To: Jess Kroll
Re: Bioshock Infinite: What Makes People Evil & Violent
**CAUTION: MASSIVE SPOILERS**
Your article was a very interesting take on Bioshock Infinite, but personally I see it differently. Where you see a world of strict certainty, I see one driven by choices and variables. Some things cannot be changed but everything else is up in the air.
Keeping that in mind, the differences between every version of Columbia we see is due only to the variables. What sort of variables do we see? Chen Lin lives because he married a different woman. The Vox Populi are running rampant through town and perhaps they only became so powerful after Booker joined and became a martyr for their cause. All these differences are hinged on the choices these characters made and the resulting consequences weren’t just ripples; they became waves. Booker chooses to take the baptism and Zachary Hale Comstock is born. No Comstock, no Columbia. The simple choice of this one man has a lasting effect on the world.
Now look at Booker himself. Is he the brave, kind, good-hearted hero we are used to? No, he is none of those but I can’t say he is evil either. Evil is a strong word. He was a very foolish man who made bad choices. The earliest facts about Booker we know is his involvement at the massacre at Wounded Knee. He would have only been sixteen at the time. Imagine being only a teenager with the oppressive amount of stress and agony that comes with being a solider. It doesn’t make what Booker did all right but at least we can try to approach his character from a place of understanding.
When confronted with a reality the mind cannot handle “the brain adapts” (as Rosalind Lutece, the physicist in the game, puts it). I think this is true for Booker not only when he crossed over into an alternate world, but also when he was a boy in the army. When he lost touch with his humanity he was able to commit atrocious acts against innocents. Again, I don’t condone Booker’s actions but I don’t think it necessarily makes him evil, just weak and susceptible.
What really saves Booker from being labeled as evil, at least by me, is his desperate need for redemption. What true evil would seek absolution? Booker’s desperation to be free from the shackles of his regret makes him utterly human. We’ve all done things we regret and given the opportunity to be released, we would take that chance. Bioshock Infinite is Booker’s story in seeking forgiveness.
Alone (for all we know he has no other family) and burdened with regret, Booker is driven into becoming an alcoholic gambler. This is the state he is in when he agrees to give away his infant daughter. He could have made this decision in a drunken fog or out of fear, depression, and desperation. We can only speculate. There is a small part of me that wonders if he had thought giving her away would have given Anna (Elizabeth) a chance at a better life than she would have had with himself. In any case, he realizes he made a mistake and tries to take her back. He spends the next twenty years haunted and tortured by the decision to give her away. He brands his hand in penance and as a reminder. He desires this mental torture perhaps because there is no other way to redeem himself.
Comstock, on the other hand, accepts the baptism and feels completely cleansed from the bloodshed he had been a part of. He is a dangerous man because his actions no longer have the moral burden that they do for Booker. Comstock’s cause justifies his means and what greater cause is there than a crusade for God. Though it cripples him, Booker tries to take responsibility for his own actions. When we look at these two it’s easy to forget they were once the same man. What made them different were the choices they made. If there is a lesson on nature vs. nurture in the Bioshock Infinite universe, the enduring message is that our choices make us who we are.
After looking at some of the different choices Booker/Comstock made I think it’s interesting to see what remains the same between the two. One motif I found intriguing was the baptism of Booker. Booker must accept the baptism to enter Columbia. What many players do not realize until their second playthough is that the priest who baptizes you is the same man who offers to baptize Booker/Comstock before their story diverged. If the priest had not become blind he may have recognized Booker and alerted others. It’s possible this is where alternate Bookers may have met their end.
It is often believed that a baptism allows the believer to be born again in Christ. By this logic, Booker is killed off as he is reborn as Comstock. An ironic twist of fate leads Booker to kill his Comstock self in a baptismal basin. In turn, Booker also lets Elizabeth drown him, the Booker who once considered getting baptized, in the same spot where Comstock would have been “born.” A death for a life of another. He chooses to die so Anna can grow up to be Anna instead of Elizabeth. He pays the ultimate selfless price for another. Like Comstock, he obtains absolution in the baptismal water but he also accepts what he has done and is willing to pay the price.
In regards to the racial and religious extremism, which you also mention, I thought the game did a fairly good job given the medium and its target audience. The presence of extremism is unavoidable and created a visceral level of discomfort at times.
The Raffle (possibly a nod to the story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson) is our first real indication that something is very wrong in the city of Columbia. The choice you make in the lottery does not affect the how the game plays out but I liked having the choice despite how uneasy it made me. It made the character more mine. The presence of a choice also opens up the possibility that this is a variable which could have had an important impact. Maybe one Booker manages to hit Fink with the ball and becomes a champion for the Vox Populi.
