I think I finally figured out Bioshock Infinite.
Not the ending. The ending is pretty straightforward, so long as you’re paying attention. [Quick Note: Obviously, this article is going to deal in quite a lot of SPOILERS, so if you haven’t played it and plan to, just stop here.] In fact, in some ways the ending is TOO straightforward, which is one of the things I want to talk about. No, what I think I finally understand is Bioshock Infinite’s message, what it’s trying to say with its world and characters. I think Bioshock Infinite is meant to be the polar opposite of Bioshock 1 and 2.
Bold thing for me to say, maybe, since I never played 1 or 2. I’m not good with horror games, or darkness, or creepy little girls, or being deep underwater. Basically everything about the two games freaked me out.
Bioshock Infinite was a bit iffy for me too—it was a flying city, and while I’ve always had a soft spot for that premise, at the same time I’m bizarrely afraid of heights. But my brother, who’s something of a gamer, reccommended it, and so did my roommate, who is not in any way a gamer. And so did a number of my friends and acquaintances. So, when I had a week free, I started playing… and played for nearly three days straight, I was so entranced. I loved the world, the art, the combat—the ending left me feeling emotionally exhausted and fulfilled. I was prepared to agree with the prevailing opinion, that Bioshock Infinite is one of the greatest games of our generation.
But then when I thought back, I really started to wonder what I’d found so special about it. After all, Infinite had a lot of flaws. The combat was excessive and distracting. The society didn’t seem workable. A lot of the characters seemed pretty flat and their reactions in the game, on reflection, made no sense. When did Daisy Fitzroy become a baby-killer? How could a baptism render a man so terrible? The main villain was flat and two-dimensional, which was odd, given what I’d heard of Bioshock. Equally oddly, there was only one ending to the game, your choices really didn’t matter, especially problematic since the game was about limitless possibility and the multiverse.
And the theme bothered me. All games have a theme or message, whatever people say, but Bioshock is a series especially known for its front-and-center themes and the way they incorporate them into gameplay. But in Infinite, I couldn’t tell what it was supposed to be. Oh, the side messages—racism is bad, extremism is bad, don’t sell your daughter, etc—those were easy enough to see. But I couldn’t see how they were all supposed to fit together, particularly in light of Booker’s baptism-or-lack-thereof. I hadn’t felt like it was supposed to be “religion is bad,” but it was hard to see what else it COULD be.
I read several reviews online that tried to unpack the themes of the game, but none of them satisfied me. Turns out actually the praise is not so universal–Bioshock Infinite has a LOT of critics. Most of my CS friends hated it. A member of the Dev Team nearly resigned over the ending. Everyone agreed that the game was satirizing American Exceptionalism, but beyond that, few people had much to offer—particularly on the character of Comstock, who apparently even Ken Levine, the game developer, hadn’t understood very well. A friend of mine wrote in Christ and Pop Culture that in terms of the baptism, the officiating minister had failed Booker by not truly getting to know the man’s sin and helping him find redemption. That made sense, but it still didn’t feel like the whole picture.
Well, I gave it up, and moved on to XCOM and other matters, until one day, in the middle of Old English, something occurred to me—not about Comstock, but about Songbird.
Songbird is, in some ways, more important to Bioshock Infinite than Comstock. He was in nearly all of the promotional material and gameplay portions long before Comstock was fully realized, he affects the gameplay in a more active way than Comstock, and even Elizabeth seems more affected by him than by her ‘father.’ So any examination of Infinite’s themes must begin with Songbird.
Songbird is most broadly understood to be a dark reflection of the Big Daddy from the earlier Bioshock games, who were equally crucial to those game’s themes and promotional material. In the first Bioshock game, of course, the Big Daddies are forces for good, who protect the Little Sisters in Rapture’s Randian world. They represent the importance of reaching out and helping the weak and helpless, and that not everything can be about the great and the powerful.
Songbird is essentially the far side of this—a flying Big Daddy with issues. Late in the game we learn that Songbird was based on the Big Daddy tech, viewed through a rift by Turner. Songbird was created to ‘protect’ his little sister, in this case, Elizabeth.
But Songbird has taken his protection to an extreme. He keeps Elizabeth imprisoned in the statue and kills anyone and everyone who tries to get to her. He hounds her restlessly, pounding on the statue to demand entrance and see that she’s okay. When she finally escapes, he hunts her, seeking to capture and bring her back to her tower, where she can be ‘safe.’ Songbird, like a Big Daddy, protects his little sister, but does so by keeping her insulated and isolated in a cage. Elizabeth says, “I used to love him… until I grew to hate him. He was my jailer.”
