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The Anti-Gospel of Bioshock Infinite

Both Right and Left get off easy in Irrational Games' digital polemic against God.

by
Walter Hudson

Bio

April 18, 2013 - 7:00 am
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Spoiler Warning: Bioshock Infinite cannot be properly analyzed without revealing the details of its plot. If you plan to play it, or haven’t finished it, consider whether you wish to read further.

This may seem an odd way to start an analysis of a video game. But bear with me.

I was not always a Christian. There was a period of my life during which I searched for truth, trying to discern medicine from snake oil. One of the most compelling observations which led to the development of my Christian faith was the unique economy of sin presented in the Bible.

While many people believe that human beings are inherently good, an honest assessment of one’s own thoughts, along with cursory observation of even the youngest child, reveals that human beings are actually quite wicked. Not only are we bad, we like ourselves that way. Indeed, the notion that we are inherently good lowers the moral bar to the status quo, as if this life lived this way with all its horrors and violations were some kind of ideal.

Christianity stands unique among worldviews in not only acknowledging our congenital moral defect, but also in explaining how we contracted it while offering a cure. Other faiths tend to regard sin as some form of moral debit which can be offset by good deeds. Becoming a Christian requires acknowledging that the debt accrued through sin can never be paid by the sinner. Instead, the believer trusts in the atoning death of Christ, pointing to Him as the settler of accounts. Such faith proves difficult, both because we tend to deny our own wickedness and because we prefer to think we can overcome deficiencies on our own.

Surprisingly, this economy of sin proves quite relevant to an analysis of Irrational Games’ hot new shooter set in the skies above 1912 America, Bioshock Infinite. Redemption runs as a prominent theme throughout the experience, presented in various forms which tend to prove false. Protagonist Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton man and player avatar, seeks the seemingly simple redemption of a financial debt to a dangerous creditor. Antagonist Zachary Comstock, head prophet of a xenophobic cult, offers his followers redemption from “the Sodom below” within the floating city of Columbia. Daisy Fitzroy, leader of the leftist Vox Populi, offers her followers redemption from the tyranny of Comstock through militant revolution. Player companion and surprisingly able damsel Elizabeth begins as an innocent who comes to realize her own peculiar need for a second chance.

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All Comments   (38)
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Excellent article and comments. I've completed the game once (on Easy; hey, I'm 60) and am at the final battle on Normal.

If the goal of Art is to make one uncomfortable, this game definitely qualifies as Art. Given that the game takes place in 1912, and that the city (Columbia) itself was launched and promptly seceded from the US in 1893, the prevailing social attitudes represented in this closed, insular society are not at all out of line, given the prejudice that existed in real life in the US in 1912 (much less 1893). If you scoff at that, go back and re-watch the movie "Mississippi Burning", which chronicles events over 50 years later.

The 'religion' presented is really a secular religion that sees Comstock, not God, as the guiding figure (God is barely mentioned) -- and, as you learn through the game, Comstock is truly an evil man, albeit charismatic; he is what DeWitt (the game's protagonist) becomes in a parallel universe by leaving behind not just guilt but accountability for his vicious actions at Wounded Knee. Comstock's "miracles" and "prophecies" are all achieved through science, he never personally professes any belief in God (quite the opposite), and there is no sense of any ethical code among the general population at any class level (as witnessed by the violent and brutal actions of the Vox Populi when they do rise up).

Given that, I could argue for an interpretation of the game that precisely points to reliance upon God as the unexamined third path. Comstock chooses to forgive and forget his own evil and thus feels free to indulge in whatever means supports his desired ends. DeWitt, by contrast, is consumed by his actions at Wounded Knee and sees himself as hopelessly irredeemable. It is Elizabeth -- who on many different levels is the Christ figure in this game -- who leads DeWitt to a change of heart and in the end redeems him.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
There’s something about being attacked by the mechanical specter of George Washington as it chants “we hold these truths to be self-evident” ...

Of course in our world the real George Washington would never say anything like that, those are Jefferson's words in the Declaration, and Jefferson was the radical.

--

Also I would make the point that sin is not erased and the victims remain dead, but the sinner may be ultimately forgiven, and this is better than the alternative but it does not make the world whole. Maybe the game got that much right.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Walter,
** This is a belated response to you, from the very first comment/interchange on this article. **

It would have been better if I had left off my last few lines.

