Tag Archives: BioShock

Is Bioshock Infinite anti-Christian?

21 Jul

Bioshock Infinite: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

WARNING: Major spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.

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I promise that this will be my very last post on Bioshock Infinite. But I couldn’t stop without talking about religion, since it’s such an important and intriguing aspect of the game.

While thinking about this post, I debated for a long time about whether I thought Bioshock Infinite dealt with Christianity or religious beliefs in general or even just cults. And, after going over all the evidence in my head many times, I think it deals exclusively with Christianity.

Columbia is heavily steeped in an exaggerated American mythos. Praise of the Founding Fathers and American exceptionalism is carried past it’s logical conclusion and warped into something that’s more like idolization. And it’s all tidily wrapped up in a bow of religious fervor, which is also an exaggeration of a country that has been influenced by religion since its inception.

Columbians don’t worship Jesus — they’ve replaced him with Comstock and the Founding Fathers — but their religious devotions have all the trappings of a particularly Southern American Christian tradition. I’m guessing that Irrational Games took inspiration from mass historical movements like the Second Great Awakening, although scenes similar to the imagery in Bioshock Infinite aren’t exactly unheard of today. For example, here are old and new pictures of river baptisms. Notice the prevalence of white robes that bear a striking similarity to those worn by Comstock’s most devout.

Combination of Christian imagery and mythology and  the idol worship of the Columbians.

Combination of Christian imagery and mythology and the idol worship of the Columbians.

And Zachary Hale Comstock is every inch the fire and brimstone preacher. It doesn’t hurt that the name Zachary is often taken from the Biblical character Zechariah, who is the father of John the Baptist. I won’t get too far into baptism yet, but the game might as well be called Bioshock Infinite: Get Ready for Pruny Feet Because You’ll Be Walking Through a Lot of Water in This Game. 

There are also tons of references to the Bible. Comstock perverts the stories of Noah’s Ark and Sodom and Gomorrah to justify his own rather un-Christian mission (although he’s certainly not the first real or fictional character to do so), and forgiveness, a central tenet of the New Testament, is a major theme of both Comstock’s sermons and the overall game.

So I would say that the game draws heavily from a specifically American Protestant tradition, even if it’s content is not identical (hint: it’s not). But the question that I’ve posed is whether or not the game goes on to offer a critique or religion, if it is negative towards religious belief, etc.

If the only Christian content in the game were the beliefs and horribly bigoted practices of Comstock and his followers, I might be inclined to say that the game did have something negative to say about Christianity.

However, there is also the depiction of normal Christianity in Booker’s repeated flashback to his Shrodinger’s baptism. Baptim’s complete forgiveness and absolution of sins are absolutely central to the game.

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And the game refuses to let us forget it. Booker’s very first interaction with Columbia is a stroll through the Baptism Welcome Center while “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” (a well-known and popular Christian hymn) is sung in the background. Before he can enter the city, where he will eventually face his ultimate sin and seek to repair it, he has to undergo a baptism. (And there’s some birth canal imagery in the tunnel, just in case you didn’t get the “reborn” thing yet.) At this point, he’s completely resistant — and is the baptizer really wrong when he says “this one doesn’t look clean to me”? — and nearly drowns as a result.

Later, he and Elizabeth finally encounter Comstock standing next to a baptismal font. Booker is desperately trying to make up for the terrible things he’s done in life, and in doing so he murders Comstock with the baptism font. (We couldn’t get more obvious here.) If the player already knows the revelation about Comstock, this action is deeply, deliciously suffused with dramatic irony. Booker wants to prevent Elizabeth from becoming a murder (it’s a little late for that) and he wants Comstock to pay for the evil that he’s done.

And so he does what he has always done and solves his problem with violence. He bastardizes the baptism ceremony — the baptismal font fills with Comstock’s blood — and simply kills the other version of what he could have been, still leaving the “other” man who betrayed Elizabeth and unjustly murdered thousands.

Ultimately, murdering Comstock is trivial and ineffective. As Elizabeth reveals, there will be no end to the cycle until Booker accepts annihilation of all versions of himself.

The final death-by-baptism is a final, ultimate “redemption,” but it’s not necessarily Christian. Baptism is supposed to be a spiritual rebirth, but Booker just dies (depending on how you interpret the post-credits stinger).

