioshock: Infinite and Burial at Sea. So you won’t want to read this until you’re caught up. Additionally, this is less of a review of Burial at Sea than it is an attempt to analyze its events. I know it’s probably a little too short. Loved it anyway. But I'm a sucker for Irrational and its games. That much is probably clear by now.

At the time of this writing, we’re only a few days removed from the release of Burial at Sea Part 1 (hereby abbreviated to BAS), the first installment of Bioshock: Infinite’s two-part downloadable content sequel. The big change, of course, is the setting. BAS returns us to Rapture, the captivating city-under-the-sea that served as the home of the first two games of the Bioshock series (though only one of them was actually created by Irrational Games; Bioshock 2 was farmed out to 2K Marin while Levine and Co. were working on Infinite), and played a cameo role during the end sequence of Bioshock: Infinite. We’re still controlling Booker (even though he died at the end of Infinite), and we’re still escorting Elizabeth (although she appears noticeably older, more mature, and has picked up a Film Noir smoking habit). This is designed, I feel, to confuse. The harsh change of setting, the Noir-style introduction, the way these characters seem to act so differently (Elizabeth is inherently less trusting of Booker, and Booker seems to be a bit more of a selfish man, though only just a tad), it’s all designed to create a sense of unease. As does the opening sequence of the game, which consists of a guided tour of Rapture before the fall, chock full of real flesh-and-blood non-spliced people. This tour is unnerving for a variety of reasons (not even counting the encounter with Sander Cohen who, it seems, didn’t go off the deep end when Rapture fell and was just a psychopath the whole time), the chief of which is the calendar on Booker’s desk that establishes the date: December 31, 1958, the day Rapture falls.

So you are not only walking through what is in essence a ghost town that is still alive, but it’s Nagasaki hours before the bomb fell. The citizens of Rapture go about their lives, blissfully unaware of the horrors, death, murder and mayhem that are to befall them in mere hours. But, not unlike Infinite, this vibrant, humanity-filled jaunt through Rapture cannot last forever, and it doesn’t take long for Booker and Elizabeth to be shipped off to an abandoned section of the city full of splicers and water leaks and the sort of aesthetics we’ve come to know and love(?) from our first two explorations of Andrew Ryan’s waterlogged utopia. On the surface, Booker and Elizabeth are on a quest to find Sally, a little girl who Booker took under her wing, only to be kidnapped while he was too busy drinking and gambling to notice. We know that Sally’s been changed to a Little Sister (because what else could happen to a missing little girl in Rapture), but Booker and Elizabeth still fight through an army of splicers in an attempt to save her.

Things come to a head when Booker discovers Sally disappearing into a Little Sister vent, and Elizabeth comes up with the idea to turn up the thermostat and essentially smoke her out through a specific vent. When push comes to shove, Booker cannot make the choice to turn on the vent himself, and Elizabeth does it for him. As Booker attempts to extricate Sally from the vent, he is attacked by a Big Daddy, who he must defeat. Then the fireworks start. As Booker struggles to pull Sally from her vent (clearly against her wishes, which makes for a queasy sight), the flashbacks begin, and we discover what truly happened. Booker is not actually Booker, but is instead an alternate universe Comstock, whose attempt to kidnap the infant Anna ends in a much different fashion. Instead of Anna’s pinky finger being caught between dimensions, the tear closes around her neck, decapitating her and killing her instantly. As Booker reels, Elizabeth, Rosalind and Robert Lutece explain that Comstock couldn’t live with the guilt of his actions and had the Luteces open a tear for him to Rapture, where he shaves his beard, loses his memories and becomes Booker again. Comstock Booker attempts to apologize to Elizabeth for his actions (she’s having none of it), and is interrupted by the drill of a Big Daddy ripping through his midsection (in a delightful call back to the teaser trailer of the original Bioshock that featured a near identical scene) as Elizabeth scowls at him, covered in his blood. We cut to black and are forced to wait for the next installment.

And it’s likely that installment won’t be here any time soon, giving us plenty of time to try to figure out what in the blue hell happened here. To say that there are questions that need answering would be putting it lightly. Here’s a few:

  • How did the Comstock of BAS survive the Culling that happened at the end of Bioshock: Infinite? Shouldn’t he have never become Comstock since the baptism (which happens before Anna’s kidnapping) was stopped and eradicated all versions of Zachary Comstock from the various timelines?
  • Why was Elizabeth present at the kidnapping of Anna that we see at the end of BAS?
  • Are we confident that the Elizabeth who escorts us through BAS is the same one from Infinite? Why has she suddenly gotten so vengeful?
  • How long has Comstock been in Rapture? When did he lose his memories?

