The Petty Savior of Bioshock
When I started Burial at Sea, Part 2, I wasn’t exactly excited. I felt anxious. Unlike those who claimed that Elizabeth Comstock was nothing more than a gameplay mechanic in the form of a girl, I connected with her. Like her, I had not one but two shitty father figures. Like her, I was a young woman who grew up with books. (She does bear a striking resemblance to my still-favorite Disney Princess, Belle, of Beauty and the Beast.) Like her, I was a sheltered girl who discovered her own power.
“It has been a year since the anxiety, since I first played Bioshock Infinite,” I wrote in my notes when I started the second part of Burial at Sea, referring to the worst bout of anxiety I’ve ever experienced. “I cannot be wholly objective about it, tied up in me as it is. It was one of the things that saved me, in a way. It has been a year and the prospect of actually being Elizabeth kind of terrifies me. In that way that loving anything deeply is always terrifying.”
I tell you this not to evoke any kind of sympathy, but to explain where I’m coming from: I know that there is no impartiality when it comes to me and Bioshock Infinite, and especially me and Elizabeth. I know that Elizabeth means more to me than she means to most people who played the game, probably. But even if I manage to set my own feelings aside, it is easy to admit that the ending of Burial at Sea – and thus the entire second part of the DLC – did the character a great disservice.
Elizabeth, as we see her in Infinite, is intelligent. She grew up in a library. The first time the player meets her, she’s reading a book about quantum mechanics. She is second in terms of intelligence only perhaps to Rosalind Lutece, who engineered the city-on-the-clouds aspect of Columbia. (One could argue that Lutece’s “brother” would come before Elizabeth as well, but as one can also assume that he is merely the Lutece of the universe from whence he came, I think my argument stands.) She is also naive, yes, as a girl who grew up secluded in a tower would naturally be. The world has yet to beat that naivety out of her.
Infinite attempts to do exactly that, and perhaps it succeeds. Comstock would have her wreck havoc on the America below, fulfilling his secessionist’s dream of revenge on the country that spurned him. A messiah, still, but a vengeful one – closer to Jesus’ “I came not to bring peace but a sword” than turning the other cheek. Booker wanted her to run – to Paris, to anywhere that’s not Columbia – and he didn’t care how many people must die for Elizabeth to be free. But Elizabeth saw how the universe worked, with its million million doorways, and she made a choice, to give the universe another chance, a world without Comstock.
Jesus, too, saw how the universe worked, in a way. He knew that to save humanity from their sins, he must suffer indignities and disbelief. He must suffer betrayal. He must die. There was no other way. His work on earth would be done with this one final act. The parallels come easily, of course; for those of us who have grown up in a culture steeped in Christianity, Jesus echoes in every martyr, every savior. Elizabeth has perhaps more of these echoes than many: she was a “miracle child” from a sainted mother and a holy father; her glory was foretold in prophecy; she is the Lamb of Columbia.
To me, though, what’s more important than any of that is that she is a girl, a young woman, whom I identified with more than any other girl or woman in video games. As I mentioned, she and I have some similarities that made it easy to see myself in her story. She makes mistakes, yes, and her worldview is arguably fucked up (she does admit, after all, that it is likely that she created the reality in which the Vox Populi have guns – the reality in which the oppressed are somehow as bad as the oppressors), but she is also learning. She is learning that one cannot pick and choose which parts of the world to change. She is learning that revolution is much, much different than the impressions one can get by reading Les Misérables. She is learning that her world, for all that it seems like a utopia, is a festering, rotten place. She is learning that her actions have consequences. She is learning that intelligence must be combined with compassion for it to do the world good.
For most of Burial at Sea, Part 2, I loved playing as Elizabeth, though at a certain point there was a dull ache in my chest, worried that they were going to “fuck this up,” as my notes say. And then they gave me a crossbow and I was back to being delighted. It all made sense to me: the stealth, the crossbow, even the doubts that the once-all-powerful Elizabeth had about herself. What young woman, after all, doesn’t doubt herself? One can only imagine that feeling is even more intense after having been privy to the secrets of the universe, after seeing all the doors to the million million universes, and then being just an ordinary girl – or at least one without superpowers.
I was willing to go along with the game up to a certain point, and that was when Elizabeth is set up to be lobotomized. (My notes, for the record: “NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO.”) In those moments, I felt like the game was showing me what it really thought of me: just something to be lobotomized, beaten, bloodied, dead. Not a hero, not really, just a stupid and silly girl. Never have I felt less like I belonged to video games than when Burial at Sea closed with Elizabeth’s dead body – and for what?
Elizabeth was a martyr, but instead of dying for the salvation of everyone, like Jesus, she died for six children. She could see everything, all the infinite universes, and thought it worth losing her powers and dying for these children. Sure, there’s probably war and famine and any number of social ills she could work on trying to fix, but these children, they are what mattered. Because really, she died so that we could put a too-neat bow on the entire Bioshock franchise. Listen, you can hear the developers saying, it all ties together! All of Bioshock now begins with the body of a dead girl, just like countless other stories. It doesn’t matter that Elizabeth is smarter than that ending, because the designers hemmed her in with “this is how it all fits together.”
At the end of Infinite, she sacrificed herself to rid the worlds of Comstock, who was in her eyes the greatest evil. The ending was ambiguous enough, and Elizabeth powerful enough, though, that one could argue she made it out okay. And then we see her, or a version of her, in Rapture, dolled up like a femme fatale in a film noir. Booker/Comstock dies at the end and part two opens with her dream world – which, though it is meant to be Paris, or a version of it, reminded me of nothing more than the Disneyfied provincial France of Beauty and the Beast.
But soon she is back in Rapture, hallucinating Booker, and we hear Lutece say that she did not fall far from the tree. Presumably this means she has inherited Booker’s predilection for attempting to save girls about whom he believes he knows nothing – and betting everything on it. She has forgotten why she came to Rapture – again, like Booker in Columbia, knowing only that he must get the girl to wash away the debt – but trusts in herself, that what she did was right. I trusted Elizabeth, too. After all, she’s one of the most intelligent characters in Infinite, so I assumed she knew what she was doing when she sent herself to Rapture. I assumed she had a god-damned exit strategy.
The old saying fits here: you know what they say about assuming things.
I honestly believed that Elizabeth would escape right up until they showed her dead body, and even a few seconds after that. The fact that she did not means that Elizabeth – again, one of the most intelligent characters in the game – saw the opportunity to save a few girls, who had already been saved in the first Bioshock, as something to give her life for. I repeat all of this because there’s still a part of me that doesn’t believe it. I keep turning the DLC and its ending in particular over in my head because it doesn’t make sense to me. I hold on to the anger because underneath it I feel betrayed.
Perhaps I shouldn’t. Perhaps I should have seen it coming, this disservice to Elizabeth. You’ll remember that what I felt as I booted up the DLC was somewhere between anxiety and excitement. The fact is, Elizabeth was lobotomized before she was ever strapped to that operating table. They took away her powers, they took away her intelligence, and finally they took away her life. (This is what video games think of you, a voice in my head whispers every time I think of that scene.) I had looked forward to what Irrational would do with a female playable character. Now I wish they had never tried.