baptismal font

BioShock Infinite and Baptism 3


SPOILER WARNING: This arti­cle spoils the end­ing and plot of BioShock Infinite.

BioShock Infinite begins and ends with bap­tism. One of the first actions the player takes in the game involves a con­tex­tual prompt to “sub­mit to a bap­tism.” One of the very last sce­nes involves the main char­ac­ter being drowned in a river. Images of water, drown­ing, and bap­tism are used over and over, rang­ing from the drown­ing of Comstock in a lit­eral bap­tismal font, to the death of the Songbird in the waters of Rapture.

Opinions on this are mixed. Some Christians were offended by the inclu­sion of this Christian sacra­ment in the game, argu­ing that it is blas­phe­mous. Others point out that the game serves as a cri­tique of reli­gious abuse, and that the depic­tion of bap­tism in the game per­fectly cap­tures the energy and sub­ver­sive atti­tude of the early church. I per­son­ally tend towards the lat­ter. I would argue that BioShock Infinite can be used as a pow­er­ful Christian object lesson for the mean­ing of true repen­tance and redemp­tion, and an illus­tra­tion for the nature and trans­for­ma­tive power of grace.

At the end of BioShock Infinite, we are told the true iden­tity of the game’s main antag­o­nist, Zachary Comstock. Through a series of events that are a bit too com­plex to relate here, we dis­cover that Zachary Comstock is actu­ally an alter­nate uni­verse ver­sion of the game’s main pro­tag­o­nist and player char­ac­ter, Booker DeWitt.

One of the ideas that BioShock Infinite explores is the “Many Worlds” inter­pre­ta­tion of quan­tum mechan­ics. A com­plete expla­na­tion of the “Many Worlds” inter­pre­ta­tion is too com­plex to include here, but as used in the game, it can be summed up in three sim­ple con­cepts:

  • There exists an infinite, or near-infinite num­ber of par­al­lel real­i­ties.
  • Most of these real­i­ties are largely sim­i­lar to each other except that one or two aspects have been changed.
  • The most com­mon rea­son for a par­al­lel real­ity to be made is when a per­son faces a choice. Two real­i­ties are then cre­ated: one for each pos­si­ble choice.

In sto­ry­telling terms, what this means is that every choice that Booker has made and could have made cre­ates a dif­fer­ent uni­verse. BioShock Infinite tells the story of what hap­pens when a per­son attempts to inter­fere with the life of an alternate-universe ver­sion of him­self.

In addi­tion to serv­ing as one of the core ele­ments of the game’s game­play through the use of Tears, Infinite uses the “Many Worlds” the­ory as a major sto­ry­telling con­ceit. Essentially, it allows the char­ac­ters to explore, in depth, the con­se­quences of the choices they have made, and to weigh one out­come after another.

BioShock Infinite allows its char­ac­ters to do some­thing that most of us never have a chance to do: take both paths and com­pare and con­trast the results. This sto­ry­telling struc­ture also allows the game to serve as an object lesson not only of the results of wrong­do­ing, but also to explore how our rela­tion­ship with our mis­deeds changes based on our atti­tude towards redemp­tion and for­give­ness.

On December 28, 1890, a group of cav­al­ry­men from the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment encoun­tered a trav­el­ing band of approx­i­mately 350 Lakota under the lead­er­ship of Chief Spotted Elk of the Miniconjou Lakota Nation. The Lakota were escorted to Wounded Knee Creek, where they made camp. The remain­der of the 7th Cavalry soon arrived, set up four Hotchkiss guns (breech-loading light artillery pieces), and waited for day­break.

The next morn­ing, the com­man­der of the U.S. 7th Cavalry (Colonel James W. Forsyth) ordered that the Lakota be dis­armed and trans­ported to nearby trains for removal from the area. What hap­pened next is unclear, but it is gen­er­ally agreed that a Lakota man resisted giv­ing up his rifle, the rifle dis­charged, and the U.S. Cavalry opened fire.

Within min­utes, the entire camp erupted in gun­fire. Women and chil­dren, old men and young, were gunned down. In less than an hour, between 150 to 300 Lakota were killed, some of them run down by cav­alry sol­diers, oth­ers killed by artillery fire. 25 U.S. Cavalry men were killed, and 39 more wounded: some by enemy fire, oth­ers by friendly fire from their own artillery.

In the wake of what the U.S. Government called “The Battle of Wounded Knee,” the U.S. Cavalrymen involved in the inci­dent were painted as heroes who had put down a dan­ger­ous revolt. Over twenty Medals of Honor were awarded in the wake of the inci­dent, some of them for pur­su­ing escap­ing or hid­ing Lakota. Newspapers praised the action and called for the fur­ther exter­mi­na­tion of the Native Americans in order to pre­vent fur­ther vio­lent inci­dents.

