Bioshock Infinite – You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat Them Too

Happy endings, you say?

Alright, so I beat BioShock Infinite on Hard mode over this weekend (~15 hours, give or take 3 hours), and it left my mind both numb and abuzz, at 06:30AM.

Yes, it was a 10:00PM to 06:30AM marathon.  Completed about 60% of gameplay within that time.

Anyway… from this point on will be MASSIVE SPOILERS.  Proceed at your own risk, and I would highly advise only proceeding forward if you’ve beaten the game at least once.

Not-so-quick-but-best-I-can-do overview of the parameters: So, let’s get this over with.  Booker DeWitt and Zachary Hale Comstock are one and the same person, the big “holy -expletive-” moment in the game.  Booker DeWitt had a daughter named Anna DeWitt (emblazoned AD on the back of his right hand), who he sold on 1892 to Robert Lutece in order to get rid of his gambling debt.  Robert Lutece was in employed by Zachary Comstock, and both were from a parallel dimension.  Booker, who immediately realized that selling his daughter was a mistake, tries to stop them from leaving but fails to do so, with only Anna’s pinky as a reminder, cut off by the closing dimensional portal.  Booker falls into depression, drinks himself into stupor for 20 years, until he’s contacted by the Lutece siblings (Robert and Rosalind Luteces, one and the same), who offered Booker a chance to be with Anna once again.  And so begins the tale of BioShock Infinite, playing as Booker DeWitt who lost his memories during dimensional transfer (which is why the quote at the start of the game is immensely relevant) to a reality where Elizabeth (renamed from Anna) is locked up in a giant statue of an angel, mistakenly believing the lie his mind made up for the most of the game.  Elizabeth/Anna, due to having her pinky exist across parallel dimensions, gained an unparalleled ability to open and travel through different dimensions through rips in space-time continuum called “Tears”.  She is also the destined harbinger of death and destruction across the world below, given that she takes Zachary Comstock’s place as the new prophetess of Columbia.  This is the future that the Luteces are trying to fix, and why Booker is needed at all.

Baptism->Become Comstock->fund parallel dimension technology->gets Anna->New York burns.

Baptism->Become Comstock->fund parallel dimension technology->gets Anna->New York burns.

The game logic to this conflict resolution is that because they are the same person, Booker DeWitt must die for all other possibilities of Zachary Hale Comstock ever existing.  To prevent the realities in which Elizabeth becomes the harbinger of fire and death, to prevent all the realities in which Elizabeth suffers under Zachary Comstock, Zachary Hale Comstock must not exist.  And the branch off point is the baptism ceremony, in which if Booker accepts the baptism, he takes on the name of Zachary Comstock and founds his Columbia.

So, the Elizabeths of all different possibilities (Anna DeWitt with her pinky intact notwithstanding) proceed to drown Booker, and he accepts his fate.  He drowns, and thereby destroying all possible realities that stems from the question of Baptism, and thereby eliminating all Booker DeWitts, Zachary Comstocks, and of course, Elizabeth/Anna of the future realities from this question.  Naturally, the BioShock Infinite basically never happened, and everything is as it should be.

And that, was my natural interpretation, until the post-credit epilogue scene came along and threw a metaphorical monkey wrench into my nicely ordered world.

The end scene depicts 1893, October 8th – Booker DeWitt opens the door that leads to Anna’s crib, while calling out for her name.

In other words, a possibility of Booker DeWitt with Anna as his daughter still exists.

Now why is this a big deal?  Can’t we just call it a happy ending and move on?  Clearly, Booker and Anna got a happy ending in a reality where Anna was never sold, a reality where Booker never went through a baptism.  It’s a perfect ending!

Wrong.

You see, this is where the premise screws that particular happy place.  The idea of an infinite universes within the infinite possibilities mean exactly that – there exists an untold, unfathomable number of realities created by every movement of time forward, infinitely created at infinite moments.  For the sake of simplicity however, I will only focus on the fact that the epilogue exists.  By existing, this particular epilogue allows the counterpart of reality in which Booker DeWitt sold his daughter, to exist.  A scenario in which, demands Zachary Comstock to exist, and therefore Elizabeth, and therefore the burning New York.  But of course, let’s look at the relevant evidences.

