Please finish playing Bioshock Infinite before reading. This article contains plot details.
“Our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilizations, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”
– L. Frank Baum, Editor of The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer/author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on January 3, 1891
In the last days of the year 1890 the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army massacred approximately 300 unarmed Lakota Natives (including some 200 women and children) in what would be one of the last in a long line of violent encounters between colonial and Native Americans. The Wounded Knee Massacre, in its encapsulation of the nascent U.S’ historic racism and unchecked brutality toward the land’s Native population, is one of the most indelible stains on the complicated tapestry of American identity.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Irrational Games, after exploring the inevitable horrors of unregulated capitalism in Bioshock, would come to another such instrumental aspect of the American psyche in their latest release, Bioshock Infinite.
Booker DeWitt, Infinite‘s protagonist, is a veteran of Wounded Knee and an agent of the notorious Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He is a man very much haunted by his past, the violent strikebreaking and indigenous slaughter that has made up his career contributing to a drinking problem and a character defined by nearly complete indifference to violence. DeWitt is also, through a deft bit of Nolan-esque dimension bending, the aged founder of Columbia: Zachary Comstock or The Prophet. The floating city — a twisted, hyper-nationalist utopia — founded by DeWitt/Comstock, welcomes every new arrival with a baptism. Just outside of the baptismal chambers are gardens adorned with statues of the Founding Fathers, three figures who are revered like gods (but not as much as the Abrahamic god who, of course, hovers above all else in the city as the ultimate authority). Right away the message is clear: Columbia is a second chance to get America “right.” Anyone who enters Columbia is able to wash their hands of the nation below, cleansing themselves of all of its historical baggage and embrace, instead, the kind of “pure Americanism” so beloved of Constitution thumpers like the modern Tea Party.
DeWitt/Comstock is obsessed with the idea of starting again, many of the audio logs he has left scattered about the city comparing Columbia to Noah’s ark and suggesting that early 20th century America has become a Sodom where perversions like constitutional amendments and social progress have distorted the vision of the Founding Fathers. Infinite, much like the original Bioshock, presents a test case for how a “renewed” America could play out, founding a city that white washes past crimes in favour of a revisionist version of U.S. history — one where the Wounded Knee that DeWitt/Comstock cannot ever forget can be turned into a military triumph rather than an atrocity. We see the inevitable failings of this attempt at national rebirth in the Vox Populi (a popular front group not unlike a militant labour force — a sort of depoliticized merger of the Bolshevik and Menshevik parties) movement and the recognition that America, no matter how carefully it is constructed in favour of the white Protestant majority, will always sit atop a house of cards where the ground base of oppressed menial workers can rise up to topple even such a beautifully obscured illusion of peace and freedom.
This refutation of a clean break becomes even more clear as DeWitt, still unaware that he is Comstock, travels through the city’s Hall of Heroes — a tribute to Comstock and Colombia’s participation in Wounded Knee and the imperialist blow back of China’s Boxer Rebellion. Though the Lakota (unarmed civilians perverted here to warring savages) and Chinese are depicted as terrifying aggressors in the pop-up Disneyland version of these conflicts found in the Hall of Heroes it is striking that even in Columbia, the land of rebirth and cleansing of past sins, the city must acknowledge its history in order to foster its own identity.
The character of Slate, a soldier who slaughtered alongside DeWitt/Comstock, in Wounded Knee is the primary threat in the Hall of Heroes, leading a band of disaffected Columbians who wish to die in battle rather than fade into old age in the peace of the floating city. For these men the only way to rectify the American past is to be killed in the kind of warfare that shaped their nation. DeWitt/ Comstock, viewing Slate and his compatriots as alien, is ultimately not so different. He is still deeply affected by the past, — by his guilt in taking part in Wounded Knee and putting down the Boxers in Peking — but suppresses his trauma by internalizing it into the vision of Columbia. For him, America can be reborn by reforming the facts of the past.
The finale of the game shows Booker DeWitt at the moment when he becomes Zachary Comstock. He comes upon a group of Anabaptist Christians performing a group baptism in a creek. DeWitt, seeking only absolution for his part in helping those in power shape America through brutality, renounces his sins and is dunked in the water. He emerges, is “born again” and believes himself free of the memories that haunt him. But we know, having seen the awful shape his life goes on to take as Comstock, that there is no way for him to ever leave the atrocities of Wounded Knee behind. Like America itself the guilt will never leave, regardless of how hard he attempts to start again. The same psychology that allowed for the systemic eradication of the Native Americans, the institutionalization of racism and blind faith in the favourable myths of the American Revolution will always inform who he is and what he will go on to do. DeWitt/Comstock is America and his guilt will make up a part of his psyche no matter what he does — or how hard he tries — to erase it.
Infinite is striking in its selection of baptism as the central theme. The horrors of the past and the belief that ignoring them through “rebirth” can make them go away is surely responsible for why Americans seem so intractably drawn toward the ecstatic, Anabaptist Christianity (the Great Awakenings of Methodist preachers caught on in the United States in a fashion unimaginable in Europe). Those who fled from the mess of 17-1900s Europe came to the “New World” with visions of a clean slate that will never exist. When a landed colonial finds the supposed purity of their new nation sullied by the inevitable guilt of oppression, imperialism and prejudice there is nothing left to do but to try to renew the soul through whatever means possible. The promise of America is freedom from the past but, like every nation, achieving this ideal of freedom has left America stained with the blood of those who must be exploited to succeed. Baptism of the kind that promised DeWitt a new life as Comstock and America a new life in Columbia offers a seductively simple (and ultimately futile) way to move forward.
That DeWitt must be drowned before he has a chance to be baptized once again during Infinite‘s finale suggests something much different than the traditional American narrative of guilt-free rebirth. Just admitting to feeling guilty over the past is not enough. Sometimes, as Lincoln knew, the only way to move forward without injustice is to accept that the darkness of the past will always remain dark and that the only way to change the future for the better is to make drastic steps to rectify previous horrors through present action.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.