Lately, I’ve wanted to do some writings regarding video games and their themes. Lets get some things cleared up first. Video games, by their very nature, are meant to entertain people, and should be fun to play. However, there are certain games that go beyond the simple entertainment factor. They provide emotional impacts in the form of identifiable characters either suffering or getting something good. Other times, they provide deep, thought-provoking messages, which is the topic of these essays that I’m going to write.
The game I’m going to write about is BioShock Infinite, since that game is still fresh in my mind. Numerous things come to mind when playing that game, and some of them are extremely uncomfortable to admit to. As I write down my thoughts on BioShock Infinite’s themes, I have to address this: SPOILERS ARE ABOUND! If you haven’t played the game to completion or simply haven’t played the game at all, read this at your own risk. Also—and this should go without saying—this is strictly my opinion. If you guys have any other opinions regarding this game and its numerous themes, let me know in the comments, and we can discuss them. With that said, let’s get started.
The main story follows Booker DeWitt as he travels to the floating city of Columbia to clear away a debt. It’s never stated what this debt is, but apparently it’s enough to cause Booker to abandon his life for a few weeks while he searches for a girl, as his employers have explicitly told him “ bring us the girl, wipe away the debt.” This will hopefully redeem his past sins and allow him to refresh his life. Throughout the game, whenever he’s confronted with his past, he gets a headache, his nose bleeds, and he all of a sudden can’t remember his past (the full details of which will be explained later). It implies that Booker is afraid of something. His past, maybe? After all, he refuses to mention anything from his past. Whenever Comstock (the game’s antagonist) or Elizabeth (the girl he was tasked with finding) push him, he shuts down and says nothing. Booker denies any accountability for his past sins, and that is ultimately the first step to redemption.
It is often said that in order to forgive anyone else, you must first forgive yourself. In Christianity (an important theme to note in this game), accountability is key to forgiveness. The Bible teaches many things about forgiveness, but a verse from 1 John 1:9 comes to mind here. The verse reads “ If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” While the verse specifically speaks about God as the one who forgives, this can also apply to anyone who’s been asked for forgiveness, including ourselves. Booker represents the struggle we go through in dealing with our past, especially the parts that trouble us for years to come. He, like most people, would rather forget than confront, and that leads people to make rushed and often bad decisions in life. In the game, Booker travels to a foreign city with little knowledge of it in search of a girl he’s never met in order to erase a part of his past he wishes had never happened. He doesn’t believe in God or fate, so he feels he must work on his own in order figure it all out.
When he encounters Elizabeth, however, his viewpoint starts to change. Elizabeth, who is the villain’s imprisoned daughter in the game, becomes such a great companion that he soon forgets about his debt and does his best to protect her, even if that means risking his own life. From context given throughout the game, it appears as though he’s lost someone important to him. He seems to think that by protecting Elizabeth, he can atone for that person’s loss, which he seems to think is his entire fault. This is another way people try to atone for themselves: by overcompensating for their weaknesses or failures on something or someone else. Booker finds Elizabeth as someone worth saving, and he feels that he can now redeem himself by protecting someone he cares about. Having the means to do so, he feels he cannot fail.
By the time the ending sequence finishes, he’s ready and able to confront his problems head-on and end his nightmare for good, while also securing Elizabeth’s safety in the process. However, when he discovers the truth about whom he is and what he’s after, he finds peace. Suddenly, the nightmare is over. In confronting the problem at the source, he’s able to find the redemption he’s been seeking.
If there’s one thing that made me incredibly uncomfortable at first, it’s the portrayal of religion in this game; specifically Christianity, which I identify as being without any shame. At first it seems to hold to what the people of Columbia believe, which is fine by itself since America was first founded on Christian principles and ethics. However, things started getting out of hand when I found out they twisted the Trinity up. Instead of it being God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, it turned into the Prophet, the Founders of Columbia, and the Lord. It seems as though Columbia’s leader, “Father” Zachery Hale Comstock, has such an ego that he believes himself to be one of the divine servants of God.
It doesn’t stop there either. Comstock, the leader of Columbia, claims to have prophetic “ visions” that the citizens hold in high regard when they all start coming true. The means by which he gains these “ visions” are nothing more than the science of the game at work (again, to be discussed later), and yet he uses this to mean that he has a God-given gift, and will use it to justify his will on the rest of Columbia, claiming it to be God’s grand design. He even had a man rework his childhood to mirror Jesus’s childhood because he felt that he was that divine.
