Quantum Nosebleeds: Bioshock Infinite's Burial at Sea Episode 2
We have reached the end of an era. With yesterday’s release of Burial at Sea Chapter 2, Irrational Games has officially ended its reign as one of gaming’s most exciting, if at times troubled, development studios, and the year-long saga of Bioshock Infinite (literally, the game was released one year ago today) has closed. It’s an especially bittersweet moment for me; I’ve loved Irrational for years, dating back to their System Shock 2 days and their Freedom Force days. I would put both Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite up against any other game released during the PS3/Xbox 360 gaming generation, and legitimately consider them among the highest of tiers. No one scripts games like Ken Levine does. The quality of these stories in both their structure and cinematic feel is unparalleled in today’s modern game industry, and their depth is an overflowing well of creativity and probing philosophy. He cracked open his own brain at the end of Bioshock Infinite, and revealed an inspiring and dizzying vista of multiverses, lighthouses in a sea of stars. We knew that Booker and Elizabeth were too big for one game, and thankfully Irrational agreed, providing us with two incredibly polished and detailed DLCs, full of entirely new areas (they essentially had to rebuild Rapture from scratch in the Infinite engine) and new gameplay wrinkles. It took them a year, but when you play it, you can tell why.
Levine and co have taken a remarkably different tack in their approach to Burial at Sea 2. We’ve become accustomed to a certain structure from Infinite and Burial at Sea 1, namely that the possibilities of the story’s implications exploded during the games’ final sequences. At the end of Infinite, we learned of the doors and the lighthouses and the men and the cities and the constants and the variables of the multiverse as Booker and Elizabeth worked together to end the blight of Zachary Comstock (and oh by the way, Booker and Comstock were one in the same). We learned at the end of Burial at Sea 1 that the Booker we were playing was in fact not Booker at all, but an alternate Comstock who fled to Rapture to escape the trauma of being responsible for the death of his version of Anna. These were huge reveals, giant shockwaves that shook the very foundation of the game you had just experienced to its core, and left you reeling and groping in the dark for answers. Burial at Sea 2 doesn’t do this. In some ways, it does the exact opposite.
Levine shows his hand in the first twenty minutes of Burial at Sea 2 (well, maybe a little more than twenty minutes if you, like me, could not bring yourself to let Elizabeth leave Paris for probably a little too long). Once we find Elizabeth back in Rapture, it’s different and disorienting. Booker is there, but he isn’t. He’s talking to her on a radio only she can hear, and he seems to have a lot of information he shouldn’t. As Elizabeth traverses the toy store in which the climax of Burial at Sea 1 took place, Levine and co. drop the other foot. Moving some debris out of the way that happened to be blocking an entrance, Elizabeth (let’s stick to Liz from here on out to save some characters) finds herself, dead and impaled on a piece of rebar jutting out from the debris. Then, the flashbacks begin.
What follows is essentially what we’ve become used to seeing at the end of a Bioshock Infinite game. It is revealed that shortly after the Big Daddy killed Comstock at the end of Burial at Sea 1, he turned his aggression to Liz and threw her into a wall, killing her. Upon confronting her own lifeless body, the metaphysics hit the fan, and the now familiar series of flashbacks and flash-forwards and flash-sideways rev up, often narrated by everyone’s favorite Lutece siblings. We see her death, and how her inability to save Sally (and by extension the rest of the Little Sisters) weighed on her even in Paris, and how her resolve to set things right consumed her, forcing her back to Rapture. It is here we cut to Liz in the back of the Luteces’ rowboat (the same one from the beginning, and then the end, of Infinite), wherein the following exchange occurs:
Robert’s last line is a cheeky reference to the fact that this scene we see on the rowboat occurs in between Liz entering Booker’s office in Paris and when we take control of her again in Rapture seconds later in game time. This is new information, finally filling in some gaps about Liz’s powers and the extent of her ability to control her environment and walk between worlds. Some restrictions apply, specifically pertaining to a version of her dying in a given timeline. The full scale of the consequences are revealed a few scant moments later as we rejoin Liz looking at her own dead body:
And there we have it, the big earth-shattering moment of Burial at Sea 2. The Elizabeth we knew, the timeline-hopping, no pinky-having heroine of Bioshock Infinite and Burial at Sea 1 is gone. We’re left with a girl, a normal girl doomed to die at the bottom of the sea, but not until she saves Sally. It’s a hell of a compelling narrative (and one I hope to discuss in greater detail, time permitting), but that’s only part of what we get out of this sequence.
