BioShock Infinite: Baptism of the Human Heart

Youth pastor Ashley Dusenbery offers his personal perspective on the use of baptism in BioShock Infinite.

by

'

SPOILER WARNING: If you haven't finished BioShock Infinite and don't want to know what happens, don't read this article. Nothing in BioShock Infinite is off limits in what follows.

One of the toughest questions people ask me is the question, why? Why did my daughter die? Why do I have cancer? Why can't I find a job? Why are people sometimes so nasty to one another? I work in a church. And a church is supposed to be a safe place. It's supposed to be a place where those genuinely longing for meaningful answers can go to sincerely struggle. So, naturally, as the caretaker of a local church, much of that struggling happens right in front of me, and I consider it a privilege to sit with people in the trenches of their inner wars. It is a war indeed, for the question that needs an answer, that persistent question, why, often has no answer accessible to finite human beings. And so in the absence of any kind of peace with God over his sometimes inscrutable, often painful plan, people of faith struggle. That's not always a bad thing, I think.

So what does that have to do with a video game? I finished Irrational's excellent BioShock Infinite recently, and I've had a little time since then for my mind to process the intense intertwining of story, character, setting, and atmosphere. My mind has gone to the places it is prone to wander to, the theological. Religion is a huge theme in Infinite. Religion touches almost every aspect of the game's narrative. The antagonist, Comstock, is a self-styled prophet and leader of a pseudo-Christian, religious cult-city, Columbia, suspended twenty thousand feet in the sky by a mysterious, quantum, science-fiction-y force. Booker DeWitt, the protagonist, seems at first to be motivated by a desire to wipe away a financial debt by rescuing a young lady from a tower in Columbia, but the game wastes no time at all in indicating that DeWitt has a deeper, moral debt that is not so easily erased. Images and language of water, baptism, washing, and rebirth all build upon one another in the telling of this story. There is even a baby who turns out to be the lamb of Comstock's prophecy.

Let me stop here and say that as a Christian and an ordained pastor, I was not in the least bit offended by the use of these decidedly Christian themes. For the most part, things like Christian baptism were used to move the story as well as I have ever seen them used in secular media. Levine appropriately tied rebirth to baptism. Part of what baptism represents in Christianity is dying as an old self and being raised to a new life. In Infinite, baptism is explicitly used three times as far as I can remember. The first time is when DeWitt is admitted into the city of Columbia. The second time is at the end of the game when DeWitt is offered baptism, which he rejects. The third and final time is when it is revealed that DeWitt and Comstock are really the same person, Comstock being the seemingly inevitable product of Booker's religious rebirth through baptism. Baptism in that instance is the means by which DeWitt dies for the sake of undoing all the evil that he and Comstock will bring about.

In each instance, baptism is used as an appropriate symbolic plot device for the point at which the players find themselves in the story. It's the initiation of a new and profound mission, a rebirth of DeWitt towards an ultimate destiny. It's the rejection of a salvation that DeWitt finds cheap and inadequate, preferring to seek the accomplishment of his mission in order to wipe away his debt, an ultimately futile effort. It takes Elizabeth bringing him back to the baptismal pool for him to fully grasp the profundity of his true debt and what that debt has earned him as a result. Even though there is death but no new life in the final baptism that ends DeWitt's and Comstock's lives, it functions quite well as a plot device given the kind of setting that these characters and their story inhabit. Levine wasn't aiming to speak theologically about the true meaning and use of Christian baptism. Therefore, I have no problem with him taking baptism and using it to tell a story separate from the Christian story.

These Christian themes and the religious tone of Infinite serve a story that seeks, I think, to answer a fundamental question about human existence: What effect does my free will have on reality? One of the huge revelations of Infinite was that the setting of this BioShock game and previous BioShock games exist in the same universe. In an instant, the players find themselves transported from Columbia, the city in the clouds, to Rapture, the city from the original BioShock at the bottom of the sea. These two dystopian cities exist in this multiverse in which the will of man has created an infinite number of branching universes. There is no road untraveled by the choices of humankind. Each road and each fork is itself a separate reality, a distinct universe of existence.

