All right, folks, the tale of Bioshock Infinite is nearing an end—Burial at Sea: Part 2 drops today, likely with a twist to throw us for a loop, and that’ll end this piece of this infinite story. In honor of that I’ve got a Bioshock Infinite essay about the DeWitt-Comstock-Elizabeth conflict, through an analogy that Burial at Sea signed and sealed.
Bioshock Infinite deals with some heavy themes, from racism and child abuse to despotism and fate. Not the least among these ideas is the concept of religion as a force for corruption, but in truth no one religion is really focused on. The game’s Christian themes aren’t themselves a source for critique but a foundation on which Columbia’s cultish religion is based, extracting iconic elements such as baptism and the miracle birth without addressing the scriptures themselves. For the most part this approach is fine—it highlights that the issue with religion isn’t faith itself, but the way in which it can be used as a vehicle for manipulation. This idea is relatively consistent with how religion is addressed in other Bioshock games, and the comparison still gives Infinite room to make a clear point about radicalism. Deeper Christian themes, while sometimes enriching to the game’s world, aren’t essential to what Infinite is trying to say.
However, there one exception—one Biblical story that has noticeable parallels in Infinite that enhance the game’s narrative while presenting new and fascinating possibilities for both. That would be the Judgment of Solomon (or “Solomon and the Baby”) in the Old Testament (Kings 3:16 – 3:28).
For those who don’t know the story (which can be read in its entirety here in a variety of translations, though this essay will focus on the King James version), it goes like this:
Two women approach the wise King Solomon with a child. The first claims that the second smothered her own infant in her sleep and stole the first’s. The second denies this claim, saying the child belongs to her. Solomon asks that a sword be brought so that he may cut the child in half and give a piece to each woman. The first, unwilling to see her son die, gives him up to save his life, while the second calls for the baby to be divided. Based on the love and selflessness displayed by the first woman, Solomon decrees the child to be hers and returns the boy, proving the divinity of his wisdom.
The comparison to Bioshock Infinite here jumps out immediately, albeit in gender-switched form: Comstock, desperate for a child, abducts Elizabeth from her true father, Booker. While the ways by which the woman and Comstock become childless differ—her by negligent infanticide and him by sterility—their states are comparable, and motivations similar. In order to secure an heir, each seeks out a similar but child-bearing compatriot: the true mother (housemate to the lying woman) and Booker (an alternate version of Comstock himself). This choice is shrewder in Comstock’s case, as Elizabeth is technically his biological offspring, but the end results are the same as each steals a child and falsely claims it as their own to guarantee the propagation of their family line.
In both cases, the thieving party offers an unequal trade for the child. The lying woman replaces the living child with her own dead infant, and a desperate Booker exchanges his daughter, Anna, for freedom from his debts. However, in both cases the true parent immediately pursues the thief (when the mother awakens and discovers the dead baby is not hers, and Booker realizes what a terrible decision he has made), and enters into a struggle to recover their child.
The similarities between Solomon’s judgment and Infinite are striking up to this point. However, the stories quickly diverge as their respective conflicts escalate, when the two women approach the king and Comstock and Booker struggle for Anna through the tear. Suddenly, the stories go in opposite directions, and while the true mother gets her child back in the Judgment of Solomon, the false father wins Anna in Infinite.
Comparing Infinite—a game which ponders on religious zealotry—to Biblical narrative suggests a new and fascinating way to interpret the story. For instance, it is thought-provoking to note that in Comstock’s religious utopia, a perversion of Biblical justice is playing out right before the players’ eyes. This links up with the ever-present sense of something amiss in Columbia, centered on the tears which appear at random throughout the city. They are caused by fluctuations in Elizabeth’s powers, originally brought on by her transfer from one reality to another. Therefore, is this situation perhaps the result of divine justice (and/or the normal functioning of the universe) being thwarted? An overlay of Solomon’s absolute judgment suggests, in a story that focuses on the “constants and variables” that govern reality, Elizabeth’s absence from Columbia was meant to be a constant. In it becoming a variable, the transcendent will of existence has been disregarded. What is left for a city like that but for the cosmic math problem to collapse?
The comparison also creates a way for the framework of the Biblical story to be looked at through a lens of grey morality. What if the first woman was an unfit mother who gave up her baby in a moment of weakness and desperation? If that were so, is either parent worthy of calling that child their own? Further, while the assumption can be made that the second woman is cast out and the first and her son live happily ever after, what if we thought more deeply on that? What are the possibilities for future relations between these three, particularly if and when the child learns the truth of what happened?
