Burial at Sea and Necessary Connections

by Sam Z.

As I have argued before, the denouement of Bioshock Infinite gives us a lopsided connection between it and Bioshock: either Infinite tries to piggy-back on its predecessor’s emphasis on moral choice in order to hide the fact that it is conceptually underweight, or it needlessly diminishes a particular adventure by submerging the importance of Bioshock’s moral choices into its own concern with a choice-less superposition, where all options are true and not true at the same time. Yet, surprisingly, Episode Two of Burial at Sea provides the necessary connection between these two games by creating a link that does justice to the concerns of both.

There is no real way to distill the complicated and interconnected Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, and both parts of Burial at Sea into one pithy picture, but the thematic spine that holds these games together is the relationship between the child and the parent. The hero/villain dynamics in all of these games are comprised almost entirely of parent/child pairs (Ryan and Fontaine against Jack, Elizabeth against Booker/Comstock), while the central injustice in all these works feature the misappropriation and exploitation of young girls (the commoditized Little Sisters, and Elizabeth’s own purchase). Granted, these are not exact parallels: Jack’s is the more straightforward story of son against father, while Booker’s position as Elizabeth’s father inverts the trope even as they both struggle against her father and his double, Comstock. But it is sufficient for this argument to note merely that both stories are driven by the conflict between the parent and the child.

In Episode Two we come upon Elizabeth’s mediating presence. Chronologically speaking, Burial At Sea firmly establishes the in-universe order of the games’ narrative: first comes Bioshock Infinite, then Burial at Sea, which in turn sets up the events of the original Bioshock. Both bookends serve to establish the games’ overall momentum: Elizabeth is freed, and frees herself, from a father who would use her as a tool; similarly, Jack is freed from the control of his biological father, Ryan, and his father-figure, Fontaine – quoth the latter: “you were the closest thing I ever had to a son.” But in Burial at Sea we see the way in which the emancipated Elizabeth grows into her own by, at first, repeating the exploitative pattern established by her father, as when she uses Sally to murder the final iteration of Comstock. Episode Two, however, focuses on her attempt to repent of this abuse by being a better person than her father, ultimately sacrificing herself to rescue that same Little Sister.

Unfortunately, the depiction of this growth is not without problems, as Stephanie Jenning’s piece on the problematic sexual politics of Burial at Sea lays out. While this piece is a little uncharitable in its treatment of the DLC’s narrative – I would argue that the plot, though intentionally left vague to the player as a way of allowing the player to connect with Elizabeth’s own sudden ignorance, is nevertheless deftly mapped out – the correlation between Elizabeth’s empowerment and sexualisation is troubling. Similarly, Burial at Sea does not make Infinite’s other problems magically disappear. Daisy Fitzroy is not suddenly transformed into a beneficent martyr by the fact that her Old Testament desire to visit the sins of the father on the son was merely a ruse designed to empower Elizabeth; as Jennings points out, this shift basically reads as follows: “Elizabeth’s development is most important. Daisy isn’t as important.” Nor does the depiction of the Vox Populi in Burial defuse the games’ false equivalency between the violence of a revolutionary uprising, and the violence of the system they are reacting against – we merely encounter the same old violent, unapproachable Vox from the previous game. These are the same problems Infinite faced, and the attempts to address these concerns further muddy the mixture.

But there is more to Burial at Sea than the failure to fix the totality of flaws in Infinite. In Episode Two, before we learn that Elizabeth’s first stop in Rapture was a pornography dispensary, the player is taken through a private school (what other type could there possibly be in Rapture?) that inculcates in its students a ‘competitive’ spirit. That this parallels Soldier’s Field, the section in Columbia dedicated to instilling in its children an appropriately martial and nationalistic spirit, is an intentional parallel: Rapture, like Columbia, takes care to instil the ‘correct’ ideology in its next generation. On the surface, this does not seem too sinister – after all, we raise the next generation to believe in the things we find value in. But, when placed in the context of other exploitative facets of the society – Elizabeth and the Little Sisters – the educational systems of both cities seems less beneficent and more predatory: Rapture, like Columbia, “values children, not childhood.”