The key is the nosebleeds. We've seen them before, both in Bioshock Infinite and Burial at Sea 1, and they always share some overlapping triggers. They are almost always (at least in game) triggered in some sense by two of the same character existing in the same timeline (and somehow getting the sense that this has happened), they are always accompanied by a sort of gray shimmer effect looking not unlike Elizabeth’s tears (a clear indication of some dimensional /timeline-y disruption), and they result in at least some significant memory loss of events that occurred outside the current timeline in question. We knew this beforehand, but we never knew why. Now, thanks to Elizabeth’s unique omniscient outlook in the world, she’s able to piece together her fragmented past in a way Booker and Comstock couldn't. What this means for us is that the result of the nosebleeds is the same for Booker and Comstock as it is for Elizabeth. They have been quantum-ly collapsed.
The multitude of Elizabeths are now gone. We’re left with our one heroine in Burial at Sea 2. All that’s left is one mortal, fragile, emotionally exhausted girl who just wants to save one person, have one good thing happen to a real human being, no matter the cost. And the cost, as we see in true heartbreaking fashion, is Paris. Elizabeth doesn’t just sacrifice herself at the end of Burial at Sea 2 to save Sally (by setting into motion the events that lead directly to the original Bioshock storyline). She sacrifices herself (metaphysically) at the beginning of Burial at Sea 2 in order to sacrifice herself (physically) at its end. Once she goes through that door from Paris to Rapture (really Paris to the Luteces’ boat to the lighthouse to Rapture) and her nose bleeds and her pinkie reappears whole, she is already dead. It’s just like Booker says in Burial at Sea 1: “We were all buried at sea. We just didn't know it yet.” But it’s not just her. It’s every Elizabeth as one (the scenes later in the game of Liz at the mirror switching outfits points to this). There is no longer a multiverse of infinite Lizes.
What this also means, then, is that both Booker in Infinite and Comstock/Booker in Burial at Sea 1 went through the exact same quantum collapse/convergence Elizabeth did, but had no way to comprehend it. If all of the infinite Lizes collapse into this one Liz when she travels to a timeline in which she already died, there is no legitimate reason to believe the same did not happen to both Booker in Infinite and Comstock in Burial at Sea. They too collapsed their quantum forms, meaning they too represented the true end to their respective characters and timelines. The end of Infinite then takes on a different degree of understanding with this knowledge. Suddenly, the final drowning scene is more of a metaphor than a literal need. Elizabeth shows Booker these worlds and his past to get him to understand what his death represents, but his quantum form has already collapsed into one person. When Booker dies at the end of Infinite, all Bookers die. We might have known or surmised this to some extent, but Burial at Sea 2 crystallizes it. The same, then, is true for Comstock in Burial at Sea 1. When Comstock is run through by that Big Daddy, it cuts off his timeline (it’s already assumed that the Comstock in Burial at Sea was a rogue agent in the time stream, having somehow decoupled himself from the Booker/Comstock struggles of Infinite due to the trauma of his particular Anna kidnapping). Each installment of the story has closed the curtain on one of its three main characters.
