Christian Themes in Bioshock Infinite (Part 2 of 2)
Well, I’ve done it. I’ve been to the flying city of Columbia, walked its streets and heard the ringing of its church bells. I ventured into the towering statue, braved the onslaught of the songbird, and rescued the girl.
And, I’ve seen “it”, the end, the infamous event behind the controversy.
[audio http://archive.org/download/pdxkcm2014-03-19bl/pdxkcm.2014-03-19.BlaphemousRumors2.mp3] Download
Bioshock Infinite was a fun, thought-provoking ride. I was disappointed to find it lacked the player agency and open-ended moral choices seen in Bioshock 1 and 2. Still, it offered enough novelties of its own to propel players through to the conclusion of an interesting story with deep, philosophical implications.
Rather than review the game in full here, I’ll move on and try to answer the questions that started this post: What did the Irrational Games employee see in Bioshock Infinite’s finale that caused his conflict of values? What prompted his sudden resignation?
Speaking of which: For convenience, let’s refer to this employee as “Mr. C” and the matter that prompted his resignation as “The Offending Event”.
Before I move on, though, I should address two points from my previous post.
First, it would have been better had I discussed not only Christian themes in Bioshock Infinite, but themes of religion in general. Yes, the game’s religious material is clearly woven with threads pulled from Christian cloth, but I think I’m safe in saying that the religion shown in the game is not Christianity itself. Since I knew little or nothing with certainty about Infinite’s religious themes, it would have been better to have taken a more open, unassuming approach.
Also, the subject of the article presumed the Offending Event was still readily identifiable in the final, released version of the game. That turned out to be true, thankfully, but it could just as well have gone very poorly had the authors decided to do a much deeper rewrite, or had the ending depended on some specific path that I didn’t take.
So, that said, let’s consider the ending. Spoilers follow throughout.
The Offending Event
Unlike the other Bioshock games, Infinite appears to have had only one possible ending—something I found to be more than a little ironic—and it was an ambiguous one at that. Even without understanding all its details, the story’s resolution was tragic, emotional, and thought-provoking.
To understand the potential for controversy, you first need to know a little bit about the game’s main characters: Booker DeWitt, Elizabeth, and Zachary Hale Comstock.
First there is your avatar, Booker DeWitt. While you control his actions in the game, his voice and attitudes are his own, and they reveal him to be aloof and cynical. He guards his past, waving off questions from other characters with pat answers and allusions to the fact that he’s a bad person who has done terrible things.
So what did he do?
As the game’s story unfolds, we learn that DeWitt was a soldier in the United States Army and was present during the slaughter of innocent Native American men, women, and children at Wounded Knee.
For those who might be as historically challenged as I am, Wounded Knee was a very real and tragic event that took place on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota on December 29th, 1890. On that day, at least one hundred fifty Lakota lost their lives at the hands of U.S. soldiers, and more than fifty others were injured. Bioshock Infinite incorporates this history into its own story, placing Booker at the event. The more we learn, the more apparent it is that he wasn’t a passive witness to the massacre, but was instead an active participant.
If Booker’s past defines his character, then this one phrase, presented in the game’s opening scene, defines his motive:
“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.”
Elizabeth is that girl. She has spent her life locked away in the top of a towering statue overlooking Columbia. Her home is part prison, part laboratory. She possesses unique, powerful abilities. Her captors have labored to understand those powers and to safely contain her. Based on the evidence you find in the game, it appears they are failing.
Elizabeth is able to manipulate tears in space-time, rifts leading to alternate realities. Depending on how far she opens them, Elizabeth can either peer into these other realities or step fully into them, leaving her original timeline behind. She does this several times in the game, pulling herself and Booker into alternate realities in an attempt to manipulate circumstances to their advantage. These events raise philosophical questions about what is “real”, about which timeline “matters”. It’s those questions that make the ending so fascinating yet frustratingly vague.
Finally, there is the game’s antagonist: Zachary Hale Comstock, the Prophet of Columbia. Comstock is both the political and religious leader of the city. Under his rule, Columbia has seceded from the American Union and is now on the brink of violent revolution fueled by racism, class elitism, and other forms of oppression.
