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.