There are more questions, and there is a good chance that these questions (and others) will be answered by the end of Burial at Sea’s second chapter. We shall see. In the meantime, I believe I’ve pieced together a good sense of what we’re dealing with here on a grand scale.

The biggest question we have to deal with is how Comstock “escaped” from the culling at the baptism. The entire point of the ending of Bioshock: Infinite was that Booker’s self-sacrifice at the baptism was designed to cut off the timelines of every Booker DeWitt who ever lived long enough to reach the baptism constant in his timeline. All of these Bookers would reach the baptism, and would drown. Thus, Comstock never exists, and Booker does not continue to live, which means Anna is never born. This is reinforced by the various Elizabeths winking out of existence Back to the Future style once Booker dies. So all is as it should be. Except for that troublesome scene after the credits, when we find ourselves back in Booker’s office as he goes to check on Anna in the other room. Why would we be shown this if Anna is erased from all of the timelines? There shouldn’t be a living Booker anywhere after the baptism takes place. What gives?

The best way I have figured out to collapse the inconsistency of a Comstock (and a corresponding Booker) to escape the Culling involves what I will refer to as the Extraordinary Booker Theory. The Extraordinary Booker Theory essentially posits that there are (as of right now at least) two sets of extraordinary circumstances that deviate from the standard Booker/Comstock timeline. These variables are a disruption of the standard story, and knock their respective agents outside of the loop that collapses when Booker drowns himself at the end of Infinite. These deviations are caused by the kidnapping of Anna playing out in a different way. The two times we have seen the kidnapping scene play out (once at the end of Infinite, once at the end of BAS), they play differently, but both involve some amount of Anna being cut off by the closing of the tear. Infinite Anna loses her pinky and continues on to become the Elizabeth we know and love who can manipulate tears and has a greater destiny. BAS Anna is decapitated and dies.

I would posit that in every other case, the kidnapping is a clean one that does not result in any bodily harm to Anna as she is brought over to Comstock’s dimension. These Annas are brought to Columbia, cannot manipulate tears, and are indoctrinated by Comstock free of duress, growing up to become the Seed of the Prophet that attacks New York. We meet one of these Elizabeths near the end of Infinite; this would be the older Elizabeth who gives Booker the CAGE card that is the key to controlling Songbird (one would assume that once Elizabeth actually sees the destruction she has wrought, she realizes her error, but it’s too late to stop the machine), as well as the Elizabeth spouting pro-Comstock platitudes via the public address system in Comstock House. The product of these normal kidnappings are ordinary Bookers and Comstocks. These Bookers are Comstocks are wiped out during the Culling because their corresponding Elizabeths are present at the final baptismal drowning scene at the end of Infinite. We only see five or six different Elizabeths there, but there’s no reason to believe the actual number of Elizabeths at the baptism is not infinite. We never get a good look at the hands of any of the other Elizabeths present at the baptism, but there is no indication that any of them are missing a finger in the same way Time Lord Elizabeth is (the name I shall use for our pinky-less tear-controlling companion Elizabeth), which means that the abduction is a constant, but how it happens is a variable.

I would further contend that the litany of Bookers who are brought over to Time Lord Elizabeth’s dimension by the Luteces (who can tell she is important and requires rescue due to her ability to manipulate tears) are “ordinary” Bookers, which is why they fail in their mission. The Luteces needed an extraordinary Booker to do the job. One would assume that the Luteces don’t have that strong of a grasp on how to accurately manipulate the tears, and couldn’t get into the correct dimension the first 122 times they extract a Booker to save Elizabeth. It’s not until they manage to get back to the original dimension Anna came from (essentially by happenstance) that they find the “Extraordinary” Booker, the Booker we control during Infinite, whose innate connection to Time Lord Elizabeth allows him to succeed in the mission. And in the process of doing so, he drowns his Extraordinary Comstock, and then sacrifices himself, closing the loop and leaving nothing left over.