Invariably, the game shows us that the political power created by extremism is highly corruptible. Regardless of the initially noble goals of the Vox, the years of hatred and the intoxication from power has twisted Daisy Fitzroy into someone willing to kill an innocent. We find recordings detailing the murder of Comstock’s opponents in the name of the greater good. Both believe they are doing what is right. They easily justify their wrongdoings as insignificant casualties in their pursuit of a higher purpose. The game doesn’t just tell me how wrong this discrimination and oppression is. It shows me and the lessons are all the more enduring because of it. If there is any evil in Bioshock Infinite it’s not the fated constant nature of a person but rather the power that corrupts them.
You’re right in saying we have a very limited view of all the possible Bookers. We don’t get to see how Booker turns out in an infinite number of other worlds. We only know of the Booker we play, Booker the martyr, and Comstock. Some may be unhappy with the limited scope but it never bothered me. I see this game as an active story. The Booker DeWitt we play is not an exemplar of all Bookers. He is a specific Booker. He is the 123rd iteration in the Lutece’s grand experiment and this is his personal story.
Booker doesn’t acquire a new debt (or at least we don’t know of any new debt.) The “debt” in question that you mention is one from the past. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” This was the original deal Robert Lutece offers Booker in exchange for Anna. When he enters into Comstock’s time line he suffers from cognitive dissonance (more accurately “memory dissonance” as someone once put it) and his mind forms a set of memories reconciling conflicting events. If anything the “debt” he has to clear this time is not money, but what he has done to Anna.
There’s so much more that could be said about this game. I thoroughly enjoyed it and loved that they are willing to turn this beautiful world they created into something so dark to tell us this story. But at the end of the day, it’s just a game. Some will like it, others will not. That’s what I’ve always liked about games. There are so many styles, stories and interpretations to choose from (again, choices!). As for me, I choose to believe Bioshock Infinite is about the power of choices.
–Grace Lee (Seoul, Korea)[subscribe2]
Hi Grace, thanks for the response. I will admit that since writing the piece I've seen a couple of places where there may be exceptions but I'd still contest that the game is not so much about choice, at least for Booker. Elizabeth on the other hand…
Primarily, the choices we actually see in the game. Heads or Tails, makes no difference, Bird or Cage, no difference, Throw at the couple or Throw at Fink, makes no difference. From a gameplay standpoint the explanation is simple, Irrational Games had an ending in mind and offering player choice would potentially ruin the flow of their story to its conclusion, thus the character of Booker would be limited. As for his choices within the game, yes there is variation with the martyr Booker (although he may actually be the same Booker we see at the beginning since the tears travel through time, so in that timeline Daisy Fitzroy sends Booker to get the guns, the gunsmith is killed and Booker disappears and is likely assumed dead and becomes a martyr, then pops back into their world some time later. Just as we see with Booker traveling in time to Elizabeth's destruction of "Sodom.") but all the game gives us, really, is two possibilities. There are the multiple heads or tails with the Luteces but for all we know those Bookers were killed in pursuit of Elizabeth.
I'll grant the debt area, his memory is messed with so perhaps after the tear he just assumes he has a debt to pay when he doesn't actually have one. As I said though, it's not really explained (we are in fact filling in our memories without having the information).
Where I would contest Booker's nature defines him however is that in order to pay of this debt he instinctively resorts to violence. Again this may be a game design flaw but there is no choice for non-lethal action or pure stealth or other such tactics, it's strictly brutal violence. Regardless of the choice Booker makes, be it to remain Booker or become Comstock or something in between, he is still shown to be a man with a violent history capable of continued violence. There simply is no choice in the matter, he is who he is. The one choice he does make is having Elizabeth drown him, and that's kinda made for him by the gang of Elizabeths who disappear after his death because no Booker no daughter. If he dies at that point, they are never born.
That is where choice appears. Elizabeth/Anna makes the choice that she would rather not exist than live the life she will, as the Prophet foretold, have. As a teenager she's an innocent, but it's through conditioning, isolation and indoctrination that she becomes the woman who rains fire upon the world below. I'd argue that it is not in her nature to be that person, she become that person because of her life. That's where nature vs. nurture comes into the equation.
My good friend June mentioned in the comments of my article about where one's nature comes from. The game, in my opinion, doesn't explain this, but there is something you mentioned that could work as an explanation, if we decide to fill in the missing information for ourselves. You said that Booker was about 16 when he participated in the massacre at Wounded Knee. Elizabeth as well is 17 when she, presumably, begins her conditioning into the old lady Elizabeth with the death blimps. The game may be arguing that it's in the late teen years that one's nature begins to form or show. It then solidifies into who that person will be for the rest of their life. That actually seems better consistent, within a certain range, in real life. I'm more or less the same person I was in high school, for better or worse.
Anyway, the fact that we can discuss these issues and have such varied interpretations shows just how much the game works as a piece of art. That's an achievement in itself.
Thanks again for the response. Feel free to write more :).
no it isn’t, if it was then we would have multiple endings to the game
Good point, Jordan. Thanks for your comment!
Also, we’d appreciate if you can post your comments under the article itself. Thanks!