I would call that last scene a sort of agnostic baptism. Booker can’t be so easily absolved of the terrible things that he’s done, and baptism can’t help him heal from his own wounds (obviously, since it leads to his transformation into Comstock). But he does accept his death willingly. It is the first time in the game that we see him submit to a baptism, and he does so with selfless intentions.

If there’s any sort of religious critique in the game, it’s not that Christianity or religion are unilaterally bad. I would say that the game is, at worst, skeptical. We have two potential outcomes for the main character: the cynic, Booker or the zealot, Comstock. Both characters are miserable and cause absolute disaster for everyone around them. Neither option is recommended.

Perhaps the game’s answer is that actions also need to be actively atoned for. Comstock achieves “redemption” through baptism, but he never does anything to earn that redemption. Instead, he went on to commit more crimes in the name of God. On the flip side, Booker rejects any possibility of redemption. He sees himself as a lost cause — as someone unworthy of forgiveness. Maybe it is impossible for him to atone for what he’s done, but he never tries.

I can’t even say that the game is advocating some sort of middle ground between Booker and Comstock. And, really, the game doesn’t need to choose a position. It raises an interesting question, and we can all answer it in our own ways.

Should we also be skeptical of forgiveness, especially if it is complete and unqualified? What effect does forgiveness have on other people? Typically, our unqualified metaphysical destruction doesn’t cause some sort of time ripple that erases the past. If we do something terrible, it’s been done. It’s affected other people, and we can’t change the past.

But do we still feel that forgiveness can be reached? Even if it can’t, should be still strive for it? And for who? For ourselves (similar to Comstock)? In an attempt to fix the harm we’ve done to others? Is that even possible?

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I’ll follow the game’s example, and I won’t pretend to have answers. We all have to craft our own belief systems. (And hopefully there aren’t infinite, conflicting versions of each of us roaming around causing all sorts of trouble.) Since the game does not position itself as a Christian game, it approaches core Christian ideals from an un-affiliated perspective and treats them separately from their religious context. In the best scenario, this different way of seeing things can offer a fresh take on an old or taken for granted idea. Thinking about the Big Questions from others’ perspectives is healthy for both the religious and the non-religious. Examining beliefs that we take for granted can help us to change or reaffirm those beliefs.

The cultish, warped Christianity of the Columbians is certainly not endorsed by the game, and, more importantly, it’s not nearly as central to the plot and themes as the examination of the Christian ideal of forgiveness. (I am not saying that forgiveness is Christian, only that the specific type of unrestricted, absolute forgiveness used in the game comes from a Christian ideology and tradition.) There’s a difference between using the imagery and practices of Christianity to create a game world and actively critiquing real life Christianity or Christians (although I wouldn’t discount the possibility that some Christians are being criticized). Forgiveness is more authentically Biblical than praying in front of giant statues of the Founding Fathers, so I think any real critique of Christianity can be found in that portion of the game.

Bioshock Infinite isn’t perfect, but I hope everyone can appreciate it for raising so many issues that aren’t often tackled in games. And when they are, they are often dealt with tangentially. It’s exciting (for me, at least) to have a major game released that treats fluid topics with such attention and seriousness. I hope that the success of games like Bioshock Infinite helps game developers to be daring in their writing and designing, especially as we move into a new console generation.

(Let’s see if everyone read all the way down here. NO, Bioshock Infinite is not anti-Christian.)

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Bioshock Infinite and fictional racism

7 Jul

Bioshock Infinite: Part One, Part Two, Part Four

WARNING: Some mild spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.

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This post is going run along the general theme of “they could have done better.”

I can only speak for myself, but I was expecting racism to be a more significant theme in Bioshock Infinite based on information that we were told about the game. That expectation likely altered my opinion of the way Irrational handled race relations in the game in a way that it wouldn’t have been altered if I’d just gone into the game without any knowledge. But I still believe I would have noticed the things I’m about to talk about, so I think it’s a valuable topic for discussion.

I wouldn’t say that I was outright upset by the handling of racism in the game, but I do think that Irrational flubbed the theme. Racism became an easy way to paint Comstock as a villain and show that Columbia wasn’t such a utopia rather than a topic that was handled as important in itself. I found racism in general to be a much less intriguing topic than a lot of the other strange and fantastic ideas that Bioshock Infinite put forth, solely because of the trite and simple way the game handled race. In such a thoroughly well-crafted game, this is a real shame.

