Fair warning: this will contain major spoilers for Burial At Sea: Episode 2.
Okay, I admit it: I really liked BioShock Infinite.
I enjoyed it—even defended it a number of times in the face of criticism, despite recognizing its many flaws and problems. Yet I have struggled to maintain this sense of affection in the wake of the dissolution of Irrational Games under the leadership of Ken Levine. And now that I’ve finished the final DLC installation, Burial At Sea: Episode 2, I am finding it much easier to be finished with this game and Levine’s creative guidance.
The hook for Infinite’s final chapter was the chance to play as Elizabeth. I had been thoroughly looking forward to this opportunity, given the rare occasions to play female protagonists, especially in the context of first-person shooters. I had also hoped that the DLC would provide either some closure or—preferably—another challenging, wildly metaphysical and open-ended wrench tossed into the plot that would somehow neatly tie everything together while muddling it all up at the same time…Kind of like the ending of Infinite itself.
Instead, the whole thing felt pointless. Even as it desperately tried to connect the worlds of Rapture and Columbia, Burial at Sea sucked the life and spirit out of both, leaving them feeling worn-out and dull—and terribly problematic. Ironically, it did all of this in what was seemingly an eager attempt to address and remedy a number of criticisms leveled at Infinite. For instance, the critiques of excessive violence were addressed with the introduction of a stealth system that, while reasonably fun to play, ended up feeling forced and undeveloped—like most things in the DLC package.
What I really want to talk about, though, are the ways that Burial At Sea managed to make Infinite become more problematic than it already was in an apparent effort to address the criticisms targeted at the content of the original game. I want to talk about gender, race, and an issue that BaS2 brings up but hardly addresses—exploitation.
Exploitation, exploitation. Late in the game, Elizabeth makes a speech about exploitation, describing it—if I recall correctly—as a “wheel of blood.” She notes that she, Booker, Rapture, Columbia, and everyone else are all trapped in an unending cycle of exploitation. Yet for all its grand talk and moralizing, BaS2 seems oblivious to the ways that it contributes to exploitative practices and discourses rather than engaging in any meaningful, thoughtful, or reflective consideration of what exploitation means and the ways it works.
Picking up Infinite’s theme of redemption, BaS2 presents a similar plot. Elizabeth, like Booker, is trying to redeem herself and absolve herself of her sins by saving a little girl. (Saving girls is apparently the only way anyone can find redemption in BioShock). In this case, the girl is Sally, the Little Sister that Elizabeth uses (exploits) to draw out and kill Comstock in the first episode of BaS.
How exactly she intends to do this is not clear. Why exactly she thinks this is a good idea is also not clear. She has apparently asked the Luteces to take her back to this particular universe so that she can somehow make things right there and then feel better about herself because I guess she’s living up to DeWitt family traits in ways that make her uncomfortable. Or something.
In doing so, however, Elizabeth gives up her time-travel superpowers. She can’t open tears. She can’t see all the universes and all possible timelines…All because she was killed in this particular universe (I don’t know how this is possible, please don’t ask me to explain this) to which she has traveled and apparently there are inexplicable “rules” of universe-traveling and universe-powers that the Luteces inexplicably know about. And these inexplicable rules include loss of special Elizabeth-powers if she’s already dead in a particular universe—so Robert and Rosalind advise her not to go. But Elizabeth really, really wants to redeem herself by somehow saving this Little Sister in this universe and so she decides to go anyway.
Elizabeth ends up in the immediate aftermath of the first episode of BaS, her this-universe self dead and her memory mostly gone but her resolve nevertheless fixated on her task. She speaks with a nonexistent Booker—her imagination—for advice and guidance and then sets off to do Atlas’s bidding in the hope that this will somehow help Sally because Atlas has captured Sally and has kept her around like he’s just waiting to use her as bait instead of just harvesting her already?
Okay, that’s the plot. We’re going to come back to problems about this later. First, let’s talk more about Elizabeth—and women and exploitation.
When we meet Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite, she is an intelligent, resourceful, optimistic, and somewhat naïve young woman who has been trapped in a tower all her life to that point. Yet she quickly matures and darkens throughout the game and its subsequent DLCs in ways that are inextricably linked to her sexuality—which, in turn, is inextricably linked to violence and tropes of female hysteria.
One of the pivotal turning points in Infinite with regard to its portrayal of her maturation and her progression into adulthood is her murder of Daisy Fitzroy. Soaked in Fitzroy’s blood after stabbing her with a pair of scissors, Elizabeth changes into Lady Comstock’s more revealing, sexually provocative outfit and cuts her hair (notably, her breasts also appear to get larger at this point). After this scene, Elizabeth is significantly less cheery than earlier—she’s darker, angrier, more bitter. At the same time, she’s significantly more sexualized in her representation. (Incidentally, the scene of Fitzroy’s murder is also perhaps the most controversial in the game, but we’re going to get back to that in a minute).
