Thursday, 22 May 2014

5 More Failings Which Ruined Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea



The last Bioshock article on this blog left with the promise of continuing the list to cover a few more flaws within Burial At Sea. Despite a few short delays we're finally making good on that promise and getting back to the biggest issues which plagued the DLC and the greater problems it caused for the franchise as a whole. So, without further ado, here's some of the biggest problems the game causes.

Oh, and remember, spoilers will follow.



The Pointless Moral Decisions of Bioshock 



Now, of all the ones on here this is the most debatable about whether it is a flaw. I will admit I can easily see how people could brush this one aside or justify it in some way, but the way it is presented causes the biggest problems. Just prior to her death, a few remaining sparks of Elizabeth's power show her what her actions will bring about with Jack rescuing the Little Sisters from Rapture. Now, we've already covered the big issues surrounding killing off Elizabeth to trigger Jack being the hero. Instead, so let's focus upon one other problem - This only shows the good ending.

Unlike Bioshock Infinite, both previous games had serious points which were made surrounding the moral choices involved. They gave impact to how the game developed, how certain characters would react to you and the conclusion to your journey. All of them surrounded the same situation: Sacrificing the lives of potentially innocent children for power in order to survive; or for the player to redeem them in the hopes their programming could be reversed, but leaving themselves at a clear disadvantage. It was extremely effective as a storytelling tool, well worked into the mechanics of the game and offered a good risk/reward system in the form of the Big Daddies.

The problem now is that this potentially renders all those choices meaningless.

By only showing the good ending as canon, the timeline is fixed onto a single path. Jack now always rescued the Little Sisters according to this, which renders any personal choices you made as meaningless along with a huge chunk of the game's subtext. It cripples a big part of what made Bioshock so effective and really causes more problems than it does good. 

The obvious counterargument to this is something Elizabeth says while showing this, that what she saw was something "Behind one door..." This suggests this is just one potential reality rather than a true outcome. It's a fair argument, but the obvious problem is that the ending doesn't back this up by showing glimpses of the bad or semi-bad endings. It doesn't acknowledge their existence or even for the potential for them to happen. Instead it displays the good ending in considerable detail, without any sign of deviation from it. For all we know the slight variations in the ending could simply be minor alterations to the ending where all of them are saved.



The Omniscient Booker DeWitt 



One truly bothersome fact which seems to have shot over many people's heads is how Ghost Booker seems to know so much about Rapture. True, Elizabeth had been there for some time and had gained knowledge of the place, and Ghost Booker is said to merely be channeling that. However, at one very important bit he displays knowledge and answers to things she has no real understanding of in order to keep her alive. 

While Elizabeth might well have known who Suchong was, perhaps even his importance, Ghost Booker brings up the exact answers Elizabeth needed to avoid being shot. This is barely even hand-waved away, much like Ghost Booker's presence, and there's no definitive explanation as to how this was possible. Even ignoring that, in this scene he has far more of a physical presence than at any other point for no apparent reason. Throughout the DLC he serves as a simple voice in Elizabeth's head, but here? Here he is actually sitting there as a part of the scene. The entire thing simply feels as if it was scripted and written before the rest of Episode 2 was done, and to serve as a deus ex machina of sorts.

This alone would be enough to put it on the list, but then you have to consider its placement as well.

This is how the Episode opens up, following a titanic bombshell of a cliffhanger which left fans wanting to know more. The reveal of just who the Booker DeWitt of Rapture was was a huge shock, and the game effectively abandons the impact of that the moment the second half begins. There's nothing done to really focus upon the reveal beyond a few extremely fleeting scenes and instead the story veers off in a completely different direction. The presence and use of Ghost Booker here seems less like some bigger hint or part of a mystery than it does an effort to shunt the new plot into place.



Bioshock 2 No More 



A big problem with the entire plot of Burial at Sea is that it goes completely out of its way to undermine and destroy even the basic aspects of Bioshock 2. While often regarded as the black sheep of the family, the second game was none the less a true follow up to the original with a new developer trying to put a new spin on the title. Along with producing a more meaningful series of endings and significant impact with its morality system, it built upon what Bioshock had set up, improving upon that game in a number of areas. We went through this in full here so i'll save repeating things.

Now for no apparent reason, Burial at Sea suddenly destroys the entire core plotline that entire game was built upon. The Alpha series of Big Daddies never existed, any connection between them is not based upon ADAM and the Big Daddies seem to have barely come into production. What makes this so curious is that there are actual hints tipping the hat towards Bioshock 2 in Episode 1 (notably a missing poster featuring Elanor), and in doing this the franchise also declares that the excellent Bioshock: Rapture never existed. As a result it's a pointless retcon which fails to really improve anything, simply rob the franchise of a lot of the background details and more expansive ideas behind it.

