The Anti-Gospel of Bioshock Infinite
Both Right and Left get off easy in Irrational Games' digital polemic against God.
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.