It also extends to extreme racism throughout. Being that the setting is in the year 1912, it’s no secret that African-Americans, Irish, and Asian-Americans were given very harsh treatment by the American society, and Columbia is no exception. Comstock perverts Scripture to make sure that the White man is the true essence of being human, and that anyone else is at a level with the animals, though just barely. Hell, one of the first signs of Columbia’s horror is of a raffle where the winner gets to throw the first baseball at a married interracial couple, complete with numerous highly offensive lines and caricatures. They even demonize Abraham Lincoln for freeing the slaves, claiming that his actions caused unnecessary war and death, with some factions praising John Wilkes Booth for slaying Lincoln. Every non-white citizen is cast into slums, experiments are performed on minorities by some of the shadier groups, and even the concept of wage slavery is used against them. It’s a terrifying situation to be in if you’re not white.
Through these actions, the Vox Populi are born: a rebel group of African-Americans led by Daisy Fitzroy, one of Comstock’s former “servants” before she was cast out due to accusations of her killing off Lady Comstock, the late wife of the Prophet. They want to be treated as equals in Columbia, but believe that only through a revolution is this possible. Though the timeline is off by several decades, the Vox Populi seem to adhere to the views of Malcolm X and his Black Islam beliefs, as well as the more modern Black Panthers movement. With Booker’s indirect help, they succeed in taking Columbia by storm. They view the White man as evil and oppressive, which goes to show how racism can also stem from past struggles related to a specific group.
It shows dedication on the part of Ken Levine and the rest of Irrational Games to make a world so true to its own setting, even if it runs the risk of upsetting people. It even stresses the fact that those who are against Columbia’s “more perfect union” aren’t perfect either; just as Columbia itself is far from perfection. Comstock is an example of what absolute power can do to a person, a theme that shows up in the previous game. Coupled with his charisma and resources, he creates a cult of personality that’s terrifying, to say the least. It portrays the darker side of Christianity and religion in a realistic manner without disrespecting those who believe in such things. It even shows racism from a different perspective, giving examples of how the mindset of people works, even those oppressed. This is especially important when you realize this is technically a steampunk setting: a genre that often ignores the underlying social issues of the eras it most often utilizes while focusing on the what ifs of technological advances.
Multiple Universes/Science Fiction
A major theme in the BioShock series is its commentary on science and ethics. This is no exception in BioShock Infinite, and this is perhaps the biggest theme discussed within the story, so this section will take a while to explain. It also ties into a meta reading of BioShock Infinite that basically says how video games are structured overall, even when given multiple choices towards the endings.
Within the game, you come across events known as “ tears” which are basically doorways to alternate realities. Elizabeth, the character I mentioned before, not only is able to see tears, but is able to mysteriously open them. With these tears, Booker and Elizabeth are able to see and interact with the universe within. Within the gameplay, they provide a means to travel, equip weapons, set traps, and anything else that can assist during combat. While they add an extra tactical layer to the old-school shooting mechanics the game delivers, they serve a higher purpose within the narrative.
In the story, you come across twins named Robert and Rosalind Lutece, the ones who invented the technology that keeps Columbia in the sky. These two discovered what the tears were, and decided to use their knowledge of physics to see what the tears meant. Their discoveries led to Father Comstock using their talents to help aid his efforts to create Columbia through his “ visions.” What they found out was that the universes in the tears held many similarities and differences in the form of constants and variables. For instance, when Booker dies in the game, he’s transported back to his PI office, which can change in different and subtle ways. A doorknob will be on the left or right, items on his desk will change, and several other changes that are enough to be considered uncanny. This occurs in several other places, but this is the most prominent example, and can be considered an example of what truly happens when a video game character dies in game and is revived through magical means outside of the context of the story.
However, due to the tears being alternate universes, the Lutece’s make some startling discoveries about themselves and the world they live in that ultimately lead to the events of the game, along with some startling revelations. To begin with, the Lutece’s aren’t actually twins. They are, in fact, the same person from two different universes: one, where they were born a man, the other a woman. They met through the use of tears, and thus they both began studying them in an attempt to understand what was happening, as good scientists often do. Comstock funded them, of course, but his use of their science was becoming too unethical for their standards, especially with how they used Elizabeth’s abilities for their own gain. With the assistance of Jeremiah Fink (another game character), they sabotage their own tear-creating machine, but it backfires, causing their deaths. Their deaths, however, caused a singularity to occur, exposing them to an infinite number of universes, in which they are then able to travel between them at will. It’s why they appear throughout the game, giving you little tests like coin flips and choosing a broche for Elizabeth. They’re finding out what’s a constant and a variable in whatever world they appear in, and it gives an example about choices in games and how, ultimately, not many choices ultimately matter in the grand scheme of the plot of most games, which is what the BioShock games have always tried to hammer home since the first game. This one is just more subtle about it.
