Warning: This article contains some of the spoiler-est spoilers to ever spoil - tread cautiously.
Although some big, new titles have cropped up recently, BioShock Infinite is still a hot topic in the industry, and for good reason. After all, game journalists have practically run out of complimentary adjectives at this point. But, behind its engaging gameplay and admirable commentary on societal taboos we find a fundamentally lacking plotline that often seems haphazardly strewn together. The ending of the game in particular is an absolute disappointment and hardly ends at all, which is a grave error for a game bearing the name “BioShock.” The popularity of the entire series is largely based on brilliant storytelling.
The ending to any story should, among other daunting tasks, communicate two things: clarity and closure. The viewer should be able to discern the significance of all actions without playing a guessing game, and the plot’s conclusion should offer a sense of finality by tying up loose ends. When dealing with sequels, no matter how tangential, clarity and closure become much more important, as they dictate the merit of whatever led to the current state of events. In this respect, BioShock Infinite has failed, instead opting for an inconsistent and downward spiral that concludes with little more than straw-grasping. This train wreck of an ending is primarily due to improper time travel usage and unsupported references to previous installments.
That’s right; this article isn’t nerdy enough yet, so we’re talking time travel. Get your DeLorean ready, because fiction is about to get serious.
The catalyst for all of this nonsense is Elizabeth’s ability to manipulate Tears, the ad-libbed time machines of the game. At multiple instances in Infinite, you use Tears to circumvent otherwise impassable obstacles by simply “Tearing” to a new Columbia. This ability plays off the multiverse theory—yes, there are theories for this kind of thing—of time travel, which is based on the premise that every decision leads to the creation of a new timeline that exists alongside infinite others which simultaneously account for all other actions. However, even something as far-fetched as this isn’t without rules. Time travel is actually incredibly difficult to depict successfully, because there are dozens of variables and tropes to account for that must be conveyed believably. BioShock Infinite doesn’t seem to know this, and, as a result, creates a series of paradoxes within its own context that ultimately lead to the plot’s derailment and inconsistencies.
These paradoxes start to surface shortly after the murder of Comstock, who we later learn to be an alternate version of Booker. This brings us to the biggest fallacy in logic: multiple versions of one individual interacting within the same timeline. As other multiverse adaptations will point out, this sort of interaction leads to a Möbius Strip of sorts. Infinite exemplifies this dithering perfectly in its depiction of two versions of Booker existing in the same Columbia, which is worsened by the endgame’s suggestion that this has somehow become the norm.
After entering the Rapture-reminiscent light tower, we find “millions of millions of worlds” that all have a Booker and Elizabeth of their own, who we see currently exploring the same ethereal realm. Therefore, all other Bookers will have killed their respective Comstocks at this point, which means that a second Booker was somehow added to their world. Moreover, there must be an infinite number of worlds that are missing their original Booker—who presumably left the world to go on to become Comstock— who must then be replaced, which leads us back to Möbius.
There’s also the problem of how Rapture is implicated in relation to Columbia, and what roles Elizabeth and Booker play in previous games. Considering where they arrive in their return to Rapture (the lobby where you receive your first plasmid), they may very well have been the two “Splicers” that we hear snickering before encountering our first Little Sister. Or was Booker also Andrew Ryan, and Elizabeth a Little Sister? The good ending to the original BioShock is strikingly similar to the drowning scene at the end of Infinite, after all. Maybe she’s the Big Sister of BioShock 2? Then again, where does that leave Booker? And how the hell does Songbird fit in to all of this? And is the name BioShock Infinite implying that this sort of imponderable was purposefully created?
Outlandish as it is, the time travel dilemma illustrates a glaring fault in the structure of BioShock Infinite. The now-iconic statement, “There is always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city,” implies that the BioShock games are allegorical representations of authoritarian dictatorship, dystopian theory, and slavery of one form or another. This is supported by the fact that, originally, Infinite exists independently. The gameplay is obviously similar, but there is initially no direct connection between Rapture and Columbia. And quite frankly, this is the way it should’ve stayed. However, for some reason, the game struggles to tie the three stories together in the final minutes of the game, and the result is just plain sloppy. What started off as a harmless bit of fan-service (I know I geeked out when I found myself back in Rapture) turned into a series of shallow allusions that effectively negate the credibility of the original BioShock.
This would be the equivalent of Kingdom Hearts III combining Final Fantasy with Nintendo characters, keeping Sora as the protagonist, and pretending that the original games didn’t ever happen, only to repeatedly reference the Disney villains in the last ten minutes.
The game completely ignores the guiding parameters that allow time travel to exist as an effective storytelling medium, and it goes nowhere fast a result. The final hour of the game transitions from an explanation of the multiverse Columbia, to a nonsensical recounting of infinite occurrences in no seconds flat. This develops an intriguing level of shock-value entertainment, but the resulting circuitousness is a failed ending. Leaving a resolution open to personal interpretation is one thing, but leaving the player with no factual evidence to go on is another entirely.
However, it is still a fantastic game that offers a compelling story… until it ends. If we’re going to see a fourth installment from good old Irrational Games, I’d recommend that they have their writers play through the Steins;Gate visual novel, re-watch all of Back To The Future, and read A Sound of Thunder before trying again.
Date: April 26, 2013