In a similar vein, the episode takes great care to establish another parallel between Elizabeth and the Little Sisters, and their twinned commodification. In contrast to Ryan the Lion’s message of solipsistic self-reliance and the combative mindset of Soldier’s Field, the young Elizabeth, with the innocent intuition of a child, plucks the thorn from the lion’s paw and reattaches Songbird’s breathing tube, thereby establishing a protective connection between the two. The spirit of this moment is repeated in Suchong’s clinic, where she encourages the Little Sisters to resuscitate the Big Daddy with an injection of their own ADAM. But both instances depend not on the alleviation of pain by the removal of a metaphorical thorn, but rather the insertion of that – in the Sisters’ case, literal – thorn: Songbird depends on whatever mix of chemicals Fink’s canister gives him, while the Big Daddy is slave to the biological alterations Suchong has imposed upon him. Both of these moments of juvenile kindness are only ameliorations to the cruel confines the system places upon its drones, and they represent the episode’s attempt to cement the parallels between Rapture and Columbia, and between Bioshock Infinite and Bioshock.

While I do not buy the broader cultural trope that defines children as essentially good, when set against the nationalistic vainglory that Columbia instils and the Hobbesian dynamic of “all against all” that Rapture teaches, these small, concrete instances of naked goodwill are striking. Though their existence cannot hope to address or overthrow Comstock or Ryan – indeed, quite the opposite, as they are what help these perverted polities run – these minute, naked instances of innocent charity represent a defiance of the system that both scorns such sentiments while nevertheless relying upon their existence to function. Neither Fink nor Suchong could have come up with this method for imprinting the guardian onto its subject, and yet it is the catalyst they both desperately need for their projects to succeed.

I focus on these two examples because they outline the arc of the second episode of Burial at Sea: the previously exploited Elizabeth breaks the cycle of abuse her father has participated in. The first episode portrays Elizabeth as heir to her father’s means as she uses little Sally as a way of finishing her trans-dimensional patricide. The scene with the boiler is the logical extent of the many little references that place her firmly as her father’s daughter – for example, when Booker finally finds the mask they need to enter Sander Cohen’s soirée, he compliments her, “You’ve got a bit of the grafter in you.” She responds by establishing herself as her father’s daughter: “For that you can thank my father. He was a man comfortable in a variety of roles.” But the second episode demonstrates her refusal of this heritage. On an immediate level, she rebukes her past decision and decides to break with the family tradition – not only does she sacrifice herself for a child, but she willingly gives up her great inheritance: her reality-altering powers and practical omniscience. When she had the ability to see all the paths that lay before her, she knew the ending of the story along with the fact that it would end with her death; this sacrifice is no less momentous because the player takes control as she comes to, ignorant and precognitively blind. To put it simply, in the first episode she introduces herself as “Ms. Comstock,” while in the second her name is merely “Elizabeth.”

Sally’s own name hints at her redemptive status. While the name ‘Sally’ is a version of Sarah (similar to how ‘Molly’ comes from ‘Mary,’ or ‘Harry’ from ‘Henry’), the name is also a diminutive familiar to mob movies: ‘Sally’ from the Italian ‘Salvatore.’ The tacit link between Sally and salvation implies that saving Sally is Elizabeth’s own moral salvation, the act that will at once free her from her family’s history of exploitation while also serving as amends for her own adoption of that practice at the end of Episode One. But her actions also position her in a parental role as, from one perspective, she is imitating another pattern: that performed by children abused by their own parents, who now seek to do better in her own right. From another angle, then, in caring for Sally, Elizabeth is forced to sacrifice part of her own identity (her unique position as an omniscient, dimension-hopping demigod) for the sake of this child, much as the more mundane examples sacrifice parts of their own selves in becoming parents.

