Being the Better Man: the Failure of Redemption in Bioshock Infinite

So I beat Bioshock Infinite a couple weeks back, and I will say without a doubt that its one of the best games I’ve played in a long time. The gameplay is fun and multi-faceted, the environments are gorgeous, and the characters work double-time to weasel their way into your heart. I was a little sad that the gameplay was simplified from the 15-minute trailer released in 2011, but that complaint is ultimately small potatoes. The game strikes a good balance between world-building, a compelling storyline, character development, and dynamic gameplay, so even when one element shine brighter than the others, no one ever feels outpaced. Plus, as we have come to expect from Bioshock, there’s a big damn twist in there that will blow your freaking mind.

KJF;LDSLJFKDSLJFKLDS MOTHERFUCKIN SHIT AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH

Another hallmark of the Bioshock series that Infinite loyally incorporates is a bold examination of complex philosophical concepts. The original Bioshock tackled, among other things, economic oppression, fascism, isolationism, Randian theory, and free will, all without skirting or tidying them up.  Bioshock 2, arguably the weakest of the series, has something to say about collectivism and social responsibility (not as ambitious or controversial, but eh). Bioshock Infinite follows in the footsteps of its predecessors with gusto, tackling religious and political fanaticism, American exceptionalism, political deification, racism, and social stratification. It also talks about a concept that humanity has been mulling over for millennia: redemption.

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Most people understand what it’s like to sincerely regret an action or decision, and wish there was a way to undo it. Consideration of redemptive powers is present in everything from classical literature to grocery store novels and Twitter feeds—it is a widely (perhaps even universally) appreciated concept, and one that continues to occupy human thought. Bioshock Infinite quick-steps right into those philosophical waters, asking a thoughtful array of questions: what does it mean to be redeemed? What is its purpose? Also, more than asking if one person is worthy of redemption or one act forgivable, Infinite questions the very concept of redemption—is it even truly possible, or worthwhile?

The first place to look when discussing redemption in Bioshock Infinite is pretty easy to guess: Booker DeWitt, Infinite‘s gruff protagonist, is a guilt-ridden, self-loathing soul who has spent the majority of his life at the mercy of his own regret. His life is an impressive reel of mistakes and anguish: at sixteen, he participated in the Battle of Wounded Knee, where he took part in the brutal massacre of innocent Native Americans. Wracked with guilt, Booker turned to baptism to absolve him of his sins, but fled at the last moment, descending into alcoholism, gambling, and greater violence thereafter. These pressures eventually culminate in a decision that haunts him for the next twenty years: to clear his monumental debts to all the wrong people, Booker sells his infant daughter Anna to a mysterious and interested buyer. Although Booker immediately regrets the decision and tries to take her back, the man and his associates steal away with Anna through a tear between realities. It then closes behind them, seemingly separating Booker and his daughter forever.

Oh how could it get any worse?

Although Booker has forgotten much of this information at the outset of the game (due to a serious case of the quantum bends), redemption continues to be on his mind, both consciously and subconsciously: he frequently expresses feelings of regret and self-loathing in regard to his past, and after a bout with indifference early on, ferociously protects Elizabeth, partially out of a sense of atonement. He also bears a physical manifestation of guilt in the form of a mark he carved onto the back of his hand—his daughter’s initials, AD.

On the other side of the redemption coin stands Zachary Comstock, Columbia’s ruler and resident Prophet. Baptized after military service, Comstock believes himself wholly redeemed, his past wrongs washed away and forgotten. Over time, he comes to believe his redemption has rendered him infallible, and that any new wrongs he commits are done out of grace and do not reflect on him negatively. He is prone to self-righteousness and feelings of superiority due to his redemption (for example, he claims he has a responsibility to “bring the wicked to righteousness,” effectively anointing himself with the power of Judgment) while feigning humility before God. It becomes clear by the game’s end that Comstock was even born from an act of redemption: while Booker DeWitt rejects his baptism in one reality, he accepts it in another (an incorporation of the Many Worlds theory of quantum mechanics), and that version of Booker is “reborn” as Comstock.

The man has a flare for the dramatic.

