Monday, December 16, 2013

God and Man at Columbia

The first BioShock is a masterpiece of a game, and I eagerly awaited creator Ken Levine’s latest project: BioShock Infinite. Rather than an underwater city filled with characters from a Galt’s Gulch gone terribly wrong, this game features a floating city in the sky. On first glance, it’s a quasi-Mormon paradise inflamed with American nationalism, but below the surface there lies a society scarred by racism, crony capitalism, and a dangerous cult of "the Prophet." BioShock Infinite has taken the gaming world by storm and won more awards than I can count. It's a creative piece of storytelling and is probably worth playing if you like fast-paced shooters. The game’s religious themes in particular were irresistible to me as a Catholic, and so I’d like to dig into them, as I haven’t seen these ideas seriously addressed elsewhere. I’ll assume the good reader has either completed the game and knows the ending or isn't a gamer and actually wouldn't mind it being spoiled… so read at your own discretion.

Your character is private dick Booker DeWitt, a veteran of the frontier wars against the American Indians and former strikebreaking Pinkerton agent. Constantly on the run from his past, not for fear of consequences but out of personal guilt, he begins to drink and gamble as an escape. He once considered receiving Christian baptism in an attempt to wash away his sins but ultimately did not go through with it. He has an infant daughter and is given a chance to “wipe away the debt” he has amassed by a man from another dimension. All he must do is give up his daughter to his eventual nemesis, Zachary Hale Comstock, the childless Prophet of Columbia. Once this deed is done, the game places you in Booker’s shoes as he attempts to get his daughter back some time later. Your character gradually realizes that Booker is Comstock, but in an alternate reality where he did accept baptism. Once Booker is confronted with this fact, the only way to “win the game” is for his daughter to drown him (you) in a baptismal font. Fun. Now, granted, I’m not opposed to dark endings in games in general. My problem is that while you think you're fighting for a man's soul, his damnation was assured before you even picked up the controller.

The charming Lutece twins illustrate the outcome of your "choices."
There is one final scene after the screen fades to black that could provide a ray of hope that this may have been all a dream, or that Booker will somehow have learned not to make the big mistake of giving away his daughter. This is not likely, as the events of the game show that countless Bookers have all been offered the same choices. They all consistently chose to persist in a stubborn refusal to face their actions and pursue an alternate reality in which Booker tells himself he is the hero, saving the girl, instead of the villain who never should have come to Columbia. This ending is problematic for me because with this outcome, every playthrough of the game is a cruel “Groundhog Day” which Booker is doomed to repeat.

Pictured: My mind trying to comprehend alternate realities and why Bill Murray doesn't have a cameo in the game.
No matter how many alternate presents that Booker jumps into, the main players all act the same way, more or less. No one really changes; just a few cosmetic details based on chance differ from one reality to the next. From a certain point of view, all of the denizens of Rapture, the underwater city of the first Bioshock, could be doomed to the same fate. All of the inhabitants were trying to escape their pasts by creating a new future for themselves, away from gods, kings, or their fellow men. In the “Burial At Sea” downloadable expansion to Infinite, the characters remark on the contract one signs for entry to the underwater city — they’re in for life.  In telling Booker’s story, he allows us to get into the shoes of a man who persistently uses violent means to “solve” his problems because he cannot live with himself. The heart of the matter is pride, simply put — both the individualists in the first game and Booker/Comstock in Infinite suffer from that deadly vice. It's been a force in the world since time began. Booker would not ask God for forgiveness and Comstock turned religion into a vehicle to make himself a god, intending to wipe away all traces of his past life through fire and the sword. Levine is telling the story of man who does not want to be saved, who wants to save himself.

So, if there is no “hope” for Booker, we have here a game with a rather nihilistic/pessimistic outlook on human beings’ capacity for redemption. From an artistic standpoint, it’s certainly Ken Levine’s right to tell a story any way he likes. And I must hesitate to attribute any outlook to Levine, but one can only wonder why he chose to tell the story he did. An atheist, Ken Levine was raised Jewish and created Andrew Ryan, Tenenbaum, and Sander Cohen as Jewish characters in the original BioShock. The artist is at his best creating what he knows, so it’s easy to assume he’s familiar with the Old Testament. Comstock claimed to be an instrument of God’s vengeance, wiping out the world below by bombardment from his floating city. He is fixated on the fate of Sodom and the destruction wrought by Noah’s flood. Those two stories involve God exacting justice and starting the world over from scratch, respectively. This is a bugaboo of many atheists, who ask how a loving God could end everyone’s lives so cruelly. Then this is supposed to be an excuse for disbelieving in God, as if our feelings about notions of mercy versus justice matter more than whether a thing is true or not. I understand many atheists are fond of the term "skeptic," and Levine himself says, "If they're [the BioShock games] about anything they’re about not buying into a single point of view." I'm reminded of this quip from G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” 

Booker’s transformation into the cult figure of the Prophet Zachary Hale Comstock is presented as his being doomed to forever continue in his evil ways, that this man Booker DeWitt is beyond redemption. I find the quasi-Mormon feel of Comstock’s religion strangely fitting to the story. Comstock bears a striking resemblance to Brigham Young, and the floating city broke from union with America due to a clash between the Prophet's religious vision and the U.S. Government. If Comstock were a Christian, I suppose I’d be more annoyed, but Mormonism, just as the Objectivism of the original BioShock, seems an acceptable target as both are flawed belief systems. The redemptive focus of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, or a crucifix at all for that matter, is not to be seen anywhere in Columbia. This is a “prosperity gospel” cult. The Bank of Prophet receives 50 percent tithes on all income earned. Booker had experienced revival style Christianity briefly and after accepting baptism in a river began his ascent to Columbia as he took a new name — that of Comstock. Religious experience doesn’t change him for the better — he is still the same violent, racist man as Booker, just covered with a veneer of religious prophecy. Levine took pains to write the Comstock character as authentically as possible, particularly after a discussion with a religious developer who intended to resign over what he saw as that character being an attack on his faith. I do appreciate Levine’s intentions but also sympathize with the developer. I'm pleased Ken Levine is addressing such topics as religion seriously, despite my own disagreements with the end product. 

This is a world in which religion is a powerful force but is not manifested in any supernatural way. Comstock’s prophecy is a lie. He knows the “future” he sees is mere phenomena explainable by his dimension-hopping scientists, the Luteces. I can begin to understand how one develops a character who is irredeemable if you don't believe in a world in which a God-Man walked the earth, died, and rose from the dead. If this did not happen, then there would be little potential for grace to nudge Booker’s soul to repentance. Today, there are those who would prefer to remember Jesus Christ as a social worker or philosopher, but if He did not die and rise again, there’s no point in listening to what He had to say. There certainly would be no point in being a Catholic. If the Eucharist is merely symbolic, then I’m with Flannery O’Connor on the subject: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it!” My takeaway is that without Christ’s death and resurrection, there can be no hope of redemption for man — and that makes the world of BioShock Infinite a rather depressing place.

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