Posts tagged ‘Bioshock Infinite’

December 27, 2013

Bioshock: Infinite – an Attempt at a Philosophical Interpretation; or, a Grad Student Playing a Video Game

Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis est visio Dei.

St. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses

My mind has yet to comprehend the extent of the narrative that Bioshock: Infinite has presented. It remains for me one of the most engaging and thought-provoking narratives in the game world (I have not yet played the Mass Effect franchise so I cannot determine with finality that Bioshock presents the most thought-provoking narrative). I say “one of the most” because in my opinion, Snake Eater and Knights of the Old Republic remain the best narrative-driven games I have ever played. Infinite, however, fares well, and I have immensely enjoyed the game itself. The ending was quite unexpected, to say the least, and I have been wracking my head, trying to understand the more-than-fifteen-minutes of nonstop revelations in the final sequence of the game.

(Since this is about the final scene of Infinite, and since this is an interpretation of the whole game based on the ending, it is obvious enough that this post contains spoilers. Play it first and enjoy!)

(I have seen as per the comments in sites offering interpretations on how the DLC “changes the whole equation.” As a disclaimer, I have not yet played the DLCs so this interpretation is strictly within the bounds of the original narrative.)

To have some sort of “skeletal structure” in this post, allow me to outline what I want to accomplish here. The first part will present my own interpretation of the ending, drawing some of the insights from other people in the internet. The second part will try to synthesize the aforementioned interpretation philosophically, i.e., using specific philosophical lenses in order to flesh out some highly interesting themes that run throughout the game and not just the ending.

I will begin with the final scene before the screen goes black (pre-credits, as the post-credits scene shows Booker in his apartment on the 8th of October 1893 [which will be significant later on]). Those that have played the game and who have tried to understand the ending know the story: that Booker Dewitt was actually Zach Comstock in an alternate universe where he chose to be baptized after the massacre at Wounded Knee. Lutece (I will refer to “them” as Lutece only because they’re not actually twins; Robert Lutece is an alternate-universe version of Rosalind in her frequent time-jumping), feeling remorse for the events that led to the creation of Columbia and the murder of Lady Comstock (and of course her/themselves) and the ensuing chaos with the Vox Populi, decides to craft a sort of master plan that will eventually “end” the timeline where Comstock rose to power by killing him “in his birth.” The period between Lutece’s decision to “kill off” Comstock right up to the very end of the game constitutes the whole “linear” narrative of the game. The final scene shows Elizabeth (who is revealed to be Anne Dewitt, Booker’s daughter whom he sold off to “pay off his debts”) smothering Booker/Comstock upon finally realizing that “he was both,” thus effectively ending the timeline where Comstock rose to power.

But did it really stop there?

Notice, that at the absolute final scene, the Elizabeths – time-space permutations of herself – started to disappear upon Booker’s death. This suggests that the timelines have been closed off because Comstock ceased to exist at the moment where he was “created” or reborn. But notice how the screen cuts to black before the final Elizabeth disappears. Now this for me is the real cliffhanger of the game – we are left to wonder if the timelines where Elizabeth is actually Elizabeth (that is to say, how we know her in Columbia) are closed off forever.


Now this is where things get interesting. Before Booker gets smothered, the Elizabeths tell him: “You chose to walk away, but in other oceans you didn’t. You took the baptism and you were born again as a different man.” This is very telling: there was only one timeline where Booker chose to walk away. All the other timelines had him take on his “new life” as Comstock. Why is this interesting? – Well, it might be conjectural, but one is left to wonder if the final Elizabeth who does not disappear indeed stays there because that will be the only permutation of Elizabeth that Booker will meet and see through to the very end. Notice the dress (the “first” Elizabeth that Booker meets in the tower) – she disappears, except for the Elizabeth who wears Lady Comstock’s dress. This tells us one thing: that Elizabeth couldn’t have gone to that point without Booker choosing to reject the baptism. Notice, also, that Elizabeth changes her dress after she kills Daisy Fitzroy. Before she kills Fitzroy, remember that Elizabeth opens a Tear in order to “revive” Chen Lin. And they never go back to the original narrative (hence Elizabeth’s warning “are you sure?”). What does this have to do with the ending? – That the Elizabeth that wears lady Comstock’s dress couldn’t have lived to the very end without her opening the tear during Chen Lin’s revival, which naturally needed the intervention of the Booker that chose to reject the baptism.

This is where I think things get metaphysically “wonkers.” What do these events tell us? – that no one could have stopped Comstock, because the final scene tells us that things are in perpetual cycle – Elizabeth stays, because Booker in an alternate universe chose to reject baptism, which led him to Columbia to rescue Elizabeth, which led to that point where Comstock is “killed.” But that doesn’t really “kill” Comstock – remember Elizabeth’s matter-of-fact statement in the lighthouse, that killing someone doesn’t really “kill the timeline” but rather is just one of the infinite number of narratives possible. Yes, Elizabeth might have pointed she sees through all the Tears, which might imply that she knows that killing Comstock will end the whole cycle. But we are forgetting one thing: Rosalind/Robert Lutece.