This extends to Booker and Elizabeth, as they both have been affected by the tampering caused by the Lutece’s experiments. Booker had sold his little girl Anna to some man in order to pay off his debt through Robert Lutece. Aside from losing Father of the Year in a major way, the buyer was none other than Father Comstock, though Booker didn’t notice this development at first. He later regrets his actions and tries to reclaim Anna before she was pulled through a tear. However, the tear closed before she was completely through, resulting in Anna having her pinky finger severed. Elizabeth, strangely enough, is also missing her pinky finger. The reason? Anna and Elizabeth are the same person. Elizabeth only came about through Comstock taking Anna away from Booker. They didn’t come from alternate worlds; they are the same person who ended up being transported. It’s through Anna/Elizabeth existing in two worlds simultaneously that she’s able to access tears in the first place. It’s as though she’s trying to find the missing part of herself, both physically and emotionally. She knew something was always missing, yet couldn’t figure it out. As Anna/Elizabeth says in the game, her being able to open tears was “ a form of wish fulfillment.” She also said that when she was younger, and not under the effects of a tear siphon within her prison, she was able to create tears of her own. Due to her existing within two different universes, this doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, since it’s a way of her trying to connect to the other world she’s also bound towards.
It’s the endgame sequence that truly solidifies this theory, however. Having Booker and Elizabeth travel to Rapture to escape Songbird (Elizabeth’s prison warden/abusive guardian) was not only fan-service, but also an example of the immense interdimensional travel Elizabeth is capable of when not restricted by the siphon. After they go back to the lighthouse from the beginning of the original game and go back inside, the definition of the “Infinite” in the game’s title begins to clarify itself. Once inside the lighthouse, they see the same lighthouse copied several times over. Elizabeth explains that the stars in the sky aren’t really stars. They are all lighthouses that signal the beginning of another story. As stated in the game, “There’s always a man; always a lighthouse; always a city.” It talks about how video games always three things tying their story together: a protagonist, a starting point, and a setting, with the details always changing depending on the kind of story you want to tell.
While traveling through the different lighthouses, Elizabeth explains how everything works. While not complete technobabble, it offers insight into how their universe(s) work within the limits of the plot’s design. In the simplest terms, all of the lighthouses are connected in some way, evident in the multiple Bookers and Elizabeths you see along your path. This applies to multiple quantum physics theories that all possible universes are connected through events that lead to multiple outcomes, and that every outcome has and is happening right now, but what we perceive is only a part of the outcome we’ve personally experienced. The evidence for this is the different moments that emerge from the “ small” choices made previously. Choosing which pin to give to Elizabeth, demanding tickets at a ticket booth as opposed to asking, saving Captain Slate or shooting him. All of these moments are just smaller branches in a much bigger timeline. Going through the door of the final lighthouse, Booker is transported into a major part of his past: his baptism after starting a Native-American massacre. In this version of events, Booker refused to accept it, seeing it as wasteful and useless considering all that he has done during the war (again, that refusal of accepting his punishment we talked about earlier). Elizabeth then leads him through another door, revealing what happened in his life up until the events in Columbia. By the end of his journey to the past, he reaches the same place again, but in an alternate timeline; the one where he did accept the baptism.
He at first is confused, as Elizabeth tells him that it’s the birthplace of Father Comstock, but it’s a place familiar to Booker as well. It is then revealed that the Booker that received the baptism became Comstock, rendering both him and Booker as the same person. The universes collided with each other due to the Lutece’s experiments, and things spun out of control quickly. Elizabeth then tells him that in order for both universes to finally be at peace and return to normal, Booker has to die in that moment where he became Comstock, so that both universes would cease to exist. No more Columbia, Booker/Comstock, Lutece’s, or Anna/Elizabeth. It would all end with that death, which does happen at the hands of the multiple Elizabeths within both universes. A post-credits scene appears afterwards, showing us another alternate universe. Booker’s in his office, where a baby starts crying. He calls out Anna’s name as he opens the door to her room before the game cuts to black.
It seems confusing at first, and it is. Yes, some holes do arise from this, but that’s more due to the mystery aspect rather than the fault of the game, and also with the problems involved in the multiple universe theory itself. If Ken Levine would give us more insight into the whole deal, then we’d know what it all meant. But as it stands right now, the ending is meant to be a mystery and nothing more. With all of this said, the game does its best to wrap the themes together into one solid package that is determined to sell you an engaging narrative as well as a deep and rewarding gameplay experience. I’ve heard many decry the story and ending due to its mysterious nature and almost pretentious levels of writing in terms of ideas and conversation pieces, but in the end, that’s what a good story does, regardless of whether you like it or not. It unleashes debate with multiple viewpoints, and that’s ultimately the intent here, as Ken Levine has stated in multiple interviews since the game’s release. The original BioShock was aided by the ideas of objectivism, free will vs. control, and moral dilemmas. Infinite retains the same basic gameplay ideology, but instead goes into different themes such as the ones I’ve listed. The core of the franchise is the commentary of each presented theme, not in one singular, narrow idea that could just as easily become stale if explored too deeply. If people can grasp and understand this, then maybe the comparisons will focus on how well the commentary is presented instead of arguing over which game is better, as they’re fundamentally different in a thematic sense.
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