As you might imagine, the following post contains many spoilers. Read at your own peril.
I did want to get two things out of the way first (and help create some extra spoiler insulation). The first is to reiterate, as I did in my review, that I very much enjoyed certain aspects of Bioshock Infinite. The characterizations were quite good; Elizabeth in particular was fantastic. I also enjoyed the art style and the music. The combat was particularly weak in my opinion (and others), but not terrible enough to preclude suggesting the game to other people, at least at a lower price-point.
Secondly, there is almost nothing in this world more personally maddening than when people suggest a given narrative is good (or the best ever) simply because it appears complicated. Why is convoluted nonsense confused for depth? I had to turn off this Kotaku audio spoiler discussion because the hosts actually suggested that not thinking about (for example) time travel paradoxes makes time travel plots better. Well… yeah. That works because you are taking away the bullshit plot as it actually exists and then substituting your own, better version in its place. And odds are that your own version doesn’t make any more goddamn sense, cobbled together as it is with your vague, unexamined good feelings rather than the jumbled pieces presented by the original writers.
I am not asking for a happy ending. I am not asking for Saturday Morning cartoon simplicity. Hell, I am even completely fine with leaving things up for interpretation; Inception’s ending was perfect, for example. What I am not fine with is when vague nonsense is elevated to absurd heights. If Bioshock Infinite’s plot is actually any good, then surely it can stand up to some peanut gallery criticism. Right? Right.
And by all means, if I am talking out of my ass on any of the below points, or you want to provide a different perspective, call me out in the comments below.
Redefinition of what Alternate Universes mean.
First off, this may seem like a minor quibble, but I think a lot of the confusion and suggested paradoxes stem from the fact that Bioshock Infinite is inventing its own version of multiverse/time travel theory. Levine is basically saying “I’m going to take this hackneyed, impossible-to-do-right concept and solve it with three words: ‘Constants and variables.'” What about the Grandfather Paradox? “Constants and variables.” What about all the universes in which Comstock is a good guy, or those in which Booker doesn’t sell Anna? “Constants and variables.” Why couldn’t Elizabeth just stage an intervention to keep Booker from drinking and gambling? CONSTANTS AND VARIABLES.
I’m sorry, presenting a multiverse theory in which there are “millions and millions” of other Comstocks and yet certain outcomes are arbitrarily 100% set in stone is simply lazy storytelling. I mean, it is not even inconsistent for there to be universes in which Booker never sold Anna! It almost feels like Levine crafted the “constants” based entirely on being able to railroad the player in that one room with the baby. You can still have an impetus to stop Comstock in any of the universes in which he turns into a bad guy, even if it is not ALL universes. Or, hell, add some moral ambiguity to the story by suggesting eliminating the bad Comstocks is “worth” killing all the good ones too.
“Constants and Variables” might be a novel “solution” to the problems of alternative universe storytelling, but only because no other writer thought anyone would actually buy into it. This feels like deus ex machina ^ ∞.
“There are a million million other Comstocks”
This was my literal reaction to Elizabeth’s line about why the game wasn’t technically over after killing Comstock:
Seriously, so what if there are a million million other ones? There are a million million other bad things in alternate universes too – not to mention real life in 1912 – but we don’t seem to be solving those. Was what Comstock did in the Columbia period so bad that killing him at the point in the timeline which we did, was not good enough? Let’s drown him a million million times in that same fountain, as god only knows our conveniently omnipotent Elizabeth can time travel us there; there isn’t even the Constants and Variables bullshit to get in our way. Elizabeth and Booker quite literally have all the time in the world.
When did the drowning occur?
Speaking of drowning, when did Booker get drowned by the Elizabethes? Before or after the baptism? If before, why did that not kill off all Bookers/Annas/Elizabeths, e.g. make the after-credits scene impossible? If it occurred after the baptism, as the extra scene seems to convey, why is it so important for Booker to come to the “smothering” decision? Why is the player’s Booker smothered, instead of watching a new Comstock get smothered? Narrative convenience?
At first, I thought the answer was easy. In the game proper, it seems as though Booker shares the memories of any universe he has been in. For example, after bringing in the weapons, Booker has memories of being a hero of the Vox. In this way, by traveling to the past (time travel and alternate universes, this is so deep u guyz) and presumably merging with the post-Baptism-yet-pre-Comstock Booker, we can have a scenario in which a not-yet-Comstock Booker realizes what is going to happen and accept the need for his own drowning.
Which is… a pretty shitty moral scenario, if you think about it. More on that in a moment.
Of course, if the above is actually the case, then how is it possible for Booker and Comstock to exist in the same universe in the first place? Why doesn’t Booker have Comstock’s memories the moment he wakes up in the row boat, or when getting into Columbia, or when physically drowning Comstock in the baptismal fountain (ooo, foreshadowing) in the game proper?
