Requisite spoiler warnings apply for essentially the entire Bioshock series.
It’s difficult to describe the emotion a Bioshock Infinite devotee feels when the curtain rises on Burial at Sea 2. You get chills the moment “La Vie en Rose” spills out of your speakers, and that lovely scene is revealed. The little café by the Seine with wonderful little table and its croissant and its glass of wine. The phonograph lazily spinning Edith Piaf into the world, the artist gifting Elizabeth with a free sketch. For anyone who truly played and loved Bioshock Infinite and Burial at Sea, for anyone who felt that undeniable connection to Elizabeth throughout the games, this opening sequence is almost too much. She’s been through so much, seen so much, been forced to deal with so much, and through it all, her only desire was to just live her life and see Paris. To have her finally get there, content with her life after ridding the world of one last Comstock at the end of Burial at Sea 1, is such a fantastic moment. But, unfortunately, it’s only a moment. This is the beginning of the game, after all, and while I would probably play an Elizabeth in Paris simulator longer than I’d like to admit, Irrational’s goals are a touch loftier.
There’s a subtlety to the Paris section of Burial at Sea 2, and that subtlety lies entirely on how fake it feels just under the surface. Everything feels too perfect. It feels French, but it feels French in the way an interloper who only knew Paris through, say, books and paintings and music and movies (because he or she was, I don’t know, imprisoned in a tower in the middle of a floating city for his or her entire life or something). You may not notice it immediately. It’s around the time you realize that no matter where you are, “La Vie en Rose” is always playing. It shifts from a phonograph of Piaf’s original recording to a rendition from an accordion player on the street to Elizabeth humming to a bluebird chirping out the melody (more on the bird in a bit). Each version melts into one another, always starting and stopping from the same point to result in a continuous string of music in the background. Everyone is an artist, or more specifically, a painter. This holds significance with Elizabeth, considering that during the first sequence we meet her in Bioshock Infinite, she is painting a scene of Paris, and clearly has a connection to both the hobby and the place deeply ingrained in her desires.
It’s also difficult to ignore how many people are eating baguettes or selling baguettes or playing with baguettes (to the extent that one could play with a baguette). The baguette-to-human ratio is all wrong.
Elizabeth’s Paris also feels remarkably like the sort of town you would come across in a classic Disney film. Everyone is smiling and greeting her warmly by name as she walks through the streets. They go about their business, but in a way that seems ancillary to themselves and pointedly ingenuous. The Disney connection is most felt when a jaunty little bluebird alights on her finger and sings along to “La Vie en Rose,” just about the most Disney event that could happen to anyone. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the other shoe is dropping sooner rather than later.
We need a reason for her to give up her dreams, though, and it doesn't take long to discover that reason is Sally, the Little Sister at the center of the plot of Burial at Sea 1. To recap, Elizabeth came to Rapture to track down a rogue iteration of Comstock who had dodged the culling at the end of Bioshock Infinite (presumably due to the extreme nature of what happened to Anna in his timeline; I tried to wrap my brain around this in a previous article). Comstock, having lost his memories due to a quantum collapse that occurred when he visited a timeline in which a previous Booker/Comstock had died (which is essentially all of them thanks to Booker and Elizabeth’s actions at the end of Bioshock Infinite), reverted to the Booker persona and decided to live his life in Rapture as a private detective. Elizabeth travels to Rapture and hires Booker to find a missing little girl (Sally), and ensures he forms an emotional bond with her throughout the process of finding her. Elizabeth essentially uses Sally (now a Little Sister) as bait to force Booker to an emotional nadir that mimics his actions of kidnapping Anna before the events of Bioshock Infinite, and reveals his true nature as Comstock, admonishing him as he is murdered by a Big Daddy. It’s a shocking act of spite and vengeance for the Elizabeth we knew from Infinite, and it was often tough watching her compromise her good will and morals (as well as so often give Booker the cold shoulder) in order to twist the knife before she tied up the final loose ends.
And you can tell at the beginning of Burial at Sea 2 that those actions weigh on her in a profound and unassailable way. Her perfect picture of Paris is shattered by Sally penetrating the illusion. She is beset with visions of Sally cooked alive in the heating vent in Rapture (a heating vent Elizabeth commanded Booker turn up to its highest setting late in Burial at Sea 1). Wherever she turns, she can’t escape it. The gorgeous, breezy streets of Paris are replaced by something darker and more sinister. She even sees the statue from Monument Island in Columbia, implying that even in her perfect iteration of Paris, her old life and the trauma she endured is always present with her. This history, this knowledge of what she herself had been through, is why Sally weighs on her so heavily.
