Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bioshock Infinite: Thematic Analysis

Having just been released last Tuesday, the first wave of players will be watching the credits roll in Bioshock Infinite about now, and I assume for the most part their faces will be slack with confusion as they attempt to piece together the events that transpired over the course of the game. I don't intend to give my review of the game here, though suffice to say I found it entrancing enough to warrant a lot of thought, nor do I intend to work through the many mechanical ambiguities of the dimension traversing narrative (by the very nature of the story it's excessively hard to tell what's a plothole and what isn't). Rather, what I recognized to be the most compelling component of the game wasn't the admittedly uneven plotting and characterization; it was the degree to which these things actually fit into an overarching metaphor. Despite what appears to be evidence of the plot of the game changing significantly over the course of its development, all the pieces end up fitting together into an incredibly pleasing thematic whole, and I feel like both the degree to which the choices made in the design of the game are influenced by the intended social commentary and the originality of the presentation are both completely unprecedented in games as a medium.


I've already witnessed a number of complaints from people who seem to believe that the social commentary aspect of Columbia is dropped half-way through the game when it begins to shift its focus onto the more personal story of Booker and Elizabeth. I'd argue that the first half of the game is simply setting the stage for the actual social commentary to follow. I imagine that many, if not the majority, of people who play through the game will fail to understand what Bioshock Infinite's message is. The game has a number of very clear and jarring statements that it makes, particularly concerning racism and wealth inequality, but the threads that actually tie these various aspects together into a cohesive message are orders of magnitude more subtle. I don't think that this is necessarily a failing of the writers and artists; the fact that the message is subtle and that you're never beaten over the head with it is a virtue, and I have an inkling that making this message overt would have possibly damaged the studio's reputation due to it rather directly attacking a modern political movement. There is, of course, the significant possibility that I'm reading too much into the story that we're presented with, but I hope to produce enough textual evidence to convince you that if this message wasn't explicitly intended by Ken Levine, that it might as well be safe to evoke death of the author.

To stop beating around the bush; Bioshock Infinite is an indictment of modern conservative thought that glorifies an idealized American past that never existed, and does so to the detriment of America's future. This political message is, however, interwoven with a deeply personal tale of redemption and the human desire to take the easy way out of facing the sins of your own past.

To explain, I'll start where the game both starts and ends: baptism. Baptism is the central recurring motif throughout the game; the gorgeous introductory scene to Columbia is centered around a baptism that all who enter the city must go through, upon rescuing Elizabeth for the first time Booker is plunged beneath the water in battleship bay, Comstock's plan is to use Columbia to baptize the world in fire, Daisy baptizes herself in Fink’s blood, Booker kills Comstock by drowning him in a baptismal font, songbird is killed by being drowned deep beneath the sea at Rapture, and of course the final moments of the game reveal that the deciding factor in Booker becoming Comstock was whether or not he accepted the baptism after Wounded Knee.

The use of religious symbolism here is blunt, but the intended message is perhaps less so. I have seen a number of people mistake Bioshock Infinite’s message for a blatant denouncement of religion. I disagree.

The fact that accepting the baptism turned Booker into a monster is contrary to what one would expect, but deeply tied into Infinite's central theme. Booker sought the baptism because he was haunted by the ghosts of those he killed at Wounded Knee and those he oppressed as a Pinkerton. In accepting the baptism, a symbolic gesture of rebirth, the Booker who became Comstock was able to distance himself from his own actions. What Booker was seeking from the baptism was not a way to atone for his past actions, but rather a way to relieve himself of guilt. Free of remorse, the baptized Booker went on to look back at these events in his life not with pain and regret, but with solemn necessity or even glory. They were idealized in his mind, and rather than horrific atrocities they became exemplary feats to which he constructed monuments. It's for this reason that he would go on to found a city that would accentuate all the worst aspects of his own past. Free of regret, Comstock became a monster. In one of Comstock’s voxophones he asks “When a soul is born again, what happens to the one left behind in the baptismal water? Is he simply … gone? Or does he exist in some other world, alive, with sin intact?” Comstock intends to reference the Booker who was not baptized, but unwittingly references himself: he fails to understand the notion that merely accepting a baptism does not make one pure, that the sinner continues to exist inside of him. You should note that outside of the Wounded Knee baptism scene, Jesus or Christ are never mentioned in the game, nor is there a cross to be found anywhere in Columbia. This is to distinguish between Christianity and the superficial, warped religion of Comstock. To the religion of Comstock, baptism is simply a way of white-washing your past.