To be honest, I might have missed the explanation for why Booker wasn’t a drooling, nosebleeding basketcase like the other dead-now-alive soldiers. Or why those soldiers were having such a hard time when, at best, they were “remembering” alternate universes in which they were dead. If the dead soldiers were now alive due to us changing things in the past, what does that really mean for the great swaths of population we killed across Columbia even in a no-Comstock scenario?
Negating all events that were experienced
Let us pretend for a moment that the ending makes perfect sense, there are no plot holes, and everything is wrapped up with a neat little bow. Hell, let’s pretend the ending is even happy, despite the fact that Booker is still a murdering, gambling, union-busting alcoholic single father with enough debt to legitimately consider selling his own daughter to the first person who opens a checkbook. And let’s further assume that he retained the memories of all that he accomplished in the game, perhaps giving him an impetus to try and set everything right instead of dropping baby Anna off in a basket at the closest orphanage.
In this best case scenario, Bioshock Infinite is a game in which all your actions are voided. Everything you struggled to accomplish is erased. None of it happened. Every moral choice you made, every time you refrained from stealing from cash registers, every interracial kindness you demonstrated never matters because those people/scenarios never exist. It boils down to a “it was all a dream” scenario, which is the most pernicious storytelling mechanic in the history of narrative.
If I had no other problems with the story, this alone would be enough to throw my hands up in disgust. Do you really feel like a game in which you endeavor to negate everything that happens is deep and meaningful? You can accomplish all the game has set you out to accomplish by simply not playing. As prophesied by WOPR in 1983: “the only winning move is not to play [Bioshock Infinite].”
Moral of the story?
Finally, let me kind of wrap all these various ingredients up into one complete shit sandwich. What exactly is the message being conveyed here in Bioshock Infinite? What is the theme, the moral of the story?
At the beginning, I almost felt like Booker was trying to make up for his sins, to seek forgiveness and redemption, to put things right. But what is Booker’s actual crime that he is repenting? To stop a person he never turned out to be from entrapping the person he is into a crime a third version must now stop? Booker choosing to be drowned seems a noble sacrifice until you realize what exactly he is undoing: choices he never made. Or, even worse, stopping a man (Comstock) he had no choice into becoming. There is never any “good Comstock” because apparently being bad is a constant. Fate. Predestination.
What is the message here about personal responsibility, free will, and choice? You have none because Constants and Variables. And suddenly, infinite universes means you are implicitly responsible to consequences that you never chose and never happened in your own universe. Do you remember when you donated to charity instead of setting a baby on fire? Well, you should feel real bad anyway because the not-you baby-arsonist is running amok and it’s up to you to stop yourself like you already did by not setting the baby on fire in the first place. GUYZ, DEEPEST PLOT EVAR.
Even worse, apparently Booker is the one on the hook for what the Lutece twins are ultimately responsible for. Who invented the Tear machine? Who gave it to Comstock? Why isn’t this game about the Lutece twins stopping themselves from transdimensional kidnapping, extortion, and/or human trafficking?
Ah, right. “Constants and variables.” And when the Lutece twins invent the Tear machine anyway and give it to the next megalomaniac – a real shortage of those in the early 1900s, let me tell you – it will once again be somebody else’s alternate-reality problem.
Fake Edit: After “playing” through the ending sequence again, I believe the drowning question can be put to bed. Elizabeth(es) specifically say:
Preacher Witting: Booker DeWitt, are you ready to be born again?
Booker: What is this? Why are we back here?
Elizabeth: This isn’t the same place, Booker.
Booker: Of course it is, I remember – wait. You’re not… you’re not… who are you?
Elizabeth: You chose to walk away. But in other oceans you didn’t. You took the baptism. And you were born again as a different man.
Elizabeth: It all has to end. To never have started. Not just in this world. But in all of ours.
Booker: Smother him in the crib.
Elizabeth Esemble: Smother… smother… smother..
Elizabeth: Before the choice is made. Before you are reborn.
Preacher Witting: And what name shall you take my son?
Elizabeth: He’s Zachary Comstock. He’s Booker DeWitt.
Booker: No… I’m both.
In other words, it was not Comstock that was smothered in the crib, it was Booker before he made the choice to be baptized or refuse. Meaning, both Booker and Comstock are dead. Meaning, the after-credits scene is either a vision of an afterlife, or a cheap plot hole to make you feel better while masquerading as deep storytelling.
Please, tell me I’m wrong about any of this. Tell me there is a legitimate reason people are praising this plot, as if it holds even the slightest of candles to the original Bioshock. Am I missing something? Perhaps, you know, the Tear into an alternate universe in which Bioshock Infinite’s plot is any good?