The way Bioshock Infinite handles race, is similar to the way I learned about racial prejudice in an American elementary school. Being racist is bad. Now let’s watch a movie about the Civil Rights Movement with a completely evil white racist Southerner as the villain. (All racists are very easy to spot, you see.) Racism ended in the 60s, kids! We won’t be talking about modern day racism. In fact, when learning about the Civil War, we won’t be mentioning Northern racism. The South were the bad guys, because they liked slavery. Slavery and the suppression of voting rights are the only way racism manifests itself.

I wouldn’t call any of what I was taught malicious — far from it — but it was an incomplete picture of what racism was and is like in the United States. And it’s easier to show a kid something obvious like slavery in order to get across the message “racial prejudice is bad” than teaching them anything more nuanced — especially when those nuances are tied up in the constant scuffling of the American political party system.

Bioshock Infinite tends to go for the easy when it comes to race. Black people are shipped up to Columbia as workers, who are essentially slaves and second-class citizens to their wealthier, white counterparts. In case the parallels to the history of American racism aren’t obvious enough, Irrational is kind enough to include race-segregated bathrooms in the game. I doubt there’s an American school child who makes it through their education without seeing at least one image of a racially segregated water fountain: an easy to understand image that makes the racial hatred of black bodies starkly apparent.

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There’s nothing particularly wrong with being a bit obvious in setting up a theme of racism. And I can accept that Columbia is an openly racist, white supremacist society. I think the problems start to occur when hours of gameplay and story go by without any added nuance to what is a major element of the world-building of Columbia.

The problem with the two-dimensional white racist in all those movies about the American Civil Rights Movement isn’t that those people didn’t and don’t exist. It’s that the majority of people are not like that. Many people held (and hold) racist beliefs that were normative at the time but were harmful in that they helped keep the racist status quo.

I found there to be little of this nuance in the people of Columbia. They were all just… terrible. Fink was abhorrent, the random racist comments of the NPCs were said in the most obnoxiously snooty way possible, and the only minor NPCs who help you are members of the anti-racism league.

I understood where Irrational was going with the rebellion of the Vox Populi. Something like “power corrupts no matter what,” which fits well with the themes of the game. But I found myself having trouble raising my ire about the Vox Populi’s violent uprising when their anger seemed warranted. If a single white Columbian had ever once been kind to them, I would have been surprised. And they were so physically separated and segregated in Shantytown that it was unlikely the Vox had any real connections or relationships with white Columbians at all. Why should they care? And why should I care about the chaos and murder that takes over Columbia?I won't say white savior, but...

I won’t say white savior, but…

Because that was a real missed opportunity. In the grips of the personal story between Booker, Elizabeth, and Comstock, the wider picture gets lost. I would have liked to feel some sadness or guilt at the downfall of Columbia. As it was, it was a city of racist cult members, and the world seemed not only better off, but safer, without them.

My guess is that the loss of the racism thread in the overall tangle of the plot was a result of changes in development. What started out as a story about a place (much like the first Bioshock) turned into a more personal story. And so what seems to be an important plot element in the beginning of the game — racism — becomes mere backdrop by the end, and barely even that.

As a serious social injustice that still affects millions worldwide, racism is used as an easy brush with which to paint the villains of Bioshock Infinite as bad. In a game that has generally good writing, it’s disappointing to see the writers go with what amounts to cheap and easy emotional manipulation. I would have preferred a more morally ambiguous Columbia full of inhabitants with differing opinions. I do believe, however, that this was sacrificed in the name of the central conflict between Booker and Elizabeth, which has its own merits.

I also think that this game does poorly for modern racism, which is certainly not only a problem with this game. The racism in Bioshock Infinite is couched securely in American history. Columbia is distilled old-timey, American imagery based on a fake nostalgia for an America that never existed but is still held dear by Comstock and his followers.

Sadly, I don’t think a lot of Americans have the best grasp on American history to realize that America was never all apple pie and kids riding their bikes outside until dinner time. Especially, you know, if were a black American.

I would say that Bioshock Infinite plays with this false nostalgia (which is certainly present in American politics today), but never pushes it very far. The game, like all of those overcoming-racism movies, subtly encourages the narrative that true racism exists in America’s past. We’re over the worst of it now, and the only really bad racism that exists now lies in those few people who go to KKK meetings.

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After all, it would be easy to think, “Columbia sure is racist. And, man, America sure was racist too. But that’s not what my society looks like now, so we’re not racist.”