Elizabeth (back when she was Anna) began her life torn between two men, her actual father (Booker) and her kidnapper turned father (Comstock). She grew up imprisoned in a place away from society, raised to be indoctrinated as a pawn in a game she could never understand. Elizabeth was raised to inherit Comstock’s legacy of xenophobia and hatred (she was the “seed of the prophet” who would “drown in flame the mountains of man”). Sally was raised to be an unfeeling ADAM factory, forever doomed to be hunted by all manner of splicers and other unsavory types for the rest of her likely short life. Elizabeth used Sally as a tool for vengeance, scheming to manipulate events toward a recreation of the moment where Comstock’s jealousy led to the decapitation of Anna in his version of events. In so doing, Elizabeth lost sight of the fact that throughout all of this, Sally was still a human being. She had become her worst enemy, using Sally exactly how Comstock used her. Sally wasn’t some random girl, she was a reflection of Elizabeth herself. Leaving her to die at the bottom of the ocean was something Elizabeth couldn’t abide, even if the actions of doing resulted in sacrificing her omniscience and dooming her to die.
I’ve already discussed this aspect of the story at length in my article regarding the mechanics of the quantum collapse that robs Elizabeth of her powers. What is honestly just as (if not more) interesting than Elizabeth’s self-sacrifice is how she comes to cope with its consequences. It must be a hell of a come down to have what could only be described as cosmic omniscience taken away from you, and to have that happen in as hostile a place as Rapture under the thumb of Atlas/Frank Fontaine cannot help matters. The beauty of Burial at Sea 2 how Irrational matched the core gameplay of controlling Elizabeth to the themes of the game and the content of the story in a way we haven’t really seen from the company before. The close-quarters gory combat of Bioshock Infinite gave some sense of Booker’s grisly past with the Pinkertons and the 7th Cavalry, but that aspect of the gameplay felt like a nice coincidence more than a conscious choice designed to reinforce Booker’s character. Elizabeth, on the other hand, plays so fundamentally different than Booker does that it makes you sit up and take notice. And what you notice is how fragile, frail and imperiled Elizabeth suddenly is.
Ammo is so scarce (especially in the game’s first few skirmishes) that even the slightest miscalculation (a wayward crossbow bolt or a reckless jaunt over some broken glass) almost certainly spells doom. The vulnerability of Liz the player character is pointedly in direct opposition to the utter lack of vulnerability of Liz the NPC in both Bioshock Infinite and Burial at Sea 1, and it makes you rethink what it must be like to actually be in Elizabeth’s shoes at this point in her life. She could easily be overcome with despair, alone and cold in a decaying department store at the bottom of the ocean, her only hope for escape lying in working with a mad man in order to facilitate his revolution against another equally mad man, but this pressure solidifies her resolve. She knows she’s doomed. Even if she lives through this experience, her best possible outcome is to live a shadow of the life she had, still stuck under the sea, millions of gallons of water between her and Paris. Her best and only option is to go out on top and exert her will to do some good in the world. Instinct takes over from there.
Her internal dialogue with Booker represents that resolve. When Booker appears on the scene at the beginning of Burial at Sea 2, first “in person” and further on via the required Rapture short wave radio, he seems to exist as a pure function of plot. He’s telling Elizabeth what to say and how to act, throwing out exposition right and left as some kind of vestigial remnant of the old Liz, that last bit of fractured memory she can’t let go of during the quantum collapse. We saw some of this in Infinite, as Booker still retained some idea of his former life before being brought over to the Columbia timeline (and those memories flooded back when the right moments were prodded). We know that dots are connected for these character in some ways, as the opening quote of Infinite details (“The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist…”), but Elizabeth won’t let go entirely. It makes sense that she would have at least nominally more control post-collapse, but she needs something beyond herself to bring her back from the brink, and Booker is the only human in the world, the only person in the sum history of her life, that she could even consider trusting. Booker did the right thing (eventually). He didn't take the easy way out of the baptism. He fought to end the reign of Comstock and save Elizabeth from a life of death and decay and bloodshed. He didn’t succeed, as that death, that decay, that bloodshed found its way to her eventually anyway, but his fight and hers were one. And she can’t imagine the idea of going this one alone, even if that’s all she is at the end of the day.