I touched on this idea last year in an essay on redemption in Infinite, noting why it is fitting for Booker and Comstock to be the game’s protagonist and antagonist respectively. That reasoning carries over into why Booker is the better choice of a father for Anna, and also lines up with the Biblical conclusion. In the Judgment of Solomon, the true mother is willing to give of herself and surrender her child to save his life, while the second demands the boy be cut to satisfy her jealous resentment:
And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.
Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it.
Comstock and Booker stand in like positions to the two women. Comstock imprisons, abuses and tortures Elizabeth to shape her to his desire, willing to destroy (or “divide”) her rather than see her go free. Booker, meanwhile, is willing to sacrifice himself to save her from Comstock’s cruelty and his own failings as a human being. Juxtaposing these actions with those of the women in the Biblical tale only makes the point stronger; suddenly the scene of Booker entering Anna’s room following the credits isn’t just a bonus clip, but a suggestion that the just and right conclusion to their tale may have been reached.
As Infinite‘s story continues to develop through DLC, Burial at Sea takes this comparison one step further, touching on what the wise king Solomon never truly meant to have happen. Where Solomon’s Judgment ends with righteous justice for the true parent and Bioshock Infinite exhibits initial victory for the thief, Burial at Sea features the third option of the baby being “divided”. Literally.
In his and Booker’s initial struggle for possession of Anna, Comstock commands the Luteces to shut the tear, and in the original story, he successfully brings her into Columbia before the pathway closes. However, in the Burial at Sea version of events, Comstock loses his grip, and she is cut in two by the closing breach. Just as the lying woman calls for the child be divided if she cannot possess him, so does Comstock unwittingly demand the same in regard to Anna. While one could argue that is not Comstock’s intention for Anna to die, that doesn’t change the grisly results. The event is so traumatic that it drives Comstock into hiding in another reality, again introducing grey morality through his remorse, but the analogous Biblical framework still functions to create a sense of perverted justice.
Finally, perhaps one of the most interesting additions Infinite provides to this comparison is the expanded role of the child. If the part of each woman in the Judgment of Solomon is small, the infant’s is meager, as by design he is there to be a desired object. Bioshock Infinite, however, introduces a grown child to the battle between her two fathers, establishing a new force to influence their conflict.
The events of Infinite can effectively be seen as an expansion of Booker and Comstock’s initial clash over Anna twenty years prior to the game; now, however, Elizabeth is grown and able to exercise agency in ways that she wasn’t before, and the child in the Judgment of Solomon never could. Suddenly the story not only has another new player to contend with, but one that the Biblical narrative skirts. What is the affect on a child—a person—of being battled over in such a destructive fashion? How does the conflict boil over into their life, affecting both their self-perception and the way they regard their parent? It adds to both Infinite and the Biblical narrative a tinge of parental fear (the sort any parent who has ever kept an important secret from a child knows) that while previously absent, seems suddenly appropriate: “what happens when the child finds out?”
In Elizabeth’s case, her response is aggressive, fueled in no small part by the means Comstock uses to try and possess her. She elects to end the conflict between Booker and Comstock herself, violently if necessary, and only strengthens her conviction in Burial at Sea. Even when Booker demands that she not kill Comstock herself, she turns on him with the full force of her might—the power initially denied to her and her Biblical counterpart—and asks what he plans to do to stop her.
In a world where all is not as it should be, the once naive prize child takes matters into her own hands. Perhaps, in this twisted version of events, that is justice: the child returns to seek retribution, and her actions takes the place of a great king’s wisdom in a reality that is deaf to it.
There are, as noted, many ways in which the Judgment of Solomon and Bioshock Infinite differ. One could argue that victory for the lying woman (or worse, Solomon’s bluff being carried out) goes against the central point of the story that Solomon’s wisdom is divine and absolute. The actions of the grown child also extend outside the range of the original tale, and the themes of the two stories don’t always line up. However, these differences don’t stop the comparison from being compelling, and in fact might make it even more so. In Bioshock Infinite we find a likeness to the Judgment of Solomon, a reading which draws fresh and fascinating themes out of the game while expanding on unfortunate possibilities of the original Bible story. Despite Comstock’s religious fervor, the only thing in his world resembling true Christian doctrine has been warped and twisted, until the wisdom of great kings can no longer be heard. And, of course, that’s only the beginning.
But maybe I’m thinking too deeply about this. After all, despite Solomon being the focus of the Biblical tale, no such force of insight exists in Infinite. There seems to be no comparable figure to bear the weapon of destruction, weigh possibilities and judge who is the worthy parent—
. . . wait a minute.
. . . well. All right then.