If only that were true. Racism is a much quieter force than what is portrayed in Bioshock Infinite, and it’s all the more pernicious for it’s quietness. The racism of the past might seem obvious to us now, but it wasn’t always so obvious to those who existed at the time. And you can be sure that the racism of today will be much more obvious to our descendants.

Bioshock Infinite isn’t trying to be a treatise on modern racism, and I’m not trying to claim that it should be. The game does a great job of evoking exactly what this imagined “ideal” America would probably look like in real life, especially for those who wouldn’t win the white, wealthy lottery. But the game eventually drops the complexity and uses racism more as set dressing and as a cheap way to characterize villainy, and I believe the game should be interrogated closely for that.

It might seem like I just want the game to be more about racism, but that wouldn’t really fix the problems of poor implementation. The world of the game is informed heavily by Columbian white exceptionalism, making race a large factor already. My problem is twofold and related: the racism in the game draws upon imagery of American racism without the content of real, historical racism (I’ve seen far too many people say things along the theme of, “So this is what racism was like!”) and this unrealistic treatment of racism — while it technically works for the plot — flattens the world and people who live in it. The overly simplified version of racism in Columbia basically turns into a writing shortcut to make the player understand that Columbia = bad. A bad Columbia is kind of boring, especially when the ruination of a more complex Columbia would have played so well into Booker’s massive guilt trip. It smacks so sadly of a lost opportunity. Once again, my mantra of “games need to be written well and thoughtfully!” returns.

So how can we move toward better writing, especially when dealing with social realities like racism? In my ideal future developers would ask themselves a few questions while working on their games: Why am I including this topic? Am I handling it responsibly? Is it essential to the plot, or can a similar idea be conveyed in a less conventional or more intriguing way?

What it comes down to once again is responsible, well-thought out, and complex writing in games. I’m confident we’ll get there eventually, and I do actually count Bioshock Infinite among the games that are getting us there. One topic handled poorly does not a bad game make.

What do you think? Was racism actually handled really well in Bioshock Infinite? What perspectives am I not considering?

Is Columbia a gender egalitarian utopia?

23 Jun

Bioshock Infinite: Part One, Part Three, Part Four

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Bioshock Infinite. Read at your own risk.

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Bioshock Infinite features something that we don’t usually see unless it’s a major focus of the story: a sexism-free fantasy world.

Or at least a world that seems to be free of sexism. It’s difficult to notice the lack of something, especially when subtle sexism is so pervasive in our society that we make out own sexist assumptions while playing games. But in Columbia, where bigotry is proudly held up as a religious and moral imperative, the lack of explicit sexism is noticeable.

It’s an interesting world building technique, because many fantasy worlds hold onto some form of racism and sexism in an effort to ground the world in “reality” and make it more believable to the audience. (I’m not going to get into the merits of this technique right now, because that’s a whole other thorny issue.)

When the racism isn’t explicitly about skin color as it is in Bioshock Infinite, it might be about aliens or intelligent AI or what have you. There’s an extensive list on TV Tropes if you would like to check it out. And as many fans of historically inspired fantasy (like Bioshock) can say, there’s a long-standing discussion of the prevalence of sexism in these imagined worlds.

So it stood out to me when I first realized that Columbia was a remarkably egalitarian society when it came to gender. Continue reading

Let’s talk about Elizabeth’s dress

16 Jun

Bioshock Infinite: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Bioshock Infinite. Read at your own risk. I mean it. I will talk about the end of the game. Don’t do this to yourself if you haven’t played the game. 

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When the first trailer for Bioshock Infinite was released, I wasn’t thrilled with Elizabeth’s character design. Especially once Irrational Games, the developers, started to tout Elizabeth’s importance as a dynamic character that players would care about. If she was meant to be such a well-fleshed out character, why exactly was Irrational deciding to sexualize her? Those types of cheap tricks are used constantly in low-brow games that rely on safe thrills — lots of explosions and boobs — to make sales. And, of course, games made with higher ambitions also fall prey to the one female character with enormous breasts or jeans so tight they double as a thong. Here, I thought with Bioshock Infinite, was another that would be just a little bit lesser in my eyes because of a silly outfit choice.

So I was surprised when I first met Elizabeth in-game and she was dressed conservatively. No cleavage or pinched waistline in sight. While creating a game, hours are spent over the smallest details, and that’s especially true in a game as detailed and finely crafted as Bioshock Infinite. I started to wonder if maybe Irrational had designed Elizabeth’s dress for more than fanservice. And the more I think about it, the more I believe they did.

Continue reading