In the years since, how­ever, the inci­dent is bet­ter known as the “Wounded Knee Massacre.” It has inspired books, music, and movies. Over eighty years later, in 1973, Lakota staged a demon­stra­tion at the site of the bat­tle, protest­ing the cor­rup­tion and abuse of Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. Government.

To this day, Native American activists have peti­tioned that the Medals of Honor awarded for Wounded Knee be rescinded. Meanwhile, the offi­cial web page of the Fifth Squadron of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry describes mem­bers of the 7th Cavalry as hav­ing “fought with such dis­tinc­tion in the Battle at Wounded Knee Creek, that five Troopers were awarded the Medal of Honor.”

The cre­ators of Bioshock Infinite chose to use a fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of the Massacre at Wounded Knee as the defin­ing moment of Booker DeWitt’s back­ground. According to infor­ma­tion pro­vided in-game and by its cre­ators, Booker DeWitt was a six­teen year-old sol­dier with of Native American descent in the 7th Cavalry at the time of the mas­sacre. Afraid of being stig­ma­tized or iso­lated by his white com­rades, DeWitt is described as hav­ing butchered and mur­dered women and chil­dren, scalp­ing many and burn­ing down tipis with peo­ple still inside.

Like many of the men who par­tic­i­pated in the Wounded Knee Massacre, DeWitt was seen as a hero by his men. Deep inside, how­ever, he felt shame and regret for his actions and sought abso­lu­tion. While attend­ing a river bap­tism, the pas­tor tells Booker that from that moment for­ward, he will become a new man, and all his past sins will be “washed away.”

In one time­line, Booker DeWitt accepts the bap­tism. He chooses a new name, “Zachary Comstock.” He for­gets the guilt and shame he had felt, and fully accepts the praise of his peers, refram­ing his par­tic­i­pa­tion in Wounded Knee as the actions of a war hero. Through a series of con­vo­luted events, he becomes the mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal reli­gious and polit­i­cal leader of a fly­ing city in the clouds called Columbia.

However, Comstock’s bap­tism is a lie by the stan­dards of the Christian church. Baptism is one of the core sacra­ments of Christianity, ever since its found­ing. Whether per­formed with a few drops of water or by full immer­sion, bap­tism is sym­bolic of a “wash­ing” away of sin and a “rebirth” into new life. Put another way, bap­tism is an act of penance by which the sins of the can­di­date are for­given.

What it is not is a “get out of sin free card.”

Penance and for­give­ness are often mis­un­der­stood con­cepts. As an exam­ple of penance, the Catholic rite of con­fes­sion means noth­ing with­out “sin­cere sor­row and pur­pose of amend­ment.” In other words, a con­fes­sion is not valid unless done out of a sin­cere regret for one’s prior mis­deeds, and with a true desire to change one’s ways and atone for the harm done. As for for­give­ness, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “for­give­ness” as “to grant free par­don and to give up all claim on account of an offence or debt.” This is why we use the word “for­give­ness” to refer not only to putting aside past wrongs, but also putting aside past debts. Just like you can “for­give” some­one the ten bucks they owe you for pizza, you can also “for­give” some­one the pun­ish­ment or resti­tu­tion they owe you for past wrongs.

Zachary Comstock’s bap­tism achieves none of this. Rather than feel­ing sor­row­ful for his past sins and being reborn, he sim­ply replaces wrath and drunk­en­ness for pride and van­ity, as evi­denced by the cul­ture of hero-worship he cul­ti­vates on Columbia. Matthew 7:16 famously states, “By their fruits you shall know them.” The fruits of Zachary Comstock, as evi­denced by the cul­ture of the nation he founded, are hypocrisy, fear, hatred, and extrem­ism.

Rather than wash­ing away his sins and rebirthing him into new life, Zachary Comstock’s bap­tism allows him to pre­tend that they were not sins at all. The right­ful shame and regret he felt for his mur­der­ous actions are removed, yes, but no penance takes place, and no for­give­ness is granted. This event, this false bap­tism, trig­gers the entire series of tragedies that befall our char­ac­ters in this game.

In another time­line, Booker DeWitt refuses the bap­tism. He believes that his sins are too great to for­give, and refuses to believe that the sim­ple act of hav­ing water poured over his head can for­give the mag­ni­tude of his sins. He becomes a drunk, addicted to gam­bling, depressed, alone, and angry. Instead of seek­ing penance and for­give­ness for his sins, he instead chooses to anes­thetize the pain and guilt he feels through vice.

It is true that sins of this mag­ni­tude can­not be for­given by a sim­ple “dunk in a river.” On the other hand, bap­tism is never intended as just a water bath, but as a sym­bol of divine grace being vis­ited upon the bap­tized.

