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Bioshock Infinite's Story Kinda Sucks

I was eagerly looking forward to Bioshock Infinite, and did what I did for the first two Bioshock games and immediately shelled out for it for full price at release.   To its credit, I think Bioshock Infinite was a great romp - a bit short for $60, considering the inflation of gameplay length these days, but a great romp nonetheless.  However, I was rather disappointed with how abruptly it ended, and on what tone.

What follows will be massive spoilers and so I'm going to insert the following gameplay video as spoilerspace protection... this video will work particularly well because the events in the video never actually happen in the game: there's no weird mutating-face politician, no giant ground-based gun emplacements (though there are some mounted ones) and no enemy that throws crows at you.  It makes one wonder how much ended up on the cutting room floor?  Probably enough for a significantly longer game and, as it turns out, this is core to the problem I have with Bioshock Infinite.
I immediately knew I was in trouble when it turns out Elizabeth Comstock, the girl you (as Booker DeWitt) was sent to retrieve, was capable of creating tears into alternate realities.  This is because the idea of alternate realities is basically as blatant of applied phlebotium as you can get; you can pretty much do anything you want with a story if you have the idea of infinite alternate universes floating around and interacting with each other, because suddenly "What if something else happened than what did?" is not only feasible but also potentially coming to get you with a vengeanceIt's a scenario rife with unresolved plot points, because any time something happens to resolve an element of the plot, that it did not get resolved in an alternate reality may well come back to haunt you.

Bioshock Infinite takes the problem of unsatisfactory plot resolution introduced by infinite universes interacting with each other and, instead of placing plot concessions to stop it from spiraling out of control, fully allows it to spiral out of control and then postulates it has found a genius solution that involves killing you.  Of course, this is not really a solution unless the player allows suspension to disbelief to let it be a solution.

Alright, so here's how this thought experiment is supposed to work:
  • Booker DeWitt, our hero, was at some point in his life feeling rather weighted down by the sins of the wanton slaughter he committed as a soldier in The Wounded Knee Massacre and as a Pinkerton agent, among other things, and decides to attend a baptism in order to become born again, a spiritual rebirth in which he casts off his sins by becoming someone else.
  • As it turns out, Bioshock Infinite has thrown in with the idea that certain things cause the universe to schism into alternate realities.  Booker attending that born again ceremony created a junction in the universe, two separate realities, depending on whether or not he decided to go through with his baptism.  In the universe in which he does not, he remains Booker DeWitt, a down-on-his-luck private investigator with a sorted past.  In the universe in which he does, he is spiritually reborn as Zachery Hale Comstock, and eventually becomes a megalomaniac who rules the incredible flying city of Columbia and brainwashes most of the people within to follow him as some kind of messianic prophet.  (This is the twist, you don't learn Dewitt is Comstock in another universe until the very end of the game, so you can consider the plot as spoiled as possible if you know this.)
  • Zachery Comstock is sterile, but he is dead set on getting a genetic heir to his bloodline.  As it turns out, Booker DeWitt is a single father with a lot of gambling debt.  Comstock uses incredible technology invented by some scientists under his employ, the Leteces, to bridge the gap between dimensions and buy a baby from his alternate self, Booker.  Regular exposure to those same machines is the reason why Comstock is sterile, but that's not quite a paradox.
  • Booker's baby, Anna, becomes Elizabeth Comstock after Zachery Comstock "adopts" her.  But, as a consequence of Booker wanting to renege on the deal at the last minute, Elizabeth ends up getting half a pinky cut off while making the transition over to the other side, and this causes her to develop cross-universe altering abilities because... well, why not?  (This is another part of the twist, Booker spends the entire game not realizing he's hanging out with his own daughter due to plot-convenient amnesia that prevents him from knowing he has a daughter at all.)
  • With her full powers realized at the end of the game, Elizabeth tells Booker that the only way to stop him from selling his baby to Comstock is to prevent Comstock from ever happening, otherwise there will be thousands of Comstocks in thousands of alternate realities.  To these ends, the solution the now-omniscient Elizabeth arrives at (encouraged by Booker's decision to "smother Comstock in his crib") is to remove the element of choice from Booker deciding to become born again or not by drowning him during the ceremony.  All Bookers who attended the born again ceremony die there (only the Bookers who never attended that ceremony survive) and consequently all Comstocks never come to be.  All Elizabeth Comstocks cease to be, only Anna (the name of Booker's baby) remains.  A new reality is created in which Booker, possibly with his debts inexplicably wiped away, keeps Anna without a Comstock around to tempt him to sell her.
I think that covers all the points, with one important omission: the Lateces, two scientists of the same genetics from two separate dimensions, are there every step of the way to make sure that this is how the story turns out, resulting in there being only one ending.  The Lateces are also quite dead, by the way, killed by Comstock (along with his wife, Lady Comstock) to cover up where Elizabeth came from.  However, being brilliant quantum physicists, apparently they have found a way to evade causality completely and achieve quantum immortality as shades who show up here and there in the plot to provide Booker and Elizabeth what they need to arrive at the appropriate, Comstock preventing, temporal conclusion.  That the Lateces are around to guide the plot actually lends a lot to its feasibility.

