The Power of the Inhabited Protagonist

I find this news piece on fascinating, and not just because of the post I wrote about baptism in Bioshock Infinite:

[O]ne could argue that the game has justifiable reasons for forcing players to accept baptism…but that doesn’t make the scene any less uncomfortable for some, like Breen Malmberg—a gamer and a Christian.

“As baptism of the Holy spirit is at the center of Christianity – of which I am a devout believer – I am basically being forced to make a choice between committing extreme blasphemy by my actions in choosing to accept this ‘choice’ or forced to quit playing the game before it even really starts,” Malmberg explained to Kotaku.

Apparently the idea offended him so much that he stopped playing and demanded a refund.  What is interesting here is the extent to which the narrative has succeeded in creating a second person narrative.  I’ve written before that:

Interactive narratives that utilize the combination of first-person perspectives and silent protagonists… radically deny characterization and individuation to create a protagonist that has no distinctiveness from the consuming subject, whom the consuming subject is invited to inhabit. The consumer becomes the protagonist, or the protagonist becomes the consumer. These two narrative techniques, then, are powerful rhetorical devices that in effect create a second person narration.

The protagonist in Bioshock Infinite is not even a silent protagonist: he has a voice and a face (barely defined, but a visible face nonetheless), a gender, ethnicity, history, etc.  Nevertheless, the consumer in this case seems to have completely inhabited the protagonist, and feels that actions the protagonist takes are his own actions, to the extent that he is afraid of committing blasphemy simply by consuming this narrative.  This is a radical departure from other forms of narrative consumption:  it is hard to imagine this reaction from reading a book.

The work, then, seems to have completely succeeded in creating a second person narrative.  The language used in the article is also suggestive: the game  “forc[es] players to accept baptism,” rather than the protagonist.  This language, which those who follow the gaming press will recognize as commonplace, underscores the extent to which these narratives routinely succeed in convincing consumers to completely inhabit their protagonists.

Many of the comments are quite vitriolic (this is the internet, after all), but some make the point that Bioshock Infinite is a piece of art, and consuming it not the same as performing the actions it depicts oneself.  Also interesting is the response of one of the people the author surveyed for the article: “Its not like playing as Shepard in Mass Effect; I’m not being me, I’m Booker DeWitt.”

This person apparently cannot fully inhabit the protagonist of Bioshock Infinite, and does not accept it as a second person narrative. Booker DeWitt is not “me.” However he or she does accept Shepard, the protagonist of Mass Effect, as “me.”  Mass Effect is a second person narrative for this person, while Bioshock Infinite is not.

Why?  Shepherd also has a voice and is an individuated character.  Shepherd is visible on the screen unlike DeWitt, creating a degree of separation that first-person perspective does not.  Mass Effect allows more freedom of choice for its protagonist than Bioshock Infinite does, but Shepherd’s choices are still limited: the consumer cannot act with complete freedom.

Is it a matter of degree?  Does a certain amount of characterization or freedom limitation obstruct the consumer from inhabiting the protagonist, with the cutoff level varying for each consumer?  Another possibility is that the customization permitted in Mass Effect engenders a sense of ownership of the protagonist: Shepherd becomes a unique individual the consumer created.  Or perhaps the consumer here simply created a character in his or her own image so they could go through the narrative with a protagonist that is visually “me.”

Obviously these are questions that can’t be answered without some kind of survey, but it seems there may be an array of complex factors that determine whether consumers can fully inhabit the protagonists of interactive narratives.


Death, Rebirth and Born Again: Baptism as Theme in Bioshock Infinite

Warning: Epic spoilers for Bioshock Infinite follow

Despite its eye-grabbing science fictional visuals and shockingly frank portrayal of early twentieth-century racial attitudes, Bioshock Infinite is a narrative that revolves around baptism.  The story begins and ends in baptismal waters, and baptisms or baptismal fonts play conspicuous roles at several key points in the story.  Bioshock Infinite can be read as one man’s attempts to seek absolution of his sins and rebirth through baptism.

