Bioshock Infinite is one of the most mature and engrossing video game stories that I’ve ever seen. It covers a lot of dark and disturbing themes, like the dangers of theocracy and blind faith, nationalism vs patriotism, unchecked capitalism, and racism. It’s filled with powerful, and often gut-wrenching scenes of horror. And then there is the bleak, seemingly nihilistic ending that has confused and stunned so many, myself among them. Beneath all that though, is a greater spiritual theme that we should all take to heart. It’s truly a great story, and while a narrative of this kind will leave much open to interpretation, I think this game’s core theme is really one worth hearing.
This game is going to be one of my all-time favorites, and like Spec Ops: The Line before it, Bioshock Infinite has elevated gaming as a storytelling medium to an all new level. This is one of those rare games, no rare stories, that is so wrapped in layers that I could never do it justice in a single blog post so this will be the first of many. How many? I don’t know, I’ll keep going until I’m satisfied that I’ve covered everything.
Since this is an in-depth examination of the narrative there are obviously going to be huge spoilers here, so if you haven’t played the game I’d suggest, no I demand, that you go and play this game right now. This is a story that needs to be experienced, so don’t rob yourself of that experience by ruining the story before playing. That said, if you have played it and you’re looking for someone to put it in perspective, you’ve come to the right place.
First, a brief rundown of the game.
Booker DeWitt, our hero, is tormented by the crimes of his past, more specifically his crimes at Wounded Knee. Wounded Knee, for those who haven’t already wiki’d the event, was a massacre in which over 300 men, women and children from the Lakota tribe lost their lives. We never find out specifics about what Booker DeWitt did at Wounded Knee, though his alter ego Comstock refers to burning tepees with Lakota tribesmen still inside. This is the event that serves as the catalyst for the entire story, even though it doesn’t seem like it in the beginning.
As you find out over the course of the game, you begin where you end. On the boat heading towards the lighthouse after you’ve been pulled out of your own universe by the Lutece siblings in order to try and fix the calamity they caused through their experiments. Booker’s mind, reeling from the trauma of interdimensional travel, has created a whole new set of memories to reconcile what he knows about his past with what actually is in this universe. The Lutece siblings seem completely nonsensical at the beginning, but upon a second playthrough much of their dialogue starts to make sense. When Booker enters the lighthouse he’s greeted by a sign over a basin, it says something to the effect of “wash away your sins.”
Now while not immediately evident, this is the core idea behind the entire story. Booker tried to wash away his sins in alcohol and Comstock tried to wash way his sins with a baptism, two sides of the same coin. Booker drowns not once, not twice, but three times through the course of the game to really drive this imagery home. Throughout the game Booker and Elizabeth will both reflect on how we reconcile our actions with our morality, and how we live with ourselves when those two are in conflict. I mention this now because its critical in understanding the game’s deeper, and more spiritual message.
Booker arrives in Columbia and despite its heavenly appearance, it’s a place filled with hate and fear. Let me say that there are some truly horrific scenes in this game, and I’m by no means a squeamish person. The initial shock of seeing that interracial couple being wheeled forward to be stoned to death by baseballs pales in comparison to what comes later in the story. If you managed to get through this game without getting angry then you should really ask for your Nobel Peace Prize because I’m pretty sure you’re Ghandi. If you’re looking for a game to make you feel warm and happy, then you’d better look elsewhere because Bioshock Infinite will drag you down into the darkest, cruelest depths of mankind’s depravity.
As Booker travels through Columbia he finds that slavery is alive and well in this place, and Lincoln is demonized as the Apostate while his assassin John Wilkes Booth is enshrined as a hero. When you’re just about ready to give up on ever finding a worthwhile human being in this horrible place, you find Elizabeth. A sweet, nineteen year old girl locked in a tower. Romantic isn’t it?
Fortunately Bioshock Infinite turns the “princess in the tower” trope on its head by making Elizabeth a powerful and independent person. In a time when video games are struggling with gender equality, having Elizabeth appear as a well characterized female heroine is a huge step in the right direction. She’s a great character because she feels real. She’s incredibly vulnerable at times, and sometimes it seems like she doesn’t have the fortitude for the journey ahead, but then you’ll find yourself out of ammo with a Handy Man closing in on you and she’ll toss you a loaded shotgun. She’s also a very sweet, romantic girl whose greatest wish is to visit Paris, but on the other hand she’s incredibly angry at the way she’s been imprisoned and can be downright bloodthirsty at times. She’s a complex character filled with contradiction, just like real people are, and that’s why she’s a great character.
