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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

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.

Prior to its release, commentators on the Right including this author anticipated that Bioshock Infinite would attack conservative and libertarian ideals by using Comstock and his cult of Founders as a caricature of the Tea Party. That presumption was founded in part upon the abuse of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy perpetrated in the original Bioshock, which was also developed by Irrational Games. However, while the early hours of gameplay in Infinite do little to assuage that concern, the full game proves to be less about politics than about how we deal with our own evil.

Bioshock Infinite begins boldly and ramps up a steep narrative curve. As DeWitt, the player arrives at a small island lighthouse intent upon retrieving a girl named Elizabeth from her confinement in the floating city of Columbia. She is to be delivered to unknown benefactors willing to wipe away DeWitt’s large debt. Within moments, the player rockets from the top of the lighthouse to the sprawling city in the sky. Once there, it becomes immediately clear that the society housed in this unique metropolis adheres to a cultish religion steeped in a mythological view of America’s founding fathers and absolute devotion to “prophet” Zachary Comstock.

An early scene portrays white-robed worshipers in fervent prayer to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. These founding fathers are revered as saints and ascribed attributes of divinity. It’s difficult not to imagine this as how many leftists perceive the Tea Party, as a cult of fanatic founder worshipers who confuse the Constitution with scripture. One friendly character encountered while fleeing Columbia’s fascistic troops encourages this comparison when he exclaims, “Hey, it’s okay! I’m not like the rest. I’m a progressive.”

Many other experiences encountered throughout the game’s early hours encourage the impression that Irrational Games has an axe to grind. In the hall of a secret society from which Columbia’s leaders emerge groomed, a memorial to John Wilkes Booth holds prominence. Elsewhere, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appears canonized in portrait opposite a demonized Abraham Lincoln. The latter is portrayed with devilish red horns and a pointy tail. Racism and xenophobia intermingle indiscriminately with the trappings of American patriotism. As the leftist Vox Populi rebels are introduced, complete with their red communist decor, they seem immediately sympathetic in light of Columbia’s tendency to publicly stone interracial couples.

One of the most compelling experiences of propaganda in the game proves to be the encounters with Motorized Patriots, heavy-hitting robotic soldiers cloaked in colonial uniforms and American flags. These highly dangerous enemies bear the visages of Washington, Jefferson, or Franklin while reciting excerpts from founding documents intermingled with invented jingoistic rhetoric. There’s something about being attacked by the mechanical specter of George Washington as it chants “we hold these truths to be self-evident” which triggers a Pavlovian revulsion, as if the intent were to train players to fear the Declaration of Independence.

Were the game to continue this way through to its conclusion, it would prove conservative critics correct. However, much changes once the player meets and liberates Elizabeth. Right away, she reveals her aptitude for ripping open “tears” between dimensions of spacetime. This incredible ability not only makes her useful in combat, as she is able to bring in supplies, cover, and allies from other dimensions. It also proves to be the narrative crux of the game’s story.

The player’s journey with Elizabeth leads into a series of alternate dimensions where the balance of power between Comstock’s Founders and Fitzroy’s Vox Populi shifts dramatically. As the leftist militants take control of the city, their methods and motivations prove as heinous and indefensible as Comstock’s. The commies are not the good guys after all. Instead, the game’s developers seem intent to denounce extremism in all its forms.

As the tale approaches its climax, the primary objective for the player and Elizabeth becomes the death of Comstock, who emerges as the lynchpin holding the interdimensional chaos together. No matter which dimension the player inhabits, Comstock proves to be the catalyst for the horrors rocking Columbia.

It’s how that objective resolves, how Comstock is finally defeated in every possible dimension, which explains both why the game has the word “infinite” in the title and how the developers imagine sin might be truly redeemed. Unfortunately, there is no way to discuss it without revealing the game’s ending. So here is your final spoiler warning.

In the final moments of the game, it is revealed that the player — Booker DeWitt — is also Zachary Comstock. Throughout an infinite number of dimensions where alternate choices were made, Zachary Comstock is the assumed identity of the born-again Booker DeWitt. The nexus upon which everything pivots is DeWitt’s choice to become baptized, ostensibly as a Christian, and wash away his past including regret for his role in the bloody Battle of Wounded Knee. The player is a version of DeWitt which rejected baptism, believing it inadequate to resolve his sins, and who instead chose to bear his guilt amid a resolute atheism. Comstock is a version of DeWitt who accepted baptism and went on to become the megalomaniacal tyrant of Columbia.

These two versions of the same man can co-exist thanks to the handy dimension-tearing technology which Elizabeth embodies. She is revealed to be DeWitt’s long-lost daughter, procured by Comstock through interdimensional travel because he could not father offspring of his own. It’s all very confusing, reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. However, the important thing is not to understand how any of it makes scientific sense, only how it makes narrative sense.