That progression continues, and by the end of the game, Elizabeth has become virtually omniscient. With the knowledge from her fully-awakened powers comes the complete understanding of her exploitation. Her anger and violence in response culminate in the final scene of the game, when she drowns Booker/Comstock at the baptismal site to prevent the perpetuation of this cycle of violence-bloodshed-exploitation into which they have all been trapped.
Burial at Sea continues Elizabeth’s path into adulthood that ties together violence and sexuality. The Elizabeth of Rapture is a film noir femme fatale: she appears older, is openly sexual, and ready to use her sexuality to her own ends. Consider, for instance, the scene in which she distracts a shopkeeper with an overtly sexual reaction to a song recording. Further, there’s a strong sense of sexual tension between Elizabeth and Booker/Comstock as they dance together in Cohen’s theater. (Also, her breasts in Burial at Sea are even larger than ever).
The Elizabeth of this universe is a single-mindedly brutal, vengeful one. She has come to Rapture with the intention of luring out Comstock, making him realize what he had done to the Anna of his universe and had tried to forget by escaping to Rapture (i. e. decapitating her when trying to pry her from Booker’s arms and drag her through the closing tear), then killing him. This is the Elizabeth that exploits Sally for her own vindictive gains, all to assure that Comstock recognized his sins and paid for them according to her own judgment. This is the Elizabeth that is willing to draw Sally out of the vents by turning up the heat to unbearable, if not fatal, levels—even as Comstock begs her not to and Sally screams in pain.
We end BaS1 with a view of this shockingly cruel behavior: Elizabeth’s insistence that Comstock force Sally out of the vents by increasing the heat inside of them. We begin BaS2 with a memory of this. BaS2 opens with a dream sequence. Elizabeth is at last in Paris—an idyllic vision of Paris in which “La Vie en Rose” plays wherever she goes, where everyone knows her name and is glad to see her. Elizabeth’s Paris is sunny and perfect and unspoiled. That is, until she reaches a stand selling birds in cages and discovers Sally chasing a balloon. At this point, the world turns dark, windy, ominous. As Elizabeth chases after Sally, attentive players may notice a building with a gurney in an open window beneath a sign advertising transorbital lobotomies. These scenes are then followed by a confused, hallucinatory flashback of the final moments of BaS1—the vents, Sally, Comstock’s murder—before Elizabeth reawakens in Rapture.
Throughout BaS2, Elizabeth consults a vision of Booker generated by her own imagination. Her representation of Booker acts as both guide and conscience, but is entirely self-motivated. Other characters in the game (Atlas, and if I recall correctly Ryan as well) observe and comment on Elizabeth’s habit of talking to herself. We also experience Elizabeth have flashbacks as well as visions of the future, fragmentary moments of insight into the various universes and an apparently inevitable outcome in this one. Plagued by guilt and having lost her powers, Elizabeth is poised on the edge of hysteria.
What results is a connection between female maturation with sexuality (/sexualization), violence, and hysteria. Altogether, BioShock Infinite and both episodes of BaS present a progression from Elizabeth’s girlhood into the game’s exploitative definition of womanhood. That progression is linked directly to her sexual maturation and sexualization—from a sheltered girlish purity to the loss of innocence from exposure to the world, her changing attire and appearance, her growing sexual awareness and assertiveness, her ever-expanding breasts.
That sexuality, in turn, is linked to violence. Elizabeth’s first change to sexualized attire occurs after the murder of Fitzroy. BaS2 reveals that her second, when she arrives in Rapture, occurs in the city’s porn shop as she is preparing her plans murder Comstock. She apparently steals one of the employee’s ensembles, leaving behind her previous garments. She does this as a way to blend in, to keep Comstock unsuspecting as she lures him towards his death. It is in this universe—when Elizabeth is most sexual and sexualized—that she is also most violent. She uses and nearly kills Sally. She ensures Comstock’s gory death. In BaS2, no longer is she aiding Booker on the sidelines, tossing ammo or medkits in the midst of battle. Instead, she takes up the battle herself, confronting groups of Splicers and Vox Populi on her own.
Playing as Elizabeth in BaS2, we return to one of the Columbia universes in the minutes before Daisy is murdered. As Elizabeth crawls through the vents to avoid detection, she witnesses an unexpected conversation between Fitzroy and the Luteces. We discover from this scene that Fitzroy’s threat to kill Fink’s son is a ploy developed by the Luteces—they want Daisy to initiate this action as a way to prompt Elizabeth to kill her. For some utterly unexplained reason, they believe that this is necessary for Elizabeth’s development. They want Daisy to sacrifice herself and die at Elizabeth’s hand as a way to push Elizabeth into womanhood.
