Disclaimer #1: This post is heavily spoiler-driven. Under absolutely no circumstances should you read it without having completed Bioshock Infinite. I don’t care if you don’t think you’ll ever play it — if you play video games, you should probably play Infinite at some point, so don’t read this. BUT PLEASE PASS THIS ALONG TO YOUR GAMING FRIENDS. Because I want a discussion/answers/corrections and that won’t happen if this sits here unread by anyone but my nongaming friends.
Disclaimer #2: I am a Communication Studies major (previously an English major). I am not a philosopher. I am not a physicist. I have no clue whether anything I’m about to say, or whether anything within the game, makes actual sense. This is me simply trying to work out precisely what I think happened, and how it makes me feel. I am still trying to parse the extraordinary emotional blow that the final half-hour or so of the game dealt me.
Let’s talk about time, shall we? Because throughout the game, Booker has a habit of asking where he is, and he is constantly corrected to think about it merely as when. He is also informed about constants and variables, and much of what the game says requires you to believe in a predestination of sorts — that time simply is, and is therefore unchangeable. The conclusion, then, leaves me with some serious questions, but before I judge their integrity, let me try to work out what I think the game thinks happened.
Time is not a straight line. It is a tree. Every decision you ever make in your life could have gone one of any infinite number of ways, except of course the binary ones — the ones which could either have gone yes or no — and those still afford two options.
The potentiality of time and decisions, then, is beyond human comprehension. Each tree exists for each person with agency, but consider how many decisions depend on or affect multiple people (and thus the branches overlap and intertwine) and it becomes something I’m not sure I can even think, let alone draw. Talking about it defies human speech, so we’re left simplifying things (hopefully not too much, but then, that’s not my point here) until it’s something manageable.
So as you know, having finished the game, we have two characters who have two names: Booker, who is also Comstock, and Elizabeth, who is also Booker’s daughter Anna. They are characters, but they are also avatars of a concept: representations of every version of them that exists across every universe.
After the Battle of Wounded Knee, Booker, a single person with a single tree, was faced with a binary choice: renounce his sins and be baptized (and become a believer), or (as we watched him once do) refuse the baptism and just live his life however he sees fit. The latter is the Booker we know, the Booker whose memory we relived while Elizabeth watched.
The former, the baptized Booker, becomes a zealot, and takes on a new name to reflect his transformation: Comstock. Yes, there are infinite versions of both Booker and Comstock, but let’s, for discussion purposes, condense all of them down into single timelines: Booker is every Booker that said “no” at the point of offered baptism, and Comstock is every Booker that said “yes” at the point of offered baptism. Timeline 1 branches off here into Timeline 2 at what I will call Crux.
EDIT: CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE IMAGE MOCKUP I CREATED TO ILLUSTRATE MY VIEW OF THE TIMELINES IN THIS GAME. I previously had the image embedded but WordPress automatically displayed it in the blogfeed and I am horrified at the idea of someone unsuspectingly reading it before knowing what they were even spoiling for themselves.
As Timeline 1 continues, Booker has a daughter with an unnamed wife who dies giving birth to her (again, there are obviously versions of Booker where the wife lived, or there was no child, but we’re concerned specifically with the realities in which what I just said is true). His daughter is named Anna. At some point, he gets himself heavily into debt, and eventually becomes completely hopeless as to how to pay it off.
Enter Comstock, who from his timeline has encountered the Lutece “twins” (they aren’t twins, by the way, just alternate versions of themselves who cheated the system, ended up together, and are now stranded in the space between all timelines, trying to save the, for lack of a better word, multiverse from being destroyed). Comstock has become infertile due to exposure to the Luteces’ experimental devices, yet he needs a blood heir (bloodlines are very important, obviously) and so he decides to steal his own daughter.
