The Path Not Taken: A full explanation of BioShock Infinite’s crazy finale

BioShock - Elizabeth

I’m writing this post to help those who have completed BioShock Infinite make sense of the confusing series of events that takes place at the end of the game. I’m going to try to make this as simple as possible, but we’re dealing with some very complex ideas, and that may not be entirely plausible.

Warning: Everything beyond this point contains massive spoilers for BioShock Infinite, including a detailed recap of the entire ending and backstory. I also spoil a major plot point from the original BioShock. Proceed at your own risk.

Let’s start at the beginning. Where is the beginning? If you’ve played the game, you’ll understand the question. Where exactly does the story actually begin? For the purpose of this post, we’re going to start with the events that take place at and following the branching point that spawned the various universes the game covers. Yes, the game spans multiple universes, in case you hadn’t already figured that out. All of these possible universes have a starting point.

Every choice warrants a decision. That decision has consequences, and those consequences can change everything. BioShock Infinite is the story of how one of these choices branched out into two theoretical universes, and how those two universes are brought together.

Zero Hour

Booker DeWitt has done a lot of wrong in his life. He’s plagued by guilt. Having reached a point of desperation, he finds himself at a lake waiting to be baptized. We see this scene play out early in the final revelation. Booker has a choice. He can accept or decline to be baptized. In the version we see, he initially accepts, but then changes his mind. In another possible universe, he is baptized and becomes a new man. This is the point that splits the future. This single choice is the linchpin that the entire game pivots on. This is zero hour.

Many players may find themselves wondering which choice is the “real” choice. Which decision did Booker “really” make? The answer is that he really made both choices. This is the point of parallel universes. Booker’s choice created two very different men in two very different versions of the future.

Let’s pick a path and follow it. It’s important that you don’t presume to know anything about either of these paths. The first path we’ll look at is the one we see in-game.

The First Path

Booker takes the preacher’s hand, but then changes his mind, flees the lake, and lives with his guilt. He turns to the bottle and gambling. He ends up in debt to some very undesirable people.

The year is now 1893 (possibly ’94). When he is unable to pay his debts, a man shows up at his door and offers a way out: “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” The girl here is his daugther, Anna DeWitt. She is an infant. He has no other choice, so he agrees. He hands the child over and the man leaves.

Booker immediately realizes what a stupid thing he has done and goes after the man and Anna. He catches up to them in an alley. A portal is open on the wall in front of them. An unknown second man stands beside them. A voice comes through the portal instructing the men to come through. As Booker charges toward them, they climb through the wall into another universe. Booker grabs onto Anna and tries to pull her back, but he is overpowered. As she slips through the portal, it closes, severing her pinky finger at the middle knuckle. Booker is filled with more guilt than ever. He returns to his apartment, which doubles as his private investigator’s office, and drowns his sorrows for nearly two decades. He brands the back of his hand with his daughter’s initials as an act of penance, but nothing can take away the guilt.

One day, a portal opens inside his apartment. A man on the other side beckons him. As he steps through, he is pushed to the ground. Two people hold him halfway through the portal. He has entered a parallel universe. His mind struggles to remember anything, but because he now has two memories spanning two universes, he can’t keep anything straight. Parts of the world he came from bleed into his understanding of the world he has been pulled into.

Booker becomes convinced that the offer to “wipe away the debt” is related to his quest to find Elizabeth. His corrupted memory recalls the man who took Anna not as a debt collector, but as a client. As the man tells his co-conspirator, “He’s manufacturing new memories from his old ones.” He now believes that this man has hired him to find a girl named Elizabeth and return her to New York. He is briefed on the boat, dropped on the dock, enters the lighthouse, and begins the series of events seen in the game.

The Second Path

Booker takes the preacher’s hand and is baptized. He takes on a new name to reflect his new life: Zachary Hale Comstock. He becomes a man of God. He dreams up a city in the sky. He builds Columbia.

A Columbian scientist named Rosalind Lutece builds a machine that can open holes, or “tears,” in space and time. Comstock takes an interest in the machine, which is kept a secret from the public, and spends an unusual amount of time at the Lutece lab. His wife, Lady Comstock, believes that he is having an affair with Rosalind, but determines to forgive him because he forgave her for her wrongdoings.

What Comstock is really up to is perhaps far more sinister. He is using the machine to peer into future worlds, and using his knowledge of these future world’s to pose as an all-knowing prophet. He predicts that “the seed of the prophet shall sit the throne and drown in flames the mountains of man.”

Zachary also sees that Booker will one day enter his world searching for his daughter. To counter this, he predicts the rise of a “false prophet” who will attempt to mislead “the Lamb of Columbia” and take her off of this predetermined path. The “false prophet” bears a mark on his hand: the letters “AD.” He instructs the people of Columbia to watch for this mark and destroy the “false prophet” so that the “Lamb of Columbia,” Elizabeth, can take his place and destroy the evil outside world, which he refers to as “the Sodom below.”

Comstock wishes to have a child, but his overexposure to Lutece’s machine has rendered him sterile. However, he is aware of a parallel universe in which he has a daughter. He commissions Rosalind to create a tear that can take him back to 1893 to get his own child and bring her back to Columbia. She opens a tear for Comstock to pass through, and he tracks down her other-worldly counterpart. In this universe, Rosalind was not born a girl, but rather a boy named Robert. Robert Lutece goes to Booker’s door and makes him an offer: “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” Booker, a broken man, hands over his daughter to this stranger.