In case you are thoroughly confused, welcome to the club. Let me try to explain. The premise behind Infinite is that every choice each person makes leads to a new reality, much like in the reboot of the Star Trek movies. Spock traveling back in time started the new cast and crew of the Enterprise on an entirely new timeline and new set of adventures, a new Star Trek universe, if you will. Similarly, in Infinite, the reality of Comstock's Columbia and all the evils that flow out of that city in the clouds exist in a universe created along one branch of one choice made by one man, Booker DeWitt. Interestingly, baptism is the vehicle by which this choice is made. If DeWitt accepts baptism, he will rise from the water having taken a new name and new life. He is no longer Booker DeWitt, but he comes out of the water Zachary Hale Comstock, the Prophet of Columbia. And so reality branches for the millionth time in a nanosecond, and another new universe of existence is born, this one not so pleasant as the game's opening hour would lead you to believe.

So what does this game have to do with the person in the pastor's office asking the hard questions of life? What does it have to do with you as you try to be a good friend to someone who is hurting? Or what does it have to do with your own struggles? Why is my life like this and not the way I want it to be? I think this game is an attempt, in a purely secular way (I don't mean that disparagingly), to offer hope and comfort when our lives branch in a way that we don't expect or in a way that brings suffering. It offers hope for us to think that there is a reality in which a version of us exists that isn't suffering in whatever crisis we find ourselves. At any moment and with every choice, we are creating universes of possibilities of happiness, misery, or something in between. What we do has meaning outside of ourselves.

As I experienced BioShock Infinite, I found hidden within the story it was telling a narrative of human choosing apart from the existence of God. It was a moment both precious and profoundly sad. It is precious because I believe that behind the searching questions this story has explored through the medium of video games is an impulse that comes directly from our creator. It is the impulse to search, explore, and pierce to the marrow of the mystery of our existence as human beings and seek an answer to the question, why are things not the way they are supposed to be? This game has left me thankful for Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games for so beautifully telling this story. It is sad to me because the multiverse their exploration has led them to is hellish. Just below the luminescent, idealized surface of Comstock's Columbia is a nightmare of racism, oppression, greed, and violence that the player must survive to reach the end, only to find out that the whole time, Booker was doing battle with the products of his own heart.

← Check here for more GameSpotting.

'

Discussion

654 comments
netter99
netter99

I really need to play the first two bioshocks. Just playing infinite was not enough but i cannot wait for the DLC looks amazing. 

Compact87
Compact87

Damn it, i havent finnished game yet so i have to skip this article for now. Seems interesting :(

Colekern
Colekern

Dang. I really wanna read the article, but I haven'tr beaten Infinite yet. Dang.

ChaosUndivided
ChaosUndivided

Nice read. While I'm not religious I still enjoy religious literature. I like to see how other people try to perceive life and the world around them and games are a good media to explore these questions. Unfortunately there are some in all religions even atheist and agnostics that are just intolerant. 

samus_my_life
samus_my_life

deserve to be complete over ten times !!!!! LOVE IT YEA 

Don_Mattrick
Don_Mattrick

There is nothing as free will IMO.

If there was free well, we would have chosen where we were born, and chosen our parents, our environment, our looks, our gender and such, the very first thing of your live.

What we are is detriment by our environment and our parents and such, it is nothing that we chose.

I'm a guy who started believing in god 2-3 years ago  through my uncle who is an Astronomer, he told me that the universe is so well put together it could never have done this by it self.

And the start of the world...it could never just came out of "nothingness", the big bang "theory" says it was formed by heat and energy...where did that heat and energy came from?.

I myself don't have a religion but i do believe in god, my practices are meditation, thinking of the stars and the planets, the small seed that will grow up to be an 10 storey high tree, the sun and the moon the the day and night, i mean the universe is so big so complex/complicated/sophisticated it could never done this by itself.

And isn't weird that we are the only "intelligent" beings on earth, and by that that we build towers draw and craft art, invent and such, why are one?, why aren't we like bugs for example, they are different kind of them, and why are we the only one that we see satellites and orbiting machines around earth and not in other planets?.

Tell me what you want, but i'll never EVER believe that all of this is the doing of heat and energy or nothingness.

GenomeSoldierDK
GenomeSoldierDK

*Warning: This comment contains spoilers*

I want to start off by saying: Really good read! Your use of language is absolutely phenomenal and it was a pleasure to see such a colorful use of the English language! 

