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.