Why I Love Bioshock Infinite Part Four: Redemption
"One man goes into the waters of baptism. A different man comes out, born again. But who is that man who lies submerged? Perhaps that swimmer is both sinner and saint, until he is revealed unto the eyes of man."
Everything comes around. The villain you were chasing is you. You are the reason for this evil. This is a pretty provocative thing for a video game to close with. You would be hard-pressed to find another example in AAA development. This is the storytelling cousin of Gone Home and Firewatch, not the latest Call of Duty tat. Even an otherwise worthy title like Mass Effect 3 got cold feet when that game's original (and superior) ending received irksome noise from the internet's most mentally deficient quarters. In Bioshock Infinite, you have an ending that actually means something and is not there to pat the player on the back for doing so well at playing the game. We will get to that meaning in good time. First we will explore the game's final act and how that impacts the power of its conclusion.
The last few areas of the game are, in my opinion, the best Infinite has to offer. They deftly combine the game's touch for supremely immersive story telling with an escalating set of combat challenges. These include some inventive new abilities, especially Undertow which allows the player access to a supernatural/sci-fi lasso that can grab enemies from the air, to give them a good clobbering. Those who found Infinite's combat lacking seem to have missed the pure joy to be had in fully utilizing the vigor toybox that is presented to the player. Not to say there aren't flaws with the combat mechanics and their execution. There are, namely the redundancy of many of the guns, which aren't distinct or interesting enough to warrant changing from the best combos (#1 being Carbine and Sniper Rifle, #2 being Hand Cannon and Shotgun). In context however, there is more than enough zip and colour to make fighting your way through Columbia a pure joy.
Emporia is where all the swells live. It is as incredibly beautiful as the game's opening areas, but with the sadness of a fallen city that comes from civil war. The banners of Vox Populi stain the elegant perfection of the architecture in such a way that the player is made complicit in an horrific act of desecration. Here you discover the capacity of the Vox Populi to kill with just as much relish as The Founders. They scalp the upper class and put them on display. They kill anyone with glasses or those who look like they have had an easy life. Daisy Fitzroy's people are just as skewed and guilty as anyone. This is something I felt was marred by the continuation of Infinite's story in Burial At Sea.
While Burial At Sea is for the most part an excellent addition, it has the unhappy effect of cancelling out something important in Infinite's story: extreme ideologies are dangerous, regardless of their philosophical basis. In Burial At Sea, we see that Daisy would not have killed Fink's son and was pushed into making it appear so, to make Elizabeth a full adult human. This is clearly a crumb thrown by Ken Levine and his team towards those who were upset that the opposition of Daisy Fitzroy wasn't clean enough. Those who fight against monsters surely shouldn't become monsters, right? But they do, all the time. That Daisy Fitzroy wasn't a saint is what made her such an interesting character, not her status as downtrodden pure soul fighting the good fight.
This gets to one of the most touching moments in the game, where Elizabeth places the flower she took from the bumblebee tear into the hands of a recently murdered denizen of Columbia. Elizabeth's journey from innocent to murderer is perhaps the most interesting arc in the game. That she can still empathize with the fallen, marks a distinct character element that separates her forever from her father, who can no longer feel much of anything.
Emporia is a joy to explore, and offers the only really branching environment in the game. You visit the homes of people you have followed throughout the game, including Albert Fink's home (the musician brother of Jeremiah) and the Lutece's laboratory. It is in the latter house that you find out some of the game's secrets and if you are eagle eyed enough discover the reason for the fate of the lighthouse keeper at the beginning of the game. Emporia also introduces a new enemy: the Siren who can re-animate dead bodies. You fight the Siren - a version of Elizabeth's kind of mother - three times. Each fight is challenging and ramps up to a showdown outside Comstock House. The first time I found these fights too challenging. Having to do three of them in a row seemed like a tall order. On my many replays of the game however I found them to be among the most satisfying of the game. I recommend a second or third playthrough, especially on Hard, once you have become adept with the intricacies of the combat.
Comstock House is the second place (the first being the Order of the Raven) where the game gets back to the Horror roots of the original. Here you face newly indoctrinated deviants who just couldn't swallow what Comstock was selling. This is also the place where you see the lengths to which Comstock will go, to keep Elizabeth in her role as the Seed of the Prophet. (There is a nice nod to The Matrix here when you pull a large needle out of Elizabeth's back.) Comstock House is suitably creepy and seeing what Elizabeth becomes after years of torture and isolation is one of the most powerful sections of the game.
The final section in the game is aboard the Hand of the Prophet, Comstock's personal zeppelin. To get to Comstock, you have to fight your way through an army of foes, including both those of The Founders and The Vox Populi. The final confrontation of Comstock is the moment when you start to understand his true identity. Comstock asks you to tell Elizabeth what happened to her finger. Unable to confront what he did, Booker grabs Comstock and drowns him in the pool of holy water. "You cut off her finger and you tried to put it on me!"
Following the death of Comstock, you must defeat a boarding party of patriots and rocket launching enemies. This final combat challenge is a fitting end to the game. Seeing Songbird rip zeppelins from the air is a treat. Yes, it is difficult and occasionally frustrating. Using the skills you have acquired to corral your enemies into a Vigor trap, or throwing them into the abyss with Undertow, is however a richly rewarding experience. As with the Siren, practice is repaid with delicious, tasty success.
The game's ending, as I have previously mentioned, is probably the strongest part of Bioshock Infinite. It has real courage. It is a desperately sad end, but it is one which offers many teachable moments to the player. The realization that Booker DeWitt sold his daughter to pay off gambling debts is as shocking and powerful as the "Would you kindly?" moment from the original. Elizabeth helps Booker come to terms with who he really is, and the great evil in his heart. She eases his passing with all the love for her father she can muster. What makes the ending so brilliant is the way it plays with the expectations of the player. There is no glorious victory here, there is just the realization that you are the evil you have been pursuing. The one decent thing Booker DeWitt ever did was die. Compare it favourably with the ending of Firewatch and Gone Home: that slow, steady enlightenment that forever alters how you see the world. There is true grit here. Infinite pushes the player to think on their own sins and if they are brave enough to accept their guilt and ask for forgiveness. That final moment of uncertainty and the cut to black. Is she still there? Is she still with us?
This is another thing that Burial At Sea unfortunately alters. Instead of the hopeful, poignant ending with our Elizabeth (possibly) still alive, we get a dreary ending where she loses her life. This is wrong on so many levels, most notably for how it sullies the role of Elizabeth as the last hope for Booker DeWitt. Yes, her death is noble, but it is not right. It's just not damn right. On its own terms Burial At Sea is excellent, but as a conclusion to Infinite, it is lacking.
I find so much to love in Bioshock Infinite. It is a constant source of strength and courage when things are bad. It brought me back into life when I was at my worst. I know it is flawed, but it is flawed in a beautiful way. The story is, in my opinion, the best executed of any game in history. It is a love letter to the fallen and the damned. It is a Noir classic on the level of any of the greats: In a Lonely Place, The Long Goodbye, The Killer Inside Me. It will remain with me the rest of my life.