But now we know that it wasn’t true. There is another set of Extraordinary Bookers and Comstocks, which would be the Comstock we find having absconded to Rapture in Burial at Sea (I would contend that the Booker’s office we find ourselves in during the post-credits scene from Infinite is this second Extraordinary Booker, which would be the only Booker left that hasn’t been accounted for). When Comstock moves over to Rapture through the tear, his memories are wiped in the same fashion that Extraordinary Booker’s are when he moves into Time Lord Elizabeth/Extraordinary Comstock’s dimension before the events of Infinite begin (we see this happen during the final sequence of Bioshock: Infinite). Hence he has no sense of who he really is during Burial at Sea until the very end, where his attempts to pull Sally out of the heating vent so closely resemble what he did to Anna that his memories are unlocked and he discovers who he really is. Elizabeth needs to make sure he dies to finally close the loop, and because she knows what Comstock is capable of, she makes sure that she is personally involved in his violent death. Comstock is such a coward that he can’t even turn on the thermostat himself, based on some twisted and misplaced sense of honor and empathy that is actually just another selfish attempt to shirk himself of blame, as evidenced by the Luteces’ dialogue during the climactic scene:

ROBERT: You turned to us to solve your problem
ROSALIND: To provide a place to go where you might forget
ROBERT: Where there never was an Anna in the first place
ROSALIND: Comstock was never one to own up to his errors, was he brother?
ROBERT: Never comfortable with the choices he made
ROSALIND: Always seeking someone else’s life to claim on his own

So Extraordinary Comstock 2 has been taken care of. Time Lord Elizabeth orchestrated the whole situation, and has pretty clearly been in Rapture for some time. Her completely different look combined with her clear aging since the events of Bioshock: Infinite would indicate this. Considering that we see Time Lord Elizabeth during Extraordinary Comstock 2’s flashback to the death of Anna, she would know that the Luteces were scuttling him off to Rapture under the guise of it being his decision, and would have followed him through at close to the same time (the Luteces were clearly out for revenge too, for a litany of reasons established in Bioshock: Infinite). Considering what has happened, what she has seen and what she has done (let's not forget the Daisy Ftizroy incident), it would not be enough for Time Lord Elizabeth to just knife him in his sleep, so I would guess that she was involved in shaping what Extraordinary Comstock 2 goes through in Rapture from right when he got there. She would have steered Sally toward him to act as a surrogate Anna. She would have potentially worked with Fontaine or Cohen to make sure Sally was taken to become a Little Sister at a time that Comstock was at his weakest (i.e. during an original Booker-style gambling and drinking binge; old habits die hard when you lose your memories), only to show up and have him go on a mission to find Sally in such a way that mirrors both the narrative and the structure of Bioshock: Infinite itself, creating an in-joke for the audience as well as a sick game for Comstock that he doesn’t even know he’s in the middle of. She even pointedly asks him when he got to Rapture, knowing that he won't know the answer, which ends up inducing a dimension-bending nosebleed (the same nosebleeds Booker had in Infinite when remembering aspects of his old life without realizing it). I'm aware that this section of the theory may be considered drastic due to the malice of Time Lord Elizabeth's acts, but I think it's justified in the character and evidenced by the content of Burial at Sea.

So that’s basically it. The one part of this theory I can’t entirely pin down is how Time Lord Elizabeth is present at Extraordinary Comstock 2’s failed kidnapping of Anna. One can assume she traveled there to see what was going on once she became essentially omnipotent and could see all timelines at the end of Bioshock: Infinite, but watching the scene play out at the end of Burial at Sea makes you believe that her presence at the scene is actually the X-factor, the variable that changed its outcome. Is it possible that, in a bit of grandfather paradox meta-ness, Elizabeth is responsible in her own way for the death of Anna in that timeline, and is the reason Extraordinary Comstock 2 even has to exist to be killed? Does her act of traveling to that point of time that has already happened in its own way cause it (as once she interferes, she has always been there, and the events will have always happened that way)? Is this why she is so completely and totally out for blood during Burial at Sea? Because the death of Anna (essentially the death of another version of herself) is a little bit her fault as well?

We shall see. There’s still the second half of Burial at Sea to be played (where we’ll be taking control of Time Lord Elizabeth herself, which should be a rare treat), and Irrational could easily prove my whole crackpot theory wrong. But here’s what I know. Extraordinary Booker 1 and Extraordinary Comstock 1 are gone. Extraordinary Comstock 2 has been taken care of. Extraordinary Booker 2 is still out there. One more loose end to tie up...