There are a few places where I disagree with your conclusions in terms of how you interpret the story. This being a pretty open ended and overall confusing game, I can't really blame you, of course. 

The first part where I disagree is when you wrote: "These Christian themes and the religious tone of Infinite serve a story that seeks, I think, to answer a fundamental question about human existence: What effect does my free will have on reality?"

The reason I disagree with this conclusion is the use of the term: "Free will". Because is free will really a pressing factor in this story? Booker is offered a few choices a long his journey, but do they matter? Lets consider for a moments the choices that Booker is given: 

1) A coin toss that always turns out to be heads.

2) To toss the ball at the humiliated couple or the announcer - which is always stopped.

3) The killing / sparing of Slate - which always ends up in his demise 

4) The necklace, which at a first glance does make a small visual change, but turns out to be in vain. 5) Choosing to draw first at the ticket booth or not -> always turns into the same fight. 

As we can see the outcome is pretty much predetermined - and that's exactly the point. It's a nod towards Fatalism, in other words that: That actions are free, but nevertheless work toward an inevitable end. The game is about choices, but not a game of choice. 

The second conclusion that you made which I don't agree with is this:  

"I think this game is an attempt, in a purely secular way (I don't mean that disparagingly), to offer hope and comfort when our lives branch in a way that we don't expect or in a way that brings suffering.  It offers hope for us to think that there is a reality in which a version of us exists that isn't suffering in whatever crisis we find ourselves. At any moment and with every choice, we are creating universes of possibilities of happiness, misery, or something in between."

Again, I don't blame your for making different conclusions than I did, but here's what I took away from it. Or at least why I don't think your conclusion is right: 

I don't think that it's about offering hope. No offense intended, but that is one of the main functions of Religion - so I'm not surprised that you came to that conclusion. However I think that it is more about realization and acceptance. Realization about the importance of choices and it's consequences. The realization and acceptance that you cannot undo your choices. And acceptance of the consequences that follow those choices. And maybe to be a bit Biblical about it, thankfulness. Thankfulness that you have what you have - and that you wouldn't be where you are if you didn't make those choices. Thankful for the people around you who have made the choice to be around you. 

Sometimes we all take for granted what we have in life and think more of what could have been or maybe what should have been. We wish we could go back and remake our decisions and alter our choices. But in the great scheme of things - would it really be wise to undo those choices? I think that's exactly what Bioshock Infinite is about. Small choices that add nearly nothing to the big picture - and grand choices, that if even altered the slightest, could change your destiny- for better or worse. 

Vienreich
Vienreich

reading many of the comments here, I'm amazed that we're in 2013 and there are still religious people. 

faizanhd
faizanhd

Honestly I have seen a lot of people call this game "just another shooter" . But they just didn't understand or ignored the much deeper aspects of each moment in the game. Every street, every shop, every location of the game has a story to tell and the effects of Bookers interference with this world creates an interesting contrast. Many people call Booker just another action hero. But he is a symbol of something so much more meaningful. Thank you for this article. Personally I prefer  Infinites depiction of human nature over The Last of US.

Chupacabra3332
Chupacabra3332

Cant wait for the DLC. This has been the best game of the year for me. Awesome story.

55584623
55584623

i really liked the article man! great job!

very interesting to see different points of views about this game.

the biggest message i took from the game is pretty similar from what you said in the end: "Booker was doing battle with the products of his own heart."

Booker and Comstock aren't just the same person so that can be a plot twist,  they are very different man with completely different beliefs that failed in the same way. both lost their humanity in their own way, Booker by seeling Elizabeth, Comstock by turning Columbia into a Ark of destruction and making Elizabeth his lamb.

It doesn't matter if you believe in god or not, if you are have "faith" or not. when you forget about love and respect you already lost, no matter the way you dress it up. that's why questioning freewill, baptism and rebirth is so important in Bioshock Infinite. 


ihateds2
ihateds2

Is it just me or is watching online-atheists get their panties in a bunch and/or fail miserably at trying to sound smart one of the most entertaining things you can do on the Internet?

blackzio
blackzio

Great article, i was brought up in catholic church but now i'm agnostic, but still it's great to see a pastor gamer with good opinions, i really don't know why one of the game developers tried to quit due to the religious content of the game, i didn't see it as an offense to any religion, extremists exists all over the world, be it as a protestant, muslins, catholics or non religion people. 

