Booker DeWitt at Wounded Knee: Baptism in Bioshock Infinite

February 12th, 2014 § 1 comment

I just finished playing Bioshock: Infinite. It’s a great game. The play is smooth and fun, with swashbuckling sky-rollercoaster antics and magic crows flying out of your hands. And the soundtrack, my stars and garters, the soundtrack. (If you want to get me on your side there is no better way than having a barbershop quartet cover “God Only Knows” in the first 20 minutes of a game that’s supposedly set in 19-fucking-12, combining worldbuilding awesomeness and male close harmony and “wait a second is that really-” for a shot of pure brain joy.) The two central characters of Booker DeWitt (your not-so-silent protagonist) and Elizabeth, the girl he’s trying to rescue from flying racist sky-city Columbia, are engaging and fabulous. I’ve never felt so damn *concerned* for a tagalong NPC in a game. I cared about Elizabeth. I wanted to help her, protect her, make her happy, and, hell, just to wander around the city with her hanging out. Not because the game told me I was supposed to like her—because the story was built so that I just *did*. Serious Final Fantasy VI level stuff here. If there’s a better compliment to game, I don’t know how to offer it.

And on top of and beneath all the Erroll Flynning and the magical crows and the time travel, Bioshock: Infinite is a brilliant investigation of the sacrament of baptism.

(WARNING: In case you didn’t guess, I am about to mercilessly spoil B:I. Gamers, if you haven’t finished it yet, what are you doing here? Theology folks, I’ll try to bring you up to speed on the story’s conceits as quickly as possible.)

(WARNING 2: I’m talking theology here, so a bit of background: most of my theology is early C20 German existentialist though there’s a lot of Augustine up in the attic too, for which thank you Dr. Richardson. As with all theological argument, this is me groping at the edge of immense symbols with imprecise words & trying to describe how I’ve lived with, around, and occasionally through them. Mileage varies.)

Consider a soldier named Booker DeWitt, who participated in the massacre at Wounded Knee, the U.S. Army’s wholesale slaughter of Sioux men, women, and children. Broken by his own actions, DeWitt seeks solace in religion. He goes down to the river to pray. A preacher offers him baptism.

This is where things get weird. In one timeline, DeWitt accepts baptism, and rises from the pool feeling his sins not merely washed clean, but *justified*—he is God’s agent in the world, and he strides forth to remake Earth in the service of his white American deity. He takes a new name to represent his new life: Zachary Hale Comstock. And since delusions of grandeur are inferior to, you know, actual grandeur, he enlists the aid of a brilliant scientist who can control quantum stuff and create tears between realities. Said scientist builds for Comstock a flying city from which he can dispense justice on the world below: Columbia! So Comstock has his empire, but he still needs an heir. Unfortunately, quantum tomfoolery has left him infertile—so, easy enough, since we can open tears from one reality to the next we can just reach into a neighboring reality and pull a child out of them—a girl who shares his own DNA even. Comstock does this, names the girl Elizabeth, and locks her in a tower, raising her to maturity and attempting to brainwash her to share his ideals and vision for the world. The brainwashing is not very successful.

“Meanwhile” (hah!), in another timeline, DeWitt refuses baptism, goes to New York, gets married. His wife dies, leaving behind DeWitt and their baby girl, Anna. Single dad DeWitt tries to keep his shit together, fails, and falls into a depressive spiral of drink and gambling. Debts mount. He’s in trouble. One day a mysterious scientist arrives and offers him a devil’s deal: DeWitt’s debts will be forgiven so long as he gives up his daughter. DeWitt, at rock bottom, agrees. He comes to his senses, chases after the scientist, but can’t stop the “theft” of his child. With her gone, he sinks further into depression and drink. Somewhere in all this he joins the Pinkertons and spends 20 years beating labor organizers over the head with a lead pipe.

Until one day the same scientist, for reasons of “his” own (it’s complicated), returns, and offers DeWitt a second chance: to visit the alternate reality super-racist sky city of Columbia and steal “the girl” (Anna, now Elizabeth) back from him. When our heroes piece all this together, in the story’s final act, they understand what they must do: go back to the moment of Comstock’s baptism and drown him—that is, Booker must inhabit Comstock and drown himself, with Elizabeth’s help.

On its surface this story seems to come down pretty hard on baptism. DeWitt-turned-Comstock is reprehensible—a villain so villainous he borders on parody, as Yahtzee’s review observes. (Though Comstock’s sins are also the arch-sins of the United States in ways that make Comstock’s madness intelligible at least to this US-American; Comstock’s our heart of darkness, the evil we fear might be, and sometimes know is, the truth beneath our pretense of opportunity and grace. Comstock is us—literally, in this game! But this relies on a lot of cultural context to which non-US-Americans might not have access; I dunno.) Baptism is his origin story; the first sin of Zachary Hale Comstock, it seems, is his belief that a little fresh water could wash away the blood of Wounded Knee. But I think the story’s subtler than that.

