Deeper In The Pile: Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea, Part 2

Hang on, I thought Deeper In the Pile was for games I’d reviewed but wanted to talk about some more out of the context of a purchase. Why am I talking about this one, which I haven’t reviewed? I treated The Knife of Dunwall as its own standalone purchase, and the same with Burial At Sea Part 1 – what gives?

Well, let’s get the simple review out of the way, then, to formalise it: Burial At Sea, Part 2 is fucking dreadful.

Now I’m going to talk about it, there will be spoilers, and I quite frankly could not give a tenth of a shit about it. The following article contains references to violence, racism, bad things happening to little kids, torture, and – look, if you’re sensitive, at all, don’t play Burial At Sea Part 2. That’s the easy advice. For the rest of you, this is going to get angry. Do keep up.

On Being Elizabeth

First things first, let’s look at this.

Now then, the important thing to remember from this video is that it is a common trope for a female character in this style of fiction to be killed to promote the development of a male, to be downpowered with no return to that prior power, and to be killed off to motivate another character to act, usually a male. These are three separate acts that form part of a systemic, repetitive whole.

Okay?

Burial At Sea does all three.

I’m not kidding! The story starts with Elizabeth, a quantum goddess, a woman who could ‘see all the doors, and what was behind the doors,’ finding her own murdered body. This then justifies why Elizabeth has none of her pre-existing powers, and has to instead try to live up to the plan of her previous self, and follow that plan through to the end. What’s waiting for her at the end?

She’s beaten to death by Atlas with a fucking wrench.

Don’t worry, though, even though it looks an awful like the bad guy won and you watched Elizabeth beaten to death in a grungy alleyway! It’s all okay, because Elizabeth has set things up so that Jack can save the day, in a way that gets other innocents killed. Erm. But the important thing is Jack!

In the context of Women In Refrigerators, it’s a testament to Bioshock Infinite’s groundbreaking design sense that they were able to find a way to fridge one character three times in one story.

This is a big deal, alright? We’re talking about Elizabeth here, a woman who used to be able to casually tear open holes between worlds, who could jump realities and collapse them, who could move not only in space but also in time, who could see lines and threads of causality with perfection. Except we later learn she couldn’t, because there are mistakes made. That’s down in the Plot Holes section.

This shows a steady degeneration of Elizabeth throughout the stories. In Bioshock Infinite, Elizabeth is shown as an intelligent and plucky young woman who pegs Booker with books when she meets him, who kicks a guy trying to kidnap her in the balls, and who even wrenches Booker in the face hard enough to knock him out. At the end of Bioshock Infinite, she’s a living quantum goddess, able to summon up hurricanes and pull people through time. Then she shifts to Burial At Sea Part 1, where this godlike entity takes a ridiculous amount of effort to just kill someone, and then in Burial At Sea Part 2, she is just a normal human girl, with a normal pinkie finger, who can’t swing the Skyhook hard enough to hurt someone unless she surprises them.

If you say ‘it’s realistic’ I want to redirect your attention to the phrase living quantum goddess.

There’s some other stuff that gets in my craw about how the story handles women. You enter a peepshow, where you find Elizabeth’s old outfit, which she swapped for her current clothes. No big deal at first, but then you find an audio log from the peepshow performer who talks about how much she likes the corseted outfit. This isn’t too big a deal, all things considered but I still find it creepy the game acknowledging the way Elizabeth’s previous outfit was basically running around in her underwear.

You’re at one point, tied to a chair, have a bag over your head, injected with drugs, then treated to all but the last stages of a frontal lobotomy, an experience that even Sucker Punch was smart enough to perform off-screen, and even then mocked. This is incidental. There is no interaction, no experience the player has to interface with it. There’s nothing about the greater themes of the piece to explain it, and barring for a poster, there’s no real mention of lobotomisation anywhere else. In Sucker Punch, the lobotomy is used as a sanitised death, an end for a character’s life that impends upon them; in this, it’s just this nasty, needlessly graphic experience forced upon the character. As with Burial At Sea Part 1, the torture is cargo cult creativity, aping what happened in another work, without working out what that was for.

And this is trying to reach the bar set by Sucker Punch.

The final problem I have with the games’ handling of Elizabeth is how she states she’s aware of things, but her actions do nothing to reflect that. She knows that she’s going to be betrayed by Atlas, and Booker even tells her that, but her only response is ‘I know,’ and later, ‘I’m ready.’ Elizabeth goes from a woman who would throw books, fight, kick, and struggle to a woman who lamely and meekly walks into her own death, in the name of the Bioshock Infinite franchise’s eternally awful Constants and Variables. You can hope Elizabeth is stupid or suicidal to explain it. Neither are appropriate, in my opinion, to the person she was.