The redemption imagined by Irrational Games is both secular and scientific. DeWitt undoes the infinite chaos wrought by Comstock by returning to the moment of baptism and drowning himself with the aid of Elizabeth. By denying any possibility of DeWitt’s second birth as Comstock, DeWitt prevents Columbia from ever manifesting and Elizabeth from ever existing in her given form.

While leaving you scratching your head and rummaging through loose ends, Bioshock Infinite clearly preaches a secular scientific gospel. Sure, the redemption presented requires the ability to manipulate spacetime, but that’s a lot more palatable and feasible to some people than trusting in the atoning death of Jesus Christ. That seems to be the game’s bottom line, as articulated by DeWitt as he runs in panic from the baptismal pool.

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. 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.

“Are you afraid of God?” Elizabeth asks DeWitt.

“No,” he replies. “But I’m afraid of you.”

So it seems that the game is both better than its critics feared, and worse. It does not wholly eviscerate the Right, or enshrine the Left. It does, however, eviscerate God while attempting to enshrine man as his own redeemer. Rather than a full-throated attack upon American ideals, the game serves as a complex fantasy prescribing an abandonment of faith. Ironic though it may seem, Ayn Rand might have approved.

Walter Hudson advocates for individual rights, serving on the board of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Minnesota, and as president of the Minority Liberty Alliance. He hosts a daily podcast entitled Fightin Words, proudly hosted on Twin Cities Newstalk Podcast Network. Walter is a city council member in Albertville, MN. Follow his work via Twitter and Facebook.

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All Comments   (36)
All Comments   (36)
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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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
So Bioshock is really Electroschlock!
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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
1 year ago
1 year 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.

1 year ago
1 year 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
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears." Any Rand rejected anything that could not be objectively observed or determined by rational thought based on observations and use of the mind.

Christianity requires a belief in the supernatural - God, heaven, original sin, cleansing through baptism, redemption through the blood sacrifice of Christ, etc. These ideas are neither seen nor the product of rational thought - they are articles of faith based on revelation. An objectivist believes what he perceives and what he can logically deduce. Christians "know" something (e.g., Jesus loves me) because the bible tells them so.

Rand did not believe man "is his own redeemer." She did not believe man needed to be redeemed since she did not believe in the concept of sin, original or otherwise. Each person can achieve fulfillment by acting for their own benefit in their own rational self-interest. Those who live on the effort of others are unsatisfied and unhappy.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Christians "know" something (e.g., Jesus loves me) because the bible tells them so. Actually, that's not the way it works. The Gospels are eyewitness accounts, explicitly stated to be witness acceptable in a court of law. "Faith", in Scripture, is used in exactly the same way that "full faith and credit" is used in financial terms - as trust in an individual. God isn't going to give you separate facts and experiences that you can examine on your own, you either believe the witnesses or you don't. If an "objectivist" cannot accept eyewitness testimony of past events, than they can know nothing of history and little of the world outside of their own small experience, since most of what we know comes from the testimony of others.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Believing in an objective reality requires believing in things we can't prove. There is no getting around that. Logic requires that we don't beg the question, and using rationality to prove rationality does just that.

Since Rand disbelieved in God, it means she has to come up with some explanations that people who do believe in God are able to take for granted. Christians believe in an orderly universe because we believe it was created by an orderly Mind. But since Rand didn't believe in God, she needs to explain why the universe is orderly all by itself, with no help from a creator.

Since Rand clings to rationality as the authority that pronounces the ultimate yea, verily, we have to ask her, what give rationality its authority? Again, Christians can take it for granted, as the reflection of the way our rational God thinks. Rand, though, does not have that convenience. She has to explain why something born of chemical and electrical impulses in man's limited and short-lived brain has any power at all to demand to be listened to and heeded. In fact, living brain cells are the only place it can live, since we cannot prove there is something called rationality outside of our human experience as a metaphysical truth. No, in the Randian world, we reject metaphysical truth as something we cannot observe and prove... right? So there is no higher truth here, just the confetti-like snap crackle pop of brain cells in billions of humans, which sometimes make sense and sometime don't.

And then she has to explain ethics. Why is there right and wrong? Yet again, the Christian takes it for granted that the good is doing God's will and the bad is doing otherwise. Obviously, a moralist like Rand believes in right and wrong. But can she explain it based on her own premises? She claims (or at least her proponents do) that it is based on reason. But reason can be employed by the bad guys too. (Desire comes before reason, does it not?) So what happens when Nigel thinks A is moral but Gunther thinks not A is moral? What if both are reasoning beautifully based on their individual premises? Can they both be right? That wouldn't be rational. But isn't rationality iwhat got them there? That, and the fact that there is nothing (in Rand's world) higher than humanity to cast the deciding vote. In fact, if morality is based solely on human premises, then it can't be absolute -- it will die when the last human dies. But Rand certainly doesn't talk like she believes the good is ephemeral or relative.

> Each person can achieve fulfillment by acting for their own benefit in their own rational self-interest.

Rational self-interest for one guy can mean slavery for the other guy. It's great that the first guy can then achieve fulfillment, but the other guy might not like it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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