I’m spoiling everything here, so this is just an intro paragraph so that I can put all the spoilery stuff behind a cut! Don’t read past here if you don’t want to be spoiled for Bioshock Infinite.
The issue I have with Bioshock Infinite‘s ending is right in the title. But I’ll get to that in a minute. Here’s how I would like to read the game:
Bioshock Infinite doesn’t have any suggestions for how America can make amends for slavery and all the terrible things it has done and continues to do, but it sure as hell knows how not to do it: by forgetting about it. Hating your sins is only the first step, and it’s impossible to simply “wash away” the terrible things you’ve done. The game is a rebuttal to the concept of baptism. When Booker chooses to simply forget the oppressive things he’s done, he does not examine the motivation behind it and come to terms with it and become a better person: he instead embraces it, since now he is “reborn,” a good, new person, and those racist and anti-labor sentiments become essential to his world once more. Reid McCarter writes in more detail about this here.
That’s what I would like to take from the game, but Infinite falls short for two major reasons. The first is the bullshit centrist message as conveyed through the underdeveloped and racist portrayal of Daisy Fitzroy. This has been covered extensively elsewhere, for example in the comments at TBH and in this Badass Digest post, so I’m not going to get into it.
The second reason is that the way the “infinite universes” concept was executed meant that ultimately nothing in the story mattered at all, the message becoming nihilist, saying there’s no such thing as redemption or even free will. The problem with “infinite” is it, like “forever”, is nearly incomprehensible to human beings. Imagine every single possible world that could exist, and you haven’t even scratched “infinite.” So once the story brings out alternate-universe-hopping, it needs to tread extremely carefully.
Even if we assume that Elizabeth’s powers meant that she was actually able to destroy all the universes where Booker becomes Comstock and creates Columbia–which are themselves an infinite subset of infinite universes–by that point in the story, the player has been through so many different universes, there’s nothing to hold on to. The post-credits tag is meant to give hope that somewhere, Booker had a normal life with his daughter. But we already knew that because there are infinite universes, and so this had to have happened in some of them, regardless of those other universes where Columbia exists. Because there are infinite universes, that means there are universes where Columbia isn’t a racist hellhole, there are universes where Booker has no regrets because he didn’t fight at Wounded Knee or become a Pinkerton, there are universes where Elizabeth’s mother never died and they’re a normal happy family.
I’m not nitpicking logic or “plot holes” here. This knowledge is essential to the emotional impact of the story. The logic could remain the exact same but avoid the nihilist meaning if it had grounded us in one or a couple universes and made us care about what happens in “our” universe, or at least to “our” Booker and Elizabeth. The ending of Infinite doesn’t even stick with the characters we’ve spent the entire game with: multiple alternate Elizabeths show up, and Booker isn’t even himself any more but a symbolic representation of the Booker that chooses baptism and becomes Comstock.
For an example done right, look at the TV show Fringe*. Fringe limits our knowledge to two universes at first, then eventually three. We know there are infinite universes out there, but we care about “ours” because of the people in it, and we eventually care about “over there” as we get to know the alternate versions of the heroes. The show also makes it very clear which universe is which by using color-coded opening credits sequences and other details (Infinite, by contrast, is deliberately confusing about what universe we are in, since we don’t know that’s what’s happening until the reveal at the end). Fringe uses alternate universes to explore and develop the characters as well as themes like identity. When the existence of the two universes are threatened–or when a character dies–we don’t shrug and go “oh well, there are other universes that are almost the exact same anyway!” We care because we’ve been made to care specifically about these versions of these people in these universes. (This is also why it’s off-putting that, as season 4 progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the new, third universe is the new “our” universe and we won’t be going back to the original one–but the writers at least knew they would have to make us care about this new universe, so they spent the entire season doing just that.)
Instead, the game ultimately says that our choices don’t matter, nothing matters, everything that happens is because this is the universe where that happens. Which is a stupid message because obviously some things do matter. Now, I’m not opposed to downer endings. Dragon Age 2 is my favorite game, it has a terribly downer ending, and it makes similar points about powerlessness and choices not mattering. But the difference is DA2 says some of our choices do matter quite a lot, for example, who you surround yourself with and how you treat them. Your friends and family matter a great deal, maybe not in the grand scheme of things, but certainly to you personally. And being able to hold on to that little grasp of hope is what keeps the game from falling into complete despair and nihilism.
*Please note I haven’t watched season 5, so perhaps the show completely falls apart in the end. But I doubt it.