Apr 082013

One of the problems with stories that use the concept of multiple universes is that the word “multiple” doesn’t even begin to describe the scale of existence. Consider, for instance, the universes in which I just reached through the internet and handed you a cookie (hope you like pistachio sandies!). Now, in the context of known physical laws, this is an extremely unlikely event, so much so that if you were to try to write out the probability by putting down a 1 and writing zeroes in front of it, you could go the whole lifetime of our universe without ever reaching the decimal point. The portion of the possibility space occupied by this event is infinitesimally small. Nonetheless, the number of universes in which I very recently reached through the internet and handed you a pistachio sandy is infinite. The multiverse is an infinity of infinities, which would imply that there are an infinite number of universes where the ending of BioShock Infinite made sense to me. This, alas, is not one of them.

In a comparatively large number of universes I am bothered by simple continuity. The Booker DeWitt that Elizabeth brings to the site of the baptism comes there from 1912 and has already lived through the event. Killing him, while probably cathartic for everyone involved, wouldn’t erase 23 years of misdeeds committed by the possible DeWitts (ranging from mostly drenched to completely drenched) that walk away from the river. This can only be accomplished by drowning the 1890 version of DeWitt, who is curiously absent during the scene. Killing Booker at the end of his adventures wouldn’t seem to do anything to the Booker that exists at the beginning of them.

Of course, the whole ending sequence takes a rather strange view of who Booker is, being as much a (modified) tour of his memories as an exploration of multiple universes. However, the game very clearly establishes that simply entering a new universe does not fuse the different versions of its individuals together. Otherwise, Robert Lutece’s entry into Rosalind’s universe would be even more distressing, to say nothing of Booker’s entry into Comstock’s. Indeed, if existing in the same possibility space caused some kind of fusion the lighthouse tour immediately preceding would have played out very differently. So, in order to work, the ending must discard not only the rules that informed the entire preceding game, but also the ones that governed scenes shown just moments before.

In a rather smaller, but still infinite, number of universes, I am more irritated by the asymmetry between problem and solution. Say the Elizabeths drown 1912 Booker and somehow that does cause 1890 Booker to die. Well, rather, it causes an 1890 Booker to die. Just a few minutes before Elizabeth guides Booker back to the stream, she explains that the multiverse has millions upon millions of Comstocks, and it’s clear from the land of lighthouses that there are many versions of 1912 Booker running around. Why, in light of these ideas, would we subscribe to the belief that the possibility space of 1890 Booker is singular? Rather, there are millions upon millions of 1890 Bookers, and drowning just one of them should not trouble the infinite number of Bookers and Comstocks descended from a man who visited a river in an uncountable number of alternative universes.

Granted, Elizabeth does discuss “constants and variables”, but as the Lutece’s coin-flip tally shows, the constants are not singularities of events, but rather multiple appearances of a similar event in similar contexts. Elizabeth implies that the BioShock games are two instances of the same event in vastly different contexts, and perhaps this linkage explains why so much of Rapture found its way into Columbia.

A diagram in the game implies that the multiple universes of BioShock Infinite form by branching, rather than existing timelessly in parallel. This suggests a solution – go back far enough, and you could find a branch point that safely and completely eliminates Booker DeWitt. But how far back would one go? If an infinite number of Booker DeWitts reached the stream, then a slightly smaller but still infinite number of Booker DeWitts were born. You could smother a baby a minute for 50 years and still not eliminate all the Bookers from universes where the 11th day of the week is named Bunzday (after Dan Bunz, whose heroic goal-line stand saved the earth in the Transtime Football Wars).

What if we eliminate Booker’s mother? There’s an infinite number of her, too. The problem is not really reduced by climbing back up the family tree, because the numbers involved are so large. The collateral damage, however, for trying to address matters by offing Booker’s great-great-great-great-great grandmother is likely to be enormous. You’re not just taking out Booker DeWitt, you’re eliminating hundreds or more people (per universe) who are barely related to him. The number of possibilities only gets manageable in the few instants immediately following the Big Bang, but lopping off branches of the causal tree here involves mass murder on a scale that makes Comstock’s ambitions look trivial.