Daisy offers little resistance to this plan (hold on to this thought, we’re coming back to it momentarily). Rosalind then asks what marks the difference between a girl and a woman. Daisy answers: “Blood.”
That statement takes on a double-meaning. On the one hand—given the context of the conversation—Elizabeth’s womanhood can apparently only be brought about as a result of Daisy’s murder, i.e. through violence. On the other, though, is an undeniable connection to menstruation: the idea being, of course, that a girl only becomes a woman after her first period, i.e. after she reaches sexual maturity.
There’s another indicator of this in Infinite itself. When exploring Monument Island, players can discover charts tracking the development of Elizabeth’s powers over her childhood and adolescence. One such chart indicates a sudden, sharp spike in Elizabeth’s tear-opening powers at the time of menarche. Thus, her powers—her propensity for violence and hysteria, mysterious and unexplainable to her male captors—are directly linked to the moment at which she reaches sexual maturity. The scientists under Comstock’s employ then create a device, the Siphon, to bring these powers under their control (oh look, exploitation again. And while we’re at it, let me also take a moment to point out that the game’s attempt to define womanhood through blood in this manner is also incredibly transmisogynistic as well).
What results is a portrayal of female maturity and sexuality—including the normal occurrence of menstruation—that is abnormal, hysterical, violent, and thus in need of surveillance and constraints. It is a highly exploitative representation of women. Arguably, Elizabeth’s violent actions throughout Infinite and its DLCs are a response to a lifetime of brutal exploitation. As Daisy Fitzroy and the Vox Populi revolt in response to their subjugation, Elizabeth turns to violence at the end of Infinite as a way to end the cycle of exploitation. I feel certain that Levine and the Irrational writers believed that this would play a part in a larger critical commentary on exploitation; and yet it is so tightly intertwined with overt and classically patriarchal statements of female maturation and sexuality as being hysteric and violent that its fumbling efforts to tell a critical narrative of exploitation end up being horrifically exploitative themselves.
One further instance of the game’s exploitation of its women that I haven’t mentioned yet is the torture scene. Remember that transorbital lobotomy advertisement that I mentioned at the outset of the DLC? Late in the game, there is a long, gratuitous, horrific torture scene in which Atlas threatens to perform a transorbital lobotomy on Elizabeth if she doesn’t divulge the information he wants. The scene is, of course, conducted in a first-person perspective, and it is certainly nothing that the male protagonists of the BioShock series have ever been subjected to. It is also absolutely unnecessary. I would also argue that it plays into the characterization of hysteria as well, given the early foreshadowing during Elizabeth’s Paris hallucination.
So even while trying to offer a superficial commentary on exploitation, the writers of BaS2 have absolutely failed to understand how their portrayal of Elizabeth is itself terribly exploitative. As she endeavors to break the cycles of exploitation, Elizabeth is reduced to her sexuality and is subject to tired—and repulsive—tropes of female hysteria.
“We’d all be better off, us DeWitts, if we could leave well enough alone,” Elizabeth remarks at one point. I couldn’t agree more. Because unfortunately—all while the game tries to parade Elizabeth around as a powerful female protagonist who is overcoming exploitation and finding her own liberation—Elizabeth and her narrative are grossly exploitative. Not just to Elizabeth herself, but to specific characters…and, y’know, entire populations in both Columbia and Rapture. She certainly lives up to her father’s legacy—but BaS2 seems to genuinely misunderstand to what extent this is true.
What’s wrong with the plot of Burial at Sea: Episode 2? It’s about how Elizabeth so values the importance of making herself feel better that she will do anything to “save” Sally (whatever that even means), even if it means enabling the circumstances that lead to the Rapture civil war. As a part of her effort to reach Sally, Elizabeth leads Atlas/Fontaine back to Rapture, which allows Fontaine to attack the city. And while I don’t mean this as any sort of defense of Rapture’s society, Elizabeth’s self-centered action is still the cause of the loss of a hell of a lot of lives. All so that Elizabeth can feel better about herself.
Because, after all, what was Elizabeth going to do to help Sally? What would actually save Sally? What did saving Sally even mean? In the end, in any case, Sally stands over Elizabeth’s dead body, singing “La Vie en Rose,” still very much a Little Sister and wholly unsaved and now in the midst of a raging war that Elizabeth has enabled. But the game suggests that at least Elizabeth feels redeemed—and that’s what’s most important! In fact, Elizabeth finds a way to content herself with this cycle of exploitation and her role in it by pushing the responsibility for ending it off on someone else. She decides that the person that will ultimately save them all is Jack, the protagonist of the first BioShock. Jack will do this by saving little girls. In other words, a white man will come to rescue them all and somehow this will make everything—in both Rapture and Columbia—okay.