Exhibit A: Coin analogy.  Lives, lived, will live.  Dies, died, will die.  Different sides of the different coin, all a matter of perspective.  This analogy is used heavily throughout the course of the game (by the Luteces), and heavily supports the duality/dichotomy theme of this entire game.  Baptism ceremony as a divergence point (What happens to the sinner in the water?), parallel universes (although at this point you’re going to have to call it a shape with infinite sides, a sphere), and of course the logic of erasing Booker DeWitt’s existence prior to divergence point, there by having the question never even considered in the first place.  But this also means that if a possibility exists, then its counterpart possibility must also exist, in some space-time continuum.  Epilogue, by existing, renders the whole conflict resolution moot, by allowing its counterpart reality to exist.

Exhibit B:  Two extremely relevant statements from the game, made by Rosalind Lutece:

“My brother has presented me with an ultimatum: if we do not send the girl back from where we brought her, he and I must part. Where he sees an empty page, I see “King Lear.” But he is my brother, so I shall play my part, knowing it shall all end in tears.”

“Our contraption shows us the girl is the flame that shall ignite the world. My brother says we must undo what we have done. But time is more an ocean than a river. Why try to bring in a tide that will only again go out?”

Rosalind Lutece’s cryptic Voxaphone monologues stayed with me throughout the ending sequence, looming in the back of my head for unknown purposes.  It ultimately led to delivering me from a happy-this-is-closure mindset to oh-no-this-is-BAD-ENDING ragefest.  The two monologue works in tandem, letting us know that not all is as it seems.  Essentially, Rosalind states that time and reality is not so easily manipulated, and that what they are attempting will not work.  That whatever happened at the end of the game, essentially did not work.  But why listen to her?  Who gave her the authority?

Well, we have a case of an extremely unreliable narrator, and I consider Rosalind Lutece as the closest thing to a reliable informational source in this game.  Reason being, she is the source of most, if not all technology regarding ‘physics’ in BioShock Infinite.  She is also one who pioneered the technology to see and interact with the infinite parallel universes (not her brother, Robert Lutece, because she actually summoned him from a parallel universe), and she provided explanations and conjectures regarding various different phenomenons in this game (origin of Elizabeth’s powers, Zacharie Comstock’s advanced aging, the status of their current existence).  And here, she is expressing her opinions with certainty – that whatever they are attempting, will not work.  Which leads to…

Exhibit C) The coin tosses.  If you recall, the Luteces ask you at the beginning of the game, “Heads, or tales?”  And if you do recall this scene, try to remember the number of heads vs number of tails.

You can be sure there are 110 heads on the board on his back. Count them yourself, if you’d like.

Well, you were the 123rd heads.  Or rather, 123rd Booker DeWitt, as it is implied.  So for some reason or another, at least 122 Booker DeWitts have failed in some unmentioned way.  Chances are, you probably failed also.  But more importantly, you weren’t the only one.

Exhibit D) And finally, the biggest, most damning of all evidences:  we never see the final Elizabeth disappear.  At the river, screen cuts to black in a way not dissimilar to the ending of Inception, before we are certain of her fate.  We are left to ponder, on the fate of that final Elizabeth (who has reached Godlike powers at this point, showcasing omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence).  Still, the logical conundrum exists: if Elizabeth exists on that river, then she must have access to her godlike powers -> if so, then she must have lost her pinky -> if so, she must have had been sold to Comstock -> if so, Comstock has funded the Luteces and gained access to dimensional interference device -> if so, Booker DeWitt has become Comstock, after the baptism.

Of course, there is room for debate – we are left with an uncertain premise, with an uncertain narrator, with an uncertain ending.  Interpretations are welcomed, and debate is encouraged – and I have said my piece.  The listed evidence, with the over-arching theme of “choices you make, in the end do not matter” (said by Ken Levine, Irrational Games Co-founder), leads me to this inevitable conclusion that BioShock Infinite was indeed a King Lear, and not an empty page.

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7 thoughts on “Bioshock Infinite – You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat Them Too

    1. jjhchoi Post author

      Is it 134? I had thought 133… no matter, really. But yes, it’s part of the whole constants and variable schema. Kudos for actually looking it up, haha.

      Reply
  1. andy kwok (@andykwok4)

    The last Elizabeth to ‘disappear’ isn’t the same Elizabeth, that why Booker says “who are you?”. And we don’t know if she disappears or not because the piano signaled each Elizabeth to disappear, and when it was the last one, you can hear the piano, but the video cuts out, leaving the fate of her to be unknown, done on purpose just like the movie inception’s ending.

    Also, i read somewhere that it is actually the 123rd, and this has a connection to the number on the card for the lighthouse 122, possibly meaning 122 bookers have already died/failed.