Divine grace is the idea that a higher power can act directly through human beings in order to heal wounds, inspire good behav­ior, and impart strength to endure dif­fi­culty. Key to the Christian under­stand­ing of grace is the idea that sal­va­tion is a gift, not an earned com­mod­ity. The for­give­ness of sins comes not through the good actions of the for­given, but is pro­vided as an unmerited gift by a higher power. A com­mon exam­ple used is a par­don granted by a gov­ern­ment offi­cial to a crim­i­nal: the criminal’s past mis­deeds still exist and took place, but the gov­ern­ment for­feits all rights to pun­ish the wrong­doer.

In other words, the mag­ni­tude of the sins that Booker DeWitt has com­mit­ted are irrel­e­vant to whether or not penance and for­give­ness are pos­si­ble. All that is required is that a sin­cere act of penance takes place, and that a higher power impart grace upon him. DeWitt’s denial of this higher power by refus­ing bap­tism directly results in him drown­ing in a sea of guilt and shame, which even­tu­ally leads to the bad deci­sions that allow Zachary Comstock to carry out his plan of con­quest.

When Zachary Comstock (ren­dered infer­tile and pre­ma­turely aged due to expo­sure to a machine that cre­ates tears in the space-time con­tin­uum) real­izes that he has no heir to inherit his “king­dom” when he finally shuf­fles off this mor­tal coil, he makes a deal to pur­chase Booker DeWitt’s daugh­ter, and raise her to become his heir. Since Anna DeWitt is, tech­ni­cally, his own flesh and blood, that makes her a valid heir.

Due to a bunch of time-travel shenani­gans involv­ing the Luteces, Booker DeWitt ends up trav­el­ing to Columbia, encoun­ter­ing his daugh­ter (now renamed Elizabeth and pos­sess­ing mys­ti­cal pow­ers), and killing a lot of peo­ple.

A war erupts. Horror and atroc­i­ties are vis­ited upon the inno­cent and the just. Throughout it all, despite over­whelm­ing evi­dence build­ing up, Booker DeWitt refuses to admit or believe what is becom­ing slowly more and more evi­dent: that he and Zachary Comstock have a deep con­nec­tion to each other. He goes so far as to vio­lently mur­der Zachary Comstock when the man hints at the true nature of the rela­tion­ship between the two men.

In the end, he and Elizabeth end up enter­ing a realm between worlds… a nexus of uni­verses, if you will. We get some expla­na­tion about how the mul­ti­verse and the nexus works, and then… we find our­selves in the river.

Back where it all began.

So as we reach the end of our story, we are faced with two dif­fer­ent peo­ple. Booker DeWitt: repen­tant, but unwill­ing to accept for­give­ness. Zachary Comstock: for­given, but unre­pen­tant. As long as DeWitt never puts aside his past wrongs, he will never pull him­self out of his self-imposed hell. As long as Zachary Comstock refuses to acknowl­edge his past wrongs, he will never be any­thing but a mon­ster.

He’s Zachary Comstock.”

He’s Booker DeWitt.”

No. I’m both.”

It is at that moment, when DeWitt both accepts for­give­ness and becomes repen­tant, that he is placed back in the water. Though he strug­gles, the mul­ti­ple Elizabeths he encoun­ters hold him under the river, van­ish­ing one by one, until we cut to black.

The bap­tismal imagery here is obvi­ous, but, seen another way: All of Booker DeWitt’s strug­gles and hard­ships through­out BioShock Infinite only serve to take him to a point where he can undo all of the wrongs that he vis­ited upon the world. In the end, it is Elizabeth, not Booker, who erases Zachary Comstock from exis­tence.

Or, seen another way: a being of great power and wis­dom, born of a human father and mother, is required to break the cycle of pain and harm that has con­sumed not only the world, but the lives of Zachary Comstock and Booker DeWitt.

But then again, the scene at the river isn’t really the end of BioShock Infinite. The game truly ends when Booker returns to his office and hears his infant daughter’s cry. He has a chance, once again, to make a dif­fer­ent choice. To cre­ate a new uni­verse in which nei­ther the mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal Zachary Comstock or the anguished Booker DeWitt exist.

Will he do bet­ter? Will his life and Elizabeth’s become bet­ter? We don’t know. As in real life, being bap­tized and saved doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that one will change. Change is dif­fi­cult, and many Christians (and non-Christians) have ended up laps­ing back into sin and wrong­do­ing. The dif­fer­ence, how­ever, is that Booker now has a chance to repair the wrongs he did. That alone is a pow­er­ful alle­gory for what bap­tism means to Christians: a sec­ond chance, unearned by sin­ners, gifted by God, to make things right, free of the crip­pling guilt of past actions, and strength­ened and empow­ered by the grace of God.

