By Tony Palumbi
“Can’t change the past? Why, of course you can!”-Jay Gatsby
“What if you woke up and realized you didn’t like what you chose?” – Booker DeWitt
Bioshock Infinite starts and ends with water—the player pushed and held under water in two starkly different baptisms. One is a symbolic birth and the other a fairly literal death, but they bracket this phenomenal game with what I see as its overriding theme: changing the past. Whether we’re talking about fact or fiction, there’s nothing more distinctly American than a troubled relationship with your own history. Infinite is one of the most-discussed titles in years, but I’ve yet to see anyone tackle its approach to hagiography and classic American fiction.
Every culture paves over some terrible events, but the United States occupies a privileged position. We’re the land of second chances, our own immigrant history so close and personal we can’t help but embellish it. Ta-Nehisi Coates (among others) has written great pieces about our relationship to the Civil War: the convenience of believing that there were Black Confederates, or that the Confederacy was defending democratic principles rather than fighting to keep slaves. Believing in America’s fundamental goodness requires that we find a way around the always-messy Present. So we create a golden, perfect Past that’s always just past the western horizon, whether before Lincoln’s tyranny or before a pill divorced pregnancy from sex.
So when Bioshock Infinite’s protagonist is introduced in the year 1912 with a box inscribed “Booker DeWitt, 7th Cavalry, Wounded Knee,” we associate him first with one of America’s great crimes. Within minutes he’s rocketing into the air and being “reborn” in baptism as a condition to enter the sky-city of Columbia. He emerges from the water into a chapel garden built to honor Columbia’s religious idols: Jefferson, Franklin and Washington. Columbia isn’t so much a living city as a museum through which Booker makes his way, taking time out between effervescent gunfights to admire distant statuary through public coin-op binoculars. There’s even a lengthy sequence in a history museum, where Booker is fed “revised” accounts of Wounded Knee along with the Boxer Rebellion.
Columbia is America frozen in that golden Past, built to realize the fantasies of the wealthy. Surly, articulate black janitors are suddenly mealy-mouthed and servile when white people approach. A gaggle of woman talk about a friend who got herself pregnant, left town for a few months and will return “like nothing ever happened.” These people are trying to live in the golden Past and the messy future all at once. It’s no coincidence that, through interdimensional meddling by city’s Founders, they’re constantly creating new memories and confusing themselves. Past fantasies run aground on present realities.
That contradiction is the undoing of Nathan Comstock, Columbia’s president-cum-prophet. He stole incredible technology (see: floating city) through “tears” between alternate realities, and his daughter Elizabeth can create and manipulate those tears. She calls it “a form of wish fulfillment,” and uses them in concert with Booker’s gunplay to free herself from a classic gilded cage situation. The phrase “wish fulfillment” is the key to understanding Bioshock Infinite. If the original 2007 game was about individualism run amok, Infinite is a warning against immersing oneself in fantasy.
Time and again, Booker and Elizabeth jump through tears to accomplish their goals while the city decays from gentrified stability to a bloody revolution. A once-admirable rebel leader, given the weapons she craves by Booker, tries to kill him while explaining “you just complicate the narrative.” At the same time, a brutal lawman metamorphoses into a kind soul when confronted by the rebels’ escalating savagery. The game’s only real winner is a man who didn’t get what he wanted, who fades into his own happy obscurity. Gatsby’s titular character got rich and famous and bedded the girl of his dreams. He died in a hail of bullets while Nick Carroway slunk back to the Midwest.
The game’s end sequence searing and unforgettable, hammering home the theme of universality. James Gatz could have been anyone before taking the name “Jay Gatsby.” He woke up one day and didn’t like what he chose, just as one day a drunken war criminal named Booker Dewitt decided to get religion. Just as you fire up a video game and become a hero, blasting bad guys while a pretty young girl pulls grenades from dimensional tears. Fantasy is a necessary response to life’s many disappointments, but it has to be kept at a distance from reality lest one snarl ingrown into the other. In acknowledging our universal craving for wish fulfillment, this is not a unique game. But in presenting the simple, personal agony of its consequences, Bioshock Infinite towers like the golden angel of Monument Island.