In fact, discovering her character as you travel with her through the story is the most enjoyable part of the game. Exploring the dark political and spiritual themes of this game were a lot more poignant because we had Elizabeth at our side to keep us grounded and grant those themes context. That was my one major issue with the original Bioshock, I enjoyed the philosophical nature of the story and the examination of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, but since you’re alone with a silent protagonist the entire time the whole thing lacked context. The horror of Andrew Ryan’s paradise was lost on me mostly because I never got to see what that society would do to someone I cared about. With Elizabeth I was shown exactly what Comstock’s theocracy was capable of doing. I’ll be going more in-depth with Elizabeth’s character and how the gameplay helps to create that character in a later article, but it’s so good that it deserved a mention here.
Elizabeth and Booker DeWitt continue through the city constantly trying to escape, and running into terrible things every step of the way. They help Daisy Fitzroy and the Vox Populi to start a full on revolt, which ends up overthrowing Comstock’s regime but also slaughtering half the city as the downtrodden black, Indian (American Indian) and Irish population of the city take revenge on the upper class whites. They go full French Revolution here, with death squads rounding up anyone that looks rich and putting a bullet through their heads. It’s a bloody mess.
“We had a hand in this, if you want to pretend we’re merely innocents in this, then that’s your prerogative.” – Elizabeth.
She’s right too. Booker DeWitt would like to think that he didn’t have a choice, that he was a victim of circumstance, but Elizabeth is better than that. She knows that she has to accept responsibility for what’s she’s done. When they finally find Daisy Fitzroy, about to murder a child, Elizabeth makes a choice. She can’t take back what’s been done, but she can save that one child by stabbing Fitzroy through the back with a pair of scissors.
“How do you do it? How do you forget? How do you wash away the things that you’ve done?” Elizabeth asks after changing out of her clothes, now soaked through with Daisy’s blood.
“You don’t, you just learn to live with it.” – Booker responds.
That is an important moment in the game, and as I’ll explain later, serves to highlight the main theme of the game.
It was because I liked Elizabeth’s character so much that the final act was so difficult to get through, the girl who wanted nothing more than to go to Paris and dance and listen to music, turns into a tortured girl hellbent on revenge. And I couldn’t really blame her, listening to her screams as she was tortured by Comstock and his insane doctors was one of the most painful things I’ve heard in a game (major kudos to the actress for making it so believable). I was so god damn angry that by the time Booker started slamming Comstock’s head into the fountain, I was screaming at him to stop because that was too fast for him! I wanted him to suffer like Elizabeth had suffered, and at the time I didn’t recognize that I was becoming exactly what the game was warning me about. Before I could really think about that though, I reached the ending that shocked pretty much everyone who played it.
Elizabeth becomes a timelord and begins shifting through dimensions as easily as I shift through channels on my TV. Here was my one problem with this ending: it completely destroys Elizabeth’s character. I don’t mean it undermines her character or cancels out her previous actions, I mean that she becomes an omnipotent god and that makes her impossible to relate to. Her personality, the lovely girl we’ve come to love, is replaced by a cold and almost emotionless Q-like entity, minus John De Lancie’s charm. I think the ending would have been so much more powerful had she remained Elizabeth, and she and I had to continue exploring these new found powers of hers. Discovering these other universes together rather than having her explain everything to me like a glorified narrator.
That said, we come to the end of the road…and also the beginning. Comstock and DeWitt are the same man, both tormented by the sins of their past and both desperately searching for a way to move on. Comstock found his path through baptism and fanatical religious devotion, and DeWitt found his at the bottom of a bottle and a pit of self-loathing. Elizabeth tells him that the only way to break the cycle is for the man who is both DeWitt and Comstock, to die. The game ends with Booker drowning.
At first glance Bioshock Infinite seems to be a nihilistic story, an infinite number of universes caught in an infinite loop of death and destruction from which there is no escape. And yes, there is a very somber ending that leaves you with little happiness and even less hope for the universe we just experienced. That said though, beneath the cruelty the characters experience and beyond the hopeless veil that is draped across the story, there is a very hopeful and powerful message that I hope everyone will take to heart. It’s a subtle message, which is always the best kind, so it doesn’t jump straight out at you but if you look closely, you’ll find it.