Comstock has built a prosperous and resplendent utopia for a privileged few on the bloodied backs of the poor, minorities, and immigrants. He claims to have had visions, prophecies revealed to him by the “Angel Columbia”. If his prophecies come to pass, Elizabeth and Columbia will one day “drown in fire the mountains of man,” alluding to an all-out war on the United States below.
The game’s ending brings all three characters together, but not as you might expect. The last scenes take place at Wounded Knee, just after the massacre. Booker and other U.S. soldiers who took part in the slaughter are standing in a river. There is a preacher who offers to baptize Booker and “erase” his past. Booker nearly accepts the offer, then rejects it at the last moment. In his own words, “You think a dunk in the river’s going to change the things I’ve done?”
Booker and Elizabeth then depart on a dizzying tour down a path of interconnected timelines revealing events from Booker’s past. We learn of his connection to Elizabeth, learn the truth of how and why he came to Columbia. Then, at last, their path leads them back to that river, and we discover his connection to Comstock.
We learn that, within the wide sea of possibilities, there are many timelines in which Booker rejected the baptism. There are many others, though, where he accepted it, and in every one of those, Booker DeWitt “left everything on the riverside”, changed his name, and became Zachary Hale Comstock.
And so there it is, the Offending Event: Whereas unbaptized-Booker’s morals may have been brutally utilitarian, accommodating acts of extreme violence in pursuit of his goal, the game’s ending seems to suggest that baptism and religion made a megalomaniacal monster of him.
Now let’s consider my original hypotheses. How did I do? Were any of my predictions accurate? You can find my explanation of each hypothesis in Part 1 of this post.
Hypothesis #1: Bioshock Infinite professes a non-Christian worldview.
Well, this is an embarrassingly poor way to start. I’m sorry to say this hypothesis was too vague to have any chance of being either accurate or inaccurate. I should have explained what I meant back in Part 1. Allow me to do so now.
I meant to suggest in this hypothesis that the game might portray a world where acting in accordance with a Christian moral code isn’t a viable strategy.
Is this true of the game? In many ways, yes. Those who have played Bioshock Infinite may have noticed, if you look very carefully, that you are expected to shoot, bludgeon, burn, gouge, electrocute, or otherwise maim and murder people. Repeatedly. There are more than a few scenes in which the game won’t let you proceed until you kill all the other people. Sometimes the game saves you the trouble, taking over the controls and killing the people for you. How handy!
So even if it’s too much to say that Bioshock Infinite professes a non-Christian worldview, it depicts one, and it requires you to play along. In this respect, though, it’s no different than virtually every other game in this genre.
Speaking to the main point of my first hypothesis: The nature of the game couldn’t have come as a surprise to Mr. C. It didn’t play a significant part in the ending, and almost certainly wasn’t the reason for his resignation.
Hypothesis #2: Bioshock Infinite professes an anti-Christian worldview.
I’ll start off by saying that I saw nothing in the bulk of the game to suggest anti-Christian themes. Rather, I think the authors maintained the same, high level of objectivity seen in their previous work. They develop solid characters with substance and depth, then let these characters drive the story. This imbues the results with a high degree of honesty and integrity. I don’t think it’s humanly possible (or even beneficial) to rid creative works of all subjective, personal bias. I don’t think it’s advisable to try. Better to be truthful, honest, open, and internally consistent. In these respects, Bioshock holds up well.
In considering whether or not Bioshock Infinite is anti-Christian, the weightiest questions rest on Booker’s baptism and his transformation into Zachary Hale Comstock. What are the authors trying to say when their story presents such a direct connection between a man’s religious conversion and his subsequent life of oppressive tyranny? Is the underlying message really so blunt as to suggest that religion makes monsters of us?
What did Booker’s baptism mean to the game’s authors? Does it even matter? If they were, as I’ve suggested, letting the characters develop on their own, a better question might be, “What did Booker’s baptism mean to him?”
