This post contains spoilers for BioShock Infinite.
Developer Irrational Games’ first-person action title BioShock Infinite (available for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC) has been out for a couple of months now, but forums and message boards are still full of gamers’ unanswered questions about the surprisingly esoteric game. It doesn’t help much that you find many of the answers in easily missed audio logs scattered throughout the levels, but, hey, that’s what the Internet is for.
Here, more or less, are the answers to your lingering questions.
Why is a Beach Boys song playing in 1912?
OK, some of you are currently screaming at your computers, phones, or tablets. Two points: First, you’re right; this is a really easy question and one of the few that players can answer even without finding all the Voxophones. Second, please stop screaming. You’re on a bus, and you’re scaring people.
But I bring up the floating city’s seemingly incongruous soundtrack — which consists of old-timey versions of songs from Cyndi Lauper, Creedence Clearwater Revival, R.E.M., and others — because its genesis ties in with another topic I’ll cover later.
Columbia has a bunch of unstable “tears” that occasionally burst open to allow a glimpse into another time and place, like a world where Episode VI of the Star Wars saga kept its original title of “Revenge of the Jedi.” Sometimes when players find one of these rip-holes, they can hear music on the other side.
Albert Fink, Columbia’s resident composer and brother of pathological industrialist Jeremiah Fink, has also heard the songs coming through the interdimensional portal conveniently located in his studio. Because “profiting from the work of others” is apparently emblazoned on the Fink family crest, Albert took the opportunity to create his masterpieces by adapting the tunes he heard into more 1910-friendly versions. So we get a barbershop quartet singing The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and a rendition of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” that sounds straight out of Al Jolson‘s catalog.
In case you missed the pertinent Voxophones, here they are:
“Changing My Tune”
“Out of the Thin Air”
Which leads logically to:
What the hell is the Songbird?
Irrational has always been reluctant to discuss the giant mechanical bird that acts as Elizabeth’s protector. Before the developer announced Songbird’s official name, it would only refer to it as “Him.” It’s unclear whether that was to keep some mystique or whether Irrational just hadn’t properly named the thing yet. But the Songbird featured prominently in the game’s marketing, and fans couldn’t wait to figure out exactly what it was.
And then we played the game, and it was still murky.
Irrational purposefully obscures the nature of the beast, restricting our knowledge to general facts:
- It is very big and strong.
- It is mechanical with some organic characteristics.
- Its purpose is to keep Elizabeth from leaving Columbia, and it has thwarted Booker’s attempts to save her several times.
- That’s it.
And really, that’s all we need to know. But that isn’t to say that we can’t still glean some information about Songbird from those pesky Voxophones. Take this one, for example:
“A Child Needs a Protector”
Your first time through, Fink’s description of an incredible blueprint he spied through a tear may not strike you as significant, but one scene near the end puts it into a new perspective.
If you can get past the maker of that video’s almost complete refusal to look anywhere that will help me make my point, you might notice something in the background of that death scene. Do you see it? Back there in the tube?
Since this scene takes place in the first BioShock’s underwater city of Rapture, it isn’t suprising to see a Big Daddy. But watch that video again: The Big Daddy is dead, and his Little Sister is mourning him. In the foreground, Songbird is dead, and Elizabeth — the girl he protects — is mourning him. I can also get crazy obsessive and point out how Elizabeth’s blue dress resembles a Little Sister’s and how the color-coded awareness indicators in Songbird’s eyes match the ones in a Big Daddy.
It is not subtle.
But while you’re replaying things I’ve already shown you, go listen to that Voxophone again. Which plans do you think Fink had spied through the tear?
While we’re on this topic, look at Infinite’s vigors — genetic superpowers that resemble the earlier games’ plasmids. Fink stole those from tears, too, but good on him for finding a way to make them drinkable instead of requiring Booker to jab himself with a needle big enough to blind a tarsier.
What happened at the end?
Do a Google search for “BioShock Infinite ending,” and you’ll find pages upon pages of interpretations, theories, and all-out crazy guesses. We even have an incredibly popular post here on GamesBeat from community writer Michael Kyle in which he offers his own meticulously organized thoughts on what exactly happens. Here’s the short version of the ending: Booker discovers that he and Comstock are the same person from different universes, and then this happens.
So Booker drowns at the end. But how does that fix anything?
Another refresher: BioShock Infinite subscribes to the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics. Oversimply put, every decision anyone makes anywhere creates a new universe, and as many universes as outcomes exist. So in some realities, Airplane! is a way shorter movie because one or more members of the flight crew picked the chicken over the fish.
Internet discussions, like this one at IGN, are full of people presenting their cases, but two general interpretations stand out.
The hopeful ending
This theory, which is the one that Mr. Kyle’s article endorses, says that the various Elizabeths and Annas drown Booker after he decides to accept the baptism but before he actually goes through with it. So Booker never becomes Comstock, which means that Columbia never exists and the events of the game never happen. Meanwhile, the branch containing the relatively good Booker continues on.
