Spoilers for Bioshock, Bioshock: Infinite and its DLCs, the two parts of Burial At Sea. Pretty much in entirety. Those who intend to play them but have not may want to avert their eyes.
Some time ago I wrote about a certain computer game called Bioshock: Infinite. It received three DLCs, though today we’re only going to talk about the two parts of Burial at Sea. Initially it was hard to tell exactly how it was related to Infinite, being set in Rapture and seeming to just be a curious alternative universe story featuring Booker Dewitt, private eye, and femme fatale Elizabeth. What it turned out to be was something quite ironic for Andrew Ryan’s zealously atheist Rapture. Burial at Sea is actually a biblical narrative. Or at the very least it looks like one.
In truth, I was not really sure what part one was about. It started out with the clichéd film noir aesthetic, but that didn’t last. We got back to the action movie that is running and gunning soon enough, but not without a lot of hint dropping about how there was more than meets the eye. The usual mysteries that keep the player ploughing through the plot. In any case, it’s not until the very end that we get the reveal: Elizabeth is still in god-mode from the end of Infinite. Booker is actually an alternative universe Comstock who accidentally killed Anna while trying to pull her through the tear and had the Luteces send him to Rapture so that he may forget. Elizabeth judges him harshly for it, despite some shows of contrition. And remember, since Booker/Comstock is our first person avatar, she is effectively also judging us. Not for anything we actually did–like all that time we spent trying to save our abducted pseudo-daughter–but for some backstory that’s thrown at us literally in the last few minutes of the game. I must admit that booted me out of the experience immediately. I was disconnect with the character, disbelief was unsuspended, all that. So when they killed that guy on screen whose head I was in but was certainly not me I was merely left thinking, ‘What was that all about?’ So I went into Part 2 hoping for some follow-up because otherwise that would have been a rather unsatisfying experience. That we got in part, but at the same time it was Something Completely Different.
Disappointing lack of trench coats and fedoras.
Part 2 abandons much of the formula of Part 1. Instead of übersoldat Booker Dewitt you’re now dainty lass Elizabeth. Admittedly she’s a dainty lass with a shotgun but she definitely lacks the gung ho Rambo powers of her father; if you try and run and gun through the game you’ll probably be killed (and there’s no one to revive you if you are). The game constantly reminds you how Elizabeth is not really cut out to be an action hero, both directly in dialogue and from little things like the way she fights and handles her weapons. In fact, there’s a new 1998 mode where they take away your guns and you have to rely almost exclusively on stealth to get through levels. It’s probably the most genuine experience in that it lets you better appreciate the contrast between Burial at Sea: Part 2 and Infinite. And it’s important that we can do this because there is a lot of emphasis on how powerless Elizabeth now is, having somehow lost her omniscient god-powers prior to the start of the story. Quantum superposition. Go figure.
Like what usually happens in Bioshock Elizabeth is just kind of strung along by the plot, not really understanding the purpose behind the things she’s required to do. Sure, the goal is to save some little girl, but your only assurance of success is the voice in your head telling you that things will work out. That, and the not altogether certain belief that Elizabeth foresaw all this while she was still omniscient and decided to go ahead with it anyway. Her story echoes that of Daisy’s (or at least her freshly retconned one); just like how Elizabeth must trust in that godmode!Elizabeth had a plan, Daisy must trust that the Luteces’ cryptic advice will lead to the overthrow of Columbia, even if she won’t be around to see it. That is, both must put their faith in the existence of a higher plan that is bigger than themselves individually. In one voxophone, Daisy refers to this internal conflict as her ‘Gethsemane’. See where this is going?
‘Step into the symbolic light, Elizabeth.’
To spell it out, Elizabeth in Burial At Sea: Part 2 is a Jesus analogue, removed from her previous persona as Judaic God. But even though she does play the messiah figure and does die, she’s not really a martyr. Her actions and her death do not directly save anyone and go uncelebrated; she is more an unsung hero who sets things into motion behind the scenes. Indeed, Jack is the more traditional messiah archetype. Which makes Elizabeth…John the Baptist? Okay, all metaphors fall apart if you follow them too far, but at least we can see the broad strokes of the biblical narrative represented in Burial at Sea.
(And so if Part 2 is the New Testament story of salvation then that would make Part 1 the Old Testament, with the focus on judgment and smiting the wicked? No? Reading too much into it? Alright, whatever.)
What makes Burial at Sea clever (or at least, cleverer) is that it plays on the expectations of its players. Many of them, especially Bioshock veterans, are used to railroaded linear narratives. There is an implicit agreement between game and gamer that the game will lead them to a satisfying conclusion in a logical manner. Of course that goes for all other forms of storytelling as well but only in games does the responder take such an active role in the unfolding of the story. As we play through Burial at Sea we can do no more than Elizabeth: trust that it will all work out in the end. It makes the player look at their gaming experience from another angle. What they’re supposed to see is left as an exercise for the reader. It’s something to think about, and the best stories should always end with exactly that.
(source: pixivid 2001160)