Spoiler alert: this concerns the first episode of the Burial at Sea DLC for BioShock Infinite. Not only is it necessary to have gone through the main story of BioShock Infinite to play Burial at Sea, it’s also necessary for this discussion and most criticism to take place. So go play it if you haven’t, or resign yourself to ruining one of the better twists video games has to offer.
BioShock Infinite was a strange game in so many ways. Its designs were as grand as its story and eventual ending, but its execution often felt little. Every arena in which you did battle was expansive and often spread out over several floating buildings in eerily majestic but obviously broken Columbia, but they were also just that: battle arenas. Those had gone the way of Unreal Tournament and the like but Irrational Games saw fit to bring them back and flood them with high resolution enemies.
The plot similarly felt self-opposed. At every turn, it seemed determined to make it a selfishly small tale concerning multiple universes and multiple selves when the questions inspired by the woven mesh of timelines and possibilities lends itself to a broad and encompassing tale. Of course, the ending (and the heart) makes it all worth it, filling your subconscious with thoughts on nihilism until days later you just go “…WHOA” while you’re eating your cereal, but it is thematically inconsistent even in the context of the twist.
The experience of actually playing the game to get through the story, though, is rather important. The duress pressed upon you as you try to sort out the mystery of untimely nosebleeds and strangely affable twins appearing out of thing air is part of the revelation at the end: all that effort doesn’t matter. You are a single thread, a strand already pulled and unraveled to its end, as an infinite number of similar threads also come loose.
It makes the lesson stick, the notion that you are the both the beginning and ending to an entire story, but you are still nothing more than a lone, indecipherable component to the whole of the universe. Your actions mean so much to you, but on the grand scale, you are inconsequential. (Also, deal with it.)
This is part of the greatest strength and weakness of the Burial at Sea DLC. In it, you play once again as Booker DeWitt, except now you are a private investigator in the underwater utopia of Rapture. With a decidedly noir flair, a femme fatale’d version of Elizabeth comes into your office one day and asks for your help to find a girl named Sally.
The kicker, however, is that this is the Rapture before it falls. This inciting incident takes place on December 31, 1958, mere hours before the waterlogged city becomes the dark, hellish nightmare filled with Splicers and Big Daddies that you’re familiar with. And this is the first instance of Booker and Elizabeth meeting in this particular universe, so you get to see two familiar faces meet two different versions of each other.
It is haunting. It is chilling. Even more than walking through the unnerving, twisted, spotless introduction to Columbia at the beginning of BioShock Infinite, exploring Rapture before its self-determined destruction is disturbing. You recognize bits and pieces of a machine you only knew as a rusted and infested rotting at the bottom of the ocean. You know what awaits, and how terrible it is. Knowledge of the city’s history lends itself to overwhelming malaise and it’s just fantastic.
And just like the beginning of BioShock Infinite, it is beautiful and perhaps the best part of the entire game. Exploring this new world and unearthing the answers and accompanying questions are what made that prologue so great. (Gone Home, an absolutely stellar piece of digital entertainment, was all about this process and managed to tell a simultaneously heartbreaking and fulfilling tale of growing up and learning.)
The difference here, though, is that we’ve already gone through the ending of the main game as we play through this DLC. We know the surprise at the end, the ultimate truth to our existence in this reality of parallel lives and intersecting existences: it’s all moot.
Nothing we do matters. Or rather, everything we do is predetermined, every choice a variable in an infinitely expanding table of calculated inputs and outputs. At every junction of existence, a permutation exists where you go down a different path. Instead of scrambling your eggs, you fry them. Instead of Booker agreeing to help Elizabeth, he declines. Our experience with BioShock Infinite makes the nature of stories (that is predetermined) all too apparent.
It all lends a fruitless air to the short but taut three-hour downloadable piece of gaming. Curiosity pushes us to see exactly how each pillar of Rapture crumbles into the manic abyss, but experience repels us from playing just another bit role in a script written long ago. It’s a terrible balance to play with, trying to make anything smaller than a universal truth unveiled just as compelling. But sometimes strength and weakness are the same thing.