Don’t Forget Bioshock 2

I glibly commented during the Bioshock Infinite review that everyone involved in Bioshock Infinite seemed to hope you’d forgotten about Bioshock 2. After playing Burial At Sea, I think it’s deeper than that – I think that Irrational Games forgot about Bioshock 2. The first area Elizabeth wanders through is a school for budding young objectivists, highly reminiscent of the children’s entertainment in Bioshock 2. While Bioshock 2 showed you Andrew Ryan’s ideas and how his terrifying vision against human instincts towards altruism scarring and terrifying children, however, Burial At Sea chooses to show you the icons and symbols and the generally positive reactions of the children experiencing them. They’re weird to us, but to the children, accusing your teacher of being a parasite seems unremarkable. Thus we see a repeat of a Bioshock 2 concept, but done a little simpler, presented a little stupider. After all, children, am I right? And it’s creepy when people impress upon them this sort of thing, right?

In Bioshock 2, subject Delta is stuck in his suit, which does not look like the other Big Daddy suits. Subject Delta is also the first Big Daddy to imprint on a Little Sister. Subject Delta was the main character, and Subject Delta murdered Suchong when Suchong slapped the little sister he was examining. All of this data is available from previous games, and indeed, is a fairly gratifying plot point in Bioshock, to hear the death of the sterile-voiced opportunist asshole. In Burial At Sea, you watch as a normal Big Daddy, who has already imprinted on two Little Sisters, kill Suchong.

Now, given the whole point of the story at this point is to be an important part of continuity, given the way the story lovingly showed you an updated model for Jack (the protagonist of Bioshock) and multiple instances of Booker, why then was this not taken as an opportunity to meet Subject Delta, the second Bioshock protagonist?

Maybe it was too much effort to make his model. Maybe they didn’t think of it. Maybe, and this is the most likely answer to me, they just didn’t care.

Constants and Variables

We’re back to our Bioshock Infinite world of Constants and Variables, which is to say, bad and constrained writing. There’s a particular style of writing I remember engaging in when I was twelve years old, and which many other writers at that age did and which, I later learned, some writers never grew out of, which is to imagine your final scene and work backwards until you could force that sequence of events to happen. Now, for good writers, this is often quite rewarding and creates a story where the focus tightens and narrows, but for bad writers, such as the writers here, it means that artificial constraints are added to the story to justify the contrivances necessary to reach that scene. This style of writing didn’t have a name, as far as I know, beyond ‘bad’ but I’d like to suggest now we call it Constants and Variables. In heroic fantasy, it’s often called Destiny and in videogames it’s sometimes known as Limited Resources, but the point is the same: It’s creating a story where numerous superior options and explanations are obvious and inherent to the story that you’re shown. You can contrive a story if you’re willing to limit the resources and setpieces – like in say, Cube. In a setting like this, where you’re presented with a world and then infinitely more worlds next to them?

Well, let’s just have a quick look at some ways the Constants and Variables plot device fails.

Supposedly the Comstock murdered in Burial At Sea Part 1 was the final Comstock. Remember how Bioshock Infinite was supposed to end when Booker was drowned in a river, killing all the possible Comstocks, and possibly also Elizabeth, and possibly possibly also all the Bookers? Turns out that you missed one, and you missed him because he was Comstock, then he accidentally killed Anna, felt guilty, and ran off to Rapture with the help of the Luteces to hide from what he’d done.

But hang on, I hear anyone with a brain saying. If he’d been Comstock, then he should have also been drowned when Booker was?

Hang on to those questions. There’s an explanation coming.

Burial At Sea Part 2 isn’t content hammering open that plot hole, though. There’s plenty more shittiness to dish out.

An attempt is made to redeem the fucked up depiction of Daisy Fitzroy. Not to redeem her, the character, really, where she’s still depicted as Just As Bad as Comstock – but it’s an attempt to explain her leaping off the slippery slope. Turns out that the Luteces told her she had to threaten to kill Fink’s son, but she wasn’t really going to do it, because if she didn’t Elizabeth wouldn’t kill her, and that was part of the play. Note that it wasn’t a Constant or Variable – instead it was simply something necessary to be done, which is why the Luteces had to flat-out tell her about it. With all the grace of a fanfiction author, then, the writers of Burial At Sea Part 2 tell us that oh, no, Daisy didn’t really mean it, which instead means you murder her for no good reason, except to provide (badly handled) pathos for Elizabeth. This juxtaposes with Elizabeth talking about the Dewitts and a cycle of violence – which is kind of hard to complain about when there’s a powerful pair of quantum gods making sure it happens.

While we’re talking about powerful quantum gods using means that seem awkward, fallible, and incomprehensibly stupid, though, let’s talk about Jack. I know you might not remember Jack, but he was the protagonist of Bioshock, with the little chain tattoos on the insides of his wrists. The only good thing about his appearance in Burial At Sea Part 2 is that you get the opportunity to see his wonderfully goofy sweater. We also learn that he’s Jesus.

