“The Troubled Rebirths of BioShock Infinite,” by Reid McCarter

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Near the beginning of BioShock: Infinite, protagonist Booker DeWitt arrives in the strange, floating city of Columbia and is baptized in its entry hall. Having emerged from an elevator that carried him up from a grimy, rain-swept lighthouse in the world below, he finds himself in rooms gently lit by candles and filled to ankle height by clear water. It’s ethereal and beautiful—a baptismal font turned into a sprawling, walk-in customs waiting area. Before Booker can enter the city, he has to join a procession and allow a preacher to dunk him in the water. The others around him, waiting in white robes, presumably follow suit. To become a citizen of Columbia, migrants from the turn-of-the-century America below must be cleansed of all sin they’ve brought with them.

Columbia is picturesque. High up in the air, the skies are blue and clear. The sun is bright and the streets clean. White clouds drift past red-brick buildings. The city’s colour scheme is an abstraction of the American flag, vibrant and ecstatic, which makes sense because Columbia is the id of a nation manifested, both within and without the game. The Founding Fathers are worshiped as gods, a trinity of political thought manifested within the figure of the city’s founder, leader, and “prophet”, Zachary Comstock. For the city, time has stopped somewhere just before the Civil War, creating a wonderland for those who consider themselves the real “owners” of America—white Protestants untroubled by racial, religious, and class-determined inequality.

Columbia is meant to be an American revival, freed of whatever aspects of its past it wants rid of. It drifts untethered from the continental authority below through wide open skies, allowed to forge a path forward bound by nothing but its own ambition. In it, we see the realization of the “ideal country” salivated over by groups  of fundamentalist Christians, libertarians, and white supremacists since Independence. The possibilities of the Republic are alive again. There’s no opposition to racial segregation, unregulated labour, and the blending of church and state. It’s an America boiled down to one version of its essence.

Fittingly, it isn’t long before Booker, later to be revealed as a younger, out-of-time version of Columbia founder Comstock, finds the surface layer of this highly specific utopia stripped away to reveal incredible darkness. The game ignores subtlety to make this clear. An interracial couple is wheeled out at a local fair for public punishment. Black and Irish workers comprise a desperate lower class, exploited by factory owners for cheap labour that doesn’t pay enough to keep their neighbourhoods fed. Cartoon theme park monuments to the “battle” of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion are celebrated as moments of American heroism against vicious enemies. (The former involved an outsized US Army force massacring an estimated 150-300 Lakota, including civilians and children, in 1890; the latter, taking place from 1899 to 1901, saw anti-imperialist Chinese fight to expel the life-threatening foreign powers occupying and exploiting their country.) In order to keep the city quite literally afloat, lies are woven into Columbia’s fabric and its industry is powered through the institutional exploitation of a racist society’s outcasts.

It’s an obvious allegory, but one that gains potency as Booker hurtles toward the ultimate revelation: that the villainy displayed by Comstock is, in fact, one possible outcome of his own history. A participant in American atrocities (and an active member of the notorious, union-busting Pinkerton agency) who’s haunted by his past, even as he perpetuates it with brutal, self-interested violence, Booker needs nothing more than a chance to start again. The Comstock version of Booker imagines an America where everything that troubles him about his prior life can be wiped away. Social progress, which lead him into situations that revealed his own moral ineptitude, is rewound. In Columbia, America is a fly in amber, frozen at a time when Booker and those like him can erase their past sins and be born again in a world ignorant of change.

This feels as vital now as it did at the time of Infinite’s release. The eventual horror that rears its head after the reveal of a fantastical city, stunning to look at, puts the lie to the idea that any point in American history was ever Great for anyone with a conscience. It’s a fitting continuation of the original BioShock’s skewering of Randian economics and ethics. In both games, the premise illustrates the inevitable downfall of modern utopian ideals—libertarianism and nationalism, state religion and historical revisionism.

Infinite would be a powerful statement if it was capable of staying the course, focusing on this message rather than expanding its argument to provide, ironically, one of the most disconcertingly popular modes of thought plaguing modern America. The Vox Populi, the resistance movement that hopes to overthrow Comstock’s forces to improve the lives of Columbia’s oppressed, initially appears a necessary undercurrent to the story. Their attacks show the ultimate effect of the systematic exploitation and marginalization of a group of people—notably, largely Black—that this vision of an American “utopia” wants to ignore. Later in the game when, thanks to the alternate reality dimension-shifting that moves the plot toward its end, the Vox launch a full-scale insurrection, there’s an opportunity to further illustrate this point.

In place of any intelligent or nuanced commentary on the moral complexities of a needed revolution, though, Infinite retreats to a facile condemnation of the Vox, painting them as monsters. Forgetting that it’s spent the game until this point illustrating the enormous injustices done to the people represented by the Vox—and the revulsion with which its allegory treats America’s history of the same—the game has its characters, like dead-hearted Virgils, point out that revolutionary violence levels the playing field so both oppressor and oppressed are one and the same. With the same bluntness as its earlier political messages, the plot point comes to a head with the Vox’s leader, a Black woman who has smeared her face with human blood, holding a pistol to a trembling child’s head, preparing to kill him+.

Everything that has come before suggests that Infinite has a strong stance on historical injustice, but it’s detour into senseless moral equivalencies overturns this. It says there’s simply nothing to be done. Anyone who works to overthrow horrific, violent institutions with violence is just as bad. In the modern context of resurgent fascism, couched in a return to America’s supposedly glorious past, and the willingness of others to fight its advance, we see a stark reminder of what inaction leads to.

The baptism that Columbia is founded on becomes a perverse misuse of the very concept of rebirth. Willingly blinding themselves to their own history, Comstock and his followers are bound to repeat it. It’s a lesson illustrated not just by the game’s real-world references, but also in the sci-fi conceit of dimension-hopping and time-bending—in a plot that revolves around the vastness of a universe where evil forges ever forward when these cycles aren’t broken. In the game’s end, the baptism that opens the story is turned on its head. In its Booker finally reaches Comstock, smashes his head against the stone edge of a font, and drowns his future self in the waters. Later, he realizes who he is and that there’s only one way to end an infinity of Bookers becoming an infinity of Comstocks, producing the nightmare of Columbia over and over again throughout time and space. Booker enters a stream where he once rejected baptism in a flashback from his post-Wounded Knee days. In other variations on this moment, accepting the renewal of baptism put him on the path to becoming Comstock. This time, he allows himself to be drowned and defeats the endless recurrence of Colombia’s injustices in a reversal of the very concept of erasing one’s sins. The only way to change things, Infinite says, is to accept them and fight against them, even if it requires the profound violence of death.

It’s difficult to dredge a coherent point from the self-contradictory mess the game becomes as it demonizes the same people it spends the rest of the game valourizing, but it may be worthwhile. In its ending, Infinite ignores its own moralizing on the flattening effects of violence. Booker’s drowning rejects the central notion of baptism and makes dramatic the idea that progress is only possible when a people are willing to look their history in the face, ugly as it may be, and take action to ensure its most uncomfortable lessons inform paths forward. If it was able to remember this throughout, Infinite would be a bolder and more honest game. Instead, it vacillates and, unlike its main character, is incapable of taking a stance.

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+ That Infinite tries to rewrite Daisy’s attempted murder through further, fatalist dimension-bending in the apocryphal story of the game’s Burial at Sea add-on offers an exceptional case of downloadable mea culpa—a sticky note admission of guilt that fails to undo what came before and now hangs from the original text like an arrow pointing directly to its biggest failing.

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Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, The AV Club, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.