The Booker that rejected the baptism recognized that such a symbolic gesture would do nothing to free him of guilt for his past actions. He views himself as completely irredeemable. He would go on to live the rest of his life dwelling on past mistakes and digging himself into a hole of debt and alcoholism, until he is given another chance to "bring us the girl and wipe away the debt”. As with the baptism, Booker is initially seduced by the offer but at the last second tries to back out. This time he fails, however, and is further forced to spend his days steeped in regret for his mistakes. Until, finally, the Luteces come back to give Booker one last chance at redemption.

The inscription you see as you’re lowered into the chapel at the beginning of the game reads:
“Why would He send His savior onto us,
If we will not raise a finger for our own salvation,
And though we deserve not His mercy,
He has led us to this new Eden,
A last chance for redemption”

Booker is transported to Columbia, a monument to his sins, and forced to relive them. Each area is a mirror into Booker’s past: Monument Island reflects his neglect of his daughter, the Hall of Heroes reflects his past of violence and racism, Finkton reflects the economic oppression that he took part in. One issue that many have with the game is that the amount of violence that Booker perpetrates in pursuit of his goal of rescuing Elizabeth is excessive. I would argue that this is an intentional reflection of his own violent past, and is meant to strike the player as just as disturbing as it strikes Elizabeth. There is perhaps a bit of meta-commentary going on when Booker makes a statement to the effect of “It’s one thing to hurt someone because you need to, it’s another thing to enjoy it”; possibly a direct stab at the player who’s gleefully eviscerating their foes with flaming crows.

Many have also found it questionable that the final battle of the game is not against Comstock, but against the Vox, in a way that discordantly seems to suggest that they are the greater rather than lesser evil. I’ll get into how the Vox fit into the overall theme later, but I should point out that the final battle may not be what it seems. Note that the “big bad”, Comstock, is already dead, and yet the game goes on. Instead, for the final fight you are standing in Comstock’s place, using Comstock’s tool of subjugation (the songbird) to defend Comstock’s airship from the people who are revolting against Comstock’s oppression. It’s meant to illustrate that for all the differences between Booker and Comstock, they’re both fundamentally the same person. Just because Comstock is dead doesn't mean things are over, because Booker and Comstock are one in the same, and both men were created by the same evil past.

Finally, Elizabeth reveals the secrets of the multiverse to Booker, leads him to realize the truths he was trying to suppress from himself, and drowns him to prevent Comstock from ever existing. What many might not realize about the final scene of the game is that this is Booker’s true baptism. Booker accepts that he would rather face oblivion than allow the future sins that he would later commit to come to pass. He is willing to die, and does not resist as he allows Elizabeth to dunk him under the water (for this baptism she serves as his priest).

There’s many ways to interpret the after-the-credits scene. This is how I prefer to view it: due to this final act of true remorse, Booker experienced a true rebirth. He has awoken in another timeline and is given the chance to live out his life with Anna, and to do things right this time.

Now, how does this tie into the political commentary that I am claiming exists behind the plot of Infinite? Booker and Comstock represent two different ways of looking at the American past. Comstock represents an America that has forgotten to regret the atrocities of its past. Booker represents an America who has clung to regret and allowed it to consume them. The fact that they inhabit two entirely different parallel universes is no mistake. They reflect the different schools of thought in American politics that are so separated in perspective that they appear to inhabit entirely different worlds.

Columbia is Comstock's creation, and it, itself, is an idealized version of turn-of-the-20th-century America. Our introduction to Columbia up to the raffle is a fantastic example of the game's message in microcosm: You walk through gorgeous vistas set on cobbled streets in the sky, a quaint town fair awash in symbols of a simpler time. The world seems wholesome, and is a joy to explore; all up until the raffle. Then the curtains are drawn back and the entire picture falls apart: suddenly you realize this world is brutal and unjust. The entire sequence is an incredible gut-punch. It's because you've forgotten; the American past hides a rotten underbelly. I might also add that it may be no mistake that the imagery used to deliver this blow is one of marriage inequality.

The mainstays of Columbia are meant to reflect on the beliefs of modern conservatives. Their religion is a cult of personality based around worshiping modern political leaders and in deifying the founding fathers as infallible. It borrows aesthetics from Christianity while ignoring the messages of tolerance and kindness found in the New Testament in return for Old Testament morality and the apocalyptic imagery of Revelations. They glorify war, xenophobia, isolationism, and American exceptionalism. They accept economic inequality as just, even explicitly deserved. They've even seceded from the actual political entity of the United States because of their “more American than thou” attitude.