What kind of person was Booker before his baptism? What kind of life had he lived, and what brought him to that moment of decision, standing there in the river next to the preacher?
We know Booker was a soldier, and an adept one at that. He was admired by his peers and commanding officers alike for his feats in battle. But he may also have been viewed with some trepidation and disdain. Booker became known for scalping his victims, thereby earning himself the lamentable nickname, “The White Injun.”
We also learn that Booker wasn’t acting against his own nature. He felt no moral conflict, there was no internal struggle over the violence he committed. On the contrary: he enjoyed it.
The massacre at Wounded Knee was a turning point for Booker. We don’t know why, exactly, but it isn’t hard to imagine plausible causes. He had just taken part in the brutal slaughter of unarmed men, women, and children. He had burned families alive in their own homes. Even if he had only a momentary realization of what he had become, it would have been devastating. Booker’s comrades appear to have convinced themselves they were war heroes. Booker no longer had the luxury of this self-deception. Having gained clarity, he would now have to contend with the resulting guilt and grief.
In one timeline, Booker turns to excess, using alcohol and gambling to keep himself numb or distracted enough to hold the guilt at bay. This is the Booker we know throughout most of the game.
In another timeline, Booker takes a different road. Presented with an offer to “have [his] past erased” and to “have [his] sins cleansed”, he takes it. He is baptized, and, whether the change is immediate or gradual, he eventually leaves his former self behind and becomes Zachary Hale Comstock.
While the Christian notion of grace is depicted here, it’s distorted and abused by Comstock’s desperate need, not to be forgiven, but to escape himself.
A mature Christian is likely to draw sharp distinctions between the notions of oneself being perfect versus being freely forgiven. They’re two different mental states, two soils that, planted with the same tree, yield vastly different fruit. A deeply-felt state of grace fosters humility, empathy, and compassion. Believing oneself to be perfect leads to pride, self-righteousness, and judgment.
Comstock is a striking caricature of the latter. In his mind, his sins weren’t forgiven, they were “left on the riverside,” separated from himself. Comstock didn’t see his life as a single path punctuated by a moment of profound change. Rather, he and Booker never wore the same clothes, never occupied the self-same bone shack. Booker, vile and corrupt man that he was, vanished the moment Comstock came into existence. Comstock was a “new creation”, pure and unblemished. Or so he thought.
Everything that followed in Comstock’s life reflects this view: his self-aggrandizing persona as political and spiritual leader, his self-proclaimed role of “prophet”, and his free and willing sacrifice of others to realize his vision. By means of this self-perceived perfection, Comstock liberates himself from any obligation to question his own motives, methods, and agendas.
In all this I find that Bioshock Infinite makes keen, valuable observations about forgiveness and our response to it. My only complaint is that it does so only by counterexample. I would love to see another Booker, one who accepted the forgiveness freely offered, who then lived out an authentic, humble response to that grace (but I won’t hold my breath).
So then, is the ending of Bioshock Infinite anti-Christian? I don’t believe so.
Could it have been perceived as such, and was this the most likely reason for Mr. C’s resignation? I can imagine it was a contributing factor. I have the benefit of evaluating only the finished product. Mr. C saw an unfinished version, one that underwent significant changes before release. I suspect the original version lacked some of the depth and subtlety that makes my interpretation possible.
Hypothesis #3: Bioshock Infinite plays free and loose with scripture and/or core tenets of Christian doctrine.
I think we can safely dismiss this one. While it was true that scripture was spread throughout the game, I didn’t see any instances where it was used to a particularly offensive effect. It was definitely misinterpreted and misapplied by various characters in the game, but it was done in a way that was consistent with those characters’ beliefs and motives.
Hypothesis #4: Bioshock Infinite presents factual and well-reasoned arguments that have the potential to create deep ideological conflict in Christians.
I didn’t find this to be true in the least.
However, I will say that Bioshock Infinite was rich with material for discussion on topics ranging from physics and philosophy to politics and religion.