In an even smaller, but still infinite, number of universes it bothers me that BioShock Infinite doesn’t pay attention to its own ideas about Booker and Comstock, or the multiverse in general. The multiverse is not the land of “or”, it’s the land of “and”. In a single universe, either Booker walks away from the stream as himself or gets dunked and becomes Comstock. In the multiverse, Booker walks away and he gets dunked; these possibilities merely occur in different branches. If Booker gets in the water and drowns, therefore, this does not eliminate any branches, because the very nature of the multiverse denies the possibility of exclusivity. Drowning Booker merely generates a new branch of reality alongside the other two. The infinity of Comstocks are still visionary genocidal maniacs, and the infinity of Bookers are still drunken, dissipated jerks.

This isn’t to say that Elizabeth’s action is pointless; it generates a new set of universes which are likely better off for having no version of Booker DeWitt within them. Of course, these may be the universes that instead contain Andrew Ryan.

The ending of Infinite still works, on an emotional level. Although the studious player will find plenty of hints on a second playthrough, Ken Levine makes the wise choice to hold off the game’s big twist until its final seconds, where it lands with maximum impact and minimum time for processing. By the time the player has gotten over the shock of the moment, the last piano note plays and the game cuts to black. The realization that BioShock Infinite ignores its own timeline, its own descriptions of the multiverse, and the very logic that underpins the entire story to make that ending work doesn’t hit until some time later, if at all. So, in some small but infinite number of universes, I’m not bothered by the ending at all, and this post is a discussion of things I could have found wrong with it. For the people living in those universes: I hope you liked that pistachio sandy.

  13 Responses to “Only one of Infinite Endings”

  1. […] another “stress test” that goes on immediately after release: thoughts about the plot. Sparky Clarkson’s recent post picking through the end of Infinite in detail had me thinking about this: Ken Levine and his […]

  2. Sparky! You’ve very neatly articulated the reason most multiverse stories collapse under their own premise: the idea of “nodes” at which universes branch makes no sense. With an infinite number of branch points, the concept of “branches” becomes obsolete. I’ve seen some nice diagrams mapping Infinite’s branch points; I appreciated them for helping me mentally map the story, but logically, every diagram should just be a blur of white space, an infinite number of lines branching from an infinite number of points.

    But I think your last point is really important. The ending still works on an emotional level, which I’m sure is what was most important to Irrational. Few people are better at the last-second twist than Ken; I think he understands that the important thing is not that the logic of the game world is airtight, but that it have enough resonance to make the player feel the time spent with the game was worthwhile. Even the act of deconstructing the logic of the premise can be a fun and stimulating activity, and as a long-time comic book fan, Ken gets that. It makes for a much richer experience.

    Another question occurs, then: Does the rewarding process of analysis compensate for the tedium of the shooting & looting? Maybe that’s what Irrational are banking on, to some extent. Explicitly placing Columbia in a parallel universe to Rapture — and dialogue to this effect, the “one man, one city” stuff — certainly supports the notion that the games’ similar systems and narrative arcs are meant to express some sort of meta-comment on…well, a lot of things. Shooter mechanics? Game stories? World-building? All of the above?

    I also couldn’t help thinking of LOST the whole time I was playing. That series derived most of its value from the questions it raised, not the answers it provided — which inevitably felt like typical sci-fi mumbo-jumbo (or, by the end, dopey proselytizing). I think Infinite’s ending was much more satisfying than LOST’s, but maybe it’s for the reason you mentioned, that LOST gave us a whole season to contemplate the concluding twists while Infinite only gives us a few minutes.

    • I thought the point of the whole “constants and variables” thing was that there wasn’t an infinite number of branch points. That only the varibles could be branch points, and thus finite.

      • Well, this seems sort of true, but variables outnumber constants. Consider what’s variable in a single game of Infinite. Well, the story beats are all the same. The pattern of enemies arriving to a gunfight is always the same. Exactly how the fight plays out is different every time, and the possibility space (based on your playstyle, what weapons you have, the resources you reach the battle with, etc. etc.) is effectively infinite. Even the first fight, a relatively constrained affair, doesn’t play out the same way twice. There are so many variables that the universe splits into infinity almost immediately, even from a singular start point. Thus we end up with however many millions of lighthouses exist in the game world.