 I think that the fact that booker is also comstock also goes to show that a few decisions in your life would make a drastic change, in one hand you could never be a pastor if you hadn't made certain decision, and i could be if some differences in our lives went a different way. 

It's a shame to accept, but we could be all that we despise given other circumstances in our lives.  

TurretSyndrome
TurretSyndrome

Glad to hear what a Pastor gamer(didn't know they existed lol) had to say about the game, good read. Unfortunately, I believe there'll be very few like him who will take the game for what it is, among the faithful.

mattg-man
mattg-man

Thanks Gamespot for publishing such a fantastic article. I just finished Bioshock Infinite and did wonder how the Christian community may react. It is great that this is a game that can be enjoyed by all people not just from an entertainment point of view but also spiritual and academic views.  Keep it up!

TehMasterer2
TehMasterer2

Fantastic article. It always amuses me when people point out how hypocritical us Christians must be to enjoy violent games and such. Because really, they're just entertainment.

It's also nice to see a fellow Christian's take on BioShock Infinite's representation of Christian baptism - and make no mistake, it IS Christian baptism and not of any other religion, as the guy baptising actually says Jesus's name on a single occasion. Which brings me to the most prominent disparity between the game's representation and baptism in real life - it's almost completely disconnected from the real rebirth.

Booker (and Comstock) seem to think of baptism as some sort of get-out-of-sin-free card, which it's not. Baptism itself is meaningless without the recognition of what it actually means, and that is that the true baptism that grants spiritual rebirth is of the Holy Spirit, not of water.

Point is (for those who skipped the religious mumble-jumble), the game can't show that the ideologies behind Christianity are flawed, because it doesn't represent those ideologies correctly (a nod to erix43). Rather, it shows that human nature is inherently flawed, and no amount of self-righteousness will change that (in fact, as Comstock demonstrates, self-righteousness only worsens the human condition). 

All up, it's probably the most emotionally engaging narrative I've ever played, and I thank the developers for that unparalleled experience. It's just a bit of a shame that it ends on such a sad note, hence missing the opportunity to explain the true meaning of spiritual rebirth and the positive transformation it brings.

forcefactor13
forcefactor13

Great article. It gives me hope to hear a fellow Christian give such a reasonable response to a clearly profound game. I'm sorry to say that most of the people in my church would probably freak out if they played Infinite. So thank you, Mr. Dusenbery, for this well-written and well-thought-out article.

korvus
korvus

Replying to this a bit late because I wanted to finish the game first and didn't have time to do so until yesterday, but I want to say it's a very well written article. It's good to see that religious people can approach a subject without making things black and white or trying to shove things down other people's throat. Too bad the other side didn't show such respect in comments...

Karikma
Karikma

This is a great and engrossing game, but the trouble I have with it and something like "Django Unchained" is the fact that this is a production created by white people for white people.  It is a way for white people to pat themselves on the back and feel better about who they are.  It has just the right amount of racism when the reality of conditions like this were far worse.  Al Andalus, Slavery in the Americas, Native American Genocide, Aboriginal Genocide, The Opium War, the Holocaust, the colonization of China, Africa and India, etc are inconceivable assaults on humanity and the reason many places in the world are in the condition they are in today.  Basically anyone in a loin cloth.  Inhuman places like Liberia and how Pakistan and India are on the brink of destroying the Earth, They are basically the very same people, when a generation ago, they were all following Gandhi.  These are all direct results of exposure to greed, ethics and abuses alien to their native social structure.  These effects don't disappear just because the people are let go.  I've never heard of a black leader even consider shooting a white child in the head, like Fitzroy.  That's like Maya Angelou or Oprah gets caught gunning down a bunch of 3rd graders, but I've definitely witnessed much worse racism than this game depicts.