Inconsistant, yet surprisingly consistent.

Despite dealing with something that is virtually impossible to make logically bulletproof - alternate dimension travel plus time travel - Bioshock Infinite does not have a terrible story.  It has some pretty cool parts, and even some great throwback references to the Bioshock series:
  • Having AD on DeWitt's right hand (which I'm pretty sure stands for Anna DeWitt) is not unlike having tattoos on the Bioshock 1 protagonist's arms. 
  • The box given to you at the beginning of Bioshock Infinite, including instructions and a gun, is just like Bioshock 1.  
  • Every main protagonist of a Bioshock game has amnesia of some kind.  Booker has a better idea of who he is than the previous protagonists, but he's still pretty confused because he does not really know why he's in Columbia.
  • The whole story being about retrieving Elizabeth, who turns out to be your daughter, and who also kills you in the end, was core to Bioshock 2, a game whose whole theme was about the relationship between father and daughter.
  • Rapture, the city of Bioshock 1 and 2, made a brief appearance.  Supposedly it's in an alternate universe, however, as Bioshock Infinite's "tonics" were clearly Bioshock 1 and 2's "plasmid" technology, probably stolen by Fink looking through tears in reality created by the Lateces' machines.
  • The lighthouses at the beginning of Bioshock 1 and Bioshock Infinite were given special significance as being doorways into worlds.
  • The audio logs, some GUI elements, and unique sound effects are very reminiscent of earlier Bioshocks (including rather unnecessary injection sounds when you eat things - you're not still in a Bioshock 2 big daddy suit).
No doubt about it, Levine and crew went out of their way to make sure Bioshock Infinite was worthy of the Bioshock title.  Honestly, considering the balls they decided to juggle to make this plot happen, including the colossal elephant-in-the-room of infinite alternate universes, Bioshock Infinite's story hangs together surprisingly well, both in terms of maintaining the Bioshock theme and having some logical consistency in the plot.
10,000,000 hours in MS Paint.
So why do I think Bioshock Infinite's story kinda sucks?