It is vital that this understanding be the case, purely from the perspective of storytelling veracity and correctly managed stakes. If the multiverse of Elizabeths (and Comstocks and Bookers) still exists and continues on, her sacrifice for the sake of Sally and Jack (the protagonist of Bioshock who Elizabeth both dooms and saves by giving Fontaine his hypnotic suggestion trigger word)would be ultimately trivial. “Our” Elizabeth (i.e. the Elizabeth who accompanies us in Bioshock Infinite) dies in between Burial at Sea 1 and 2, but she is a reflection of the gestalt Liz who spends her time in the Paris we explore at the beginning of Burial at Sea 2. For the philosophers in the crowd, you can get a sense of what I’m getting at by considering Plato’s Forms, and how every object we see has a corresponding Form that doesn't exist on the physical plane from which it gets its structure. Liz is the Form, Paris is the realm of the Forms, and the various and sundry Lizes are her reflection into a given world/plane/timeline. The quantum collapse essentially deletes gestalt Liz (it’s not a perfect metaphor) and makes the Liz who causes the disturbance fend for herself. If this were not the case, and if gestalt Elizabeth were still relaxing in Paris listening to “La Vie en Rose” and eating baguettes, the climax of Burial at Sea 2 would be robbed of its overall resonance and emotional impact. There would still be some sense of it, but it would lack the punch and the power of what we got.
Constants and Variables make for good storytelling, but they have also threatened to upset the narrative integrity of the Infinite games. It is so easy, given the framework of the story and the rhetoric of the Luteces, to shrug off the significant movements of the plot on a meta scale by pointing out that there’s some other Booker out there, a different Liz, another Comstock to chase. It’s natural to hold out hope that somewhere out there, Booker and Anna lived a full and fulfilling life as father and daughter (the post-credits scene certainly hints at that even if it doesn't show any actual evidence of it and provides no confirmation). It can be tough to begrudge such attitudes, as they so often come from a deep-seated love for these characters, a need to know that they can still be okay. That it’s not all tragedy and heartbreak and death, even when all you see is tragedy and heartbreak and death. Still, I would contend that such an attitude does serve to dull the impact of Liz’s journey through Rapture and Columbia as a mortal woman. The pain you hear in her voice (all possible praise to Courtnee Draper, who has shown her ability to carry a game just as well as Troy Baker here) when it dawns on her that she’ll never again see Paris and is forever stuck in this tomb under the sea doesn't cut as deep if there’s some other Liz lounging by the Seine enjoying a particularly wonderful glass of wine. Her story is done, and we are all the better for it.
With the full scope of the story in place, the structure becomes clear. Infinite closes the book on Booker, Burial at Sea 1 closes the book on Comstock, and Burial at Sea 2 closes the book on Elizabeth. We know now that, for these three characters at least, the story is over and their quantum slate is clean. And this approach makes sense, considering that Irrational Studios has closed and Ken Levine will never make another Bioshock game. We can expect 2K to continue to make Bioshock games without Ken (they already have, after all); it is inevitable. And there are millions of lighthouses and millions of men and millions of cities for them to explore. But none of those men will be Booker or Comstock. None of those cities will be Rapture or Columbia (unless they’re expanding on current story lines of course, which I honestly hope they don’t do). And Elizabeth won’t be there. This is a good thing. A thing to champion. In a perfect world, Bioshock dies with Irrational. Maybe it will. It’s doubtful, but who knows? Whatever 2K does, we’ll always have Booker and Comstock and Jack and Andrew Ryan and Fink and Suchong and the Luteces. Most importantly, we’ll always have Elizabeth, that innocent child caught up in the power struggle of two men, an unexpected superhero, a pawn in the Luteces game of revenge. It was always about Elizabeth. That’s why the ending of Burial at Sea 2 cuts as deep as it does. She could never win. She could never settle for Paris, no matter how happy it made her in the moment. Her life wouldn't allow for it. She was too good in a world too full of bad, and she couldn't let that stand while she still drew breath. But she went out on her own terms, working tirelessly and sacrificing everything to ensure that at least one child wouldn't be manipulated beyond her control by unfeeling shadows in the dark. That one child wouldn't share her struggles. I couldn't imagine it any other way.