Seen in this light, Booker DeWitt and Zachary Comstock rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent aspects of the sin­ner: DeWitt is the sin­ner pen­i­tent, while Comstock is the sin­ner unpen­i­tent. Sin cre­ates a cycle of pain and death that can­not be bro­ken by any­one caught in it.

In the end, it takes the action and inter­ven­tion of a higher power to change the world. It is not required that Booker DeWitt undo the harm he has done in the past. He doesn’t need to go back in time and undo the Massacre at Wounded Knee. All he needs to do is show a sin­cere desire to change and sur­ren­der him­self to the arms of that higher power.

The water does the rest.

Is this the only way to read BioShock Infinite? Of course not. The the­o­ries regard­ing how Elizabeth drown­ing Booker in the river some­how has a quan­tum mechan­i­cal effect that ends up destroy­ing the Zachary Comstock pos­si­bil­i­ties offer a dif­fer­ent, sec­u­lar approach. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the use of Christian imagery and sacra­ment is acci­den­tal. Nor, for that mat­ter, are the recur­ring themes of for­give­ness and redemp­tion, or of hatred beget­ting vio­lence, or his­tor­i­cal revi­sion­ism, or its set­ting in early 20th Century America.

The United States, as a nation, has often strug­gled with the fact that its exis­tence in its mod­ern form is built on the back of unspeak­able cru­elties vis­ited upon the dis­en­fran­chised and mar­gin­al­ized. The very land that makes up these United States was taken, in many cases forcibly and vio­lently, from the Native Americans who lived here. The econ­omy of the entire American South was founded on the backs of slaves. The expan­sion into California and the West Coast was only made pos­si­ble by a rail­road built by Chinese emi­grant labor.

Americans have a choice in how we view this his­tory. We can gloss over the cru­elty and wrong­do­ing in order to pre­serve an ego­tis­ti­cal view of America as a shin­ing land of oppor­tu­nity. On the other hand, the very enor­mity of the cru­elty, exploita­tion, and vio­lence com­mit­ted makes repa­ra­tions nearly impos­si­ble.

Perhaps an answer lies some­where in between.


Albert Hwang

About Albert Hwang

Albert Hwang mostly spends his time overthinking pop culture, and occasionally writing creepypasta at the SCP Foundation (www.scp-wiki.com). He also recently began a blog (themocaw.wordpress.com), where he tells stupid stories involving him and his friends. Despite the photograph, he does not, in fact, have Super Hat Powers.

  • Tyler

    Great arti­cle. You did a good job of shar­ing the Catholic view of Baptism and I thought I would con­tribute the Protestant belief of Baptism. The key to Baptism is an out­ward show­ing of Belief in the one Son of God Jesus Christ. The God man who came to die for all people’s sins as it is writ­ten in John;

    Jesus said to her, “I am the res­ur­rec­tion and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.
    John 11:25 ESV

    Note the empha­sis of ‘belief’ in this verse and not the act of bap­tism’
    Whoever believes and is bap­tized will be saved, but who­ever does not believe will be con­demned
    Mark 16:15 ESV

  • Mike Sell

    While I tend to believe the game is fun­da­men­tally inco­her­ent on mat­ters of race and not entirely con­scious of how vio­lence works in the game (appar­ently, an ear­lier ver­sion was far more vio­lent than this one), I think it’s worth tak­ing seri­ously the effort by the design­ers to link the moral seri­ous­ness of Booker/Comstock’s strug­gle with the basic inabil­ity of either of him/them to escape bru­tal, inces­sant, vicious vio­lence against poor non-whites. What Booker/Comstock can­not escape is the need to kill and control–and both of them end up direct­ing their ire against the racial other. It’s not the­ol­ogy or their com­mit­ment to Christianity that’s the issue, it’s racism that traps them. Remember, slav­ery and Manifest Destiny were both jus­ti­fied by and apol­o­gized for by Christianity.

  • Thanks for this analy­sis. I haven’t actu­ally played infinite and have been fairly spoiled on it by past arti­cles, but this has been one of the first one that intrigued me.Probably the rest of the game has enough issues that I’ll just pri­or­i­tize other things, but it was a fun read.

    As a side note on your con­clu­sions, there is presently a debate on repa­ra­tion prompted by a history-heavy arti­cle in the Atlantic that exten­sively cov­ered dis­crim­i­na­tion after the civil war. The eco­nom­ics of address­ing the wealth gap via repa­ra­tions are man­age­able, although that still leaves issues over to what degree the change would be sus­tain­able, how it would be best imple­mented, etc. Admittedly, this is only focused on slav­ery and the sub­se­quent treat­ment of African Americans, but that’s the issue I’ve been read­ing about more of late so I fig­ure bet­ter to focus on one aspect than to just be over­whelmed.

    There’s no polit­i­cally plau­si­ble course in the near future. But the ques­tion of pos­si­ble mid­dle grounds is more devel­oped than you might think.