 Only a few things bother me, but those things are fair doozies:
  • At the very end of the game, they take away all your guns and throw the whole enchilada at you at once.  Up until then, you do not have any idea just how far they're taking the multiple-universe thing.  Nor do you know Elizabeth is Booker's child - I would say that this is a mystery you could have solved before the end of the story, but Booker's amnesia prevents you from solving the mystery on your own because he flat out states he never had a child during the game.  Nor do you know that Booker ever attended a born again ceremony, that comes completely out of left field in the last few minutes of the game, and is vital to understanding how he and Comstock have anything in common.  In the last few seconds of the game, Booker utters the realization that he is (or could have been) Comstock, and you're supposed to swallow this as his lungs fill with water and the game fades into black.
  • Paradox is rife absolutely everywhere.  If Comstock never came to be, then why would Booker prevent Comstock from coming to be?  If Elizabeth never came to be, then where is the individual who has power enough to overcome paradox?  Why do the Leteces, shades of quantum immortality who continually spout truisms regarding the inconsequential nature of happenings in a scenario of infinite alternate universes, even bother considering the pointlessness of it all?  The list goes on, but these are all easy nitpicks based off of easy logical assumptions of cause and effect which this story ignores by virtue of necessity.  Lets face it, a suspension of disbelief is mandatory in virtually every story about time travel or travel between alternate universes (let alone both) so while paradox is a valid complaint due to the plot holes it introduces, it's a very weak complaint considering the subject matter at hand requires it.
  • Booker's plot-convenient amnesia has no clear cause.  Is it a repressed memory caused by the guilt of what he did?  If so, it does not make a lot of sense he gets nosebleeds as his memory returns because that's supposed to be a sign of memory alteration caused by alternate universe meddling.  Yet, there is no logical reason why an inter-dimensional force would prevent Booker from remembering he had a baby he sold, not unless this can be somehow caused by sending one's baby through a wormhole or stepping into an alternate reality where he became Comstock.  The Lateces are probably at the bottom of Booker's delusions, but it's not clear how or why, only that they shoved him in the right direction despite putting threatening notes and a dead body at the lighthouse to reinforce his delusions he owes someone money: he doesn't, not if Comstock paid off his debts in buying his baby.  The only person who is truly interested in "returning the girl and wiping away the debt" is Booker himself, so why does he completely forget how and why?  I bet there was a far more concrete reason why Booker is so scatterbrained, but it was lost on the cutting room floor during development of this game.
  • Most of what transpires during the game is completely invalidated.  All the balls that were being picked up and juggled since the beginning of the game are rudely thrown to the ground: forget Columbia, this incredible flying city, its problems with prejudice and corrupted faith; Columbia is not going to exist anymore anyway, so everything that happened during the game and all the characters you met might as well just be a fever dream.  (Elizabeth herself, remarkable girl, is perhaps the greatest of temporal casualties, but I'm sure this is deliberate, the tragedy that catapults the whole thing into high drama.)  This is in stark contrast to previous Bioshock games, where Rapture was a place that existed (in game canon) and your actions built on its history.
  • The ending is too abrupt.  One minute, you're fighting off Vox Populi on the deck of Comstock's airship - a final boss fight and I didn't even know it - in order to destroy the "cipher" that limits Elizabeth's powers and get to the bottom of this.  The next minute, you discover that instead of getting to the bottom of the mystery yourself, Elizabeth ends up so powerful that she's capable of just dropping the answers directly in your lap during a reasonably long, weapons-free exposition segment of the game.  As soon as she's done explaining things to Booker, she then immediately drowns him just as he's wrapping his head around the realization that DeWitt is Comstock in a world where things turned out differently.
Maybe it's that last point, the abrupt ending, that bothers me the most.  It's a lengthy pie-in-the-sky exposition sequence that botches "show, don't tell" by showing in action but still just telling in terms of intent, and ultimately it just leads to a wet-mackerel-across-the-face epiphany of something you can't do anything about, except shut up and die: game over.

So, yeah, as it stands, Bioshock Infinite's story kinda sucks!  It strives for infinite, but ends up less than finite thanks to metaphysical meddling doing too much of the heavy lifting.  This game may well be worth at least a 9/10 in terms of being a fun game and fantastic journey, but I can only dead-reckon Bioshock Infinite a 6/10 in terms of story, an otherwise great story that gets docked 4 points for that ham-fisted conclusion.

