In the last few months I’ve seen a lot of fascinating discussions about the philosophical and scientific elements of Bioshock Infinite, particularly its application of the Many Worlds theory of quantum mechanics and the resulting time-travel mainstay which plays a pivotal role in the game’s final hours. The mind-bending explosion of WHAT that was the ending of Infinite left folks like me simultaneously horrified and gleeful at its hairpin execution.
I’ve also heard a lot of claims that (SPOILERS AHEAD) Comstock can’t possibly be gone by the game’s end, that there must be other realities where he wasn’t erased, and that Irrational doesn’t understand its own story mechanics. There’s also been quite a few questions on what happened to Rosalind and Robert Lutece, and perhaps even more about Elizabeth and Anna—an ending reminiscent of the Inception top-spinning, and the Schrödinger’s Baby epilogue saw to that. While we can speculate on most of these questions until the cows come home, there is some pretty rock solid evidence that Comstock really was erased entirely, that the Luteces continue to exist without Columbia—and that Elizabeth and Anna might both simultaneously be alive.
And I’m going to explain it all with pictures. Let’s roll.
To start, we’ll need a basic understanding of the Many Worlds theory. It effectively suggests that every possible option for every decision ever made exists in its own reality: “Many-worlds…views reality as a many-branched tree, wherein every possible quantum outcome is realised…In lay terms, the hypothesis states there is a very large—perhaps infinite—number of universes, and everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but did not, has occurred in the past of some other universe or universes.” (Wikipedia)
This theory is where we get things like Schrödinger’s Cat, which is, supposedly, simultaneously alive and dead in different realities. It also accounts for the different realities that Elizabeth sees through the tears—she gets the mundane worlds (where they serve “tea instead of coffee”) and the much crazier worlds, such as the universe where Chen Lin marries the sister of Fink’s Head of Security and lights the fuse for the Vox Populi revolution. In each of these cases where a choice is made, at least one other choice emerges from it to create a new reality, via the Butterfly Effect.
The Butterfly Effect is precisely what happens with Booker, when he goes to the baptism after Wounded Knee. In one reality, Booker rejects the baptism, and remains Booker DeWitt; in another, he accepts it, and becomes Zachary Hale Comstock.
This moment is Comstock’s origin point—his birth, or “rebirth” as the game puts it. Without this event, Comstock doesn’t exist. For instance, let’s look at this beautifully drawn tree here:
From the trunk, we have branches growing in all different directions, which split into more branches, and more branches, and so on. If you think of the tree’s trunk as all of existence, the smaller limbs and twigs are events that occur in different realities, splitting from different choices and options. Say one of the branches is the Booker who decides to go to the baptism, which then splits into two twigs: Booker DeWitt, and Zachary Comstock.
The thing is, Booker DeWitt isn’t just one of the two twigs. The entire branch is the life of Booker DeWitt, because his birth took place well before Comstock’s. A great variety of twigs grow from that branch—one where Booker chose not to go into the military, for instance, or perhaps moved to Idaho, or developed a deep love for flannel button ups—including at least one reality where he never went to the baptism in the first place.
That in mind, getting rid of Comstock entirely is actually fairly simple, in terms of finding the right moment to strike: cut the timeline off immediately before his birth, killing the Booker that chose to go to the baptism and leaving other versions of Booker alive and well. Like cutting a limb from a tree, cutting off Comstock’s birth takes all the little twigs of his existence with it.
Some critics have suggested that Booker could simply go to another baptism later, thus causing the birth of Comstock despite the ending of Infinite. There are two issues with that argument: there is no guarantee that a version of Booker that took a later baptism would become Comstock at all (as it is the circumstances of that particular moment in Booker’s life that lead to that specific rebirth and creation of that specific identity) and we can be pretty certain that, either way, it doesn’t happen. Just as Robert Lutece asserts that Booker “doesn’t row” while taking him to the lighthouse, Elizabeth establishes that he doesn’t otherwise become Comstock by bringing him to the baptism. Since she can see all possible realities, she knows the earliest and latest points at which Booker could become Comstock, and the source of all realities in which he exists. She, therefore, knows what it takes to remove him from existence, and brings Booker to exactly that place and time.
Following the death of Comstock, some believe that the Luteces cease to exist as well, at least in their present forms. If the Luteces were normal folk, that would likely be the case—Rosalind probably would have continued her research by other means and may have possibly still met Robert, but those circumstances are very up in the air. However, unlike Comstock (and almost everyone else) the Luteces aren’t normal and, thanks to Comstock’s attempts to murder them, are no longer constrained by the laws of space and time. While their capacity to affect events in any one universe is limited, changing events within a given universe doesn’t necessarily affect them.
This point is where science fiction becomes science fantasy (possibly; science is pretty crazy), as it can be surmised that, because they exist outside the bounds of space time and are not hampered by any change in the environment up to and including their own deaths, it is possible that the erasure of Columbia wouldn’t affect them either. The fact that they seem content with bringing Booker and Elizabeth to the lighthouse to erase Comstock and Columbia, and act as if they will carry on with their business once the work is done, speaks volumes in that regard. All told, once Comstock and Columbia are both gone, it is likely that the Luteces continue to exist as Booker sees them in the game, regardless of how they would be affected by Booker and Elizabeth’s actions in normal circumstances.
Then there’s Elizabeth. Perhaps one of the biggest argument I’ve seen in regard to the ending of Infinite is whether or not she disappears after the screen goes to black. It’s right up there with the argument about whether or not Anna is in the crib during the epilogue. Though these sequences are specifically tailored to allow for speculation, there is strong evidence to suggest that by the end of the game, both Elizabeth and Anna continue to exist. After the Siphon is destroyed and she is able to bring Booker to the Sea of Doors, it appears that Elizabeth has reached a state of timelessness similar to that of the Luteces, which allows her to exist as she is despite any changes to the timeline. The fact that she has been at least partially outside the bounds of reality her whole life (due to the fact that she exists in two universes at once, and theoretically exists in the space between them as well) supports this idea, and the quick-cut nature of the ending leaves one wondering why we didn’t see her disappearing, if that’s what happened.
In terms of Anna, while the player is again left with an ambiguous ending wherein her fate is never clearly established, the fact that Booker remembers her is a pretty good hint that she exists. Unlike Elizabeth and the Luteces, Booker is still affected by the normal progression of time; therefore, if Anna had never been born, he wouldn’t know to call her name, because he wouldn’t know who Anna is. In addition, her birth, unlike Comstock’s, is not dependent on the baptism, and the circumstances that led to her existence may not have been affected by that particular event whatsoever. Couple that with the fact that Comstock isn’t around to abduct her (and barring any new horribleness happening to her, poor dear Anna), chances are she is still around. In that regard, if Booker never gave Anna up and Elizabeth continued to exist in the ether along with the Luteces, it is theoretically possible that Elizabeth and Anna could both exist in their respective forms at the exact same point in time.
Infinite presents the player with a myriad of different possibilities to reflect the mindfuck that is its ending. As Elizabeth says, the infinite expanse of the universe is made up of constants and variables—we have constants, in the death of Comstock, and variables, possibilities, in the lives of the Luteces, Elizabeth and Anna. It’s difficult to say exactly what happened, or what could have happened, and we are left to rely (at our peril) on hints from the creators. However, as vague as those tips can often be, sometimes we get a few pieces of gold in the form of good, relatively solid evidence. It feels as though the ending of Bioshock Infinite is the sort which will be argued until the end of gamedom—but, if you can latch onto that gold, you’ve got a chance to wind up with just a hint of what might be the truth.
tl;dr Science. It’s giant balloons.