Will the Circle Be Unbroken 1

This month, the Ontological Geek has a theme: reli­gion and/or the­ol­o­gy in games. We have a great bunch of arti­cles lined up, from the very per­son­al to the deeply the­o­ret­i­cal, from both reg­u­lar OntoGeek con­trib­u­tors and sev­er­al guest writ­ers. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on spe­cif­ic arti­cles and the month as a whole – com­ment freely and e‑mail us at editor@ontologicalgeek.com!

BioShock Infinite and the lit­tle Baptist church I went to on Sunday have rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle in com­mon, save that they both came along exact­ly when I need­ed them.

Don’t worry, I won’t spoil any­thing.

I met the pas­tor in the air­port on my way back from PAX East, while we were wait­ing for our delayed flight to sort itself out. We spoke for maybe ten min­utes before they start­ed board­ing the flight, and since we seemed to get along pret­ty well, I decid­ed to visit her church the fol­low­ing Sunday, which hap­pened to be Easter.

The ser­vice was not par­tic­u­lar­ly pol­ished. The church meets in the sanc­tu­ary of a funer­al home in mid­town Savannah, and includ­ing the pas­tor and her hus­band, Easter Sunday drew a crowd of thirty-one peo­ple. The pianist was not quite up to the task of the hymns, and there was­n’t a choir – instead, one of the lit­tle old ladies from the con­gre­ga­tion stood up next to the pas­tor and tune­less­ly hummed along. The spe­cial music con­sist­ed of the pianist and her two younger sis­ters, per­haps 10 and 12, singing along with a CD; the pianist had a won­der­ful voice which was most­ly over­shad­owed by her younger sis­ters singing with vim and vigor and not a whole lot of regard for pitch. The man run­ning the lit­tle sound­board looked as though he’d never seen it before, and the ser­mon was pleas­ant if not par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable.

By rights, the ser­vice should have been full of awk­ward silence and shuf­fling in my seat. Instead, it was the nicest and most mean­ing­ful church ser­vice I’ve gone to in a very long time.

BioShock Infinite is not a per­fect videogame. In fact, Infinite is kind of a mess. Its brand of sci­ence fic­tion has more in com­mon with Donnie Darko than, say, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and if that sound­ed scorn­ful, I meant it to. Its grand polit­i­cal mes­sage more or less boils down to “Hey, so, racism is bad, and I guess power cor­rupts or some­thing.” The leader of the pop­ulist resis­tance under­goes a char­ac­ter arc I might char­i­ta­bly describe as “trun­cat­ed,” but which would be more accu­rate­ly described as “non­sense.” The game’s Big Twist can be seen from space, and while the end­ing is sure to pro­voke a lot of goatee-stroking from fresh­man phi­los­o­phy majors, I’m not con­vinced it makes the slight­est bit of sense. The com­bat is almost cer­tain­ly too vio­lent for the kind of story the game is try­ing to tell.

By rights, I should be mak­ing fun of this videogame. Instead, I enjoyed it immense­ly.

The church ser­vice was won­der­ful not because of the actu­al things that hap­pened, which were often hur­ried and clum­sy. It was won­der­ful because it was clear to all present that there was a real com­mu­ni­ty here, how­ev­er small, and that every­one who was there want­ed to be there. There’s no doubt in my mind but that that pas­tor loves that church. Everyone there made me feel tremen­dous­ly wel­come, even though it would have been real­ly easy to look askance at the only white guy in the room. There was a real sense of love and togeth­er­ness there which tran­scend­ed the qual­i­ty of the music or the pro­fun­di­ty of the ser­mon. This was a Real Place, with Real People, and it remind­ed me of the value of a com­mu­nal wor­ship ser­vice. It remind­ed me that how­ev­er impor­tant it is to try to get your doc­trine straight, it’s just as impor­tant to get togeth­er with other Christians and remem­ber why you’re doing what you’re doing.

I don’t know what it was like to work on BioShock Infinite. I imag­ine it was stress­ful, since the game went through I‑don’t-know-how-many-revisions over the course of six years. There are still a few ves­ti­gial things float­ing around in the fin­ished prod­uct. But I do know that I can’t stay too mad at Infinite, even though I might oth­er­wise like to, because it feels like some­body loved it.

The game has a tremen­dous amount of pol­ish and atten­tion to detail. There are lit­tle touch­es every­where that prob­a­bly don’t add that much to the game as a whole, but remind­ed me that a group of real human beings got togeth­er and spent years of their lives work­ing on this thing I was play­ing. AAA games, even the good ones, have a ten­den­cy to feel as though they were spat out on a con­vey­or belt, try­ing uneven­ly to jug­gle the three­fold needs of enter­tain­ment, art and prof­it. It’s easy for the love to get filed off in the rush and the panic to make sure A) it works and B) is done on time and C) is at least kinda fun to play. There isn’t often time for that extra coat of pol­ish.