Steve_Baisden
Steve_Baisden

Hearing the background music - sends me back in time. Great game, man, great game.

ithought
ithought

Well thought out and written article. I was wondering how someone in the church might view this game.

somebody337
somebody337

lol Silly nutters! Why don't we start burning all the books again aswell :D Those objects are clearly whats wrong with the world

stev69
stev69

@ChaosUndivided Its true that you will encounter intolerance in all walks of life, however I think the dogmatic doctrine of religious faiths encourage it more than if people were to live by a set of values they have arrived at independently. Especially considering how old some of these teachings are, which can still be relevant if taken in modern context, however some don't and take it in the literal sense.

SillySkeleton
SillySkeleton

@Don_Mattrick Ahh, but perhaps we did choose our appearance, gender and parents before our conception. Perhaps we've just forgot that we did. Can you remember the day you were born? Oooh, spooky!

Buck_Swaggler
Buck_Swaggler

@GenomeSoldierDK For Bioshock to even spark this type of thought process is a testament to how amazing it is.


see what i did there?

netter99
netter99

@GenomeSoldierDK after reading your response I have to say that I definitely agree with you a wee bit more than him. Both of you however, had very strong points. 

55584623
55584623

@GenomeSoldierDK made some good points there man!

i think i had a similar idea, there are no bad or good choices, there are all just choices and you can't take them away, can't "remake" them.

it's is interestig to see that the only baptism in the game that can truly change things is the last one, where Booker is not being reborn but being drowned. where the universes are being torn apart and his choices are taken away. you can't "remake" the choices, the only baptism that works is actually drowing Booker and never allowing those choices to happen.

a very pessimistic point of view indeed, but also a valid interpretation of the ending.

humanoid_K
humanoid_K

@GenomeSoldierDK I agree with you, overall you had more "choices" in the first and second Bioshock, that would actually matter in the end.

saint311
saint311

@Vienreich what does the year have anything to do w/ religion?  Oh, lemme guess.  You think science and religion are mutually exclusive, huh? 

I'm amazed that we're in 2013 there are still illogical ppl. 

(actually I lied, that doesn't amaze me at all.  Idiots are timeless!)

humanoid_K
humanoid_K

@Vienreich As human beings we need a spiritual guidance, or at least most of us. That's a choice, the thing is that if you don't want it, that's cool, but that doesn't mean others shouldn't. 

wearelegion5000
wearelegion5000

@Vienreich Transcendence is one of the human needs (just like eating, drinking, socialising, having sex) so there is nothing surprising about people believing in god or whatever supernatural force they choose to believe in.

faizanhd
faizanhd

@ihateds2 

Atheists just don't realize that they sound just like a preacher of another religion.

Heathenstew
Heathenstew

@Karikma There is no need for me pat myself on the back to try to feel better about who I am. I neither have or had anything to do with racism, slavery, the holocaust and all the other retarded things you listed. Just cause I'm white I am somehow related to that? That's just idiotic thinking and it's just plain racist. STFU

CrouchingWeasel
CrouchingWeasel

@Karikma  

Another racist cursing us "white devils" & blaming us for all of the world's ills. People of all colours & creeds have had no problems wiping each other out for reasons of race, religion & politics for centuries, long before Europeans colonised parts of the world, bigot. If you expect me to be ashamed of & apologise for the colour of my skin then you'll be waiting a long, long time.

CrouchingWeasel
CrouchingWeasel

@erix43  

I find small minded little bigots like yourself more offensive than religion. Intolerance causes more problems than religion ever has or will.

max-hit
max-hit

@humanoid_K Humans don't really need a spiritual guidance. But some may choose to pick one due to whatever reason.

Warful
Warful

@lilmcnessy @faizanhd But what did it miss? what more did you need from the gameplay? I loved the rail system, I loved the vigors and it was done at a great pace!
The ONLY thing I would have wanted gameplay wise, would be more non-violent scenes, like the shop scene in the E3 trailer, but that's about it.

Karikma
Karikma

@Heathenstew @KarikmaJust because you say so, huh?  I'm not a person who even pays attention to what people say about themselves, I'd rather pay attention to what they actually do and the end results of their decisions.  Most of the time, with people like you, who always absolve themselves, and fail to see fault in their own behavior or opinion, it ends up in some kind of crazy injustice, like Trayvon Martin.  You're surrounded by people who give you positive reinforcement and make you believe you are some sort of sweet righteous infallible angel, when you are, in reality, anything but.  OK, so you have never shot a person. That still doesn't mean you're a good person.