Nothing about the concept of truly inhabiting this character is as brutally effective in tapping into the visceral emotion of Liz’s story than the transorbital lobotomy sequence, wherein Atlas decides the best way to get Liz to give up the ghost regarding the location of the Ace in the Hole (a perfectly fine maguffin that pays off nicely) is to threaten her brain with an ice pick and a tiny little hammer. This scene evokes one of the most indelible moments of Bioshock Infinite, wherein Booker first arrives at Comstock house and can hear Elizabeth being tortured/indoctrinated somewhere else in the house (at one point hysterically screaming “I’ll be your daughter! I’ll be your daughter!” which just makes the stomach turn), but nothing compares to seeing it unfold in the first person.
All praise in the world goes to those who designed the visuals and sound effects of this scene. As Elizabeth wakes, still groggy and recovering from a dose of chloroform with a bag over her head, the sense of discomfort and horror is entirely realized by how Irrational designed the little details around the torture. It’s the way Elizabeth’s eyes struggle to adjust when the bag is first pulled off her head. The echos in the room. It’s the little floating blotches of discoloration that travel around her eye as Atlas pressures it with the ice pick, looking for that one perfect spot. It's the focus pulls. It’s that flash of white and red light, that jagged bolt of light arcing across the screen and that unholy pinging sound that accompanies every strike of the hammer, bringing the pick ever closer to scrambling her brain. It's Courtnee Draper, thoroughly and entirely crushing her voice acting. Most of all, it’s that incredibly subtle and utterly effective tiny movement of the camera when Atlas jiggles the pick, conveying more than any other angle could that the pick is embedded in her skull and that much closer to destroying the last vestiges of the Elizabeth we've come to know and love over the course of her travels in Columbia and Rapture. It is legitimately one of the most horrifying scenes I've ever experienced in a game. It's incredibly difficult to resist turning away. But it’s not the traditional jump scare of a Resident Evil or the uneasy fear of the unnatural in a Silent Hill. This is something altogether more sinister, a mix of the extreme desire to protect Elizabeth with the depravity and villainy of a man who clearly has no care for his fellow human beings.
And yet, throughout all of this, Elizabeth is remarkably calm. She will not give in to Atlas’ shock and awe tactics, even when her very consciousness is at stake. That changes when Atlas pulls out the oldest trick in the book, wheeling Sally out on a gurney and threatening her with the same grisly bit of amateur brain surgery. It is only here that Elizabeth gives in, screaming and wailing, begging and pleading, offering whatever she can. She’s not trying to save herself. She’s already given up on that. But Sally, an Elizabeth of another world and another era, she could be saved. And when there’s nothing left to fight for, you fight for the children, the future of the world. She relents to Atlas, but does so on her own terms, knowing that her actions will not only result in the potential safety of Sally and the rest of the Little Sisters, but also the end of Atlas’ reign of terror, another Comstock for another world.
It’s a bleak outlook, as the clear subtext of both Infinite and the Burial at Sea chapters is that Elizabeth’s mantra of “There’s always a lighthouse, always a man, always a city” is not entirely complete. For every Booker, there is a Comstock. For every Jack, there is an Atlas (or Andrew Ryan, depending on your view of things). For every Daisy Fitzroy, there’s a Jeremiah Fink. That cosmic push-pull morality play will never end. There are no half measures, only small victories, tiny little angles that can be manipulated to let a single column of sunshine through the darkness from time to time. The consequences of Elizabeth’s actions, dooming Atlas to die, dooming Jack to die, dooming Andrew Ryan and Sander Cohen and Dr. Steinman and legions of Big Daddies and splicers to a violent end, are not a pure good. They have serious and bloody consequences. This world (or series of worlds) that Irrational has created is all about bloody consequences, a titanic Greek tragedy writ large over the entire multiverse. Elizabeth is at the center of that tragedy, a hostage of all of these awful men, a plaything for the Luteces, a girl who never has and never will have a normal, loving life in Paris or elsewhere. She slipped up in Burial at Sea 1, let the anger and neglect and the injustice get the better of her, and for that she must sacrifice her life twice over. It’s unfair, but Irrational has never been shy about painting the world of Bioshock as a pretty unfair and unfeeling place. The darkness may seem total and unrelenting, but in that last moment, as Sally cradles her hand close while singing “La Vie en Rose,” bringing this chapter and the entire story of Bioshock to its full circle, the light finds its way onto Elizabeth’s face for that two second smile before death overcomes her. The whole game, the whole series is worth it for those two seconds (well, it’s worth it for much more than just those two seconds, but you know what I mean). That’s how much Ken Levine and everyone else who’s ever worked at Irrational Games from the beginning of this series to its end have made us attached to these worlds, these characters and their stories.
But more than anything else, we’ll always have Elizabeth.