Booker gets the narrative short shrift compared to the city, and as a result, the game’s final moments suffer.
This post contains spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.
Bioshock Infinite is a game about a lot of things: Racism, sexism, nationalism, religion, and how all those things interact and influence each other. But in actuality, all those –isms are just window dressing to help establish the setting. Bioshock Infinite isn’t about Columbia the same way that Bioshock is about Rapture. Infinite is really a character-driven story about Booker Dewitt and Elizabeth. It’s about how guilt and forgiveness can influence our lives and change who we are. Unfortunately, the game spends more time telling the story of Columbia than the story of Booker and Elizabeth, even though the latter is clearly what this game is actually about. The characters, or rather Booker specifically, gets the narrative short shrift compared to the city, and as a result, the game’s final moments suffer.
The final revelation that Booker and Comstock are two branches of the same person, one consumed with guilt and the other consumed with forgiveness, just doesn’t work for me. The game toys with a fascinating theme -- that one can abuse the forgiveness inherent in religion to justify countless atrocities -- and its attempt to make that theme personal by applying it to the player character is ambitious and worthy of praise, but it ultimately doesn’t work because the game doesn’t set up enough parallels between these two characters. I can’t believe they were ever the same person.
The game wants to explore how we construct an identity by showing us the parallel lives of this intrinsically violent man. How does he deal with that violent side of himself and how does that change him? In one life, he regrets that violence and tries to repent, which sadly only leads to more violence. In the other life, he feels forgiven for that violence, which frees him to commit even greater acts of atrocity. This kind of parallel character arc is a wonderful idea, but it never manifests itself in the game proper. Booker is never compared to Comstock or vice versa. In fact, the game does more to compare Comstock with rebel leader Daisy Fitzroy than with Booker, thus undermining its most important character arc.
Instead of creating parallels, the game falls into the trap of defining these two men as archetypes. Comstock is the villain, Booker is the hero, and every time that they speak, they reinforce this distinction between them. That would be fine for any other game, but not in this case. They should be different, but they shouldn’t be that different.
The game needed to make Booker a genuine anti-hero. It needed to hammer home the fact that Booker DeWitt is not a good person. It flirts with this idea, but never delves into it enough to make it a central focus for the character. Making things worse, every time that the game begins to suggest that Booker is a bad guy, it immediately reverses course to make him seem more sympathetic.
There are a few small conversations with Elizabeth where he flat out tells her that he’s not a good person. But actions speak louder than words, and his actions throughout the game prove him to be a good person at heart -- the “roguish type” as Elizabeth puts it. He admits to doing bad things in the past, but his clear regret for his actions makes it easy for us to forgive him and like him. His few acts of intimate, excessive violence are immediately forgiven or forgotten. You can execute Slate, but as soon as you pull the trigger, Elizabeth admits you were being more merciful than cruel. When Booker downs Comstock, Elizabeth is shocked at first but then she quickly gets over it and runs ahead.
One could make an argument that the general act of gameplay is itself an ultra violent act that should make us question the moral grounding of Booker, but as a gamer, I’ve been trained to assume that gameplay and narrative exist as largely separate entities unless specifically stated otherwise. And Bioshock Infinite doesn’t state otherwise. Elizabeth never comments on your violent shootings save for a brief moment in the beginning, but she very quickly comes to accept all the violence Booker causes while admonishing Comstock for the violence he causes.
If the game, through Elizabeth, lets us know that this violence was unusual and horrific and Booker kept at it regardless, the final twist would feel more natural and maybe there wouldn’t be so many articles about how out-of-place the violence feels within the context of the story.
We need Elizabeth to admonish Booker since she’s the moral center of the game and the filter through which we see Booker. Since this is a first-person game, we can’t see how Booker reacts to things. We need Elizabeth to explain him to us. At the Hall of Heroes, she says “I can see what Slate said has upset you,” and through that bit of dialogue, we learn that Slate’s words of praise for the battle at Wounded Knee have hurt Booker on a deep level we simply can’t see. She’s also the only one whose admonishment would carry any emotional weight. Every other character is so flawed in their own right that their admonishment would seem manipulative or self serving. Booker talks crap about himself quite a bit, but every time he does so, it makes him seem remorseful and thus more roguish -- a man who does violence, but doesn’t enjoy violence. Elizabeth is a painfully honest moral center, and she accepts Booker for all that he is and all that he does, so we never once think to see him as a villain or even as much of an anti-hero. He’s always “the roguish type.”
This makes the hero seem more heroic and sets him up in contrast to the villain, not in parallel to him. I know that one of the central thematic points of the game is that they are so different, that Booker was literally born again in the baptismal waters and that faith, forgiveness, and guilt, the things we hold on to and obsess over, can change us into very different people. But “very different” doesn’t mean “total opposite,” and Bioshock Infinite sets up these two men as total opposites.
The emotional impact of the ending is another unfortunate casualty of Booker’s mismanaged character arc. The ending should be an emotional scene, a father sacrificing himself for his daughter -- hell, Bioshock 2 ended the same way and had me in tears -- but in Bioshock Infinite, my mind is too busy trying to reconcile the final twist that I never stop to consider what Booker’s sacrifice means for him and Elizabeth. In short, the ending is so intellectually confusing that it undermines its inherent tragedy. The revelation that you are Comstock feels less like the last missing piece of a narrative puzzle and more like an extra piece that doesn’t neatly fit into the narrative puzzle I’ve been building. I’m too distracted by this new information to care that Booker dies and erases Elizabeth from existence in the process.
The game does an excellent job constructing a city that’s both beautiful and disturbing, as well as a city that’s realistically dealing with the fallout of trans-dimensional travel/spying: from the Magical Melodies ad of “Tomorrow’s Songs, Today” to the Lutece statue in the beginning that keeps changing from Robert to Rosalind as if the world can’t make up its mind since both existed in this universe at the same time. The game is good at making abstract ideas relatable and understandable, but Bioshock Infinite is better at creating a world than it is at creating characters. Booker’s arc revolves around the idea of a violent man sacrificing himself for repentance, but if I don’t buy that he was a violent man, then I can’t buy his repentance, and if I don’t buy his repentance, then I can’t buy his transformation into Comstock, and if I can’t buy his transformation, then I can’t buy his entire character arc.