If you’ve been tuned into conversations about gaming within the past few months or so, you’ve probably noticed that the Irrational Games Bioshock: Infinite is making a lot of waves. From its fully realized setting to its mind-bending plot, B:I has garnered a lot of critical praise and more than one “best game ever” nod. Of course, there are dissenters like Phil Hartup, who insists that B:I has nothing new to teach us (“What are we really learning here? That racism is bad? That religious fanaticism is bad?”). But on the whole, the consensus seems to be that Infinite is, in the words of Erik Kain, “one of those rare gems that sets the bar higher not just for a genre, but for an entire medium.”
The aspect of B:I that intrigues me most, as both a Christian and a student of literature, is its story. While most game developers seem content to relegate storytelling to a secondary position behind flashy new gameplay mechanics, Irrational’s Ken Levine tells a masterful tale that takes center stage in Infinite.
The premise seems simple enough, at first: The year is 1912. The player inhabits the skin of Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent who is hired to rescue a girl named Elizabeth from Columbia, a magnificent floating city in the clouds ruled by the zealous prophet/dictator Nathan Hale Comstock. Success seems like a long shot, but Booker has debts to pay, and this is his last chance at paying them. When he arrives in Columbia, then, his path seems clear. It is only after he frees Elizabeth from her tower-prison that things start falling apart…in some cases, literally.
Much ink has been spilled since B:I‘s release in an attempt to unravel the increasingly complex story threads that emerge as the game progresses—without getting into everything, let’s just say that Inifinite‘s plot involves enough multiverse theory, alternate timelines, and questions of free will vs. determinism to make you want to take a week off of work to figure it all out. In the end, though, one important aspect of Booker’s back story seems clear [SPOILERS AHEAD]: Shortly after he committed inhuman atrocities at the Wounded Knee Massacare (burning women and children while they were still in their teepees, scalping his kills, etc.), Booker found himself at a river baptism wanting absolution for his sins. He later revisits this event in the game’s epilogue:
Booker [speaking to Elizabeth]: I was here 20 years ago, right after Wounded Knee. I was looking for, some–
Preacher Witting: Come on, now, time’s a-wasting.
Elizabeth [to Booker]: Why were you here?
Preacher Witting: Are you ready to have your past erased? Are you ready to have your sins cleansed? Are you ready to be born again? Take my hand.
Booker: No. No, I don’t want to.
Elizabeth: But you already did, didn’t you?
[Booker approaches the preacher to accept the baptism.]
Preacher Witting: Are you ready to be born again?
Booker: I am.
Preacher Witting: Do you hate your sins?Booker [whispering]: I do.
Preacher Witting: Do you hate your wickedness?
Booker [through clenched teeth]: Yes.
Preacher Witting: Do you want to clean the slate, leave behind all you were before, and be born again in the blood of the Lamb?
This scene is the center of the story, the turning point, the seed from which B:I‘s multiple timelines spring. In one timeline, Booker accepts his baptism, becoming the Comstock who goes on to found Columbia, imprison Elizabeth, and become the game’s antagonist. In another timeline, he refuses, has a daughter, and turns to a life of drinking and gambling that eventually forces him to give up his child as payment for his debts.
Some reviewers have suggested that B:I’s violence trumps whatever lessons it has to share. I disagree; in fact, I think one can make the case that all of Booker’s violent acts throughout the game are the result of a profound spiritual dissonance within him. There’s a telling moment in this final scene, after Booker refuses the baptism, when Elizabeth turns to him and notes somewhat quizzically, “You didn’t go through with it.” Booker responds, “You think a dunk in the river’s gonna change the things I’ve done? Let’s get out of here.” This line seems to sum up the problem at the heart of B:I—namely, the feeling of unforgivability. Unlike Preacher Witting or his fellow converts at the baptism, Booker constantly inhabits the reality of his sins. He feels their weight, and that weight is crushing, so much so that he comes to believe himself to be beyond redemption. Booker is repentant, no question about it; he wants to leave his sins behind him. But his inability to accept forgiveness is what fractures his story, what causes him to become either a gambling drunk who abandons his daughter or a zealous monomaniac who terrorizes his people.
In one of the voxophone recordings found early in the game, Comstock holds forth on the nature of baptism, musing, “One man goes into the waters of baptism. A different man comes out, born again. But who is that man who lies submerged? Perhaps the swimmer is both sinner and saint, until he is revealed unto the eyes of man.” Many Christians may share Comstock’s confusion. While God thinks of us as new creations, more often than not we struggle to “put off the old man” and assume our new natures. Our sins haunt us, as they haunt DeWitt, and we find ourselves struggling to understanding how God’s grace can really be as good as it claims. At such times, it’s easy to make recourse to tired platitudes and cliches about forgiveness or to sink into despair rather than asking ourselves whether or not we’re truly receptive to God’s love for the unloveable.
What’s even worse, though, is that Preacher Witting, in his eagerness to earn converts for his faith, takes no time to learn Booker’s story or to help him process through the loads of emotional and spiritual baggage that he carries inside of him. His faith is in the act of baptism itself, not the God of the baptism who seeks to restore hearts rather than rap sheets. At the point of his baptism, Booker is a broken man, incapable of making the fine distinction between contrition and despair. Witting should have been his shepherd; instead, he turns Booker into a wolf.
In the opening chapter of his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer decries the perils of such “cheap grace” that promises blanket forgiveness without giving consideration to the effects of such recklessness:
Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
By only offering Booker the “cheap grace” of a shotgun baptism without the heart of repentance, Witting ultimately robs him of the opportunity to experience a baptism that is truly cleansing, that stands as the first step in a long road of faithful discipleship. Instead, as Comstock himself says, Booker’s road “always ends in blood.” This makes B:I not only one of the most compelling games I’ve ever played, but also one of the most deeply tragic.