In one of the audio diaries, Rosalind Lutece monologues over the exact kind of sacrifice that Elizabeth performs:

Our current state of being – or lack thereof – has left my brother… unfulfilled. The biological urge to leave one’s mark is strong. And it is not an impossibility. We could instantiate ourselves back in Columbia. Return to an old life, for the possibility of creating new. But… we died in that world. Returning would mean giving up part of us. Ourselves. We’d become flesh and all that it is heir to. The mysteries of the universe would become, once again, mysteries.

Leaving aside the particular factors of Rosalind’s musings (Would it count as incest? Masturbation?), the inclusion of this audio diary in Episode Two makes it clear that the parental theme in Burial at Sea is the episode’s spine, as she is discussing the precise sacrifice that Elizabeth makes, while making concrete the parental theme that has been present, thus far, only latent within the narrative. But at the same time, Rosalind’s concern establishes a binary between an absolute metaphysical power and the comparatively mundane concerns of normal life. She cannot pursue her grand quest for the meaning of everything and at the same time be a mother – and though my phrasing seems to touch upon the contemporary debate of whether women can have it all (i.e., a family and a career), I do not think that this debate is immediately relevant to Episode Two. Rather, the binary is more aptly constructed as the choice between the preternatural and the mundane.

Enter, surprisingly, H. P. Lovecraft, and his illustrative character Randolph Carter. In “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” Carter dreams of a beautiful city three times, and then ventures into a fantastic fantasy world to pursue the titular city as it hangs mystically, tantalizingly in the twilight distance. He chases this dream across fantastic landscapes, converses with gods, and even transcends the real as he falls towards his final destination, watching from a superhuman position the grand scale of cosmic time unfold itself:

Then in the slow creeping course of eternity the utmost cycle of the cosmos churned itself into another futile completion, and all things became again as they were unreckoned kalpas before. Matter and light were born anew as space once had known them; and comets, suns and worlds sprang flaming into life, though nothing survived to tell that they had been and gone, been and gone, always and always, back to no first beginning.

At last he finds that the city he has spent so long searching for is really “the fair New England world that had wrought him”:

“For know you, that your gold and marble city of wonder is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth… the glory of Boston’s hillside roofs and western windows aflame with sunset; of the flower-fragrant Common and the great dome on the hill and the tangle of gables and chimneys in the violet valley where the many-bridged Charles flows drowsily… this loveliness, moulded, crystallised, and polished by years of memory and dreaming, is your terraced wonder of elusive sunsets; and to find that marble parapet with curious urns and carven rail, and descend at last those endless balustraded steps to the city of broad squares and prismatic fountains, you need only to turn back to the thoughts and visions of your wistful boyhood.”

I cite “Dream-Quest” because it outlines precisely what I mean when I talk about the dichotomy between the preternatural and the mundane in Episode Two of Burial at Sea. Carter is put in a superhuman position, a place of power that removes him from the conventional business of mankind. Carter ventures across a dreamlike landscape, full of mysterious names and strange meetings; he even goes so far as to leap from a nightmarish steed and fall into a place outside of time, before the vision collapses and he wakes up in his Bostonian bed. In essence, he falls from the magical to the mundane, and finds in the latter his proper place. Carter cannot have both the fantastic and the familiar: he must choose one or the other. But the very point of his quest has been to find that magical city of his dreams, the glory and enchantment that he had once experienced in his youth, the sense of wonder and joy that tinge our best moments. But this sensation is incompatible with the transhuman; it is only in returning to the natural that he is able to find what he was looking for. Granted, this is not a strict binary – it is only through the supernatural that Carter is able to return to the natural – but the idea that these positions are incompatible stands.

Elizabeth’s story has a similar arc. At the end of Infinite, she is thrust into the preternatural role of an omniscient, almost-omnipotent dimensional vagabond. Her position is described as a quantum superposition, where mutually contradictory ideas of place and power are all equally true. But this is the place of the transhuman, and not the human. As Rosalind’s audio diary shows, by taking up their finite, biological position, the Lutece twins would “become flesh and all that it is heir to,” in both its mortal and reproductive right. Their superposition would collapse into a single, fragile state. But Elizabeth is able to choose this path because her very human desire to save Sally is incompatible with her preternatural state. Like Carter, she must choose between the mundane and the magical; like Carter, she chooses the former.