THIS is the point of Bioshock Infinite. Songbird, as the Big Daddy of Infinite, encapsulates Infinite’s themes as much as the Big Daddies of Bioshock 1 encapsulated theirs. Instead of the need to protect the weak, Infinite is actually about the danger of OVER-protecting the weak, to the extent of keeping them and their potential stifled.
Comstock, like the villains before him, actually does have a noble end at his core—he wants to protect the weak and helpless. And he does this by creating an isolated cage—Columbia, a utopia meant tokeep his flock safe and insulated from the ravages of the world below. He is willing, like a Big Daddy, to kill anyone he sees as a threat, whether it be the Boxers or the Sioux.
And he is also willing to subject other people to injustice and torment in order to ensure his people are comfortable. In a recording that gives rare insight into Comstock’s character, he admits:
To tax the black more than the white, is that not cruel? To forbid the mixing of the races, is that not cruel? To give the vote to the white man, and deny it to the yellow, the black, the red — is that not cruel? Hm. But is it not cruel to banish your children from a perfect garden? Or drown your flock under an ocean of water? Cruelty can be instructive, and what is Columbia, if not the schoolhouse of the Lord?
It’s worth remembering that Comstock protests to the end that he wants nothing more than to protect Elizabeth, that that is why he locked her up in the statue. The Statue is literally a Columbia within Columbia, a utopia within a utopia, meant to keep ‘the lamb’ further insulated from the insular society.
But how does this work with Comstock’s many cruelties toward Elizabeth? Why the siphon, the leash, the years of torture? Surely he was only ever thinking to use her?
In a sense, yes, but also no. After all, Elizabeth’s portals are very dangerous—she almost gets run over in the first one we see her open. A siphon is a prudent measure. So are leashes, in a certain context.
But both measures are meant to indicate the danger and the true intent of such over-protectiveness—to make the weak and the helpless dependent on you—in effect, to make them your slave.
Another one of Comstock’s recordings hints at this. Raving against Lincoln, he says
“What exactly was the “Great Emancipator” emancipating the Negro from? From his daily bread. From the nobility of honest work. From wealthy patrons who sponsored them from cradle to grave. From clothing and shelter..”
Slavery, to Comstock, is also about protection, protecting, shielding the black man because he is too stupid and too weak to subsist on his own. Albert Fink, while the player is touring Finkton, provides a more obviously cynical view of this when he explains why his workers have to shop at the factory store. “Now folks: I been hearing a lot of complainin’ about why you have to shop at the company store. Well, I know that there are lots of swindlers and cheats out there, and I can’t abide them taking advantage of my poor defenseless workers.” Finkton is doing deliberately what Comstock is doing subconsciously—keeping his workers enslaved by ‘protecting’ them within a cage.
But of course, such a cage only stifles the bird, particularly if the bird has such limitless potential as Elizabeth. Overprotecting the weak keeps them weak, ensures that they never grow to fulfill whatever potential they might possibly have. If Bioshock 1 is about the need for charity, for helping the poor and the weak, then Bioshock Infinite could be considered to be the danger of excessive welfare—of ensuring the poor remain poor through over-protection. Considering the plotline with the Vox, it seems doubtful the writers intended this reading, yet it is hard (for me, anyway) to resist.
In true Bioshock fashion, this message is interwoven in the gameplay. Infinite has been described as one long escort mission—you are constantly accompanying Elizabeth and protecting her. In the pursuit of this goal, you commit a great deal of violence, occasionally against innocents. You have the opportunity to make morally questionable choices—though most end up not mattering. Early on, you manipulate and trick Elizabeth in order to make your protection easier.
Yet at the same time, this level of protection is unnecessary—the game explicitly tells you that Elizabeth can fend for herself in a fight and that you don’t need to watch her. Some have even argued [link] that Elizabeth is escorting Booker, feeding him supplies and revivals, opening up rifts and doors, etc. As the game progresses, you stop shielding her and actively involve her in her own escape. After rescuing Elizabeth the second time, when you tell her that you can’t allow her to kill Comstock, she reasonably asks how you intend to stop her.
Your answer: “Not a damn thing. Because I’m going to do it for you.”
Booker is a protector, but Booker does not hold Elizabeth back, stifling her potential. Booker aids Elizabeth in her goals.
This is why the ending, the only possible ending, has to be Booker’s death. The role of the protector is to become obsolete, unneeded, in essence, to destroy himself. Elizabeth becoming self-sufficient—more powerful than her protector—is the final victory of the protector.