You see, the conclusion of Burial At Sea Part 2 tells us Elizabeth took up this suicidal path to save Sally – because Jack would save her later. Remember how in Bioshock you could harvest little sisters and end the game as a diabolical bastard with nuclear weapons in your grasp? Right. Don’t think about that again, since Elizabeth’s entire plan falls apart if you have the opportunity to do that.

Elizabeth could see everything before she chose this path. She chose this path for some reason, and the reason the story paints is that it’s the only one that will work. Before she committed to this plan, she had the opportunity to know that the keyphrase for Jack was the lynchpin of the story. We’ve seen her influence the world by picking up and putting down objects – so why the hell didn’t she write herself a note with the key phrase on it? We know she could do that, we know she’s been to a post-Atlas Rapture, so why not? Why is her plan to have herself beaten to death?

As bad as that is, though, we have the final and most damning problem of this game, though. You travel through a tear to Columbia, once again. You are playing Elizabeth. You are playing a woman who is completely aware of the source of her powers, and knows how useful they are.

Why the fuck doesn’t this intelligent, resourceful woman who is willing to die to achieve her ends cut off her finger and leave it in Columbia? Don’t tell me she’s squeamish!

The answer all of these why questions is pretty simple, though. It’s because it’s shitty writing.

Dregs

There are some minor things that aren’t quite plot holes but still bother me. The doctor appears out of nowhere, injects Elizabeth with a drug, then disappears, serving basically no purpose at all that couldn’t be served by Atlas injecting Elizabeth himself. There’s no need to characterise that doctor, he’s not used again, he’s not any clear reference to any other content. Hell, maybe he’s from Bioshock 2 given the way this piece of DLC plays around in that concept space. Similarly, why the fuck is Suchong ‘The Slant?’ Why is the racism put forefront in this? It doesn’t inform anything. It’s not used as a plot point. It doesn’t demonstrate anything about Elizabeth or about the people she interacts with – she shows no qualms about it, despite having been raised in Colombia. Imagine if Elizabeth had spoken to Suchong in fluent Korean? She had the time to learn from her books, after all. I suppose hoping for nice touches in a game that can’t even get its fundamentals right is optimistic in the extreme.

You’re also treated to hints of Elizabeth as a person in Rapture. Some kind of lounge singer. That’s pretty much it, though. No explanation as to why she’s in an objectivist utopia, or what that experience could have taught her. Just a little hat-tip, which smacks of trying to be clever.

There’s also the emotional stakes for this thing, ignoring the aforementioned fridging of Elizabeth herself. It’s a little girl. It’s a little girl you didn’t save properly, and the Constants and Variables fuckshit is still fucking being used to create a railroading path where Elizabeth can only save the little girl one way, and that way involves emotional distress and anguish and pain which means nothing because the Little Sisters are still creepy little things rather than objects of emotional pity and the whole premise for why she used Sally in the first place revokes the premise of the original game. Ignore the plot hole and look at the storytelling tool: the bad guys are going to hurt a little girl, and you’re told you should feel responsible. That’s it.

There’s also the way the existing problems with Bioshock Infinite and Burial At Sea Part 1 weren’t fixed either. The game is still very linear, it’s still populated by glassy-eyed mannequins who stand around unnaturally, it’s still full of things that you should be able to interact with and can’t and it’s still plagued by Press F To Emotionally Connect With The Experience. Under the aesthetic, there’s nothing fixed or improved in the existing game. The change in mechanics changes nothing about the shallowness of the experience. I played through the whole game in one sitting, on medium, died twice, and never killed anyone. In the same way the shooting parts of Bioshock Infinite were repetitive and inorganic, the stealth parts of Burial At Sea Part 2 are also repetitive and inorganic. Rather than simply being a byproduct of Bioshock Infinite’s repeatedly rebooted development cycle, it just seems that Irrational weren’t very good at making fun games.

Another minor nitpick is that to an Australian the Season Pass was a flat-out ripoff; ignoring the delays in the release schedule, Bioshock Infinite sold for eighty dollars, as did its season pass, and the season pass was only good for three pieces of DLC worth fifty dollars, purchased new. I would really appreciate a refund of the thirty dollars to the person who bought me the season pass as a gift, and then refund him the other fifty for making such low quality shit as DLC.

This game, which sold itself on the offering of a AAA-quality first-person shooter in an established and popular franchise taking on a female protagonist in a story that seemed to imply some element of emotional investment is instead the same story as Bioshock Infinite: A person who can’t remember a thing in their past suicides because the narrative has made that the only possible way to achieve fairly minor ends, no matter how many other elements of the story present themselves.

Burial At Sea offers to let you play one of the best things of Bioshock Infinite’s entire world, and then only lets you take her into an alleyway where she can be beaten to death. You are made to fridge Elizabeth just to enable Jack, a person whose story needed no such enabling.

Fuck this shittily written pretentious fuckwittery.

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