Breaking the Circle: Exploring Trauma in Bioshock Infinite 1


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The mind of the sub­ject will des­per­ate­ly strug­gle to cre­ate mem­o­ries where none exist…” —Bioshock Infinite

If we can­not find an expla­na­tion for what we are feel­ing, we will sure­ly man­u­fac­ture one…” —Peter Levine, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. 183.

Something I never expect­ed about liv­ing with post-traumatic stress dis­or­der (PTSD) is what it did to my sense of time. I can remem­ber what hap­pened in ugly, vivid detail, but I can’t always remem­ber when. Did that hap­pen before the hos­pi­tal? Was this after the thing with the cops? Sometimes I’ll say it was five years ago and then real­ize it couldn’t be; some­times I’ll say it was last year until a friend gen­tly reminds me it wasn’t; some­times it feels like it’s still hap­pen­ing, if a per­son or a place brings it back. I still have blunt, detailed night­mares where they tell me it was my fault, that I deserved it; this occurs with­out fail if I’m doing any­thing that could be remote­ly con­sid­ered ‘heal­ing’. These dreams pull my efforts back into the cease­less cur­rent of that win­ter, when­ev­er it was. The past rush­es for­ward to engulf the present, tak­ing the future with it.

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It took a long time and a lot of work to name it as trau­ma, and even more work, still ongo­ing, to under­stand how I could keep it from destroy­ing my life. Once the dust from that win­ter set­tled, I did my best not to talk about it unless I had to. I did my best not to deal with it, to pre­tend I’d got­ten on with things, until I remem­ber going down­stairs for a cig­a­ret­te two or three or four years later and sud­den­ly real­iz­ing I couldn’t cite the last time I’d had an actu­al emo­tion. When trau­ma couldn’t destroy me I appar­ent­ly decid­ed to fin­ish the job myself, killing every feel­ing inside me so sub­tly and inex­orably that I’d bare­ly noticed. It should have been a ter­ri­ble, shock­ing rev­e­la­tion — I guess it would have been, if I’d been able to care. Instead I fin­ished my cig­a­ret­te and didn’t think about it again, because as long as I didn’t let it fall into my line of sight it didn’t seem real, and as long as it wasn’t real I didn’t have to deal with it.

I want to say peo­ple who loved me asked me to get help, or that I had some kind of break­through that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life that way, but that’s not what hap­pened. What actu­al­ly hap­pened is that I played Bioshock Infinite.

Bioshock Infinite is not a good game. It’s full of inex­cus­able racism, lack­lus­ter com­bat, and big ideas it doesn’t have the courage to do jus­tice to. You play as a white man with brown hair who saves a girl who has pow­ers she uses sole­ly to help you, and you solve the rest of your prob­lems by indis­crim­i­nate­ly shoot­ing peo­ple. There is no explain­ing away so much of what it is, and at this point enough ink has been spilled on its fail­ures that they don’t need to be rehashed here. But for all the things it gets wrong — and it’s so, so many things — it gets so many things right about trau­ma.

The game fea­tures mul­ti­ple lives and time­li­nes as part of a trea­tise on quan­tum mechan­ics and lives unlived. If we nar­row down pro­tag­o­nist Booker DeWitt’s story to one time­line, here’s what we get: we can be rea­son­ably cer­tain he did some pret­ty nasty things at the Battle of Wounded Knee, when, accord­ing to his birth­day via a load screen, he was a few months shy of 17. It’s not entire­ly clear what he did, but it’s clear enough. He killed a lot of peo­ple, seem­ing­ly unnec­es­sar­i­ly, for which he was laud­ed, as his war buddy Slate tells us: “We called him the White Injun of Wounded Knee, for all the gris­ly tro­phies he claimed.” It’s sug­gest­ed in a few places that Booker has Sioux ances­try: accord­ing to boun­ty hunter Preston E. Downs, Booker speaks Sioux, and accord­ing to Comstock, “In front of all the men, the sergeant looked at me and said, ‘Your fam­i­ly tree shel­ters a teepee or two, doesn’t it, son?’” This ances­try, some­thing to be ashamed of accord­ing to the racial and polit­i­cal ten­sions of the game’s time peri­od, are per­haps what inspired his actions. The game doesn’t spend much time on this, how­ev­er, shuf­fling us along to the death of Booker’s wife and his sub­se­quent sell­ing of his daugh­ter Anna in respon­se to accu­mu­lat­ed debt, osten­si­bly the narrative’s incit­ing inci­dent.

