Dies, Died, Will Die: An Analysis of BioShock Infinite
Posted on Tuesday, April 9 @ 17:00:00 PST by Nicholas Tan
Since the ultimate solution of the time paradox centers around Booker's refusal of the baptism, many players will likely view BioShock Infinite in an anti-religious light. Some flat-out disagree with this notion, believing that the story's message is more about the corrupt use of religion as a false cure for past sins rather than about a judgment on religion itself. As Alex Osborn points out in his feature on being a religious person and a video game player, this issue can be difficult to handle.
I agree and disagree with the anti-religious interpretation of Bioshock Infinite. On one hand, there would be no point for using baptism, mentioning the Lord multiple times, turning Lady Comstock into a figure similar to the Virgin Mary, and calling Elizabeth the Miracle Child if the developers at Irrational Games had nothing to say on the subject of religion. Comstock bluntly uses religious doctrine and aspects of Christian mythology to create cover stories that mask his crimes of deceit, racism, and genocide.
On the other hand, the underlying theme of Bioshock Infinite that ties the story together is not about religion as much as it is about running away from the truth and attempting to seek false redemption by burrowing into an external solution that doesn't solve the root of the problem. Booker and Comstock, albeit in different ways, are both unable to face the sins of killing innocent people as a staff sergeant at Wounded Knee and as a hired hand of Pinkerton.
Accepting the baptism turns Booker into Comstock, an antagonist who abuses the modern conservative notions of national pride and religion by mutating them into extreme ideals and justifications for his past deeds. In one Voxophone, Comstock asks, "[Does] the one left behind in the baptismal water... exist in some other world, alive, with sin intact?", which cheekily references Booker but also shows that he doesn't see himself as a sinner. It's no wonder that he freely distorts American exceptionalism, white supremacy, and golden calves in the shape of the statues of America's Founding Fathers into a well-constructed defense of one colossal lie.
Meanwhile, rejecting the baptism turns Booker into a regretful veteran who believes he has become irredeemable, succumbing to alcoholism, gambling, and general despondency, a (literally) bleak gray world where his self-worth becomes so low that he sells Anna to Robert Lutece. It's not until the rescue attempt in the alleyway that he realizes his grievous mistake, but it's too little too late.
Regardless of the baptism and its outcome, Booker fails to reconcile his sins peacefully. He is not emotionally prepared nor spiritually ready for the journey of redemption, and so the baptism is doomed before it even begins. For an analogy, it's like a murderer who finds Jesus only to kill more people in his name; he obviously did not get the message.
In other words, BioShock Infinite does not flat-out reject religion insomuch as it asserts that religion cannot fix a broken man who chooses to remain broken. In fact, it's a formula that can lead to the ruination of man himself.
Booker's Inner Journey
The character progression of Booker DeWitt could have been made less subtle and thereby more believable throughout the story, but the components exist under the scrutiny of observation. At the very least, BioShock Infinite doesn't hit players over the head with a heartfelt message to make a point.
Booker's character arc rests on his coming to terms with the realization that Comstock is fundamentally a part of him. He both is and is not Comstock. Even if he bashes Comstock's head and drowns him in the baptismal water, it doesn't erase the sinful acts of their shared past. Killing Comstock is not the absolute end Booker (nor the player) hopes it was. In fact, for the final battle sequence Booker symbolically replaces Comstock but in a different image, in a role reversal where he must protect the ship by commanding the Songbird and eliminating the Vox Populi resistance who might as well make no distinction between Comstock and this apparent "imposter" of Booker DeWitt.
The concept of facing oneself can be reflected in the use of mirrors, or lack thereof. It's curious that there are no mirrors anywhere, notably in bathrooms where one would expect multiple mirrors to be placed. Only the opening sequence has a mirror near the entrance of the lighthouse, where a plaque asks Booker to cleanse himself before reaching the supposed heaven that is Columbia. Perhaps this mirror is merely a way for the player to see what Booker looks like, as this is a first-person shooter, or perhaps it's just an graphical oversight, but I believe the absence of mirrors after that scene is intentional. Both Booker and Comstock cannot see themselves for who they really are, which is the underlying theme that fuels the story in the first place.
Each level of Columbia is designed for Booker to destroy the layers of lies Comstock has built around himself, and thereby simultaneously and ironically, Booker's lies as well. Monument Island represents Booker's neglect of his daughter, tucking Anna away in a room while he wallows in despair. Here he must confront the lie that he was merely keeping Anna safe from harm, notably from himself. In the Hall of Heroes, Booker must eliminate any notions of national pride and necessity as justification for his actions at Wounded Knee. The facade of the opening levels of Columbia begins to crumble.
In Fink Industries, he revisits the oppression he enforced as a Pinkerton, probably also against black and Irish workers. Here the lie is that he only did this because it was his job. Booker in an alternate timeline states in a Voxophone: "It's one thing to hurt someone because you need to; it's another thing to enjoy it." While this certainly takes a jab at the player who is probably enjoying the death cries of foes getting blasted by plasmids and bullets, it also describes the Vox Populi and its leader Daisy Fitzroy.
The oppression they've suffered has become a rationalization for the excessive violence they commit in their protest. Both Daisy, who smothers herself in Fink's blood, and the alternate Booker, who becomes a propagandized martyr who has as much influence on the people as Comstock does as a prophet, die for their actions. It's just another example of how Booker is Comstock merely flipped on his head. But also, in this manner, BioShock Infinite does not take a side on the debate between conservatism and liberalism by showing how both extremes can lead to equally dangerous and inhumane outcomes.
By the ending, Booker peels off each lie of self-deception until he discovers that his own mind fabricated memories when he entered Comstock's timeline. As Robert Lutece says, the mind fills in the gaps as necessary, even if they are white lies that help Booker push through Columbia. Despite the drone-like repetition that the mission is to "save the girl and wipe away the debt," the actual mission is to "save himself and wipe away his guilt."
It's not until Booker understands this and that he is also Comstock ("I am both."), coming to accept Elizabeth's judgment as his daughter and victim as well as her powers which he fears more than God ("No, but I'm afraid of you."), that he allows her to give him the true baptism. After the credits roll, he earns a rebirth into another timeline in which he can finally live with himself and provide Anna with the life she deserves.
What are your thoughts on BioShock Infinite? Am I coming out of the left field? Do you agree with some of my points? Did I miss an analytical point you would like to make? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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