So, I Just Got Around To Playing: BioShock Infinite
The Problem with Multiverses
Obviously, spoilers for the ending of BioShock Infinite. Also, I have yet to play the original BioShock, though I know the final twist at the end.
BioShock Infinite’s ending is, in a word, complicated. The idea of separate universes features heavily in Infinite’s narrative, as Booker/Elizabeth jump from world to world to suit their purposes. It even features in gameplay, with tears: the plot justification behind them is that Elizabeth is pulling these extra weapons or allies from alternate dimensions.
The ending takes this idea and goes nuts with it. There are literally infinite possibilities: infinite Bookers, Comstocks, Elizabeths and Columbias, all going through their own separate motions. Then you have the final twist. Booker and Comstock are the same person, whose vastly diverging life stories are due entirely to a single, post Wounded Knee choice: whether Booker accepts or rejects baptism for his sins. As the game ends, a posse of alternate Elizabeths drown Booker before he could ever become Comstock, thus preventing Columbia from ever arising.
However, the more you think about Infinite’s ending, the more troubling it seems. Is murdering Booker really the only possible solution to Comstock. Why is Comstock always bad, in every timeline? Why does Booker always give up Anna? Are these two characters so isolated from their surroundings that their behavior is preordained? (There is also the implication that baptism turns you into a fundamentalist, totalitarian racist, but that’s a different matter)
The narrative justifies this by talking about “constants and variables,” but never really makes the effort to explain why the constants are, well, constant. The player is forced to accept that a baptized Booker will always lead to megalomaniacal Comstock, in all possible universes. Other characters don’t seem to be so protected from external events: Daisy Fitzroy and Chen Lin seem to have made very different choices in different universes, and the alternate Rosalind Lutece is an entirely different gender.
The narrative begins to lose track of its characters in these alternate universes. Where are the alternate versions of the Luteces, given that Booker/Elizabeth jump through about four different timelines? Or alternate versions of Elizabeth? There are at least two timelines which should possess their own Elizabeth, yet our Elizabeth has no ill-effects from having multiple versions of the same person in a single timeline. In the timeline where the Vox Populi revolt, that world’s Elizabeth has been specifically moved to Comstock House, which removes the purpose behind Comstock’s bloody-minded quest to capture Elizabeth.
Essentially, the BioShock series exists in a multiverse. There are infinite possible universes, each dependent on the outcome of certain variables. In one universe, the gunsmith Chen Lin marries May Lin, a Chinese woman; in another, Chen marries Sarah Sansmark, a white Columbian woman, saving him from execution. These universes can differ radically from one another: Rapture, the setting of the first BioShock, exists in its own separate universe (though it is never answered whether or not Columbia exists in the Rapture timeline; Burial at Sea will undoubtedly complicate this further).
It is important to differentiate here between limited and unlimited multiverses. Limited multiverses have a finite number of different universes. They can be completely different, or largely similar, but there isn’t an infinite number of them. Comic book continuities exist in limited multiverses, such as DC’s 52 recognized alternate universes.
Unlimited multiverses are the opposite: there are an infinite number of possible universes. Each universe differs from another in small details. As Elizabeth explains the first time she opens a tear for Booker, “most of the time [these other worlds] are as dull as dishwater. A different colored towel, tea instead of coffee.”
Each type has their pros and cons to a narrative. Unlimited multiverses are great if the plot is based around largely similar worlds: there’s a reason the unlimited multiverse model is often used to avoid time travel paradoxes. However, if done poorly. this can rob a plot of any kind of weight: if there are an infinite number of universes, what does one man or woman’s actions in a single universe matter? Are characters truly in control of their own lives, or just the result of millions of minor choices beyond their control?
In contrast, limited universes allow each individual world to be instilled with its own character and atmosphere. As there aren’t infinite versions of the characters running around the multiverse, then a character’s actions in one universe can still have some weight. However, each world in a limited multiverse needs to be significantly different for the exercise to be worth it: the difference has to be between Columbia and Rapture, for example, rather than between Columbia A and Columbia B.
Infinite wants to be an unlimited multiverse within the constructs of a limited one. The danger with an unlimited multiverse is that it can make the entire quest seem pointless. More specific to Infinite, it ruins the ending: the Elizabeth posse has murdered one man to destroy an infinite number of Comstocks, many of which may have been good. This is where the idea of “constants” comes in; it’s a cheat that allows Infinite to have infinite universes without losing the ending’s meaning. Comstock must always be bad, as that’s a ‘constant,’ but the Luteces can be different genders, as that’s a ‘variable.’ The distinction seems arbitrary at best,= and lazy at worst.
This is a shame, because there’s huge potential for a great limited multiverse implied through Infinite’s ending. As Elizabeth and Booker run though the lighthouse after leaving Rapture, they come across a sea filled with lighthouses. As the player approaches the next lighthouse, Elizabeth says “There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city.” No mention of infinite possibilities, just a series of universes where different men attempt to create a microcosm of their perfect world, only to fall to their own hubris and folly. A constant, but one that remains thematically consistent across the series as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong. Infinite’s ending is, by the standards of most video games, still pretty great. The fact that I’m discussing the ideas behind an ending at all is a pretty big success, and Infinite is still, at this point, my second favorite game of the year (after Fire Emblem: Awakening).
I just feel like it could have been something more.