    • It’s tough to get a handle on what Infinite is trying to say, I think, because it sort of splats out in all directions. In contrast to BioShock which seemed to be pretty cleanly about two or three things, Infinite covers a huge amount of territory and doesn’t seem to do a particularly good job with any of them. But, the emotional thru-line is a success, and the last-second twist pays off handsomely.

      That’s a really good point about the post-game rationalization and deconstruction being part of the fun. I’m not entirely sure that Levine meant to write something we would poke holes in, but it would be interesting if, when he noticed minor errors, he left them in for just that reason. I’m surprised we haven’t yet had the “It was all a dreeeeam!” interpretation floated. Certainly the post-credits scene could be used as a basis for that take.

      • I completely agree with you. It might be an interesting experiment to scroll through the level select menu in Infinite and write down which themes each level tries to address. I’d hazard a guess that each theme maybe gets a couple of levels of breathing space before being abandoned as the game’s almost ADHD narrative runs gleefully to the next ‘big and serious topic’.

        I like Infinite as a commentary on ludonarrative dissonance, but if we take away its more meta leanings we’re left with a story that’s barely coherent by its conclusion.

        Then again, the fact that the game is even forcing us to have this discussion at all is surely a good thing right?

  3. One point I’d like to raise is the iron-clad excuse for plot holes Ken laid into the story. Elizabeth’s power isn’t to manipulate her place in time. It isn’t to manipulate her place in space. It isn’t to manipulate her place in a reality. It’s all three. I’m not an academic on quantum mechanics but there isn’t really anything that exists outside these boundaries, and once she learns to control these powers she is beyond any kind of reproach. She herself described it as ‘wish fulfillment’ and demonstrated the ability to create universes too! (when Chun-Li gunman is brought back to life to get the guns for an uprising (coincidentally this universe she created also had another DeWitt who died for the cause (this part of the game also shows the danger of creating another universe completely because with the added firepower Daisy turns slightly sociopathic because the extra power seems to have gone to her head), Ken could have the game end any way he wants, if he has a character that can rewrite absolutely anything then anything is possible. But don’t worry, I hated that idea too, it feels forced and seems like sloppy writing to just have god as a character. It’s made clear she becomes this god through the story, the narrative actually sees her earn those powers.

    The Lettuces designed the trans-dimensional technology so Comstock could take her from Booker who gave her away for gambling debts, that was understood. When we meet her we learn that she’s been an experiment, and also gained a mastery of the same ability the technology presents (either from early exposure, experiments or no one really knows (the latter is probably the answer considering later in the game when Booker is spun through time to find her being experimented on so they can learn more and desensitize her (and it works in one universe, which is how Booker learns to reverse it)). We also learn that in her childhood her powers had more magnitude and that the Lettuces used mad machinery to harness this power and tone it down (so her father could use it for future-telling and getting time-cancer (and I assume during her work Rosalinda Lettuce learnt how it all works which is why her and Robert have such a grasp on it during the game (who she met in the universe where the baby was stolen))).

    So this overwhelming power has been teased out before the ending and actually put in place for her to become omnipotent. The way she access this power in the end is by destroying the mad machinery, in her cage, in the tower which the player actually stumbles across earlier. We assume that only she can be god at the end and no other versions of herself in any different universe can up to this point BECAUSE every universe created up until this point has had the songbird kill Booker (this is why the Lettuces are doing this in the first place, they suggest they’ve looped this story over and over (he doesn’t row, it’s always head etc.) but Booker never works out how to defeat the songbird (Lettuces want to do this because New York burns down and their lives are in danger when Comstock goes super-evil))).

    Assuming she unlocks this omnipotence the end of the game doesn’t really matter for coherency because she can change everything. I think Irrational Games was just aiming to have a general set of messages come across from the last set of scenes. These messages are: 1.She puts songbird out his misery 2.Her universe and therefore countless others now have finally accessed her full powers (she and Booker see another set of themselves in the lighthouse scene, the fact that any of them can move between lighthouses (universes) reinforces this omnipotent manipulation of time space and realities) 3. Comstock was one of the ways DeWitt could have turned out after Wounded Knee and DeWitt was brought for his universe for this plan to stop Comstock . 4. Finally to undo all this Elizabeth destroys all universes after the baptism by killing Booker at his baptism after Wounded Knee.