This is where Comstock — “Yes” Booker — intrudes on the life of “No” Booker. He offers Booker a clean slate in return for Anna. Our Booker begrudgingly took the deal. According to Elizabeth, there are other Bookers who did not take it, but Comstock simply took the girl by force. There are no realities with Comstock and Anna in which Comstock didn’t gain access to Anna. Yes, that’s a bit far-fetched even for this game, but it’s what we’re told, so let’s accept it.
Now comes the singularity.
ONE Booker — our Booker — fought back a second time as his daughter was being passed through a tear into the world that would become this Columbia. Though he could not stop his daughter being passed through, he did stall it just long enough that as the tear closed, she lost a finger. And at that moment, one version of Anna existed in two timelines simultaneously; she became an anomaly. The Luteces theorize that this is what generates her power — an innate need, driven by the universe, for the two parts to find one another someday, which allows her to access all other universes in which that part might exist. At least, I think that’s what they were saying. I’ll have to reread the Vox transcripts.
Comstock and Lady Comstock play a role in what comes next but suffice to say Anna is christened Elizabeth and is taught that she is their daughter. Lady Comstock thinks Elizabeth is the bastard child of some affair Comstock has, and even though the Luteces tried to explain the truth, it was too absurd for her to deal with so she just went on hating the child her whole life. Elizabeth likewise resented her mother for rejecting her as daughter — not realizing that she actually wasn’t the Lady’s daughter. This should hopefully already be understood if you paid attention during the whole ghost thing but just in case it wasn’t, there you go.
And so, many years later in Anna/Elizabeth’s life, Booker gets a chance at redemption: he is going to Columbia, and he is going to bring back his daughter. Of course, between grief and the inter-timeline travel (for remember, where he’s going, Comstock is that timeline’s Booker, so none of his past actually happened in this timeline), he loses grip on reality and remembers events differently from how they actually happened. This is the relevance of the quote on the alternate back of the box from Lutece: “The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist…” (note that it’s from “Barriers to Trans-Dimensional Travel”).
Let’s fast-forward to the part where you kill Comstock. This is important because at first, it looks like an end to Timeline 2. It isn’t. It’s an end to one of an infinite variety of Timeline 2; all the “Yes” Bookers in other timelines still exist.
Booker wants to just go to Paris at this point. As far as he is concerned, things have been settled, and Elizabeth — his daughter Anna — is free. But she’s too selfless for that. She hasn’t Booker’s ability to forgive herself for the atrocious civil war that she directly (by meddling with the arms supply) and indirectly (by simply having ever existed) had a hand in. Not only does she, this Elizabeth, have a slate which she can’t believe will ever be washed clean, but thanks to Booker’s little tear-driven journey, she knows that at least one other version of her rains destruction on the earth below and kills millions more. And so she decides to end it all — to stop all the bad things that Elizabeth ever had a hand in from happening in any timeline.
Because Comstock will always get Anna, always name her Elizabeth, and always lead to this wretched whitewashed city of Columbia, the only way for her to truly clean her slate is to make none of it ever happen at all — to make there be no Elizabeth, to make there be no Comstock.
And so Elizabeth takes Booker back to the point in the Booker tree where a binary choice was made, the baptism at which he said “No” and went on to have a baby, and at which he said “Yes” and went on to become Comstock. Here we see a dozen or so Elizabeths show up — that’s allegorical. It has to be. There are potentially infinite Elizabeths; the ones who appear at our Elizabeth’s side are representational of that. It’s difficult to be sure whether they are “really” there or are simply something Booker perceives (perception’s a big deal with alternate realities, remember). If they are there, it must be because the four-fingered Elizabeth brought them there, though I’m not sure I understand why they are necessary.