So where, in all this, does Booker’s baptism enter in?This is still fuzzy to me, but I think I finally have an answer.
I would like to preface it by saying that I don’t think that Ken Levine, the developer, understands religion very well. I don’t think he has any active malevolence against Christianity—largely, I think Comstock’s baptism was a later addition that they slapped on to explain the story change and to fit in better with Comstock’s Mormon-like utopia. But that by itself also tells me that he doesn’t have much sympathy with Christianity—less sympathy than he might have had for Randian philosophy (which is ironic on several levels).
A point that the game makes is that any cage, however pleasing and comfortable, is constricting. Elizabeth, once out of her statue, cannot wait to escape the comfortable cage of Columbia for Paris. Booker, once he begins to see the multiverse, wants to retreat to Paris, but Elizabeth presses on. However terrible and frightening the outside world is, it is still better than the cage, as Elizabeth underscores when she begs Booker to kill her rather than let Songbird take her back. Nor are cages merely physical—the Comstock House level details a mental cage that Comstock has set up around Elizabeth’s mind that it take her many years after his death to unravel. It is a comfortable cage—Old Elizabeth talks about how frightened she is to take off the Leash and see the many possibilities—but it is still a cage, and Elizabeth must escape it, just as Booker has to enter the last door. Any cage is a limit on one’s potential, and any cage is intolerable.
This is where, I think, God comes into play, perhaps unconsciously. God, and the belief in an objective morality—a belief in happy endings, essentially—is comforting. Elizabeth WANTS to believe that someone will hold her and Booker accountable for their crimes, because it would mean that someone will also hold the others accountable. Elizabeth wants to believe that the story will end happily—as, of course, do all of Bioshock’s gamers. This is why Old Elizabeth and Booker are not afraid of God—God is comforting. They are afraid of Lutece, or Elizabeth—of the multiverse that both represent.
The multiverse is the terrible, frightening outside reality. This is repeatedly shown, as the gamer hops between different universes. People who died in other universes have gone slightly mad, terrified of the glimpse of the multiverse, horrified of the thought that had things gone ever so slightly differently, they could have died. Old Elizabeth uses this same process to break her rebellious citizens by confronting them with versions of their alternate selves. And Booker, like Lutece before him, creates a whole false history in his mind rather than comprehend the horror of the multiverse.
Why is the multiverse so horrible? Because the multiverse means that every bad thing that can happen, has happened. For every good outcome, there are hundreds of terrible ones. Just in the game, Booker and Elizabeth navigate four different realities where things ended badly for Columbia and Elizabeth. The game is very blatant about this—the entire Comstock House level is playing through one of these dark realities—a reality where Booker dies, where Elizabeth is tortured into submission. The story does not always end happily—Elizabeth has to change universes several times just to make the ‘happy’ ending possible.
The multiverse is horrible and frightening—but it is also reality, and it is liberating. Elizabeth’s revelation of the thousands of lighthouses, and thousands of stars, is beautiful and makes the player feel as though he has infinite choices (though of course, they in fact have only one). In the face of this terrifying freedom, the belief in happy endings, in God, is yet another cage that the player must escape in order to achieve their true potential.
“My god… it’s full of stars!”
Perhaps this is the secret behind Booker’s baptism. Comstock chose to believe that there was a reason for the massacre at Wounded Knee, that there was a God who redeemed it so that it became good. This, in turn led him to believe that the massacre itself was good, and that consequently other atrocities must also be good. Booker, meanwhile, refused to believe that the massacre was anything but meaningless slaughter. Without belief and purpose, he grew more and more violent and drunken. But because he never thought the massacre was anything except meaningless, he was more free to accept meaning in the form of his daughter. More free to achieve his final potential. Meaning is found in other humans, in the bonds of family.
I can’t pretend to say this is the only theme in Bioshock Infinite—in fact, I would say a weakness of the game is that it is thematically discordant, trying to fit in too many themes that don’t blend well together. It’s also about xenophobia, about class struggle, about how these are matters that weren’t just limited to 1930’s America. It’s about the cycle of violence in culture, and perhaps the inevitability of it. Probably Booker’s death is representative of the only way to break this circle of violence. There’s at least one other theme in there that I can’t quite chase out.
But I think that in its original conception, at least, the game was about the dangers of overprotection and the need for freedom outside of any limiting cage. And I think that that, finally, is the best and clearest way to understand Bioshock Infinite.