My point is this: You are a talented and insightful observer in a media form which is more profitable and more influential than the music industry. Video games matter in our culture.

You post _observations_ about Bioshock and how it attacks or distorts the right, the left, American Exceptionalism, Objectivism, Ayn Rand, and God.

The only time you post corrections of Bioshock distortions however (at least here in PJM), is when Bioshock distorts Rand and Objectivism. I base this off reading this article, and your March Bioshock article. In March you wrote "The problem with Bioshock’s portrayal is that it excludes the central tenant of the objectivist ethic." Also in March, "On the contrary, Rand’s theory of individual rights requires..." Otherwise you remain in the Observer role.

Out of these things (the right, the left, American Exceptionalism, Objectivism, Ayn Rand, and God) which is the highest truth? If Bioshock distorts all of these, which is most important for us to defend? Which distortions, if they remain unchallenged, pose the most severe consequences to our country and our world?

Reading your work, I conclude that you select Objectivism and Ayn Rand as the core truth, and that distortions of them are the most important things to correct.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
So Bioshock is really Electroschlock!
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
"You think a dunk in the river’s gonna change the things I’ve done?

That says it all. That’s the game’s message to the player. The idea that sin can be erased by faith is the folly which festers into Columbia."

I can see how you would get that...but it's not exactly what I got. Booker through Slate is given a laundry list of his actions at Wounded Knee. Comstock likewise tells some stories as well.

What we get is someone who killed not just the men but women and children too. He scalped his kills. He probably did a great many other things as well.
Then after this he felt so dirty that he sought redemption.
And like many who look in that direction he rejected the idea that a simple dip in the pool could clean a bad man like him. He had no faith you see.

"By contrast, DeWitt’s final redemption is to deny second birth not only to himself but every infinite version of himself in every infinite dimension. The drowning baptism which DeWitt finally chooses washes away any seed of faith, a rejection of God so final that it transcends the barriers of space and time. In this way, Bioshock Infinite preaches an anti-gospel."

The goal was eliminating Comstock in all the dimensions as a constant is that Booker upon rising from that river becomes Comstock.
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
So it would seem, but that's NOT THE END of the game. There is a very significant coda that follows the end credits. To watch it, changes all of the possibilities for Booker's redemption.

-Toonces
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
Very true though it could be some shift in terms of his choice to actually go to the baptism at all.
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'd like to point out some things about the historical aspect. To anybody with real knowledge of the Progressive Movement, this game is really simply takes the worst parts of that movement and amplifies them. Now, the writers probably meant to draw a parallel to today's religious right, but history gets in the way.

There are only two points that suggests the writers weren't seeking to thoroughly eviscerate the historical Progressive Movement. The quote from above, "I'm a progressive." Well, pretty much everybody there would have called themselves a progressive.

Secondly, there is Fink. Fink is a racist robber baron who violently breaks up any hint of unionism in his minority workers. The irony here is that unions were one of the greatest forces of racism in the Progressive Era. Unions fought explicitly to protect white workers from having to compete with black workers migrating from the South.
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
Glad to see I'm not the only one who saw this game and thought "Oh hey, a bunch of Progressive Democrats in a floating city. Why again are some of my leftist friends trying to say this is a critique of the Tea Party"?

Seriously though, that is the big problem with Bioshock games. They claim to be a critique on various Ideologies. Yet each game only has the thinnest veneer of what their attempting to critique. Bioshock has the imagery of Ayn Rands Objectivism but never actually gets into Objectivism itself. Infinite has American Exceptionalism imagery in spades, but never touches on the why, or how. And it produces some warped straw-man that has the trappings of the lefts favorite boogeyman yet embodies everything they were during that time period.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Based on the article above, another Progressive has done his job.

- Twist young peoples' vision of the truth about the past.
- Confuse young peoples' vision of who was responsible for what.
- Blur the lines between what important historical figures believed and Progressive ideals.
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
Excellent commentary. I'm glad to see Christians and other religious people engage with this game.

I would like to point out that Ken Levine, Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite's lead writer, has stated that his games are often Rorshach tests. Bioshock could be interpreted as pro-Randian, if only because what Andrew Ryan does is often in direct contrast to what he says (i.e., What would happen if Ayn Rand actually created a society that fit her image? Would she succumb to power like everybody else?).

