Science Fiction and Religion – Bioshock Infinite

It’s a big topic with this game – religion. It’s one of many real-world and historical issues that they decided to tackle and include in the game, along with other big topics like race, class, and ideology. They made the religion important, made it matter. Of course, they also pretty much made it a cult of personality for their leader.

However, the question of religion in regards to Bioshock Infinite is bigger than just religion in-game. People had reactions outside the game to the religious situations – situations that hit you within moments of arriving in Columbia. Minutes into the game, there were people too uncomfortable with it to move on.

And maybe they did eventually move on. This is a topic I’ve wanted to write about since last year – but we were avoiding the spoilers. And I wanted to see where it went – and I was not disappointed. So I want to talk about both the real-world reactions to the inclusion of religion, and the internal events and existence of the religion!

Those Who Enter the City are Baptized

It’s the initial rite of passage to enter the city. It’s symbolic. It’s a cleansing, a dousing in water. But it’s also a baptism.

And it’s more: it’s a required part of the game, and it requires player interaction. It’s not just something that happens in a cutscene, and not something that you just witness others doing. It is something that you must actively go and do as the player character to move on in the game.

Some people reacted against this scene from a religious standpoint. They did not want to be baptized because they already were, because it was a personal and important aspect of faith. It’s a sacrament in most Christian denominations, not just a simple thing that’s done. And so they didn’t want to go through with it, were offended.

Some people reacted against this scene from a non-religious or non-Christian standpoint. They did not believe in baptism, and did not want to have to go through with it. It’s a sacrament in faiths they didn’t believe in, something they did not want to do in a game. And so they didn’t want to go through with it, were offended.

I find either response fascinating. I know there is a certain level of immersion, of suspension of disbelief, of suspension of self in playing a video game. It’s a level of escapism that maybe we turn to games for. However, for me, I don’t become my character to such an extent that I feel that an event happening to them is happening to me. So I don’t quite understand the offense.

I mean, there’s a type of game where I am more attached to my character: the sort where I create the character completely, where I am in control of their decisions and what they do. Like an Elder Scrolls game, or a BioWare game. Like Dragon Age: Inquisition, which is just out! I care more in those situations.

But a game like Bioshock Infinite? That’s immersive storytelling. You’re controlling a character, which is the game element, but in the end, it’s rather a lot like a long movie. Which can get so much more detailed than a movie, which allows you to stop and stare, to explore the little details and the corners. But still, it’s a movie for me. If I were reading a book and the main character got baptized, the same thing: it’s not me it’s happening to. No problem with it.

What do you think? Do you usually get that invested in the media you enjoy? Let me know in the comments below! Meanwhile, more on the religion itself!

The Prophet and the Lamb and the False Shepherd

There are a lot of ways to look at the religion they build in this game. On its surface, it’s a cult of personality around their Prophet, Comstock. Their worship is of the Prophet and the Founding Fathers. Which gets increasingly creepy as the Founding Father statues come to life and fight you.

However, it’s more than that. Because this Prophet can truly prophesy.

As Holly talked about yesterday, there are many aspects of the future bleeding into Columbia. With this, Comstock could lead them to build advanced technologies, have future media like the songs, and of course, have prophecies of the future. The most important of which – for the plot, at least – are the prophecies of the Lamb of Columbia leading them to dominance, and of the False Shepherd coming to lead the Lamb astray.

You are the False Shepherd, apparently – something which becomes apparent quite quickly. Seeing the future, you could of course know who your main threat would be. By creating a prophecy about it, the whole population knew to be expecting this enemy – and were prepared to fight against him. So you’re in trouble right from the start.

This all reminds me of Dune – the Bene Gesserit. They invented religions, so that in times of need, their Reverend Mothers could tap into the myths and stories and fit in, suddenly the prophesied ones. The Bene Gesserit also have a level of future vision, so they could easily fill a religious space and need. And really, seeing the future, knowing what is to come – this is the sort of thing faith is built around. It gives people something concrete to believe in about the future.

As to the Lamb, part of what’s creepy is this vision of her raining fire down on the world below. Because you end up there – you see it. And there is seemingly no stopping it. Too much is stacked against you, your opponent sees the future too much, too well, and knows you too well.

There’s really only one way to stop him: keep him from ever being born.

Back to Baptism

Spoilers indeed here: I want to talk about the end.

The reveal, that Booker was Comstock, that he was “Born-Again” in both a metaphorical religious sense, and in a more real, new-name-and-paradigm sense, was pretty incredible. It explains why there was seemingly nothing you could do to stop your opponent: he knows you as well as you know yourself. So to speak.

And the baptism, oh the baptism! It was the birthplace of this reborn man. The symbol of becoming: of becoming something new. Of change. Transformation. It was certainly this symbol for Comstock: he was changed by it.

So of course he would have it as a symbol for everyone entering the city. Of course it’s there. It matters: it’s so important! That’s where it’s interesting to me that people reacted to it, religiously, emotionally, symbolically. It’s a moment that matters, an event that matters.

Well done on the game designers. They created a moment, an event, a part that mattered so much. That people noticed, reacted to, and which came back at the end to matter so much.

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4 responses to “Science Fiction and Religion – Bioshock Infinite

  1. I haven’t played the game, but it looks like an interesting element to add to the story. I know that when I watch my GF playing certain storylines in Skyrim, it makes me uncomfortable… I suppose it’s not so much of a ‘they are trying to make the player do these things’ but more, it feels like, since it must be immersion, that they are ‘rewriting’ the player’s instincts. And of course the way I wrote that, it sounds very severe, but I don’t mean it that way. 😛

    In my personal experience, for instance in the watching of the required murders of characters or the required steps and dark choices for certain missions (in order to get a “sick” piece of armor) aren’t entertaining, and for me, that’s what a game should be. I don’t want to feel like I just ‘enjoyed’ something so foul, even if it’s an indirect bit. But, that’s just me.

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    • I see a bit of a difference between the experience in Skyrim and that of Bioshock Infinite… In Skyrim, the game is based on a character you create, doing things (or not) in whatever order you choose, in ways you choose. In Bioshock Infinite, you are playing through a fairly linear story with few real choices – the main choices being when to stop exploring and move on, like in the instance I cite. I feel like we should have two different sets of expectations for those two types of storytelling.

      All that said, I agree with you about uncomfortable choices like that – I tend not to make that choice. I love Dishonored, for instance, a game in which you can play through without killing anyone. I loved that.

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  2. Such a great game and makes you ask some question afterwards. The team behind all the Bioshock games really push the boat out in terms of story and theme.

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    • And then, they disbanded with Bioshock Infinite complete. Which makes sense to me – any game Irrational Games made after these would be compared back to the Bioshock series. That would be tough to beat.

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