Trauma psy­chol­o­gist Peter Levine (as far as I know no rela­tion to Ken Levine, Bioshock’s cre­ator) looked to how ani­mals react to vio­lent threats in cre­at­ing his PTSD treat­ment modal­i­ty, which he calls somat­ic expe­ri­enc­ing. According to Levine, ani­mals will often go into a state of “tonic immo­bil­i­ty”, or play dead, when faced with over­whelm­ing expe­ri­ences, the way a mouse goes still in the jaws of a cat. This serves sev­er­al impor­tant sur­vival func­tions: in addi­tion to releas­ing brain chem­i­cals that reduce pain, it can also cause the threat to lose inter­est; this is why peo­ple are advised to go limp when they’re attacked by wild ani­mals. The dis­as­so­ci­a­tion, immo­bil­i­ty, and numb­ing asso­ci­at­ed with trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences are a sur­vival mech­a­nism, and a use­ful one — as long as they end. In stud­ies of peo­ple who suc­cess­ful­ly rebound­ed from dif­fi­cult expe­ri­ences, Levine found that the peo­ple best able to do this were those who had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to safe­ly come out of their immo­bil­i­ty after the event, whose ner­vous sys­tems were given the space to com­plete these ingrained bio­log­i­cal process­es and under­stand the dan­ger had passed. If a cat walks away from a mouse that plays dead, after a few sec­onds or min­utes the mouse will spring to its feet, shake itself off, and run, no worse for wear. Trauma, Levine argues, begins when indi­vid­u­als don’t have a time, space, sup­port, resources, or skills to fol­low through on this shak­ing it off. Their bod­ies never fin­ish sur­viv­ing an expe­ri­ence, and they get stuck in those moments, lead­ing to the symp­toms of PTSD. He writes,

Until the core phys­i­cal expe­ri­ence of trau­ma — feel­ing scared stiff, frozen in fear or col­laps­ing and going numb — unwinds and trans­forms, one remains stuck, a cap­tive of one’s own entwined fear and help­less­ness. The… per­cep­tion of seem­ing­ly unbear­able expe­ri­ences leads us to avoid and deny them, to tight­en up again­st them and then split off from them. Resorting to these “defens­es” is, how­ev­er, like drink­ing salt water to quench extreme thirst.1

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Booker’s split comes at a piv­otal bap­tism scene, implied to take place direct­ly after Wounded Knee although with no sign of the bat­tle in sight. It’s here, the game tells us, that one ver­sion of Booker decides to become Comstock, wash­ing him­self clean of his sins, putting the past behind him, and even­tu­al­ly going on to cre­ate the float­ing white theoc­ra­cy of Columbia. Yet Booker-as-Comstock is repres­sion, stag­na­tion, Peter Levine’s avoid­ance and denial; he deals with his trau­ma by pow­er­ful­ly and absolute­ly pre­tend­ing it never hap­pened.

That’s the salv­i­fic promise of the game’s under­stand­ing of bap­tismal doc­trine; but the past, it goes on to show, can­not be wiped away. Columbia is Comstock’s mon­u­ment to every­thing he won’t deal with, a tes­ta­ment to the all-saving power of stay­ing stuck and the ban­dage on the unbind­able wound of his actions. With Columbia he can write a new story about Wounded Knee, about the Boxer Rebellion, about the False Shepherd and the Lamb and the future and him­self. With Columbia he can pre­tend that every­thing is fine.

I can’t blame him, because I did it too. I built my own Columbia every night I ended up sur­round­ed by too many empty beer bot­tles, with every excuse I made when friends asked why they never saw me any­more. Nothing’s up, I’m just busy, you know how it is, everything’s great… It’s a tac­tic that works, in its way, but the ignored pain and guilt eat at Comstock; he even asks him­self, “When a soul is born again, what hap­pens to the one left behind in the bap­tismal water? Is he sim­ply… gone? Or does he exist in some other world, alive, with sin intact?”