Lutece and Comstock return to the alley where Rosalind is waiting with a tear open for them to return to Columbia. Suddenly, Booker appears in the alley. Comstock and Robert Lutece climb through the hole and back into their own world. The child is nearly taken from them, but they manage to pull her through. The portal closes on her finger and severs it.

Robert Lutece is now trapped in Columbia, where is mind is forced to cope with all of the changes that go along with trans-dimensional travel. (We see evidence of this in the game’s finale. When Booker is dragged into the alternate world, Rosalind comments that “the brain adapts.” Robert replies, “I should know… I lived it.”) The Luteces, who are actually two parallel versions of the same person from different timelines, live as siblings and tell people in Columbia that they are twins.

Zachary, however, does not have such a clean excuse for the sudden appearance of a new member in his own family. He must now explain to the public why he suddenly has a baby. His wife believes the child is the result of his affair with Rosalind Lutece. Rosalind denies this allegation, and Zachary tells the people that this girl is a miracle child. He explains to them that his wife was only pregnant for a single week, and that this miracle baby is the foretold “seed of the prophet” who will take his place when he dies. The people, who have worshiped Comstock for years, readily accept this explanation.

His wife and the Lutece “twins,” however, know that the child, now called Elizabeth, is not truly Zachary Comstock’s child. Comstock murders his wife and places the blame on a rebel group called the Vox Populi (Latin for “Voice of the People”). He also murders the Luteces, but they have already mastered the art of trans-universal travel and are able to travel from a universe in which they are still alive, track down Booker DeWitt in his own universe, and bring him into Columbia to assassinate Comstock.

It is soon discovered that Elizabeth possesses the ability to open tears of her own between worlds at will. While the source of her power is never explained in the game, I hypothesize that the portal closing on her finger is what imbued her with the ability to create new tears. Somehow, the barrier of time and space was embedded in her hand during the accident, giving her unprecedented control over it without the aid of machines like Rosalind’s.

She is locked away in the Tower of Columbia on Monument Island, where she is observed in secret and kept in solitude for nineteen years. A machine called the Siphon is built in the base of the tower, presumably by Rosalind Lutece. This device drains Elizabeth’s powers so that she cannot create new tears, only open existing ones. She is not kept in a jail cell, but provided full living quarters, new clothes, books, and more to entertain herself. She is protected by the mysterious mechanical Songbird, whose origin is never actually explained (at least, as far as I can tell).

In the “clean” version of this timeline, Elizabeth takes over her father’s role at his passing. We witness her as an old woman in the 1980s, leading Columbia as they bomb New York. Prior to this, Booker mentioned that he had dreamed of New York burning. This was likely not a real dream, but a fabricated memory based on things he had witnessed as Zachary Comstock. The false memory would have been created by the mental distress he suffered during his transposition from one world to another.

This timeline can also be achieved through a different set of events, in which Booker does come for Elizabeth but is pushed through a tear into the 1980s and fails to save her from her father (as seen in the game). Elizabeth is then brainwashed by her father to hate the world and takes up his mission to destroy it, fulfilling his “prophecy” that she (“the seed of the prophet”) would “drown in fire the mountains of men.”

Convergence

One day the ceiling collapses and a man falls into Elizabeth’s library. This man is Booker DeWitt, and this is our introduction to Elizabeth in the game. This is the second crucial point in time that cements the direction of the events in the game. If Booker had never made it to this point, it is likely nothing would have changed in Zachary Comstock’s world. In fact, until this point, Comstock didn’t even know that Booker had been brought into this world. Once Zachary recognized the man as a younger version of himself, he knew why he was there and that he must stop him from taking back Elizabeth.

Breaking the Chain

Near the end of the game, Booker kills Comstock and destroys the Siphon, allowing Elizabeth to return to her full power and create new tears to any universe she desires. She opens a tear and transports herself and Booker to a world most players are already familiar with: Rapture, the undersea city from the first two BioShock games. Specifically, they are standing in the room where the main character in the first game finds his very first Plasmid.

They backtrack through the map, going down the stairs and out to the dock where the bathyspheres are located. They take one of the submersibles out of the city the same way Andrew Ryan’s son initially came to the city. They find themselves standing at the lighthouse where the events of the first game started in a scene that played out much like the opening to their own story.

They pass through the door, but instead of the lighthouse interior, we find a realm that exists outside of space and time. There are millions of lighthouses here, all leading to different universes. Elizabeth tells Booker that although Comstock is dead in one universe, he is alive in many others. DeWitt determines to find and kill Comstock as a baby, ensuring that he never has a chance to hurt anyone. Instead, Elizabeth uses the lighthouses to jump to different points in Booker’s past, ultimately returning him to the baptism site and allowing him to see what would happen if he accepts his new life.

He finally comes to understand that he is both Booker DeWitt and Zachary Comstock. Elizabeth does the only thing she can do: she drowns Booker in the lake in the world where he normally would have accepted the baptism, thus negating both timelines and destroying the Comstock timeline.

Booker never accepts the offer of baptism. He never takes on the name Zachary Comstock. He never builds Columbia. He never meets Rosalind and never kidnaps Anna. By extension, in his own world he never sells his daughter to pay his gambling debts. He never lives for two decades with his guilt.

The various parallel versions of Elizabeth that have gathered at the lake slowly disappear as their futures and lives are erased from the realm of possibility. Only one remains, but she isn’t Elizabeth. She is Anna, and as the post-credits scene reveals, she is still alive and well with Booker in his own timeline.