Worse still is how certain ideas from that retconned game proceed to, intentionally or not, reappear here as well. The closing lines of Elanor's speech in the good ending specifies that "Love is just a chemical. We give it meaning by choice." This was something which ultimately concluded some of the game's major themes and completely cemented just how wrong the villain had been in her plans. Here? Something oddly similar happens in a way, with the Big Daddy/Little Sister relationship being revealed to not come from any kind of chemical connection, but an act of kindness. Rather than actually presenting a real idea however, it does little beyond prove one person wrong while making Bioshock 2's main plot a complete impossibility.

The main reason I can personally see why this might have been done was thanks to Bioshock 2 being the one game in the series not to be written by Ken Levine. We had seen suggestions of him trying to dodge Bioshock 2 entirely in Bioshock: Infinite's ending ("There's always a lighthouse. There's always a man. There's always a city.") this single handedly stamped down on the story entirely. Perhaps, much like Drew Karpyshyn, he simply doesn't play well with others when it comes to writing.



No Mysteries, No Questions 



As with any medium, the effectiveness of a story frequently comes down to its presentation. There are certain ways in which some ideas need to be approached, certain elements which need to be carefully considered and woven into a story. Perhaps the most important of these is in world building, as it is not just how much you see but also what you do not witness which helps to give a sense of scale. A disconnection between certain characters, a vague hint of something more, these are things which can serve to do just as much as highly detailed explanations of works. It's just a basic sense of mystery or of the unknown which can do wonders. Here? We really get none of that.

Suddenly the player is witnessing events and points in the story which were far more effective while walking through the wreckage or never meeting the people they were about. The way they were presented before was just enough to keep the player enthralled, with plenty of information to back it up, but let their imagination do the rest of the work. It's one of the reasons the audio diaries proved to be so effective despite being little more than a person speaking to the player; it helped build an image rather than forcing one in the player's face. Here though? This other approach only weakens the tale it is trying to tell.

All of a sudden the tentatively suggested connection between Columbia and Rapture were working off of one another is suddenly rammed down the player's throat. It is presented in full force and explained to every little detail, leaving nothing to chance and nothing for the player to think about for themselves. 
The same goes for the origins of the Songbird, many had suspected that it was some variant of a Big Daddy which had stumbled into Rapture and there were hints to support that. Now all of a sudden we have massive, lengthy sections exploring every single last detail behind the creature and how it worked. Again, it's giving nothing for fans to actually piece together for themselves.

Worst is Atlas and other characters, who barely even mesh with the ideas we had before. Previous audio diaries depicted him as some charismatic leader who helped stoke up the downtrodden into open rebellion. We were never fully shown his exact methods or plans, even in the prequel novel, but it was enough to help give him this sense of being a manipulative magnificent figure. Burial At Sea shows how he could be so effective: More or less acting like a mob boss in the middle of a Chicago gang war. Every detail is shown from their resources to the people themselves, and at the end of the day it's far less interesting because of this.

A sense of mystery and the unknown is always helpful in building a world, even in works which are greatly expanding upon previously established lore. To take a current example from Warhammer 40,000, the events of the Great Crusade and histories of the legions are all being extensively detailed via the Horus Heresy Game Books. Yet even with this there are bits left for the players to think about, such as the suggestion that the loss of the Emperor's Children's gene-seed may have been intentional sabotage, and of the Alpha Legion's operations prior to their primarch's return. Burial At Sea ultimately destroyed all of that by showing everything, and rather than making the world appear vast it managed to make it actually feel much smaller.

You can argue against that, fine, but then compare the endings. The ending to Bioshock: Infinite was massive, explaining how every part of the plot had happened, but with the very last moments left in question. Something hinting about the final fate of the characters, which could either be a flashback or some second chance they had been offered, much like the famous conclusion to Inception
Every other Bioshock story had this to a degree, only showing glimpses of what would happen or perhaps a beginning of a much bigger story soon to affect the world. Burial At Sea on the other hand has nothing like that, showing exactly what happens to the characters and leaving them in an extremely unsatisfying place. Closure is one thing, but to just suddenly have them bumped off as they were with no finale of any sort? It ends the game with only disappointment of the worst kind.



All In The Name Of Fan-Service 



... No, not that kind.





Better.