That message is the importance of forgiveness and the powerful effect it can have on our lives. I know what you’re thinking, how can that possibly be the main theme of the game? Besides Elizabeth’s forgiving her “mother” outside Comstock House, no one forgives anything in this game. It’s an endless cycle of heinous crimes followed be even more heinous retribution.
And that’s exactly my point.
Let’s take Daisy Fitzroy for example; she leads the downtrodden citizens of Columbia in open revolt, but she doesn’t forgive the people that wronged her. She kills Fink, the greedy industrialist that caused so much suffering, and almost kills his son. In her rage she ends up being killed herself. The Vox, now angry and leaderless, have nothing better to do than to tear the city apart and kill everyone they find. What if Daisy had forgiven her enemies though? What if she’d told Fink and his son to leave Columbia and never return. What if she’d offered the same chance to the other citizens of Columbia; either coexist peacefully here on Columbia or return to the world below. Daisy might have lived and led a new kind of society based on cooperation and understanding, not discrimination and fear.
Or Elizabeth. Towards the end Elizabeth and Booker are on a floating barge ready to head out. Comstock is defeated, the Vox control the city and the only thing left to him is his faith and his flagship which will soon be destroyed by the pursuing Vox fleet. There is really no reason to chase him, everything he loves is gone. But Elizabeth wants revenge. She wants to see his blood pouring out of his broken body. That’s exactly what she gets. And as a result she loses her father, DeWitt, and her own personality is completely subdued by the effects of interdimensional travel, leaving her cold and distant just like the Lutece siblings.
She could have just left it, gone to Paris with DeWitt like he begged her to. Perhaps they could have found some semblance of peace there. Perhaps she was right, and her sacrifice of surrendering her sense of self in order stop Comstock from ever appearing was both necessary and righteous. Her fate, and DeWitt’s fate, are uncertain. Forgiving our enemies is important, but it’s only a secondary theme in the game.
The main theme is how important it is to forgive ourselves.
“How do you do it? How do you forget? How do you wash away the things that you’ve done?” – Elizabeth
“You don’t, you just learn to live with it.” – Booker
Booker has some good advice here, but unfortunately he doesn’t follow it. Learning to live with what you’ve done means both accepting responsibility for your actions and forgiving yourself for taking those actions. Booker does neither in the game. Trying to forget his past by drinking and gambling isn’t learning to live with yourself, it’s hiding from yourself. By the same token, Comstock doesn’t learn to live with himself, he tries to wash away his sins with a baptism and cloak his crimes in a flag of glory.
It’s Bookers stubborn refusal to forgive himself for Wounded Knee, a crime that was in all probability completely out of his control, that leads to this whole story unfolding. Had he forgiven himself for his crimes, perhaps he never would have joined the Pinkertons. If he hadn’t sought to drown his guilt with booze and a never ending tide of self-hatred he would never have tried to get a Baptism to wash it clean and Comstock would never have come to exist. Anna would have known her real father, she would never have been cursed with the ability to open dimensional tears, and led a normal life instead. Without the baptism perhaps Columbia would never have been built, maybe Lutece would have failed to find funding for his/her experiments.
Perhaps that’s exactly what happens. If you let the game play through the credits you’ll wake up as Booker DeWitt in his office and with a child crying in the next room. “Anna?” He asks as he steps through the door. It fades to white before you can see whats on the other side, but I choose to believe Anna was really there. Perhaps what I saw was the universe where Booker DeWitt forgave himself, where none of the horrors I saw during my time in Columbia ever occurred. Where Booker and Anna got to lead a happy and fulfilling life.
Like all stories this complex, this is all open to interpretation. Perhaps you didn’t see anything about forgiveness in this game, maybe that was just my perspective on it. There are so many ways to interpret a game like this, and I don’t think any of them could be called wrong. It’s a deeply philosophical game that deals with matters of spirituality, religion and science. This game has so many layers, and I’ll be exploring a choice few of them over the course of the next few weeks, but forgiveness was the theme that struck a chord with me. We all have regrets we hold onto, that we beat ourselves up over even decades after the actual event and it doesn’t do anyone any good, especially ourselves.
Most of us will never have to forgive ourselves for crimes as heinous as the one’s perpetrated by Booker DeWitt and the 7th Calvary. So by comparison, we should all have an easy time forgiving ourselves for freaking out our first childhood crush or getting ourselves thrown out of college by cheating. Okay, those two are just mine, but for the rest of you, find what you’re holding onto and take Bioshock: Infinite’s advice.