Bioshock Infinite: God Exists, and He Is AmericanPosted: May 3, 2013
Wrapping up my thoughts on Irrational Game’s excellent but deeply flawed Bioshock Infinite, here’s my take on the topics that have drawn the most ire from the right and the left: the game’s depiction of Christianity and of a bloody populist revolution.
- There have been a couple of predictable challenges to the game from the Christian right. Which makes sense, because a cursory glance suggests the game is just messing around with Christianity imagery and iconography to check of another item on its list of hot-button issues. But a more careful analysis reveals the game is an indictment of unearned spiritually, and a reaffirmation of the power of genuine Christian sacrifice.
At the game’s climax, Booker learns that the corrupt theocrat Comstock is actually Booker’s counterpart from an alternate timeline: a parallel universe where Booker found religion, concluded that with God’s forgiveness he basically had carte blanche to do the Lord’s work as he saw fit, and set about spreading the Gospel via Columbia’s airborne armada. Comstock’s story is the classic refutation of Martin Luther’s doctrine of “salvation through grace” – actually, Bioshock Infinite argues, grace doesn’t help if you rely on it to justify evil actions. And I’d argue that’s a necessary statement to make in our political climate, where allegedly Christian activists and legislators quote obscure scripture to justify discrimination, then claim they’re doing God’s work by implementing institutional changes that further disadvantage the poor and underprivileged.
So how does Booker respond to the revelation of Comstock’s true identity? Traveling outside of space and time, he returns with his daughter Elizabeth to the moment of the baptism and allows her to drown him, erasing Comstock from existence and saving his daughter and the people of Columbia from his nefarious influence. Instead of taking the easy path of unearned redemption, Booker makes the greatest sacrifice possible to ensure a better life for his child. And in a game about Christianity, the significance of that should be pretty obvious.
That’s not to say Booker’s a straightforward Christ figure – both as Booker and as Comstock he’s an undeniable bastard, not a man in a position to offer forgiveness but one who desperately needs it. Rather, Booker’s a flawed man who finally does good by following Christ’s example. On a fallen earth (a fallen earth that even the airborne Columbia remains part of) that’s about as good as anyone can do.
- The portrayal of Daisy Fitzroy is an embarrassment. Like, I would actually be embarrassed if I were Ken Levine. I know how it goes. I’m a white dude. I’ve written and even shared stuff that I’ve only realized after the fact could be interpreted as racist or sexist; embarrassment, and then an apology and a hasty correction if possible, is the only reasonable response.
Because the tale of Daisy Fitzroy, scullery maid turned freedom fighter and the only significant person of color in Bioshock Infinite, is something to be embarrassed by. Daisy’s introduced to the player as a hardened but sympathetic revolutionary, fighting on behalf of racial minorities and the underclass against Comstock’s theocracy. That is, until Booker and Elizabeth travel to another parallel timeline, where Daisy has become a self-righteous tyrant as bad as Comstock. Tracking Daisy Fitzroy through an alternate Columbia devastated by civil war, Booker and Elizabeth finally catch up with her just as she executes Jeremiah Fink, the robber baron responsible for keeping much of Columbia’s population in indentured wage slavery. Which, hey, fair enough.
But then she turns around and, with some half-assed justification, prepares to shoot Fink’s son. Daisy’s only prevented from doing so because Elizabeth crawls through a vent and stabs her in the back.
That’s a big problem.
Bioshock: Infinite takes the only significant, named person of color in its entire cast; railroads her into pointless one-dimensional villainy without an explanation; and then sacrifices her to provide development for one of the (white) heroes. For a work so interested in criticizing casual racism in American culture, Bioshock Infinite is alarmingly thoughtless about how it treats its own characters.
- And just as bad: Daisy’s implausible leap from rabble-rouser to child-killer, and the descent of her Vox Populi from idealistic revolutionaries to vengeful terrorists, totally neuter whatever political point creator Ken Levine is trying to make.
Bioshock Infinite is remarkably specific when pointing out the sins of the political right, and that’s what makes it effective satire. Through recordings of Comstock’s sermons and private diaries, through the propaganda he releases to his people, and through the characterization of his alternate self Booker DeWitt, we get a clear look at Comstock’s failure; we see both the beauty of his perfect unfallen America, and the evil he embraces to achieve it. Were I a conservative, I’d hope that playing Bioshock Infinite would help me understand some of the mistakes my political allies were making; the veneration of the founders and the white-washing of America’s past, the eagerness to inflict violence as deterrent and punishment, the willful ignorance to the systemic injustice inflicted on America’s poor and people of color.
But as a progressive, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take from Bioshock Infinite. Don’t murder kids for no reason? Thanks for the insight, Ken. Don’t let those Occupy rallies get out of hand? Son, have you seen Occupy Wall Street? At its pinnacle, back in 2011, Occupy was a bunch of muddy hipsters and wilted flower children wielding pet snakes and bongos. We couldn’t hold down a few yards of concrete, much less overthrow a damn city. There are plenty of criticisms to be made of both the Democratic establishment and the progressive movement, but Infinite doesn’t make them, and its platitudes about how all sorts of extremism lead to violence are condescending and simplistic. As commentary on the decadence of the modern American left, explaining how its flawed ideology will lead to tyranny, Bioshock Infinite is totally useless.
And even if it works as a general indictment of extreme leftism, it doesn’t work in a game explicitly and specifically about America. The story of power in America, sometimes for the better and more often for the worse, is the story of a handful of big important men making big decisions and everyone else getting dragged along. Now, that’s obviously an oversimplication, but we’ve certainly never seen anything like the bloody socialist uprising depicted in Bioshock: Infinite. The game throws in lots of references of Les Miserables and Marxist rhetoric to try to establish historical precedent for the Vox Populi’s reign of terror, but that sleight of hand doesn’t change the fact that the Vox don’t have a parallel in American history. Showing a fictional underclass revolution as equivalent to the sort of theocrats and oligarchs who have so much power in real-life America, and then declaring both sides to be just as bad, is intellectually dishonest.
Especially when, in order to sell your false equivalency, you have to paint the leader of the insurgency as a child killer. The only thing that convinced me of was how shallow Ken Levine’s “all extremism is bad” argument is.
I want a “Daisy was right” t-shirt.