Lest we forget, they were the brains behind the whole elaborate scheme. It is highly implausible that they couldn’t have seen the extent of Elizabeth’s powers. They would have anticipated it. I think this is not mere conjecture. In fact, we get a “clue” in the very first scene of the game, where Rosalind tells Robert that she “doesn’t believe in the entire thought experiment.” Throughout the game we see Rosalind losing out to bets with Robert, suggesting a linear kind of narrative and a success to the experiment (the scheme with Booker kills himself in the final scene). But in the end Rosalind was correct: she would have disturbed the time-space fabric enough to have made the whole scenario unstoppable, including the extent of Elizabeth’s powers. She anticipated Elizabeth realizing her powers, and for Rosalind, this wouldn’t have stopped anything (in the end Robert was just a distraction to the narrative, which makes it all the more mysterious, in my opinion), even her and Booker’s attempt to kill off Comstock before everything unfolded.


This brings us (finally – my mind was beginning to ache) to the second part of this post. The unstoppability of the whole system – the warping of time-space – reflects what Columbia represented: a hypercapitalistic society. A friend pointed out that the fact that Columbia was “high above the clouds” represented capitalist society’s attempt to break free from the material conditions that determined the social class. Even the “highest abstractions” – represented by the clouds – aren’t enough to remove oneself from the material conditions of existence. It masks them, like the clouds that obscure vision. Marx himself talks about the shortening of turnover time (the time it takes for capital to become gains, in perpetua) as the driving force of the capitalist mode of production. This is represented by Lutece’s “tinkering” with the time-space fabric – the very attempt to become efficient produces its own contradiction: it becomes more and more uncontrollable. This, we learn, becomes the driving force of American exceptionalism – the post-credits scene has the date 8th of October 1893: in that same year, the world trade fair in Chicago was held. It was curiously named “the world’s Columbian Exposition.” The fair has had a profound impact in the globalization of the market – the flashpoint in Marx’s description of Capitalism, also mentioned in the Communist Manifesto:

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.


This brings us to the other interesting point in Infinite: the religious angle. A lot of people, understandably, have been offended by the caricature of religious fundamentalism in the game. I think that the portrayal of religion in the game revealed a deeper, more disturbing consequence of the unstoppable machine of capitalism: even “religious purity” is subsumed under the system. We need only to be reminded by Marx, again in the Manifesto, of the ruling class’ “simplification of class antagonisms.” We see this in Columbia itself, where Comstock disenfranchises the poor and the non-white, portraying them as “other.” But in the end, even Fitzroy is eaten by the system by playing into the class antagonism by the ruling class. And isn’t this the “hallmark” of fundamentalism? – the simplification of class antagonism. Liberalism has reacted to it by negating any antagonism (and I think a connection can be made with Rapture in the earlier Bioshock games), but does nothing to address it. “Religion” in this sense also functions as a literary device to represent this simplification of antagonisms. Worse, religion becomes the “opium” (read: vigors) by which this antagonism is enforced through the language of the pious.

It is furthermore interesting that the date in the post-credits scene – October 8 – also tells us that the events where Booker might have finally broken free from the grip of the system comes after the conclusion of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (which was also part of the Columbian Trade Fair) on the 30th of September. Scholars have pegged this event as the “birth” of interreligious dialogue, but also the beginning of the globalization of religion, i.e., the subsumption into the cultural logic of capitalism – how “Eastern” religion becomes a construction of the West, and in turn the “East” re-constructing itself vis-a-vis the Western construct. It is of no surprise that the Boxer Rebellion figures in the game: this also represents the fetishization of the East.

What can we learn from this whole exercise? – that human agency – represented by Lutece – can only go so far to attempt to stop the machination of capitalism. This doesn’t mean that nothing can be done; notice in the game that everything is structured according to human agency – time-space is multiplied infinitely according to human choices. Perhaps Infinite tells us that the answer lies not in the centrality of human agency. This jives in well with Marx’s conviction that human essence must not be conceived in terms of abstract sensuousness, but with social relations, as we see in the Theses on Feuerbach. If we look at The German Ideology, we in fact see a focus on the production of the conditions that will allow for revolution to take place. What does this tell us? – that human persons are still agents of change, and indeed they can change society – “to change the world” as with the Eleventh Thesis – but only after abandoning the idea that human flourishing in itself is the finality of action. We then understand Elizabeth’s and Booker’s exchange nearing the end (which is referenced in the beginning before the first scene begins) in a more profound manner: E: “are you afraid of God?” B: “I’m afraid of you.” That is to say, one should be afraid of putting human agency at the center of everything, because it leads to nothing but ruin.

What is it, then? – Here we begin the discourse on the relation between man/woman and nature, pointed out by Marx in the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts. Even Irenaeus foresaw this: the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God. It is through vision that man becomes “aright,” but God precedes the vision. It is not merely about man that man becomes him/herself – it is for something other than him/her. It is in this that God is “fully alive” – when man is finally reconciled with him/herself in, with, and for others. Forgiveness (the high point of religious ecstasy in Infinite), then, is not about “having life anew,” but it is about possibilizing the irruptions of the divine, which man and his or her agency can never control.

It is with this thought that we finally end this long and arduous exercise.