The post-credits scene — in which Booker goes to Anna’s nursery to see if she’s there — supports this reading because with no Comstock, DeWitt and his daughter aren’t separated. This analysis points out that the calendar on Booker’s desk shows the date that he originally turned Anna over to Robert Lutece. In this interpretation, then, the universe — now free of Comstock’s meddling — has reset to the moment at which the cross-dimensional damage occurred.
This theory does have a possible issue, though: the many-worlds interpretation may not work that way. This leads to:
The bleak ending
In this reading, every decision Booker has made his entire life has split the universe, culminating (for our purposes) in a single instance where Booker was or was not baptized after the atrocities he committed at Wounded Knee. Other Booker DeWitts exist, but some might have decided to make handcrafted furniture instead of joining the Army. Maybe some died when they were children. Some might have even been women with totally different lives. Rosalind and Robert Lutece are differently gendered versions of the same person, so maybe some Betty DeWitts also exist somewhere.
From this cloud of Bookers (and, perhaps, Bettys), one emerges: the Booker who has made all the choices that lead to this particular moment. This theory says that resolving the DeWitt/Comstock conflict hinges upon only one Booker ever being in a position to decide whether to accept the baptism. Here’s why:
From that decision, infinite new worlds emerge. Maybe a world exists in which Booker doesn’t take up gambling. Maybe in another one, Comstock wears a funny hat, and nobody knows why. But because the existences of the Booker-with-money-verse and the funny-hat-verse depend entirely on DeWitt’s original choice in that river, they will both cease to exist if he never makes that choice.
The only way to keep Comstock from building Columbia as a flying fortress of fiery death-hate is to keep him from ever existing in the first place. The only way to do that is to kill Booker — the one Booker who reaches that point in the river — before he decides either way. The bleak-enders say that it’s just not possible to trim offending twigs from the multiverse; you have to cut off the entire branch.
But what about that post-credits scene?
That little bonus bit, which features a decidedly undrowned Booker, is the bleak ending’s biggest hurdle. Because Anna/Elizabeth was born after the baptism, how can she exist here?
One possibility, described in that same IGN discussion mentioned above, is that Booker’s death creates a grandfather paradox (if you go back in time and kill your grandfather before he marries your grandmother, you’ll prevent your own birth, which means that you can’t travel back in time to kill your grandfather). Because a paradox is the sort of thing that could destroy the entire space-time continuum — according to Back to the Future‘s Emmett Brown, anyway — nature prefers to sort them out. In this case, the theory says:
[T]he choice to accept the baptism creates a paradox, meaning it is not a possibility. This means that the only possibility allowed by nature is to refuse the baptism, making the refusal no longer a variable but a constant. Thanks to Elizabeth, no branching universes are created at this point, and Booker goes on to raise Anna without her being taken away by an alternate version of himself.
A slightly less complicated version is that the final scene depicts a Booker who decided not to even go to the river for the baptism but whose life otherwise perfectly mirrors that of the Booker we had controlled during the game. But I’m not sure how satisfying that theory is.
Now that we all have headaches, let’s try something easier.
Why does DeWitt become Comstock?
When I asked the GamesBeat staff for their questions about Infinite, this one came back again and again. Why would DeWitt, who turns to Christianity to try to escape the atrocities he committed at Wounded Knee, become Comstock, who plans even greater atrocities?
The Natural Asshole Theory
Since my coworkers had nothing, I attempted to outsource a solution, preferably from someone smarter than I am. I wanted to talk to someone familiar with the technical aspects of drama and character, so I reached out to Cassandra Silver, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies to see what she could come up with.
She came up with a lot, but here’s a sample.
[C]onsider a few things about Booker in the universe in which he refuses baptism. Think about the exchange that Booker has with Elizabeth shortly after she kills Daisy. Elizabeth asks Booker how he gets over killing people. He tells her that he doesn’t, that he just learns to live with the knowledge of what he’s done. He seems to suggest that she shouldn’t bother with regret or remorse, that she should just put her action behind her and move forward. He suggests that he knows himself as a man who is capable of murder and indeed as a person who has killed. He self-identifies as a killer.
Relatedly, consider the ease of Booker’s violence. Of course, options are necessarily delimited by the game construction, but from the get-go he is violently aggressive. At the fair, when he “wins” the raffle, his two choices are to throw the ball at the couple or at the hawker. There is no third button to walk away. (I recognize that this isn’t a sandbox and that the game needs an active choice to push the story forward, but the fact that his only options are aggressive is indicative of something significant about his character.)
[Edit: A commenter points out, correctly, that one can choose not to throw the ball at either party by letting the decision timer expire. Immediately afterward, however, the game removes player control so Booker can graphically shove one guard's face into another's Skyhook regardless of the previous decision, so the game is still painting him as violently aggressive in this scene.]
Jump to the end of the narrative, and we see Booker, seething with anger, brutally beat and then drown Comstock. Violence is his primary action from beginning to end. Based on this, I would suggest that Booker’s fundamental nature is aggressive and even violent, and that this is consequently true of Comstock as well.
