Along with our group-selected 2014 Game of the Year Awards (opens in new tab), each member of the PC Gamer staff has independently chosen one game to commend as one of 2014's best.
I’ve wanted to write a spoilery assessment (warning: you've been warned) of BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea all year, and now appears to be the perfect time. While I briefly considered nominating this for some kind of best expansion award, talking about this as a personal favourite of the year and being able to discuss the ins and outs of the story makes so much more sense—because if you muddled your way to BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea Part 2, having completed the previous episode, BioShock Infinite, BioShock 2 and maybe Minerva’s Den, this closing of the Irrational era of the series was a huge moment. It was not only a farewell to Rapture and Columbia, but a goodbye note from Irrational as the studio in its post-Infinite form ceased to exist.
I think Burial At Sea works a little too hard to pander to fans. In Part 1 of Burial At Sea, a Rapture-bound Booker DeWitt teams up with a noir-styled Elizabeth to find a lost child called Sally. After a wander in pre-fall Rapture, it veers into more familiar splicer-slaying territory. By the finale, Booker is killed as many of the same themes from Infinite’s ending are reprised. Burial At Sea Pt 2, by contrast, puts players in Elizabeth’s shoes for the first time. Elizabeth is reluctantly in league with BioShock antagonist Atlas, who leads a rebellion against Ryan that will throw Rapture out of balance. Elizabeth helps set in motion Jack’s arrival in Rapture, in a story that is quite clearly intended to be canon for the original BioShock.
To quote my colleague Phil Savage when I discussed this with him, Burial At Sea fills in plot holes that did not need to be filled in. You don’t need to know what Kurtz’s morning was like before Willard arrived in Apocalypse Now (maybe he had a shower? In the dark, of course). And you really didn’t need to know what the Space Jockey in Alien was up to, did you? It was much more fun as a question, not an answer. Clinically debunking the mythology around beloved fiction rarely serves the story.
In pleasing players who were so keen to see those two fictions of Columbia and Rapture collide and to close the loop on any potentially unanswered questions about the two cities, Irrational perhaps picked the safest of all the infinite outcomes to explore. Elizabeth’s presence, it turns out, 100% solves the story of Jack’s coming to Rapture. But did the story of two BioShocks need solving?
There was an opportunity for a far wilder and weirder turn for that fiction, I think. While it may be the most satisfying way to close out from a fan perspective, critically speaking, did this really serve the story as well as it could’ve done? I’d argue maybe not. The story of Jack, Andrew Ryan and Fontaine was complete.
However: I say all this knowing that I enjoyed every second of Burial At Sea as a fan. The critic in me knows all of the above but really doesn’t mind that much. BioShock was the beginning of the next age of games for me back in 2007, a formative and influential title that challenged older notions of cutscene-driven storytelling (even if a lot of those principles had already been pioneered in System Shock 2, BioShock basically popularised them). To revisit that world was an indulgence, and god damn it, when fan service is made directly for you, there’s no shame in loving it.
And I did love Burial At Sea. I got the briefest glimpse of Sander Cohen creating his twisted art, a villain who I hadn’t seen in almost seven years but certainly never forgot. I was breathless in the final stretch as Elizabeth slowly maneuvered into certain betrayal at the hands of Atlas, who angrily slipped out of the Irish drawl and into the American twang of Frank Fontaine, his true and barely-hidden identity. I will never, ever forget this anti-Ryan propaganda video (opens in new tab) by Atlas that you find later in the story. Burial At Sea was an extravagant finale for BioShock in its current form, filled with moments designed to get an emotional response from players who have the same background with the series that I do.
It’s comparable, actually, to Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC from last year—a farewell to one era of a series players have lived with for nearly a decade. Irrational’s closure makes it more poignant in retrospect. I sensed Ken Levine’s love for comic books in the way these universes were thrown together. Elizabeth meeting Andrew Ryan for the first time is Levine’s Superman meeting the Joker: it’s not what we’re used to, but how can you not want to see it?
I think Irrational put pleasing fans ahead of the story—and you know what, given that this is the last Irrational game we’ll ever see, though certainly not the last time we’ll see its influences or its philosophies, the Boston studio deserved to do that. Burial At Sea is a fond farewell to BioShock and Infinite, one that I almost consider a fourth BioShock game in its own right.