I have a different view of the baptism. Dewitt either chooses to keep his sin, or he falsely repents. A couple of Lady Comstock's diaries hold the key to Comstock's false repentance. She points out he is still a liar, he is still a murderer, different from Dewitt only in that he has the confidence to sin. She even tells Elizabeth to find out if Comstock can be saved. Neither Dewitt nor Comstock are redeemed after the baptism decision.

However, the Christian message comes across only in the very last moments before the credits. Dewitt submits to Elizabeth and literally dies to himself. His death leads to his salvation. He lost his life, now he finds it, after the credits.

Bioshock Infinite seems to me to be a moral on false repentance. One can be dunked, but that is only a symbol. Only by dying to oneself, only by sacrificing all your wants and your needs, can you be saved. Dewitt does this, and therefore makes it so he never becomes the desperate and violent Dewitt nor the hateful and self-righteous Comstock.
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
I believe your conclusion is exactly on the mark!

I'm also very grateful to learn that I am not the only one that sits through the end credits for video games...:-)

-Toonces
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
Honestly, I thought about waiting for the end credits, but didn't. I only learned about the last scene on the Internet (I've played through again and seen it). It was a bit of a downer without that last scene, which is still highly ambiguous.

52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
Walter,

The above is an excellent commentary and analysis of the game which, in my opinion, is spot-on with one significant exception.

A large spoiler will follow, but I'll post a clear warning prior to placing it in this post.

As a bit of background, let me state that I am an evangelical Christian that comes from a conservative Jewish home. The Holy Spirit moved in me almost 40 years ago and I have never had occasion to look back.

Being retired, I've had the ability to go through BioShock Infinite three times: once on normal to simply enjoy playing the game, once on easy to gawk at the jaw-dropping visuals, and once on hard to challenge myself and my perceptions of the story and its meaning. I'm still dealing with the final battle on hard. Just the fact that the combination of story and game-play inspired me to do this still amazes me.

Your analysis closely matches my own with one very large difference. That comment is based on my belief that you did not sit through (pun intended) the 40 days and 40 nights of rolling credits that follow the drowning baptism sequence.

***SPOILER FOLLOWS***

After the credits end we are presented with a coda of Booker in his office. At this point, the player can move Booker around the room. The major difference being that no one is pounding on the front door. The only action Booker can take, other than moving around, is to open the interior door. When he does, we see a crib and Booker cries out, "Elizabeth?" The player is never allowed to see in the crib as the scene fades to black and you are returned to the game's main menu.

I believe the character in that final scene is the reborn Booker cleansed of his sins by the drowning baptism and given the chance to live his life absent Zachary Comstock. I choose to also believe that baby Elizabeth is in the crib, but I have no evidence for that other that my glass-half-full outlook to base it on.

Whatever the truth is here, the game is both visually gorgeous and challenging to play. As a former level maker and texture creator for UT99, UT2003, and UT2004, I am continually amazed at the spectacular graphics they manage to wring out of the Unreal3 engine on the Xbox 360. One can only imagine what developers will do with the U4 engine on the Xbox 720!

Best Regards - Toonces
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
I thought the Devil was wicked and a video game a video game and not the world. Might explain why any time in my life I've been in a room with both a video game and a door that leads to the outside world I've chosen the door to the outside world 100% of the time. That's how I learned people aren't wicked. Vicious circle - maybe even a wicked one.
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
Your description actually makes this game sound thoroughly Leftist, but there is one aspect in particular which bears further comment.

The absurd detail about worshiping John Wilkes Booth and demonizing Lincoln and identifying that with "conservative" love of and respect for America, America's founding and American exceptionalism, is part of an ongoing cultural effort by Leftists to erase the one hundred and fifty year old Democrat Party history of hatred for black people.

In control of American culture, the Left in recent years has sought to reverse the historic roles of the parties.

The Democrats supported slavery, opposed the 13th Amendment etc etc. And no, this was not limited to southern Democrats; a Democrat senator from Illinois was the original pro-choicer, advocating a pro-choice position to the states - - it's up to you whether human beings should be enslaved! Northern Democrats were and many are virulent racists.

I would be ashamed to belong to that party.

But more astonishing to me is how non-Leftist, anti-Leftist sites, such as there are, do not daily document the racial hatred which is the undeniable legacy of the Democrat party.

This is one unequivocal, completely factually accurate line of propaganda which can be used against the Left, with a number of political goals, not the least of which is to enlighten black folks in the hopes of breaking up that monolithic vote.
52 weeks ago
52 weeks ago Link To Comment
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