And so, in Columbia, he cobbles together the bits of ideology that allow him to justify his megalomania and wrest complete control from those who find comfort in absolute leadership. In this interpretation, he never regretted his actions at Wounded Knee; he just didn’t have a good reason for them. He didn’t have the right story to fit his experience. We see his continued tendency toward violence inside of Columbia made manifest in the spectacle of the public beating of the mixed-race couple and in the exhibits in the Hall of Heroes.
Comstock has recuperated his violence to control his population. It isn’t a surprise, then, that in an alternate future Comstock would want to send his flying city to destroy New York. He never had a problem with violence or with totalitarianism, and the story that he weaves to help explain his actions allows for one group of people to dominate another in the service of a “greater good.”
So basically, Booker is a violent jackass no matter what he calls himself.
The Monopoly Theory
Shamus Young wrote an interesting column at The Escapist in which he offers the following possibility:
[Comstock] seems to have a twisted view of both baptism and his religion. Instead of repenting of his evil, he acts like baptism is some kind of “get out of guilt for free card.” Instead of feeling remorse at his crimes, he celebrates them and uses them to build his persona as a heroic figure. [. . .] At some point Comstock gets the idea to baptize the world in fire. Baptism worked so well for him, so he figures it will be good for the human race in a “doomsday that kills all unbelievers” kind of way.
Young supposes that rather than helping him justify his crimes, Comstock’s baptism frees his mind to focus on his next big project: himself. His new identity garners him a congregation — later worshippers — who bloat his sense of self-worth. And if you dangle a floating warship-city in front of a guy like that, he’s guaranteed to do increasingly self-aggrandizing things with it.
“Another Ark for Another Time”
Who was that guy in the chair?
When DeWitt first arrives at the lighthouse that serves as the entry point to Columbia, he finds a tortured and bloody corpse with an ominous note (“Don’t disappoint us”) pinned to it. We might assume at this point that the body serves as a warning to DeWitt from his shadowy employers: succeed, or this will happen to you.
But once you’ve finished the game, that corpse makes no sense. DeWitt has no “shadowy employers”; he’s going to Columbia to wrap up the Luteces’ unfinished business.
So who the hell is that guy?
A previous Booker
One forum poster has an interesting theory about the corpse’s identity: he is one of the 122 previous Bookers that the Luteces sent to save Elizabeth. He failed to do so, and the quantum twins left his body in the lighthouse as a warning to his successors.
I’m including this more as a fun guess than a particularly convincing one. For starters, the corpse wears the clothes of the Fink workers you fight later in the game and not what I assume would be the threadbare once-suit of a drunken, washed-up private detective. Nor does his hand bear the “A.D.” mark that Booker’s does. It’s also unclear whether the Luteces are actually using different Bookers from different universes or the same one, over and over. The latter seems far more likely; it makes the most sense that they give the same DeWitt who sold his child the chance to reclaim her. And Rosalind Lutece says as much on one of the Voxaphones:
So it’s probably not another Booker, but I do like the possibility.
A false memory
Before the game begins, we see a quotation from a book called “Barriers to Trans-Dimensional Travel” by R. Lutece (either Robert or Rosalind): “The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist. …”
This idea is key to the plot, contributing to Booker’s amnesia and allowing the three or four giant revelations at the end of the game come as giant surprises to him when they otherwise wouldn’t. A poster in the same thread (linked to in the previous section) suspects that the man in the chair isn’t there at all but is instead a projection of DeWitt’s newly established identity as a gun-for-hire working for mysterious and sinister forces. One thing about mysterious and sinister forces: they love torturing and murdering people. And if they can leave a spooky note on them for the next person who walks by, that’s like Christmas plus their birthday.
According to the theory, Booker knows this, so he imagines this scary corpse into being. It doesn’t otherwise exist.
The lighthouse keeper
The most realistic possibility, however, is that the corpse is simply that of the man charged with guarding the lighthouse against Booker’s incursion. A note on the map in the previous room (at right) says, “Be prepared. He’s on his way. You must stop him. -C.”
That note comes from Comstock and instructs the guard to stop Booker from reaching Columbia. The next logical question then is, how did he end up so tortured and dead?
Later in the game, you go to the Lutece home and discover a picture of the lighthouse with the note “only one obstacle.” That “one obstacle” has two parts: the code necessary to summon and enter Columbia and the guard who protects that code. It’s a little hard to imagine the prissy Luteces torturing and murdering a man, but it may have come down to a matter of utility. Whether they did it themselves or hired someone to do it, the “us” refers to them, and the sign — and even the body itself — are there to motivate Booker and impress upon his swiss-cheese brain that he is about to enter a very dangerous place.
And if you needed any more confirmation, skip to the 5:45 mark in this video from IGN. Irrational’s creative director Ken Levine identifies the body as the lighthouse keeper. He also mentions that the team added him very late in the game’s development, so everything in this section may still be suspect. But the important part is that that’s definitely the lighthouse keeper.