    Reply
    1. jjhchoi Post author

      Hahah, it is indeed 123 (I even wrote that in my article…). I had naturally assumed that the number of tallies implied the number of iterations this event has taken place, the score being kept by the Luteces. And yes, the last Elizabeth to disappear is not our own Elizabeth (none in the clearing were). If so, then we can assume that what happens there in the clearing is universal – and it is very inception-esque, to cut off before we can see what happens to the final Elizabeth.

      Reply
  2. JossWhedonsDick

    123 is what’s widely touted, something I counted myself on my second playthrough.

    More importantly, good points. I like that you take the harder road and insist that the post-credits sequence either breaks the “rules” of the established construct, or, at the very least, severely diminishes the dramatic elements of self sacrifice and resolution. There should be no world where Booker and Anna exist, or at least no world where Booker is conscious of everything that happened in the game (this knowledge is heavily implied by the hopeful tone in his voice at the end).

    There are two ways that I reconcile that ending with the larger construct of the game. The first, and simplest (and as Occum’s Razor would state the most likely), is that it is simply Booker’s dying dream, his own form of wish fulfillment in the only way he knows how. Under this explanation, Liz Prime (I have adopted using Prime notation for every character that is first encountered in the story) disappears with the last piano note, as is implied with a Liz vanishing with each piano note prior. There’s not much that needs explaining here. It’s kind of rote and not all that elegant, but it is plenty tragic.

    The second explanation is that Booker Prime at the river bed is only making decisions for his local tree of Bookers (if you think of every decision as a nodal tree branch). That he is going back to all of the possibilities that spawned from that moment for him. But there are other Bookers that may have branched from him prior to the river bed, who find their way to become Comstock elsewhere, or who skip the river bed entirely (or Wounded Knee entirely, or joining the army entirely . . . you get the point). Booker Prime’s drowning at the river bed cannot affect these other Bookers, for they are cousins to his decision tree, not children. So really, he has only washed away and atoned for the sins he’s committed, but not all Bookers in the vast and endless multiverse. It localizes the story, but it retains its dramatic heft. The post-credits Booker is some cousin of Booker Prime who has Anna in a dimension where Comstock never comes to take her (and I’m sure there are various incarnations of Comstock out there. As long as there are Bookers, there will be Comstocks. Like Booker says, the dunk in the river is merely symbolic. Choosing not to dunk in that particular moment does not guarantee the evil in Booker will never awaken. Only complete death can eliminate it.). The wrench in this idea is, again, the hopefully nature with which Booker asks for Anna. A completely innocuous Booker wouldn’t have that tone in his voice. Also this explanation allows for Liz Prime to stick around as a singularity of all the omniscience, omnipotent, and omnipresent Lizes that are ever awakened. She doesn’t follow the rules of existing in one timeline or another, but exists across all timelines. One could imagine that any timeline where Booker and Liz are successful, that Liz’s being simply dovetails with God Liz. Not sure if I like that any better – might be just the same that Liz Prime vanishes with the last piano stroke anyway.

    Reply
    1. jjhchoi Post author

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I personally subscribe to the nodal model of events and time progression, in accordance to the recurring theme of constants(nodes) and variables(pathways). The way I understood it, was that the infinite possibilities and infinite realities is actually _limited_ to infinite possibilities and infinite realities only stemming from each event nodes. It makes quasi-sense to me, within the game logic, that this is indeed the case, otherwise the exact scenario of your latter explanation applies – Booker himself possesses the capacity to become Comstock, baptism not withstanding, so therefore the only logical conclusion would be to smother him in the crib (as he was fond of saying), literally! But what the game does instead, is to drown him at the lake of the Baptism, seemingly destroying a single branch of infinite possibilities that leads him to baptism, and therefore the bypassing the question of acceptance/rejection. It is in accordance with Ken Levine’s vision for this game, of ‘players make choices, but in the end they do not matter’. Some event nodes will come to pass, no matter what the decision – so the game’s resolution to this whole dilemma is to get rid of the question all together.

      At least, that’s how I understood it, until final scene Booker calls out to Anna with his broken, hopeful tone. Note that 1893, Aug 8th is the day he had lost Anna. How it ties into all this, I haven’t a clue – it is a serious monkey wrench >_>

      Reply
  3. molotovcockroach

    I really appreciate this article. It’s not necessarily my interpretation of the matter (which I will veeeery subtly note is on my own blog, rather than reiterate here) but your points are all very well thought out and compelling. I see a lot more people blustering around in an attempt to prove they’re smarter than the game somehow, so it’s refreshing to see someone really dig down into the ending and analyze it well. Good show, all around.

    Reply

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