Infinite’s answer to Comstock’s ques­tion is that he does. Perhaps Comstock’s lur­ing of Booker to Columbia with the strange promise to “wipe away the debt” is his way of set­ting in motion a work he’s let stag­nate for so long he can’t budge it any­more. However, if Comstock keeps him­self afloat through an impres­sive­ly impos­si­ble igno­rance, Booker dives head­first into trau­ma with every­thing he’s got. The Booker who refus­es the bap­tism leaves the Wounded Knee Massacre, which occurred in 1890; accord­ing to a load screen, two years later his wife dies in child­birth and he joins the Pinkertons, crack­ing skulls for anti-labor busi­ness own­ers. I’m not sure when in there he gives Anna to the Luteces, a mys­te­ri­ous, time-traveling broth­er and sis­ter; some debt is paid, pos­si­bly gam­bling, but he doesn’t receive any money for it, and the debt seems to still exist when he heads to Columbia in pur­suit of Elizabeth, a girl he’s asked to find and who we come to learn is actu­al­ly his daugh­ter. Having a wife and a fam­i­ly could have been the com­ing back to life Booker need­ed, but instead, when it ends in tragedy, he turned to the vio­lent, ugly life of the Pinkertons. Peter Levine writes, “Humans… reter­ror­ize them­selves out of their (mis­placed) fear of their own intense sen­sa­tions and emo­tions… [mak­ing] the process of exit­ing immo­bil­i­ty fear­ful and poten­tial­ly vio­lent.”2 Or, as Comstock tells Booker, “It always ends in blood.”

Unlike Comstock, Booker’s efforts are at least kinet­ic. He dives head­first into the per­son he was, try­ing to solve his prob­lems through the actions that caused them in the first place. Columbia was made for him by him, or anoth­er ver­sion of him. It is a play­ground for every one of his mal­adap­tive cop­ing strate­gies and a place where he can spin his wheels under the guise of get­ting bet­ter while sim­ply rehash­ing the same old things. It ends in blood because he brings it, because he can’t bring any­thing else.

When I first saw Booker’s room in Infinite I gasped, because it looked just like mine — the same empty bot­tles and cig­a­ret­te packs, the papers every­where, the neglect­ed bed, the color even, that same abysmal gray. We both seemed to work jobs we didn’t feel too good about. Looking at what we see of Booker’s life, I’d rea­son to say the two of us had been slow­ly starv­ing our­selves of any­thing good for so long that when we first get a glimpse of Columbia, hear that emo­tion­less “Hallelujah” as we clear the clouds, we trem­bled. The open­ing act of Infinite is ripe with life and col­ors, smiles and wel­com­ing arms. As Booker, I played every fair game; I gorged myself on the food; I poked into every crevice and cor­ner; I lis­tened to every band and bark­er. I cir­cled around and around the inevitable blood­shed, not know­ing when it would be trig­gered but know­ing it had to be — yes, because it’s games, but also because I knew we’d have to ruin it some­how.

When it does go wrong, Columbia is Booker’s ideal ther­a­py room. In this float­ing city, every­thing that wrecks his life on the ground leads to suc­cess. Non-Columbia Booker clear­ly has a drink­ing prob­lem, but in Columbia drink­ing makes him health­ier. Non-Columbia Booker is pret­ty broke, if the los­ing gam­bling receipts in his room are any indi­ca­tion, but in Columbia peo­ple toss their rich­es in the trash; money is easy to come by and easy to spend. At the Good Time Club in Finkton, a pow­er­ful stranger offers Booker the job of head of secu­ri­ty and forces him to “audi­tion” for the role, accord­ing to the club’s mar­quee, through a series of increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult wave bat­tles.

To me, this is Booker audi­tion­ing for the role of him­self, a chance to indul­ge in all the vio­lent impuls­es that lived in his heart through Wounded Knee and the Pinkertons and to be laud­ed and praised for them. His annoy­ance and his deter­mi­na­tion to just do the job that brought him to Columbia are all lies. There’s no way he isn’t enjoy­ing it, because it all makes sense; it feeds back in on itself, re-traumatizing him, trap­ping him in that end­less loop. He drags Elizabeth into it too, help­ing her deal with her dead moth­er through the same audi­tion for­mat: a series of wave bat­tles with her ghost to prove her­self wor­thy of the dead woman’s love. Early in the game the Luteces ask Booker to flip a coin, tal­ly­ing heads and tails; Booker, annoyed, flips heads, and this is record­ed on a list of 123 iden­ti­cal results. We learn later that Booker has played out this same story 123 times. It’s hard to say at what point it goes wrong, at what point it just starts all over again. As Rosalind Lutece says in one of her audio logs, “Why try to bring in a tide that will only go out again?”

