The final piece of DLC for Bioshock Infinite came out this last week, and after banging my head against the terrible storytelling of Diablo 3, I picked it up for myself, because I have been waiting for this for a while.
I didn’t actually get the first episode for Burial at Sea when it came out in December. Reviews came in saying that it was short and rather unfulfilling, clearly the first half of a story… which I do rather agree with, after playing it for myself. Running around Rapture in its prime was fun, and the ending was gloriously awesome, but everything in between was woefully short and wanting.
That said, Episode 2 has gotten some much better marks from the press, and I definitely see why… but in a sense, it left me with the opposite feeling as I had with Episode 1: The bulk of the game was gloriously fun, but the ending… left a lot to be desired.
What is Burial at Sea?
If I had to describe Burial at Sea in one sentence, it’s a prologue for Bioshock, set in pre-shit-going-bad Rapture, using Booker and Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite to set up things… and that makes sense.
Bioshock’s biggest strength, after all, was Rapture. It was a city that existed entirely as a metaphor for Objectivism. A city in a unique environment, where the richest prosper and the poor must suffer, where industry is allowed to do as however it wishes to do, where empathy is not merely a weakness, but a cancer upon the noble, inquisitive mind.
The big problem with Bioshock, though, was that this attitude extended to the characters. Suchong is a scientist unbound by the petty trivialities of morality, Steinman is a doctor more interested in profits and scientific advancement than he is in treating his patients, Ryan as the true believer… but one that assumes that he’s among the best destined to rise to the top and infuriated when that proves not to be the case… and Fontane aka Atlas as the reason why Objectivism won’t work: Because once someone comes along who knows how to cheat the system, everything falls apart.
The only real characters who don’t fit this are Tenebaum, who does little and basically counts as the “Good Guy” NPC for much of the story, and the player character, Jack, who… has no personality to speak of whatsoever, because he’s a blank slate avatar that the player can easily slip into.
The result of all these characters as metaphors, though, is that they’re just metaphors. You gain allegory, but you lose reliability and complexity, and there’s no one clamoring to see more of these characters.
By contrast, the one of the biggest weaknesses of Bioshock Infinite was that it did little with its American Exceptionalism centered city of Columbia… but did a ton with the protagonists, Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth Comstock. To go into what made those characters so grand… would be difficult to do, let alone without spoiling every major plot element of Bioshock Infinite. Let’s just say that these two characters aren’t metaphors or examples or strawmen or anything. They’re living, complex people that grow and change over the course of the story.
All that is why Burial at Sea had such a huge draw: Taking those two beloved characters from Bioshock Infinite and placing them in the city of Rapture? Who could ask for more?
Did it work?
I want to avoid major spoilers… but I really can’t, because the big problem with Burial at Sea is the end.
So, spoiler time.
In Burial at Sea, Episode 1, Elizabeth comes to a version of Booker DeWitt in Rapture and hires him to help find Sally, a little girl that went missing… and a little girl that Booker sorta adopted for himself, but lost. This leads them down a merry path of bloodshed until they reach the girl, whereupon its revealed that she’s been turned into one of Rapture’s creepy Little Sisters… and that this Booker is actually a version of Father Comstock that has been trying to hide from the things he’s done, including to his own verison of Elizabeth… and he promptly gets killed by a Big Daddy, just as Elizabeth had planned.
(Look, I’d go into the Booker/Comstock thing… but lets just say its complicated, and quantum, and move on, because it really doesn’t matter much after this)
In Episode 2, we actually play Elizabeth, as she realizes that she used a little girl as bait to kill a completely monster, and goes out to try to rescue her, although devoid of her powers from the previous bits, because… she died in god-mode, and now is a regular girl.
…look, this series is kinda weird, okay?
Point is, Atlas has Sally, and Elizabeth needs to do all sorts of things that build up to the events of Bioshock, kickstarting the revolution, all while wondering what god-her was thinking with this, and being aided by the voice of the Booker from BSI, the good Booker, although its stated that he’s just a voice in her head or something… until she realizes, just before the end, what god-her was thinking: By doing this, she can save Sally, the girl she put in danger, and set into motion the events that will culminate with Jack coming to Rapture, killing more or less everyone still alive over the age of 10, and saving all the Little Sisters… but killing Elizabeth in the process.
And that last part is the big problem with Burial at Sea: At the end of it all, it becomes about Bioshock, not Bioshock Infinite. It stops being a story about Elizabeth’s struggles to save a young girl and becomes about Elizabeth sacrificing her godlike powers, immense perspective and even her LIFE in order to enable the admittedly heroic actions of a… nobody. Such a sacrifice for the sake of Bioshock’s lackluster ending doesn’t build the ending up, it tears the wonderful story of Burial at Sea down.
The Good end of Bioshock was disliked by many, largely because it’s so saccharine after such a dark and brooding game, and Burial at Sea just tries to raise the stakes on that even further. Keep in mind, because of Elizabeth’s actions in starting the revolt that will end up destroying Rapture, all of the following things will happen:
- All the residents of Rapture, excluding the Little Sisters, will either be killed horribly, or turned into the psychotic murders known as Splicers, many of whom Jack will end up killing. It’d probably be fair to say that the death toll would be in the tens of thousands, if not more.
- Included in that total are all the children that live in Rapture that aren’t turned into Little Sisters. Just because you didn’t see them in Bioshock (…because gruesomely murdered children is hard to pull off without an AO ESRB rating), doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
- A passenger plane flying over the Atlantic ocean is hijacked and crash-lands into the ocean, likely killing everyone aboard with the exception of Jack.
- Elizabeth, a woman explicitly defined as being omniscient of the present and future, with powers beyond knowing, gives up her power to become mortal, do all the above, and die.
And yet, the ending tries to play this all off as a good thing. That this living god found the Little Sisters to be more important than everything else, and that there was only one way to save them: By killing tens of thousands of people, most no more guilty of abusing the Little Sisters than 1850’s Georgians were guilty of abusing slaves, including probably hundreds of innocent children, and dying herself. There are justifications one could make, explanations, ideas about how this could all logically make sense, sure. The limits on Elizabeth’s powers, and the nature of Bioshock’s multiverse, are so ill defined that there’s certainly an explanation somewhere in there. But Burial at Sea makes no real effort to explain it.
I don’t want to say I disliked Burial at Sea, far from it. One of the first things I thought after finishing it was that I would be a very happy man if all DLC was as smart, well written and tightly focused as Burial at Sea was.
The problem is that, in trying to bridge the gap between Bioshock’s Rapture and Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth… in the end, it gave up on Elizabeth, and just focused on Rapture’s downfall and, arguably, the weakest part of Bioshock. Despite everything wonderful that had happened before… the ending just drags down what could have been a nearly perfect experience.