And so “Yes” Booker is drowned before he can become Comstock, and as he dies, that entire half of the Booker tree ceases to exist, including Elizabeth. The multiverse is saved, the atrocities that Elizabeth would be the cause of (directly or indirectly) never happening. It’s bittersweet, because Elizabeth — the lovely, strong, spirited character we have come to care for immensely throughout this whole game — “dies;” in fact, she never exists at all. The sweet comes in the moment after the credits have rolled, in which we see Timeline 1 turned to Timeline 3 — no longer a circle, but a new branch proper, in which Booker doesn’t have an alternate version of himself intrude on his life, and he gets to keep and raise Anna. Both protagonists die and get to live together. It’s neat.
It’s also a bit problematic.
The myriad Elizabeths who kill “Yes” Booker at the baptism are anachronisms. We see them disappear as he dies, but that of course is wishful artistic interpretation. If his death precludes their existence, then they were never there to kill him; and thus he never died to preclude them. We thus see the “end” of the circular Timeline 1, which must repeat itself infinitely: the multiverse ever-threatened, ever saved just in the nick of time.
Comstock has to have lived because if he hadn’t lived, then Elizabeth never would have existed to go back and kill him. His death precludes his cause of death, precludes his death, ad infinitum. Everything that happens in Bioshock Infinite never happened, but it needs to have happened for it to have never happened. It’s an unbroken circle. It repeats itself forever.
And honestly, that sucks. Because it means all that pain and death that Elizabeth sacrificed herself and killed Booker to stop from happening? It still happened/happens/is happening. Their sacrifice prevents the multiverse from being destroyed by an alternate unstable Elizabeth, but it does not personally afford them a happy ending at all. It can’t. There is only one reality. You cannot change history. You cannot fix the past.
It’s wrong to say “none of this ever really happened.” It did happen. I does happen. It will happen. This is the reality for our Booker and our Elizabeth. And it’s an utterly tragic one. Some other Booker and some other Anna (an infinite number of them) live happily ever after, and the multiverse is saved. But the characters we just spent fifteen hours or so with are doomed to this tragic cycle. And like I said: that sucks.
I’m a sucker for happy endings. I just am. I loathe the way this game ended but I cannot deny that it was extremely well-done, and extremely powerful. I cannot deny that this game made me feel emotions I didn’t even know existed. It disturbed me, not in the “ew, gross” way, but in the unsettled, uneasy, pit in the stomach that won’t go away way. As I raced through Comstock House trying desperately to save a screaming, then complacent, then horrifying Elizabeth, I honestly wanted to throw up. I hated what was happening. I wanted to make it all go away.
And what sticks with me, eight hours later, is a sense that I couldn’t. That all of that torture still happened, still happens, is still happening. I don’t really care about all the death and mayhem. It’s selfish, but I’d be fine if the rest of the world burned and Booker and Elizabeth escaped off to some dreamy version of Paris. Because they’re the only characters in the entire multiverse I actually care about. I am unable to share the Luteces’ passive observational attitude towards the inevitability of that suffering. It actually hurts me. And that pain, that hollow feeling in the gut, is the overarching legacy of Bioshock Infinite in my life.
So I’d like to have gone wrong somewhere in my logic. Because while sad, I can accept Elizabeth never having existed. But my heart can’t accept Elizabeth never existing past that moment, but having existed through all the suffering before it.
Am I wrong? Or did I nail it? Help me out, Internet.
I’m not feeling too well.
EDIT: April 1st, 2013, ~12:30 p.m.
Playing through the game again, looking for warning signs of the shocking conclusion, particularly signs that Comstock and Booker are the same person. There’s the spiel Comstock delivers before trying to kill you (with that flame suicide lady on the airship, right after he tells all the guards to stand down so he can talk to you), in which he knows intimate details of your past and your desire to cleanse your sins (including Anna). But so far the best thing I’ve come across is a voxophone called “Born in the River,” which says “The Prophet may know how his own biography’s going to end, but…I can scarcely fathom how I’m going to start it. I mean, other than the kid’s stuff you get at the Hall of Heroes, anything prior to his baptism was — and here I quote, hang on — “left on the riverside.””
Comstock became a new man at the point of baptism. And as we now know, quite literally.