Further, Elizabeth’s narrative of a terribly misguided understanding of female empowerment fits into a historical trend of ensuring the “empowerment” of white women through the continued exploitation and subjugation of people of color. (But I hesitate to call this a postfeminist tendency on the part of the game and its writers, because the game is so sexist in its portrayal of women that it can’t really even get that label slapped on it).
Let’s go back to that scene with Daisy that I mentioned earlier—the one with her capture of Fink’s son. So why was that the most controversial scene in BioShock Infinite?
Infinite attempts to present itself as a sensitive, nuanced critique of American society, largely where racism in American history is concerned—while being highly racist itself (there have been far better commentaries on these details of Infinite itself than mine; and it’s not my intention to cover all of those elements of the main game at this point). That was particularly evinced in the scene with Daisy, with many commentators observing that the game took a turn for the worst at this point in its narrative. In this moment, Daisy is abruptly reduced from a powerful leader into the “mad black woman” stereotype (oh look, yet another instance of female hysteria, this time also a racist one). I have also seen a number of critics (and lots of Tumblr users) speculate that Elizabeth would not have committed murder were the scenario flipped around—that is, if a white person were attacking a black child. (Again, there have been far better and more extensive critiques of this scene from Infinite and everything that’s wrong with it than my little summary here).
Apparently BaS2 thought it was going to “fix” this scene by responding to these critiques. I can only guess that that is what is what happened, as I see no other reason for this particular scene to have been suddenly included in the DLC with the bizarre and shockingly problematic modification that it featured.
BaS2 tries to tell us that, no, no, Daisy isn’t the mad black woman trope! And here’s why: because threatening Fink’s son wasn’t her idea—it was the Luteces. So it’s their fault, blame them. Additionally, the area surrounding this scene includes a couple of voxophone recordings in which Daisy apparently recants some of her violent rhetoric from Infinite and questions the revolution that she has been leading. So that makes it not-racist now, right?
In this apparent effort to remedy a significant problem in Infinite, BaS2 has just found another way to further reduce the agency, power, and significance of Daisy and the entire black population of Columbia. In short, it’s found another way to be racist. The Luteces convince Daisy to attack Fink’s son by telling her that she and her uprising won’t be what stops Comstock. Elizabeth will. And Elizabeth’s growth and development is of paramount importance in the grand scheme of things, for all the possible universes out there. …Of paramount importance to the point that Daisy must dehumanize and sacrifice herself to ensure that Elizabeth will murder (and then also dehumanize and sacrifice herself too) her.
Daisy agrees to this fairly quickly and without much resistance. Yes, she agrees, Elizabeth’s development is most important. Daisy isn’t as important. The Vox Populi aren’t as important. The liberation of the subjugated people of Columbia isn’t as important. Elizabeth and her story are most important.
But it is not just Elizabeth’s role in the story that is most important—according to this scene, it is the achievement of her womanhood that is most important. Elizabeth’s womanhood—the very concept of which is based on the white, patriarchal notions of female sexuality that we discussed earlier—is thus gained as the result of the sacrifice of Daisy and thousands of oppressed black Columbians who no longer matter to the game or the world or its universe(s) or its characters. The DLC never returns to their narrative, to their oppression, to their struggle against the ruling powers that have exploited them. Even Elizabeth’s horrible, half-hearted assurance to herself that “everything will be okay because Jack will save Little Sisters” doesn’t include any speculation on Columbia’s fate, on the Vox Populi or Shantytown, on racial exploitation.
Let’s recap. We have BioShock Infinite, a game about a white man trying to find redemption for himself by saving a white woman (a game that tries very hard to make white people feel uncomfortable because racism exists while also itself being racist). Then we have Burial at Sea: Episode 1 about the woman trying to exact revenge on the man by exploiting a little girl. Then we have Burial at Sea: Episode 2 in which the woman decides that she will absolve herself of the sin of exploiting the little girl by exploiting the little girl some more, as well as dooming thousands of people to death. Moreover, we discover that this attempt at redemption and the development of Elizabeth’s womanhood (defined by sexist, misogynistic, transmisogynistic assumptions about what it means to be a woman) are accomplished through the sacrifice, neglect, exclusion, and othering of people of color.
I am not sure what we are left with except a huge, exploitative mess.
What an ending for a game that wanted to be a critical commentary on exploitation.