    Considering the game is trying to get all the stuff about trans-dimensional powers, time loops and doppelgangers across I think it settled for making those 4 messages I explained as simple for an audience as possible. If I forced myself to come up with excuses for the problems you’ve presented it’d be I think disappearing multiple Elizabeths are suggestive of the almost countless now godlike Elizabeths which did the same thing almost countless times to Booker at the baptism (and we have to assume they ALL did that because it’s a constant, not a variable (Or maybe they didn’t? Read more in the last paragraph)). And the excuse for killing the wrong DeWitt (not the 1940s one) is just because it’s easier for the audience to understand that all universes from that point are ended if we just see our DeWitt die.

    Then of course the final scene after credits scene is to stir the pot a bit more and add further mystery more than anything. It suggests maybe one universe with DeWitt still exists, not ended after Wounded Knee baptism, maybe she created the perfect final universe where it’s just a normal life with her dad. It doesn’t much matter, it’s open ended. This is the way I see it anyway and the plot seems to support it, the ending is just a slightly mis-representative of what they’re trying to say happened because they had so much to unveil.

    • But you know, if Elizabeth is God, why does she have to drown Booker? Why not just snap her fingers and make Comstock disappear? Why does she have to obey causality and flicker out of existence once she does drown him? The problem with putting a God in your story is that there’s no way to explain why she has to do things she doesn’t want to.

      • Calling her god was an exaggeration on my part, she isn’t all-knowing. She still obeys causality and we have to assume this is the way she feels is most effective for sorting everything out (and I can’t think of another way to be honest). The abilities she’s unlocked is to:
        -Move between universes
        -Create any universe
        -Manipulate universes with material from others
        -Move herself through time in a universe
        -Move herself through space in a universe

        With these selection of powers we’re told that she has reasoned that to undo all the terror she has to (and the infinite versions of herself who also have unlocked these powers) she kills Booker before he can become evil. It doesn’t explicitly say that her countless other counterparts do this, but I think the reason they don’t go into that much detail is because it would fly over the average players head.

        I think the slow fade aways of other Elizabeths is suggestive of this and the killing of the wrong Booker is just because it’s easier to understand for an audience (whilst your correct he isn’t the one who should die). The reason I don’t mind them sacrificing coherency here is because the times when we’re in the office and this last scene is kind of hazey and dream-like so it can get away with just being suggestive of the actual conclusion. I also sympathize with how much they wanted to get across (if my estimations are correct.)

        If she reasons that to undo everything the easiest way is to kill Booker in every universe he can exist in at the end of wounded knee during his baptism, then fair enough. It’s a sure-fire way to stop Comstock from happening and even if she doesn’t do it the good outweighs the bad.

        • Redraft of paras 2+4:
          With these selection of powers we’re told that she has reasoned that to undo all the terror that has occurred she has to (and the infinite versions of herself who also have unlocked these powers) kill Booker before he can become evil. It doesn’t explicitly say that her countless other counterparts do this, but I think the reason they don’t go into that much detail is because it would fly over the average players head. We have to assume her countless other counterparts DO do this because it is a constant event to occur, something every universe has in common.

          If she reasons that to undo everything the easiest way is to kill Booker at the wounded knee baptism in every universe he can exist in, then fair enough. It’s a sure-fire way to stop Comstock so justified for the character. When we get into the grounds of questioning what the character does it doesn’t really matter because regardless of how well we know the character the author will know her better, so he decisions make sense as long as it ties in with her goal (destroy Comstock). Whether she does do this or not is all thrown up in the air with the last scene anyway after the credits. I’ve tried to do as little fabrication on my part with this analysis as a I can and I’ve tried to use material the game has actually provided us.

  4. […] Clarkson, meanwhile, has some good critiques of the game on a narrative level, how it is potentially confusing and basically a well-presented mess.  In a way, I think he’s […]

  5. […] The game is not entirely successful at this gambit.  As Sparky Clarkson wrote, “I am more irritated by the asymmetry between problem and solution.” […]

  6. I’ve not actually played any of the BioShock games (yet) but I have done a lot of reading and writing about multiverse theory. One idea that can come into play here is “distance”. while there are “infinite” timelines, there is a distance factor BETWEEN timelines. Perhaps the MORE different one timeline is from another, the “farther” it is, and the harder to travel between them. So then you really only have to worry about the ones close enough to impact your own.

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