I don’t have any illu­sions about whether or not 2K and Irrational hope to make a lot of money from Infinite. It cost more money to make than I will ever see in my entire life. But then there’s the moment when Booker finds a gui­tar and, if you want to, he plays a few chords and Elizabeth sings a beau­ti­ful hymn.

And there’s the way Elizabeth throws you extra sup­plies in com­bat, and the trag­ic wail­ing of Songbird, and the beau­ti­ful, vibrant color palette, all pur­ples and oranges and blues. There’s the skyrails and the Handymen and the way Elizabeth reacts when you bru­tal­ly evis­cer­ate some­body with your sky­hook. There’s all the won­der­ful arrange­ments of anachro­nis­tic music every­where, and sud­den­ly, for once in my life, I can quit being crit­i­cal, can quit wor­ry­ing about whether or not it’s “the best” or “as good as it could be,” and I’m just hav­ing a good time, fly­ing around on rails on a magic, float­ing, city, guns blaz­ing at the badguys and hear­ing a goofy-but-still-kinda-heartwarming-and-occasionally-scary story about time trav­el and Many Worlds and goodness-knows-what-other-nonsense, and I’m smil­ing even as I know it does­n’t exact­ly hold togeth­er.

It’s the same rea­son I can’t stay mad at Fez, even though it’s self-indulgent and pre­pos­ter­ous and oh-my-effing-goodness-is-that-a-QR-code. Because the whole time you can just see Phil Fish watch­ing over your shoul­der, hop­ing you’re hav­ing a good time, and you become sud­den­ly aware of how many sleep­less nights this game caused, and it’s impos­si­ble not to smile.


I am a very crit­i­cal per­son, by nature. I like tak­ing games and books and movies apart and fig­ur­ing out how they work and how they (often) don’t work. I worry about the sorts of things we say and do in church­es – how they can push peo­ple away from the Love of Christ sim­ply because we’re afraid. I am fre­quent­ly frus­trat­ed by the game indus­try’s will­ing­ness to accept mediocre and crum­my games and exalt them on high. I get frus­trat­ed when I sense a lack of intel­lec­tu­al rigor in the Church – I think many of the “debates” between Christianity and sci­ence boil down to sim­ple igno­rance more than any incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty between the two, and I’m prob­a­bly over­sen­si­tive to Christians say­ing dumb things in pub­lic.

So it’s easy for me to for­get why I do these things – why I care about the church when it often only caus­es me grief, and why I care about not just videogames in gen­er­al, but big-budget pop-culture games in par­tic­u­lar when they have a ten­den­cy to roy­al­ly piss me off. I get dis­cour­aged and cyn­i­cal, retreat to ivory tow­ers and echo cham­bers where every­thing is neat and every­body agrees with me and any mis­takes are my own fault.

I think BioShock Infinite could have been a much bet­ter game, and I have no idea if that lit­tle church is going to end up being the right place for me. But I can’t bring myself to be crit­i­cal right now. People loved that game, and peo­ple love that church, and for once, that’s enough for me.

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!

One thought on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken

  • Justin Robinson

    I’ll speak for the goatee-stroking crowd, but only to say that I found the end­ing more…hm…effective than you did.

    Keeping in the spir­it of the “no spoliers” orig­i­nal post, I’d say that the nar­ra­tive makes more the­mat­ic sense if you decide the game is say­ing some­thing about vio­lence, and not racism or pol­i­tics. I think Ken Levine has made it pret­ty clear that he’s more about stir­ring the pot (when it comes to pol­i­tics) then about mak­ing a firm point. I agree that Daisy does­n’t get enough screen time.

    What the play­er does (and, if he engages with Booker’s goals enough, what he *feels*) very much mesh­es with what you call the Big Twist. Putting it anoth­er way: I’ve hated that end­ing type in every movie I’ve seen it in; but when it was me doing it, it made more dra­mat­ic sense.

    As for rat­ing a Twist by how soon you see it com­ing, I think you can say that in math: S=1(A‑n). S is the odds you’ll be sur­prised, A is all the pos­si­ble Good Twists out there (almost cer­tain­ly a finite num­ber), and n is the num­ber of those Twists you’ve already seen. Once S=less than 1, we’re too old to be engag­ing a story for the sur­prise, and we need to start try­ing for Greek-tragedy-style fore­knowl­edge and cathar­sis, instead.

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