Somewhere in between the two stand the Lutece twins, Rosalind and Robert, eccentric physicists who disregard petty morality in the name of science. Actually the same person from two different realities (with Rosalind belonging to Comstock’s reality, and Robert to Booker’s), the twins have no qualms disrupting and intermingling universes at their leisure—it was they who abducted Anna DeWitt, for instance, to give to the sterile Comstock so that he would have a blood heir. While the two feel no noticeable sense of responsibility for the suffering they cause Booker, they do begin to regret their part in Anna’s abduction when they see the future it leads to: renamed Elizabeth, Booker’s daughter is raised by Comstock to be a harbinger of the apocalypse, using Columbia as a giant weapon to “drown in flame the mountains of man.” It is then that the Luteces, particularly Robert (who issues Rosalind an ultimatum of permanent separation if she does not assist him), start investigating avenues to return Elizabeth to her original reality. Comstock eventually discovers their plans and has them murdered, but not as thoroughly as he intended: his chosen method, sabotaging their tear-making machine, allows them to exist in all realities simultaneously rather than killing them (although their ability to act in any one universe without upsetting its equilibrium is limited). The Luteces then seek to undo what they’ve done—”penance,” as Rosalind describes it—by bringing Booker to Columbia to retrieve Elizabeth, upsetting Comstock’s plans.

Hello beautifuls.

Infinite therefore presents its audience with an opposing, almost symmetrical picture of redemption: the righteous Comstock to the damned Booker, with the near-optimist Robert and fatalist Rosalind in the middle. Each has a different appreciation of the power of redemption—Comstock for what it has done, Booker for what it could undo, Robert for what it can prevent and Rosalind for what it will preserve—and approaches it in a different way. As each acts to get what they want in the bizarre, floating cavalcade that is Columbia, the game begins to ask an interesting question: is the pursuit of redemption, even in the face of such atrocious past wrongs, worthwhile?

Then it answers its own question: no.

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The value of redemption comes into question early in the game, with the introduction of baptism into the storyline: in order to enter Columbia, all newcomers, including Booker, must be baptized. Already there’s an issue of sincerity going on—how committed are people to the meaning of a baptism, if they’re forced to do it to meet an end?—but more than that, it’s the player’s introduction to the element of redemption in the game, and it doesn’t leave a good impression. From there, Comstock’s speeches add to the redemption narrative: In the voxophone recording “Another Ark for Another Time,” Comstock describes himself as the builder of a new ark for mankind, suggesting he is as good and blameless in God’s eyes as the Biblical Noah. In “His Design for Cruelty,” Comstock compares the oppressive social policies he has instituted in Columbia to the good works of God in the Bible, saying he is using the former to “instruct” his people through cruelty. He is perhaps clearest about his inflated self-perception early in the game, when he makes his first attempt on Booker’s life: cueing a nun inside the airship Booker’s piloting to set herself on fire, Comstock tells Booker, “The Lord forgives everything. But I’m just a prophet, so I don’t have to. Amen.” The message, despite Comstock’s facade of humility, is clear: he has been graced by God, so now, he can commit even the most horrific of acts with impunity.

In believing himself above reproach, Comstock feels no guilt about committing heinous deeds in Columbia, such as the murder of political opposition or the racist, classist, divisive policies which he upholds. In turning to baptism to absolve himself of the terrible crimes he committed at Wounded Knee, Comstock sees himself washed clean of sin—however, nothing about the situation has really changed. The people he murdered are still dead, but Comstock disregards that, believing that his crimes have been erased. In turn, he does not take his guilt to heart, or use it as a means to change. Instead, he simply believes himself blameless, while maintaining the same behaviors and disposition that allowed him to commit such atrocities in the first place. In the end, Comstock is a worse man for his supposed redemption, which simply allows him to carry on his cruel practices, less the empathy and guilt that could change him for the better.

Booker, meanwhile, is a man who has failed at every turn to grasp the redemption he seeks, and yet is the greater person for it. Infinite makes no qualms about the fact that Booker has done—and to a degree, continues to do—horrible things for which forgiveness is difficult. Even when he reaches Columbia, already immensely regretful for his acts at Wounded Knee (and, subconsciously, his betrayal of Anna), he still behaves in an violent and unrepentant manner. He also tricks Elizabeth, saying he will take her to Paris when his real plan is hand her over to parties of dubious repute.

To which Elizabeth takes exception.

