Free Will And Hope In BioShock Infinite
[This editorial contains spoilers about BioShock Infinite, its characters, and its ending.]
Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite delivers a standout gameplay experience, but its biggest contribution to the interactive medium is its complex story and willingness to challenge gamers to think in new ways. Beyond the twisting story, enigmatic ending, and paradoxical timelines, some fundamental and optimistic themes are apparent: free will is a constant in life, and its certainty gives us hope to persist through suffering, loss, and death.
BioShock Infinite hinges on a choice made by Booker DeWitt following the Battle of Wounded Knee. Through baptism, DeWitt finds forgiveness for deeds that might otherwise haunt him, and leaves him free to become Comstock. He transforms into a man unbound by moral weight or consequence, as he has chosen to perceive God’s forgiveness as carte blanche to commit kidnapping, murder, and genocide. In an alternate timeline, DeWitt’s decision to forego baptism plunges him into depression and gambling addiction, but also assures a future in which he has faced up to his own morality and changed for the better. This foundational choice not only shapes the creation of Columbia and the entire story arc that follows, but it also presents the clearest example of the game’s message. Even the simplest of choices can have dramatic consequences, and every choice carries within it the seeds for a better (and worse) future.
Recordings throughout the game indicate the importance of the baptism, and the weight of the choice made in that moment – messages that carry increased meaning when viewed through the understanding provided by the end of the game. In an early voxophone, Comstock declares: “One man goes into the waters of baptism. A different man comes out, born again. But who is that man who lies submerged? Perhaps the swimmer is both sinner and saint, until he is revealed unto the eyes of man.” Later, another Comstock voxophone states: “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?”
Throughout the game, baptism represents a surrender of free will, always leading to violence or death, and usually an absence of responsibility and hope. Booker’s transformation into the murderous Comstock is only the first in a long chain. Booker’s passage into Columbia is marked by baptism, after which he murders scores of men and women in his path. Daisy Fitzroy baptizes herself in Fink’s blood, and subsequently proves willing to murder a child. Booker drowns Comstock in the baptismal font. Songbird is plunged into the waters outside Rapture, and encouraged by Elizabeth to surrender to death. These moments are not indictments of religion or Christian baptism. Rather, Irrational uses baptism as a metaphor for any choice that abandons responsibility and hope.
Booker’s life-altering baptismal choice has generational implications. As players, we witness Elizabeth’s transformation from the lamb into the conqueror, thanks to Comstock’s ministrations. She states the case clearly as she speaks to Booker in front of the backdrop of New York City’s destruction. “It wasn’t the torture that broke me. It wasn’t the indoctrination. It was time. Time rots everything, Booker. Even hope.” We learn that Elizabeth’s life in this timeline has been defined by a lack of choice. The siphon assures she can rarely use her powers in a way of her own choosing, since it causes her excruciating pain. The absence of choice and the passage of time tear down her defenses and steal her hope, and she is forced to become that which she despises.
Free will and the hope for a better future are woven into more than the major story beats. Irrational shapes gameplay to reinforce the concept in various small but important ways. For instance, we witness the end of various Booker DeWitt timelines as he is killed time and again. Each time, the Lutece siblings bring another Booker forward through a similar timeline, this time with the hope of a different result; Booker makes marginally different decisions in this subsequent timeline, and manages to survive. The subtext is subtle; each new life is a new reality where better choices can be made, and hope endures.
When perceived through the lens of this interpretation, BioShock Infinite’s ending is far less cryptic. The events presented throughout BioShock Infinite hinge on Booker’s initial baptism and re-emergence as Comstock. In the moments before that final scene, as Booker expresses the desire to murder Comstock before he ever lives, Elizabeth challenges him: “Booker, are you sure this is what you want?” Booker responds: “I have to. It’s the only way to undo what I’ve done to you.”
In his final moments, as the different versions of his daughter come together to confront him, he accepts that this moment creates both men, and that both men must die to halt the cycle. He actively chooses death, and in so doing, revives the hope that none of the suffering he has witnessed will come to pass. Paradoxically, it is this final baptism and surrender of free will that breaks the chain; though he dies in the process, he gives hope to the possibility of a future for his daughter. A different timeline can come to be in which none of the events of the game ever occur.
In one final post-credits sequence, we see the results of Booker’s fateful choice. A new timeline’s Booker stands in his office, and believes he hears his infant daughter, Anna, in the next room. As he opens the door, the game cuts away without a clear determination regarding her presence. However, knowing as we now do that Comstock never comes to exist to interrupt their life together, we can draw the hesitant but poignant conclusion that she lies safely in her crib. Booker and Anna’s life continues unimpeded. The world is never troubled by Columbia’s secession, Comstock’s fanaticism, or the emergence of Elizabeth’s reality-warping power.
BioShock Infinite is hardly a game to be cornered into one easy interpretation – undoubtedly, the story can be viewed as a political or religious critique, a treatise on the nature of reality, or even as a meta-commentary on violence and its portrayal in games. However, my personal impressions of the game as the credits concluded were about a simpler moral. The game wraps up on tones of melancholy and death, but that’s a façade for an affirming truth the game presents. While the science fiction trappings of multiple realities and looping timelines complicate matters, the message shines through; so long as free will to choose a path remains, a hope for the future remains intact.