At the end of the day Burial At Sea was intended as one huge send-off to the series so far. With Ken Levine's departure and the impending closure of Irrational Games it was understandable that the developers would want some last great hurrah for what they had created. This in of itself isn't actually a bad idea, with Bioware in particular showing how successful a DLC of this kind can be with Mass Effect 3's Citadel. The problem comes from how they went about this and the mentality behind creating each DLC. Everything was done in the name of fan-service, yet the writers themselves seemed not to realise this.

Let's first look at what worked with Bioware's creation. Citadel was, at the end of the day, a humourous grand finale focused upon the characters they had spent years writing. While it did build upon the other stories previously featured to a point, it was relatively self contained and offered plenty of laughs through the choices involved. It wasn't trying to deliver some massive change to the series, link itself retroactively into the main game, nor was it focusing upon outstandingly serious drama. For this reason it was much more excusable to see every character show up and the sudden return of certain people, despite how much sense it actually made to the plot itself. It knew exactly what the fans wanted and delivered in spades without damaging the previous works they had developed.

Burial At Sea on the other hand seems to lack this focus and flounders at many points. It tries to both follow through with the attitude shown in Citadel with one big finale showing off everything, then at the same time it tries to be serious drama. Half the game is spent as an isolated story, then the other half is suddenly connected to every single last part of the universe ever created. Both can't be done at once to have the game remain truly effective, because they completely undermine one another. It's hard to have a grand finale exploring everything and a serious drama as one; because so many elements rapidly become superfluous and make the plot extremely bloated.

Nearly every major character from the original Bioshock shows up at some point for what are effectively bit roles. Sander Cohen is dropped into the game and leaves just as quickly never to be seen again. Andrew Ryan barges in to deliver a few mooks to fight, then is never seen again. Suchong is barely any better, with his entire purpose to drive the plot towards revisiting more areas, showing part of an audio drama in real-time and retconning Bioshock 2. Beyond Atlas and Elizabeth, there are no important characters who are fully integrated into the plot and serve as an important storytelling element. This is to say nothing of the excuses made to re-visit Columbia so we could see Fitzroy and the Luteces make one last appearance. In just about every case these are characters who are there for the sake of being there. This might have been fine if it embraced the fact it was merely an excuse to show them again, but it kept presenting itself as an extremely important story of the most deadpan seriousness.

Burial At Sea needed to be much more focused in its approach. Either it told a new story with much more focus and restraint than this, or completely went all out. Instead Irrational Games took the worst the elements from both which would work together the least, and slapped together a plot which really doesn't stand up to analysis. Even atop of every other issue, this is the major fault line which fragments what could have been a true great for the franchise rather than a DLC suffering from identity crisis.



So those are the last of the big failings of Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea. If you have your own thoughts on the DLC, disagreements with what has been written or problems you have picked out, please feel free to list them below. It's always good to see what other fans think of these games.

6 comments:

  1. I agree with you on both articles. I would also like to add that Burial at Sea has a few big plot holes that contradict the point of Infinite's ending and are never given a proper explanation like:

    Elizabeth getting killed by the big daddy despite her powers to see past, present and future.

    The tear to main game Columbia even though there are no more Comstocks as stated by Elizabeth.

    Considering that the tear shows the existence of the main game timeline, and the rapture you are in is stated during the dlc to be the same one Booker and Elizabeth go to one year ahead of the events of BAS after they destroy the siphon, why didn't young Elizabeth's quantam superposition collapse since she is in a universe where she has died twice?

    Come to think of it, why didn't Elizabeth's superposition collapse when she was in the same room and moment where baby anna was decapitated?

    How can there be alternate Elizabeths to merge if there are no more Comstocks?

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    1. Damn, I didn't even think of those but they are really good points. A couple of them do tie into the problem of the game not realising it was little more than an excuse to give one final look at the worlds of Bioshock, but a lot of the other ones really are huge contradictions.

      Thank you for leaving that comment, it's given me a lot to consider about this.

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    2. It wasn't the fact that Elizabeth was omniscient and got killed by the big daddy, it was the fact that she HAD HER TEAR POWERS AT HER DISPOSAL...then got killed by a big daddy.
      One moment she's brushing off songbird several fathoms down the sea in the blink of an eye, next she can't handle a big daddy?! Simple resolution? Send him feet into the air that would kill him but no.

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    4. True. Also that scene of her death of the big daddy does not gel together with the final moment of the first episode if you think about it.

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  2. You are welcome, Bellarius. I felt that retconning Bioshock 2 out of canon was a big mis-opportunity because Bioshock 2 is a great parallel to Infinite: Booker/Delta, Elizabeth/Eleanor who are both consider lambs of their respective cities and are both groomed and exploited by their extremist parent Comstock/Lamb.

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