However, as he develops as a character, Booker begins to do something that Comstock never has or will: he lets his regret influence him to change. As Booker begins to care for Elizabeth, he feels remorse for tricking her and tries to make up for it, even attempting to take her to Paris as he had falsely promised. When his acts at Wounded Knee are revealed to Elizabeth and framed in glorious terms, Booker objects, telling her that what he has done is nothing to take pride in. In contrast to the intolerant and hateful attitude that allowed him murder Native Americans at the massacre, Booker’s regret has changed his outlook: in a voxophone recording by a minor character named Preston Downs, Downs reveals that Booker helped him communicate with a Sioux child that Downs was caring for, due to Booker’s knowledge of the language. The once racist and murderous Booker is now, if not entirely changed, more empathetic and willing to help those he would not have before.

Booker’s focus isn’t on redeeming himself for his past actions, but affecting future ones. As he pursues the kidnapped Elizabeth to Comstock House, helps her stall the Vox Populi fleet that comes after them, and takes control of Songbird to destroy the Siphon which limits her powers, his goal is to truly to help her escape, rather than to abstractly make up for actions he has already taken. Even at the game’s end, when he returns to the time of his baptism and allows Elizabeth to erase Comstock and “undo” his betrayal, his goal is not to be forgiven, but to do right by her.

The difference between Comstock and Booker—the reason Booker is the protagonist of Bioshock Infinite and Comstock is the villain—is ultimately a divergence in character based on perceived redemption. Comstock takes the righteous path, which allows him to commit even greater wrongs against his fellow man when he doesn’t learn from his mistakes. Booker, a deadbeat alcoholic who sold his child, becomes the better man through the impact of his past misdeeds, which leads him to different actions in the future. Redemption here is at best counterproductive, and at worst destructive: it allows one’s past acts to be forgotten without reparative action, or altered perspective, so it perpetuates the very wrongs it sought to undo.

This idea falls cleanly into place when attention is finally turned to the Luteces. Over the course of the story, their attempts at seeking redemption are so invisible as to be nonexistent—which is exactly what they are. Straightforward and logical, the Luteces are not interested in dwelling on the past; it is only flippantly that Rosalind calls their work “penance” (and that in reference to Booker’s act of branding himself), and they do not appear at all interested in being forgiven. In the end, their goal is to subvert the future brought on by their actions—results, not empty feelings of relief. Had they simply sought Booker’s forgiveness (or, perhaps, turned to baptism), that would not have changed the circumstances that lead to Elizabeth destroying terrestrial society. It is only through persistent action that they are able, like Booker, to actually better the world around them by confronting their regrettable decisions.

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Midway through the game, Elizabeth, traumatized by her murder of Daisy Fitzroy, asks Booker, “How do you wash away the things you’ve done?” It’s a pointed and poetic moment, particularly in light of the baptism imagery that has already become prominent in Infinite. Booker, readily familiar with the guilt she is feeling, answers her honestly: “You don’t. You just learn to live with it.” Ultimately, this angle is the one which the story as a whole takes: while the idea of redemption is nice, and forgiveness for past wrongs uplifting, it is impotent if it ignores—or worse, reinforces—the wrongs for which one desires to be redeemed. Comstock is a worse man for forgetting what he has done, because it allows his cruelty to subsist; Booker is the better for remembering it, because it forces him to understand the pain he has caused, which in turn changes him (as ugly as the process may be). In Bioshock Infinite, the redeemed man abducts a child, and the unredeemed man trips over himself to save her; the redeemed man brainwashes her, and the unredeemed undoes her chains; the redeemed man dies with practiced last words, leaving his world damaged for his presence, and the unredeemed man gives up everything to change it. Comstock and Booker both end at a place of baptism, but redemption creates nothing of value for either of them—it is Booker’s choice to actively repair what he has done, at great cost, that puts things as right as they will ever be.

And somewhere, the Luteces pat each other on the back, and trade congratulations on a job well done.

Dance on, you crazy bastards.
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1 thought on “Being the Better Man: the Failure of Redemption in Bioshock Infinite

  1. Comstock’s bastardization of Christianity has plenty to say about salvation and redemption, but not one word about the other half of the equation — penance. Merely seeking forgiveness is not enough; one must also atone for one’s misdeeds. This is what Comstock has forgotten (or never understood, or conveniently papered over), and what Booker comes to comprehend.

    Like

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