Karikma
Karikma

@jonnybutler11 @Karikma @Heathenstew Not that I'm trying to justify a point of view, but it's just that when you talk to white people about justice and blame you have to cut through a forest of misconception about their true character and nature.  At the root of what you believe is something that is completely untrue, and titles like this are exactly the reason people like you believe they are above reproach, and always feel that they are the final judge when it comes to anything.  You think of your history as heroic, proud, brave, powerful, when the reality was delusional, psychotic, underhanded, backstabbing betrayal. The same exact character you see today, the only difference is that, now in your culture, you invite other races in to do the same in order that you can point your finger of blame at them and say, "You can't judge me!"  Your people have forced every other culture in the world to compete in the same petty, low brow, selfish form of governance in order that they don't get wiped off the map.  And that's what would happen, because as soon as a desirable resource appears, the delusion kicks in, and the powerful among you would convince themselves of whatever they need to in order to obtain it.  That's true for one of those on any level of society.  But you think you are soft and nice and decent.  It's really the fact that your globalized level of criminality affords you the ability to oppress people in a sanitized and disconnected way.  

jonnybutler11
jonnybutler11

@Karikma @Heathenstew You sound like someone desperately trying to justify his point of view to himself and to strangers on the internet... If you think white people are the problem on this planet you better look in the mirror. There is no such thing as humanity, only billions of individuals getting on eachother's nerves. If you truly were such a good person you would mind your own business, manage your non-profit warehouse, and refrain from spewing ignorant racist bile on a GAMING website. And the Trayvon Martin case, an injustice? That's ridiculous... you'll never know what really happened between Trayvon and Zimmerman, and while Zimmerman was obviously judging him on his race and not his actions this is a case that has been waaay overblown by the media to rouse foolish people like yourself.

Karikma
Karikma

@Heathenstew @Karikma  Dude, I manage warehouse for a non profit that that helps low income families get on their feet, and provides meals for the elderly and disabled.  I unload and load 18 wheelers of donations every weekend, as well as pick up donations of heavy furniture and appliances from local businesses and everyday people.   My day job is an artist tho....

Heathenstew
Heathenstew

@Karikma Listen here. If you want to base it on what I do. I am a Construction Instructor and GED Math instructor to at-risk youth (like trayvon martin), In the past year I have had three white students and the rest fall under black, hispanic and asian, and I don't give a shit. Theyu are all students that need my help. That's what I do bitch ass, I fucking help people everyday I get up. What the fuck do you do with your racist self?

Jasper_73
Jasper_73

@Karikama so you think your better? becuase you are black and blacks only only commit truly inhuman acts against each other? you think you are the only one who has the right to judge and point the finger? i am afraid you have become the thing you are trying to fight against. at the end of the day blacks are no better than whites. we are all the same! we all of us came out of africa and we are all human and make human mistakes.

Karikma
Karikma

@Conan1985 @CrouchingWeasel @Karikma It's typical for you in your own culture to delude yourself into a mentality that everyone is the same.  No matter what, you put yourself in the position where you even have the right to judge and point your finger, when due to how you are typically raised you have no real frame of reference to what is just and fair.  The truth is, while black people do commit grossly inhuman acts against each other, they rarely do so to other races, but you convince yourself to the contrary with no tangible evidence, because it is a part of your evolution, I assume, to treat any other culture living in relative peace with you that they are violating you in some way.  Just to get something you want.  In concert, you are cordial and friendly until everyone's guard is down, and then you betray. based on some ridiculous delusion you convince yourself of, that you later admit to being wrong, after the generation has died out and no real restitution can be made.  

Example: in 1948, after WWII, the allied nations had a problem deciding what they will do with all those Jews.  They can't stay in America or Europe (damn Jews...)  I  know, we will go to the Middle East and kill a bunch of Palestinians and push them out of their home.  Then we will put Jews there in their place and pump a bunch of money into the area so they can make life uncomfortable for the people they displaced, when Jews could have simply moved into the area like they did before all that.  Jews seeking refuge preferred Middle East countries as opposed to westernized countries back then.  They are essentially family after all because they both descended from Abraham, and they even fought alongside each other in the Crusades.  Now was that fair?  Today we see how much was ruined with one act.