WARNING: The following deals with information from the end of Bioshock Infinite, especially the implication of the last scene before the credits roll, so expect massive spoilers. In other words:
Duke doesn’t read spoilers before playing games he wants to play. Dimwit reads spoilers and is disappointed by his gaming experience. Don’t be a Dimwit, be a Duke.
In the closing minutes of Bioshock Infinite the supporting character Elizabeth reveals that the protagonist Booker DeWitt is in fact a younger, parallel version of antagonist Zachery Hale Comstock. While the revelation is rather predictable, and from there the story unfolds like a propaganda poster, I, Jess/Writer, became of two minds about the game as a whole.
Jess isn’t a fan of first person shooters. In fact he’s only played two at any length since the release of the original Doom in 1993 (those two being Borderlands and Borderlands 2, which include RPG elements and some of the funniest game dialogue ever). He finds the gameplay and storytelling of FSps limiting, with very little true innovation since Castle Wolfenstein and stories that are often quite predictable and unfulfilled.
Plus, to be honest, Jess’s gaming skills aren’t great, hence his initial interest in turn-based RPGs. However, he is extremely interested in the political and social messages offered within pop culture, and the idea of a mainstream American game that criticized organized religion, the nation’s history of segregation, and the current resurgence in both, intrigued him enough to put aside these feelings toward the genre and delve into Comstock’s Columbia.
Jess probably isn’t the best person to critique the merits of the game as a game. Everything works as expected. There are guns, not all that many but they are available and they blow up stuff real good. The powers (“Vigors”) are the far superior way to murderize chumps. Elizabeth’s ability to tear into other worlds is a nice wrinkle in what, Jess imagines, otherwise feels like every other FPS game ever. DeWitt seems a pretty standard, snarling, stoic video game hero while Elizabeth is a highly likeable damsel-in-distress-innocent.
Columbia is exquisite and the rich level of detail makes the city come alive in all its beauty and ugliness. The elements of zealotry and isolationism are immediate and pervasive throughout this New Eden and add to the feeling of this city actually existing in some parallel steampunk version of America’s past. It works as speculative fiction, much in the same way as Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, and wraps nicely around the later revelation of Elizabeth being able to not only enter an infinite number of alternate worlds, but create them.
Yet for all its surface exploration of racism and religious extremism, Bioshock Infinite says very little about either topic. The beginning conceit of Comstock building this great white utopia, separate from the Sodom below, and passing himself off as a new prophet to command his flock and ultimately set the way for his daughter to rain fire upon the towers below, is lost pretty quickly once the resistance begins.
Around halfway through, the Columbia police and Vox Populi merge, and the whole game becomes one big collection of enemies. So while Jess was drawn by the gall of a video game to include minstrel imagery to subvert bigotry, he was disappointed that very little of this disturbing history was actually commented upon. But once the story focused on DeWitt/Comstock, Writer started paying attention.
To recap the end – although the game does an excellent job of mixing telling with implication – following his actions during the Boxer Rebellion and the Wounded Knee Massacre, Booker DeWitt sought to cleanse his soul through becoming born again in baptism.
Now, there are infinite realities, but in at least one of them Booker runs from the baptism. He goes on to have a daughter named Anna, alcoholism and a massive gambling debt for which eventually he gives over Anna as payment. An unknown period of time later he acquires another debt (that part isn’t really explained) which can be canceled if he brings a girl named Elizabeth to some people in New York.
In at least one other reality Booker takes the baptism and renames himself Zachery Hale Comstock. He amasses a huge fortune, marries (it’s not revealed whether DeWitt marries or not) and becomes extremely bigoted and zealously religious (although this may already be there beforehand). He uses technology developed by the scientist Rosalind Lutece to build the secessionist city-state of Columbia in the sky off the coast of the northeastern United States.
Through Lutece’s research, which experiments on Comstock often enough that he becomes sterile, Comstock learns that there are an infinite number of other possible realities, thus he uses this technology to purchase a baby from an alcoholic gambler. He names his little girl Elizabeth, creates a story that his wife was pregnant for only seven days and, once it’s clear that she hates the child and can’t be kept silent, has Lady Comstock killed, which he blames on Daisy Fitzroy, an African-American woman, thus stoking Columbian fears of racial minorities and, for some reason probably appropriate to 1912, the Irish.
In the end, DeWitt/Comstock decides there is only one way to stop this cycle: Many Elizabeths drown him in the baptismal water.
The last twenty minutes are pretty awesome.
It may now appear that Bioshock Infinite’s statement is that DeWitt’s dip in the holy water turned him into the prejudiced, exclusionary monster Comstock, but even as DeWitt this character becomes a degenerate so desperate that he would sell his own daughter to pay off his debts. Thus, regardless of the choice he made, DeWitt/Comstock is destined for either misery or evil. What Bioshock Infinite actually says, at least to Writer, is that bad people will be bad no matter the choices they make.
While there are innumerable realities within Bioshock Infinite, we gamers are only offered two primary possibilities: DeWitt and Comstock. There may be a world where DeWitt is baptized Norman Borlaug and goes on to save a billion lives, but we don’t see that. Even in the reality where DeWitt remains DeWitt he has sells his daughter to a stranger to pay his debts and slaughter hundreds or thousands of people to pay another, later debt. He has the same capacity for evil.
Most people will not barter their children, enforce extreme segregationist policies, kill their own spouses, massacre whole towns (as bigoted as those citizens may be) and plot to destroy their former country. Granted, most people were likely racist in 1912 America, but the rest of that stuff requires a special kind of evil. DeWitt/Comstock is an evil, evil man. Bioshock Infinite is not addressing racism or religious fanaticism, it’s saying that evil people will do evil things simply because they are evil.
Intentional or not, Bioshock Infinite seems to argue that our choices do not decide our quality, our nature does. In its own way, Irrational Games is arguing that violent video games, movies, television shows, music, etc. will not cause one to become violent unless one has the capacity for violence in one’s character.
Most gamers will not unload assault weapons in a movie theatre, kindergarten or supermarket parking lot. One in a million will. This isn’t because they played a video game, it’s because they have the capacity, the character, the nature to be evil. Hence, Bioshock Infinite, a violent, graphic video game, is making an argument in support of violent, graphic video games.
If there is one source of DeWitt/Comstock’s violence, an original sin if you will, it’s the one thing we know happened before the baptism: War. DeWitt/Comstock took part in two bloody, racial-driven, imperialist counter-rebellions. Of course, not everyone has the capacity in them to participate in such actions. Perhaps Bioshock Infinite suggests there is a reason some do.
Taken as a whole Bioshock Infinite is an ambitious and often beautiful game that shows how far the medium has come even within its limits. Writer admires the statements made after the credits finish rolling. Jess found the experience beholden to not offend anyone in order to sell millions of copies of the game. Both were impressed with its scope and enjoyed the game enough to finish it in three days, but neither will likely play another first person shooter unless it’s called Borderlands 3.
Editor’s note: We’d like to hear what YOU think of the game. Please share your thoughts about the game below![subscribe2]