Burial at Sea Ruined BioShock
BioShock spoilers ahead
After a bunch of teases and leaks, 2K Games have officially announced The BioShock Collection, a current-generation remaster of one of gaming’s most influential series. Each installment broke new ground in terms of complex interactive storytelling and pushed the entire medium as something more cerebral than just shallow immediate gratification while also being solid action games. It’s a collection I’m definitely getting just to re-experience everything all over again… except for one black mark on the franchise’s record. No, it isn’t the black sheep of the series, BioShock 2. The one piece of content that still goes against everything I feel weakened and ruined the BioShock franchise came in the form of the downloadable continuation of BioShock Infinite’s story, Burial at Sea.
The first thing to note about the Bioshock games is their storytelling structure and their underlying themes. Each game has the hero discovering a utopian society based on a certain philosophy. This philosophy is taken to its logical extreme and causes the populace to erupt into chaos with the player caught in the middle. The hero gets a bunch of guns and superpowers from conveniently engineered drinks or injections to help them shoot and sling lightning at their enemies.
The original BioShock took place in 1960. It involved the character Jack discovering Rapture, an underwater Objectivist paradise discovered by Andrew Ryan. After a major scientific research boom thanks to the absence of pesky things like ethics committees and the overuse of the superpower-granting plasmids fueled by a precious resource called Adam, the populace became mutated monsters called Splicers. These monsters start hunting after the carriers of Adam called Little Sisters, little girls that are protected by armored inhuman beings called Big Daddies.BioShock 2 had you play as a Big Daddy trying to track down your Little Sister in the remains of Rapture.
BioShock Infinite, meanwhile, takes place in 1910 with Booker DeWitt traveling to Columbia, a city in the clouds founded on the racist ideals of American Exceptionalism, to track down a woman named Elizabeth. The city’s downtrodden population leads a bloody uprising around the same time Booker arrives and Elizabeth is protected by a large winged clockwork monstrosity called Songbird, which will take a lot more than fireball slinging and a machine gun to handle.
Without spoiling too much, both of the endings and worlds paints the future of BioShock as one teeming with possibility. The first BioShock is about human achievement being twisted to dark ends as well as the merits of free will. A man chooses, a slave obeys. The sequel even inverts this with the idea that a Big Daddy can regain some of its own lost humanity by rejecting such dark ideas. BioShock Infinite is a more emotionally charged experience centered around dogmatic societies and dealing with more complex topics of free will, faith and fate. One explains while another expresses and feels, but both are tackling big ideas in their own way.
Both were self-contained experiences. Infinite was a lot more open to interpretation but when you introduce such big concepts as quantum mechanics and the multiverse a lot of handwaving can be accepted. In fact, this multiverse concept gave Irrational Games a perfect blank slate of possibility. A free pass to explore other ideas and worlds without having to tie every single experience to a traditional BioShock formula or tie things explicitly to prior installments. It made its own storytelling formula which included the ability to completely throw it out the window.
Then Burial at Sea happened. Released in two episodes as Irrational Games’ farewell to BioShock Infinite, the entire conceit of the story was taking Booker and Elizabeth and plopping them into Rapture at a time before everything went to hell and having them embark on a film noir style disappearing person case. At least that’s how it starts. At the end of episode one, Booker DeWitt is killed by Elizabeth because the missing person, which was seen by Booker as a daughter was turned into a Little Sister, echoing what happened with Booker in Infinite proper with him losing Elizabeth as a baby. Except, while Elizabeth is a nuanced character with quirks and personality that already exacted her vengeance in the main game, the missing girl Sally is a big fat plot contrivance.
While this can be forgiven as an excuse to return to Rapture, the second episode makes matters worse. The reason why BioShock and Infinite are so distinct from each other is because the first one is psychotically detached with its explanation of how its own abilities work whereas Infinite’s explanations are left more open to interpretation. This is completely ruined by Burial at Sea blatantly connecting the two games. Why do Songbird and the Big Daddies act alike? The scientists that worked on both traded notes through tears in reality. Why do Columbia’superpower-granting vigors act so much like Rapture’s plasmids? World tears. Why don’t the vigors cause drug dependency? Because Rapture was conveniently getting around to figuring out a safer version of plasmids when things went sideways. Every single lingering question with no concrete explanation gets answered in a way that makes everything less interesting, like the introduction of midichlorians in the Star Wars prequels.
In fact, that last explanation is the most damning of the whole production. It reads like the bad kind of fanfiction where the internal logic and central themes of the source material are either read at the surface level or eschewed in favor of cool ideas. Rapture prided itself on self-made men, why would they accept a collaboration with people they can’t actively trust through rips in reality? Because the writers wanted the scientists to have dialogue with each other. How the Big Daddies interact with the Little Sisters was a sly way of showing how fatherly compassion and protection was twisted into something pragmatic to Rapture’s people, so why deliberately tie it to Songbird and Elizabeth’s dynamic? Because both characters are scary mechanical beings that protect female characters. Why are vigors and plasmids the same thing? Because plasmids were fully explained and vigors weren’t, and a flimsy explanation is better than no explanation.
The biggest insult comes right at the end. Elizabeth, through the events of Bioshock Infinite became a godlike entity capable of traveling across multiple worlds at will. A woman who has effectively transcended humanity. This exact same Elizabeth who gave it all up to beat up a parallel version of her father for being a bad parent to a girl she barely knows anything about, which is exactly as petty as it sounds, helps the bad guy of BioShock bring Jack to Rapture, all to save Sally’s life. Why was this done? Because that is how it happens.
This is official canon by the game’s creators and I really wish it wasn’t. It answers questions that were best left open to interpretation. It retroactively makes both of the series’ distinct and colorful worlds less vibrant and interesting. It undermines the personalities of their characters. Despite keeping to its own storytelling formula the only real themes it seems to explore is how everything is pre-ordained, which goes against the ending of BioShock Infinite‘s message of “literally anything is possible.” Now if there are going to be any future BioShock games, chances are they will stick to this established formula of in-universe continuity as opposed to anything else. It’s a series that could have done anything but instead went back to the well until it dried up and that depresses me.