See, baptism is a discontinuity—a tear. At the very least, setting aside all questions of metaphysics, it offers us a narrative break from the past. That distance gives us the strength to appreciate the depths of our mistakes, and the spiritual leverage to mend them and live better. Baptism is not God saying “Hey, you’ve done really well so far, have a nice bath!” We need baptism, say faiths that rely on the sacrament, because we haven’t. Because doing well is impossible. Because we live in a suffering world, because we benefit from that suffering, because we pass it on to others, because almost all of us who can read this blog post (if we’re frank about it) live with our feet on the necks of people we can’t name, running back centuries. And that’s for those of us who did not actively bayonet children during one of the darkest and bloodiest moments of American history! To do meaningful work in the world, to be honest with ourselves, we must wake up. We must embrace a moment of change, a spiritual inflection point. We must acknowledge our role in oppression and work to stop oppressing. (Notice parallels to the stuff I wrote about karma a few weeks back? The concepts of sin and karmic determination approach similar truths from different angles, I think.)

Seen this way, both Booker and Comstock refuse baptism after Wounded Knee. Booker recognizes his refusal, and sinks into despair, alcoholism, and gambling until he’s so low he sells his daughter to save his own skin. Comstock twists the offer of rebirth—he uses the discontinuity of baptism to *justify* his past actions. Obviously God approves of my deeds, or else He would not forgive me. Right?

Hah.

Comstock was no more prepared to confront what he’d done than was DeWitt. He mythologized it, rather, created an elaborate fantasy world in which his every evil was a virtue. (A parallel to certain other ubernationalist video game franchises, maybe…) To defeat him and save Elizabeth, DeWitt must force Comstock to accept the most profound narrative discontinuity, and to accept it himself—to embrace baptism and die.

DeWitt / Comstock drowns. Elizabeth vanishes, because without Comstock she does not exist. Credits roll.

And then…

After the credits, we join DeWitt in his office. In the next room, a lullaby plays. He stands, walks to the door—hesitates with his hand upon it— “Anna?”

He pushes the door open, and finds his daughter.

Since Comstock never came to be in any alternate timeline, no one stole Elizabeth from DeWitt. She remains Anna, and the future is unwritten.

Beautiful.

(Yes, okay, we never actually see the baby in the post-credits scene. There’s room for ambiguity, though I think the reason for that is to leave open the question of whether it’s Anna or Elizabeth in the crib.)

But, and here’s the key: for this ending to work, we *must believe* that the Booker DeWitt we join post-credits is a different man from the Booker DeWitt who sold his daughter, or anyway that he will become a different man. Granted we see little evidence of this, but if we’re to feel at all positive about the ending we need to believe that Booker will be as good a father to Anna as he became to Elizabeth by the end of Bioshock Infinite—which means that he’ll get his act together, stop drinking, stop gambling, pay off his debts and raise his child. Booker will emerge from his self-destructive spiral and become a man good for something other than breaking the world. (And if Booker can, maybe America can too.)

Booker DeWitt accepted the sacrament of baptism and was reborn.

And the story’s pro-baptism logic goes even further! Elizabeth is an admirable woman: strongwilled, joyful, idealistic, practical. She has suffered horrible things during her captivity, most of which are left vague, but still—she asks Booker to kill her rather than let Comstock take her back, which suggests some pretty creepy shit. This woman is worthwhile, and DeWitt’s baptism, while severe for him, goes even further for her: if we believe she’s in the room in the final scene, she’s been reset to literal infancy.

DeWitt, mind, doesn’t make this choice *for* Elizabeth. She holds all the cards in the final act: she can see every alternate reality, and shift between them at will. (It’s possible that all the tears are actually game-representations of the operation of consciousness—that we’re inside Elizabeth’s head the entire time, or even inside of Booker’s, all of BI being a single moment of transcendent experience during his baptism after Wounded Knee—but this isn’t that essay.) The way the story’s presented, Elizabeth decides that literal rebirth is preferable to her past. She’s willing to abandon everything she *is* in order to escape what’s happened to her, and what she’s done.

If there’s a more extreme form of baptism, I haven’t seen it yet.

Now, there’s another way to spin this final moment: Elizabeth and DeWitt want to save New York / the world / herself in *all* timelines, so Comstock must die in all timelines, which means Elizabeth must sacrifice herself. She, as Elizabeth, will disappear—but she, as Anna, will have a chance to grow up with her real father. By submitting to baptism and rebirth, she keeps herself from ever becoming the tool of Comstock’s vengeance on the world. One baptism for the forgiveness of sins in all realities—or the prevention of future sins. (This is starting to sound very Tielhardian, I guess.) I think the story accepts both spins, maybe even at the same time. People are complicated, especially time-traveling realty-hopping omniscient people.

Either way, Bioshock: Infinite might seem to take a hard stance against baptism, but it’s actually one of the most thoughtful investigations (and IMO endorsements) of the concept I’ve seen. I understand the game came under some fire on release for being “antireligious.” If cutting open tough theological concepts and developing them through the media of play and storytelling is “antireligious,” maybe modern faith needs more antireligion in games, not less.

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§ One Response to Booker DeWitt at Wounded Knee: Baptism in Bioshock Infinite

  • […] but, whether you have or whether you don’t mind having the plot spoiled, I really recommend Max Gladstone’s meditation on the game and its themes of baptism.  I’ve redacted the characters names in the blockquote below, for those of you avoiding […]

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I write books about the cutthroat world of international necromancy: wizards in pinstriped suits and gods with shareholders' committees. Campbell Award nominee 2013.

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