Columbia is the idealized world of white picket fences that embodies the conservative dream. The fact that one must be baptized (in this game, symbolic of white-washing your own past) in order to even enter Columbia emphasizes its status as the image we create when we attempt to envision a bygone America but forget the pain of its past.

Moreover; Comstock's grand plan for Columbia is to bring it into the future, and there rain down fire upon modern America. Those who were paying attention will note that when a brain-washed Elizabeth uses Columbia to attack New York, she does so in 1984. It could be an errant reference to Orwell, or, as I'd like to believe, a reference to Ronald Reagan's landslide victory over Walter Mondale: the point signifying the absolute height of GOP power. Columbia, this idealized conservative past, seeks to break through to our present day.

Which brings me to Elizabeth: Elizabeth represents America's future. Booker and Comstock struggle over who will get to control her and thus America's fate. She was the child of Booker, but Comstock lays claim to her as his own, and in a moment of weakness Booker gives her to Comstock in order to "wipe away the debt" (I shouldn't have to expand upon why debt is an important concept for the relationship between American political parties). Some small part of her was left with Booker, however, and thus she became caught between worlds. This gave her an amazing power; because she exists in both worlds at once she is able to pass between them at will: to see the world from many different possible perspectives. This is the foundation of Bioshock Infinite’s multiverse: each world contains a lighthouse, a man, a city. Each universe centers around a city founded on the principles of one man’s ideology, with a beacon that draws others towards it (but, rightfully, should warn them away from it). As Rapture explores objectivism, and Columbia explores American conservatism, each universe represents the natural extension of one perspective towards viewing the world.

The game opens with the exchange “Are you afraid of God, Booker?” “No, but I’m afraid of you.” Both Booker and Comstock fear Elizabeth’s power. Comstock so much so that he has gone out of his way to try to limit her ability to peer between worlds; to prevent her from seeing perspectives he doesn't want her to see. Despite this, he can’t prevent her from finding and pulling open “tears” in his reality; literal holes in the universe in which Columbia resides. Each of these serves as a “what if?” for Columbia’s fate driven by Elizabeth’s wishful thinking. The universe in which the game starts shows us a Vox Populi that is hounded by Comstock’s forces and not equipped enough to fight back, allowing Columbia to remain a relatively stable oppressive society. However, step through a tear and you see a Columbia that is being razed to the ground by bitter, ruthless revolutionaries whose burning ire was created by Columbia’s unjust system.

I should take a moment to address the Vox Populi, which I feel tie into the greater theme of the game but were still somewhat clumsily handled. Daisy Fitzroy’s arc is truncated, and the game’s statements suffer for it, but I don’t think the game was intending to just blindly equivocate the cause of the Vox with the cause of Comstock. Rather, Daisy is intended to be another example of how absolving yourself of guilt can come to a destructive outcome. Daisy’s cause is fundamentally just, but she uses this itself as an excuse not to feel remorse for her actions. Daisy baptizes herself in Fink’s blood, and symbolically she means to indicate that any sins on her part are justified by the sins on his. Using this logic she can rationalize any crime. It’s in this manner that she’s a fitting counterpart to Comstock. The Vox Populi are also meant as a reminder that such revolts in the past have often shared horrible atrocities with their oppressors, and we shouldn't white-wash the actions of progressives either.

For Booker, his trip through Columbia is a journey through his past sins so that he might ultimately seek redemption. For the American player, then, this trip through Columbia is a journey through the past sins of our nation so that we might ultimately seek redemption as well. Your final act is to destroy the siphon, the device that limits Elizabeth’s powers to view alternative worlds: allowing her to see through every door, to see the infinite paths that America may be led down as a nation. The millions of other Bookers and Elizabeths you see going through the same experience are representative of the millions of other individual Americans who must follow a similar, but different path with their own daughters (and sons) to come ultimately to the same conclusion. The final revelation that the player must experience is the truth that Booker and Comstock are ultimately the same man. While they view it from opposite perspectives, they share the same history, and America’s future isn't safe while it’s still allowed to be controlled by America’s past. Booker recognizes his sins and allows Elizabeth to drown him, just as the yoke of America’s past must be thrown off by America’s future, breaking the “Unbroken Circle” of history.

Then, following this rebirth, America’s past may be given a second chance to influence America’s future in a positive way.