The necessary connection between Bioshock Infinite and Bioshock proper that Burial at Sea provides lies in the narrative’s collapse from the infinitely various vista that the ending of Infinite presents to the particular story that is Bioshock. Before the canonical realignment that is Episode Two, Infinite seemed to outline Bioshock as simply one of the million permutations of a narrative constant, “There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city,” thereby rendering irrelevant the original’s emphasis on the importance of moral choices over narrative choices. But Elizabeth’s sacrifice of, at first, her power and, then, her life for the sake of one specific girl links both games’ themes of parenthood: she lays the groundwork for Sally’s freedom knowing that doing so means her own death. One of Daisy Fitzroy’s audio diaries in Episode Two that ponders this very dilemma:

What’s the price you’re willing to pay so that others may live free from the yoke? DeWitt knew the price, and paid it willingly. And I sense what the Lutece twins will one day ask a’ me. So far, their counsel has served me well – served the revolution well. If a bullet takes me, so be it. But to offer myself up as a lamb? When I come to my garden of Gethsemane, will I play my role willingly… or will I burn the place down to the roots?

The game subtly establishes, through the voice of Booker, that Elizabeth knew the story’s outcome before it started, and yet she committed to its fulfillment despite foreknowing the cost. Like Randolph Carter, she attains her goal through her preternatural powers, but that same goal’s achievement comes at the cost of the preternatural. At the same time, that goal is a clear break with her family’s history: rather than imitating her father (either DeWitt or Comstock) by sacrificing the child for her own sake, she sacrifices herself for the child’s sake. And in doing so, she re-establishes Bioshock’s main point: even when narrative decisions do not matter (either because of a subtle system of control, or because the simultaneous existence and achievement of all possible narratives renders narrative choice as significant as a single grain of sand on an infinite beach), moral choices do matter.

Discussing Kevin Levine’s work tends to demand a kind of mazy prose. Put another way, the intercessory Episode Two takes up Infinite’s invocation of many-worlds theory and a superpositional narrative and carefully collapses its impossibly vast implications into the more intimate story of Bioshock. Throughout Elizabeth’s arc in Burial at Sea, we see her approach the model her own father(s) have set for her, and then reject it in the most profound manner possible, thereby foreshadowing the parallel choice Jack faces and the implications of Bioshock’s ‘good’ ending. It delineates the two Bioshocks as separate works, undoing the conceptual piggybacking that Infinite tries to pull with its predecessor, while nevertheless making clear the narrative and thematic links between the two games.

That is not to say that everything is hunky-dory, and here I will throw in one problematic point: by demonstrating that the good ending to Bioshock is the ‘right’ one, Episode Two once again de-emphasizes Bioshock’s moral choices, this time by asserting the primacy of one over the other. The choices made on the part of Jack reflect how the player reacts to Ryan’s idea of noble selfishness: do you harvest the Little Sisters, recognizing that “all that matters to me is me,” or do you save them, thereby rejecting Ryan’s model in favour of one that relies upon the ethics of selflessness? The fact of the moral choice system is made all the more important given the game’s emphasis on the player’s narrative impotence, which outright states that even when we are confined by the illusion of narrative choice we can nevertheless still make moral ones. By sweeping one of these options under the rug, Episode Two of Burial at Sea carves away a significant aspect of the original Bioshock in favour of the neat daisy chain of Bioshock Infinite, Burial at Sea, and then Bioshock. It is disappointing to see how the best of the bunch is continually hampered in favour of its conceptually weaker sibling.

But this point is no more damning than the rest of Episode Two’s problems. When viewed in the best light, Elizabeth’s story serves to connect the two games in a manner satisfying to both of their concerns. Even though this connection follows Infinite’s interest in promoting itself at the expense of Bioshock’s own heft, Episode Two shows a care for the original Bioshock’s message that repairs the thematic damage it does to the original model. Yes, there are nevertheless problems with the whole work, but there is still much to be praised in this complicated and inspired story.

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