Peter Levine writes that many trau­ma sur­vivors feel shame about their trau­ma, and that “shame becomes deeply embed­ded as a per­va­sive sense of ‘bad­ness’ per­me­at­ing every part of their lives.”3 Neither Comstock nor Booker are good men. They’ve done ter­ri­ble things, and they deal with their pasts by con­tin­u­ing to do ter­ri­ble things, to other peo­ple and to them­selves. For both of them, trau­ma and their respons­es become a feed­back loop that gets hard­er and hard­er to break out of with each go around. Comstock’s dunk in the river and Booker’s seem­ing­ly straight­for­ward mis­sion are both the same, the lie we reach for in any strug­gle. Whether the prob­lem is with our men­tal health or oth­er­wise, we want some­one to come along, some­thing to hap­pen, that will make every­thing bet­ter. That will stop us from mak­ing every­thing worse. But the best way out of trau­ma seems to be see­ing those loops for your­self and stop­ping them, doing the hard work of find­ing a new path.

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Infinite ulti­mate­ly reveals that it doesn’t revolve around the bap­tism but around its char­ac­ters’ choice to end­less­ly revis­it what brought them to it in the first place. As the game’s com­plex end­ing unfolds through an end­less ocean full of iden­ti­cal light­hous­es, the entrance to Columbia, Elizabeth says to Booker, “There’s always a light­house. There’s always a man, there’s always a city…” Though on the sur­face a line about time, about the game’s recur­ring theme of con­stants and vari­ables, this line is at the heart of Booker and Comstock’s trau­ma, the key to their repeat­ing cir­cles. It’s a line that drew me up short, because I heard it about me.

Because I knew exact­ly where that light­house was. It was the point I had been start­ing from, every day since all those things hap­pened. In respon­se to my trau­ma, I had bro­ken my life up into chunks: there was before me, who­ev­er he’d been before that win­ter, and there was after me, the man I woke up as every day since. I put what I saw as my bad­ness on like clothes, I drank it like water, I left through that door in the morn­ing and I came home through it at night. As I played through the end of Infinite and the game made its strange sense of Booker’s story, I under­stood what I had been doing to myself more clear­ly than any web­site or pastel-covered self-help book had been able to point out. I saw how I’d let my past define me, how I con­stant­ly ran it over in my mind, refus­ing to try a new door, a new way, refus­ing to let any­thing else in.

If peo­ple had done bad things to me I couldn’t make them stop by doing bad things to myself. Just as Booker couldn’t end the cycle of blood­shed with more blood­shed. Just as Comstock couldn’t end denial with more denial. Booker’s loop­ing time­line showed me my own and point­ed to the thing I seemed to most fear and yet most want: that I’d be dead inside forever, because even though it was ter­ri­ble, at least I knew it was safe. When Booker decides to step away from that, to let his past drown him at the bap­tism, to sub­mit fully to the weight of every­thing that hap­pened… well. We don’t quite know if it breaks the cycle, but at least it’s some­thing new.

I’d like to say I had some kind of break­through and was sud­den­ly fixed, but trau­ma isn’t like that. A few weeks later I got myself into ther­a­py, though. I did a bad job at it, hon­est­ly, and it didn’t real­ly help. I was still — and still am — too scared to do the work required to make the trau­ma take up less space in my life. But I also got bet­ter, a lit­tle. I learned to be a lit­tle gen­tler to myself, to stop hurt­ing myself when I was hurt. I leaned in, though care­ful­ly, to some of the things I was afraid of, and I start­ed to feel for the edges of what could hold me up and what couldn’t, of what I could sur­vive and what could breathe new life into me if I let it. I tried to learn to for­give myself for not being strong enough, and I tried to learn to honor the parts of me that had done their best to get me through. I just knew I didn’t want to be these men from this game, stuck in this end­less, ter­ri­ble cycle. I didn’t want to keep flip­ping that coin, draw­ing that num­ber, answer­ing that knock on the door. I still do, of course, and prob­a­bly always still will, but it’s a lit­tle less every day. There are new light­hous­es to make for­ays new, each a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from the last, each a lit­tle bet­ter.

Notes:
  1. Levine, Peter. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books. 7374. []
  2. Levine. In an Unspoken Voice. 6062. []
  3. Levine. In an Unspoken Voice. 60. []

Riley MacLeod

About Riley MacLeod

Riley MacLeod is a freelance writer and editor from Brooklyn, NY. His work has been seen at Offworld, Paste, Kill Screen, Christ and Pop Culture, and in Merritt Kopas' Videogames for Humans, among others.

  • Nick Verkade

    I just want to let you know I real­ly liked this insight­ful piece. It’s cool that this game trig­gered some steps for­ward for you, all the best.