The problem ultimately comes down to how Bioshock Infinite is too short.
  • In Bioshock 1, you kill the big bad, a major twist is dropped in your lap, and you realize you're only half done.  
  • In Bioshock 2, you finally reach your daughter, a major twist is dropped in your lap, and you realize you have quite a bit more to do until you can compete your mission.  
  • In Bioshock Infinite, you kill the big bad, have one more big fight, then a major twist is dropped in your lap, and the game immediately ends.  
You see the difference here?  In the first two games, the twist came in the middle, and then you moved on to see what you could do about it.  In Bioshock Infinite, the twist came at the end - literally in the last few seconds of the game - and the only thing you can do about it is let the game end.  Brilliant?  Maybe.  But also inconsistent and annoying.

Furthermore, there's not a whole lot of replay value here, as the moral choice system largely isn't there this time.  I harbored a brief hope that "infinite" meant it had procedural generation system that changes the maps on subsequent play-throughs, but there's just no way, the environments are clearly hand-crafted throughout and why should I expect it to be any different than Bioshock 1 and 2 in that regard?  But you know, Bioshock 1 and 2 had a moral choice system leading to multiple endings - albeit mostly cosmetic in terms of overall difference.  Bioshock Infinite largely gutted the moral choice system - you make choices, but ultimately the Lateces make sure the game turns out the same way every time.  Having finished the game on "hard" difficulty, I could go back and try to finish it on "1999" difficulty, but it's basically just "very hard, plus money-governs-if-you-can-respawn" mode, not a whole lot changes.

In the end, while part of me is only too happy to have forked over $60 for such an incredible experience, another part of me feels I really did not get my money's worth out of Bioshock Infinite.  Bioshock Infinite is about 16-hours long, exploring all the side-streets.  I spent only $30 on Dead Space 3 or Dishonored, getting them on half-off sales, and both games lasted longer by varying degrees.  Comparing game length is perhaps barking up the long tree, as Bioshock Infinite was about as long as Bioshock 1, the real problem is that the story wrapped up half-finished.

Or maybe the story is not yet finished...?

It's not only a real shame that this is as far as Levine and crew were willing to take Bioshock Infinite's story, but the ending seems suspiciously premature.  I'm left feeling it really needed a few more hours of over-the-top skyrail-riding action adventure to unravel that things-are-not-quite-what-they-seem feeling that was going on since the beginning of the story, and that makes me wonder...

...could it be that the rest of the story ended up on the cutting room floor and they are planning on releasing that in future DLC?  It may well be we're going to end up seeing Saltonstall and Charles after all.  We already know they're planning to release three DLC on the first "season pass," and those better not all be weapon packs or other cosmetic crap that does nothing for the plot.  Yes, it is entirely possible, even probable, that there is a whole later half of Bioshock Infinite coming, and it's a fair prediction that, in the first DLC, it turns out that:
  • Anna is not in that crib.  Note that the game does not actually look down into it after the credit sequence, it's implied catharsis for the player but not really confirmed.
  • Comstock may not really be dead.  He saw it coming, after all, and could have found some way around it.  Granted, Andrew Ryan saw it coming too, and chose to die, so maybe Comstock will stay dead out of Bioshock consistency.
  • Columbia still happens, somehow.  After all, for all that DLC, they're not going to want to create whole new city assets nor have no excuse to add sky rails.
  • Elizabeth is probably a creature that transcends casualty, just like the Lateces.  Consequently, the adventures of Booker and Elizabeth aren't over, which is good, because otherwise they would be throwing out some pretty nifty AI code.  Also bear in mind that a lot of the other factions, besides Comstock, probably want Elizabeth due to her powers.
  • The Lateces were quite obviously pulling the strings to begin with.  Despite being portrayed as strange-minded protagonists, they may well have been the real antagonists from the start.  Future DLC may determine which side they fall.
It's like I said right after the spoilerspace video at the start of this entry: what ever really gets resolved in a scenario of infinite alternate universes that can come back with a vengeance?  When resolved conflicts can be re-opened at any time, I know at least one word to describe the resulting story.  Infinite.

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