For example, Elizabeth wonders aloud whether she is opening tears into alternate realities that already existed or if it is she who is willing those places into existence. Comstock muses in one of his journal entries about what happens to the soul that is left behind when someone is baptized and reborn, whether they cease to exist or if they live on, sins intact. The Lutece “twins” are two instances of the same person from alternate realities, one of whom is a man while the other is a woman, posing interesting questions about gender and identity.
Fascinating as I found all this, I encountered nothing to challenge the fundamental facts or tenets of the Christian faith.
Hypothesis #5: Bioshock Infinite has nominally Christian characters who turn out to be jerks.
It might be tempting to think that Comstock fits this description. After all, he’s largely defined by his baptism, he goes about spouting scripture, he refers to himself as a “prophet”, and he most certainly turns out to be a jerk.
However, while Comstock is a religious man, I don’t recognize his religion as anything like Christianity. That idea began to crumble at a point early in the game when Booker wakes up in Columbia and finds a number of Comstock’s faithful praying to statues of various figures from early U.S. history.
(Tempting as it is to use this as a launching point to comment on certain extreme elements of the American right-wing conservative movement, I think it’s best to stick to the subject, move on, and save that discussion for another time.)
The most damning evidence challenging Comstock’s Christianity is his patent rejection of one of its core tenets: forgiveness. He makes this plain in what is probably his most characteristic quote:
“The Lord forgives everything, but I’m just a prophet… so I don’t have to. Amen.”
I find it impossible to square Comstock’s religiously-rooted nationalistic reverence and his self-serving, morally malleable ideals with anything in Christian doctrine. Based on that alone, I would be confident in rejecting this hypothesis.
Back to the main question: Did Comstock’s portrayal in the original, pre-release version of the game factor into Mr. C’s resignation?
It’s difficult to say without knowing what kind of substantive changes were made to Comstock’s character. Or, could it have been something else altogether, maybe something the preacher said at the baptism? We can’t know for sure. Based solely on Mr. C’s initial reaction and subsequent reconsideration, I have to think this hypothesis, together with hypothesis #2 regarding the question of anti-Christian themes, probably played the largest roles in his reaction.
Hypothesis #6: Bioshock Infinite puts words in God’s mouth.
I saw no evidence of this anywhere in the game, and so there’s nothing more I can say on the matter.
Hypothesis #7: Bioshock Infinite points out historical Christian hypocrisy or otherwise recounts real evils carried out in God’s name.
This was where I would have placed most of my bets, and so this is also where I find that my ideas were the most off-base. Whatever religious elements factored into the real-life events leading up to the massacre at Wounded Knee, they didn’t appear in the game beyond a passing, inconsequential mention of the “Ghost Dancers” in the Hall of Heroes.
When I heard the story of Mr. C’s resignation, I wondered if, as a Christian, I would find it difficult to enjoy playing Bioshock Infinite.
Generally speaking, I don’t avoid contrary opinions. I seek them out and welcome them. I think my faith has become stronger for my ongoing self-examination. What I find difficult to stomach are portrayals of my faith that are shallow and mocking, critical yet poorly reasoned, or grossly misrepresentative. I wondered if Infinite might fall into one of these categories.
I enjoyed the two original Bioshock games immensely, more than any other games in a very long time. The previews for Infinite looked amazing. I wanted to play it, and I wanted to be able to enjoy it from start to finish. And so I waited, hoping there would be no flies in the ointment.
I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed. With respect to its story, Bioshock Infinite was consistent with the open, honest approach seen in Ken Levine’s prior work. I can’t say I enjoyed the game quite as much as its predecessors, but that had nothing to do with its themes, religious or otherwise.
That said, I’m glad I went through this little exercise before I played. As much as I like to think I can maintain my objectivity in any situation, that can be a real challenge when the subject matter is so close to my core. I can’t honestly say how I might’ve reacted upon seeing the finale had I not already given it so much thought.
Thanks to everyone at Irrational Games for creating yet another experience that was so memorable, thought-provoking, and just plain fun.
And thanks to Mr. C for helping me to enjoy it.