The entire narrative of Bioshock Infinite pivots on one baptism.  Although it takes place years before the narrative action, an analepsis near the end of the work reveals the details of a crucial moment that will become the formative event in the lives of the characters.  That moment is, of course, a baptism.  Booker DeWitt, feeling tremendous guilt after committing atrocities at the Battle of Wounded Knee (the Wounded Knee Massacre), attends a riverside baptism seeking absolution and rebirth.  This baptism spawns both the narrative’s protagonist and antagonist.  In one quantum reality, DeWitt accepts baptism, changes his name to Zachary Comstock, and proceeds to appropriate quantum manipulation technology to set himself up as a divine prophet, acquire power, murder rivals, and prosecute wars and policies of racial hatred.  In the other quantum reality, DeWitt refuses baptism and goes on to lead a life of dissipation, working for the Pinkertons as little more than a thug, drinking, gambling, and eventually even selling his own baby daughter to pay off his gambling debt.

This baptism is crucial because neither version of DeWitt successfully undergoes the ritual.  DeWitt’s case is apparent but Comstock also fails to accept baptism despite going through the form of the rite, adopting a new name and professing his born-again status.  This is evident in the failure of both men (or versions of the man) to be reborn.

Rebirth is tightly linked with the baptism ritual in the narrative.  The preacher who baptizes (or tries to baptize) DeWitt in the analepsis asks “Are you ready to be born again?”, making the desired outcome of the ritual textually explicit.  Symbols of birth also surround the first baptism that appears in the narrative when DeWitt enters the city of Columbia.  The narrative begins in a lighthouse, an obviously phallic structure.  DeWitt is launched upward from the top of the lighthouse in a metaphorical ejaculation.  The journey upwards is presented with increasing tension as music increases in pitch and tempo, and a mechanical voice counts off the increasing altitude until the “climax,” the top of the rocket’s ballistic trajectory, when Columbia is suddenly revealed.

After this metaphorical intercourse, DeWitt enters a sort of temple or church, although it is unlike any familiar place of worship.  It is dark and full of water, with occasional soft light filtering in through stained-glass windows.  Obviously this dark, wet, softly lit space is a womb.  The only exit from this womb is a long, watery tunnel that leads into the light of day, the birth canal in this bodily schema.  However, a preacher stands at the entrance to the birth canal, and tells DeWitt that the only way to enter the birth canal and exit the womb is “through rebirth in the sweet waters of baptism.”  Baptism, therefore, is a necessary condition for birth, and the narrative again makes the connection between baptism and rebirth textually explicit.

Evidence from the narrative suggests that neither DeWitt nor Comstock is able to achieve rebirth.  DeWitt goes into the baptism ritual deeply troubled by his conscious and desperate for redemption and absolution.  The preacher asks DeWitt a series of questions that he answers in a tone that convincingly conveys deep sincerity:

PREACHER: Are you ready to be born again?


PREACHER: Do you hate your sins?

DEWITT:  I do.

PREACHER: Do you hate your wickedness?


The man who remains DeWitt, of course, ends up refusing this rebirth outright.  But the man who becomes Comstock spoke of his sins in the same fashion before the branching point.  Having committed war crimes at the Battle of Wounded Knee he enters the baptism hating his sins and wickedness with that same utter sincerity.  Later, however, he recalls his actions at Wounded Knee:

In front of all the men, the sergeant looked at me and said, “Your family tree shelters a teepee or two, doesn’t it, son?” This lie, this calumny, had followed me all my life. From that day, no man truly called me comrade. It was only when I burnt the teepees with the squaws inside, did they take me as one of their own. Only blood can redeem blood.

Comstock, far from hating his actions, recalls them as foundational to his character and philosophy.  The preacher asks him, before he enters the water in the analepsis, “Do you want to wipe the slate clean, leave behind all you were before…?”  If wiping the slate clean and leaving behind all he was before is the result of a successful baptism, then clearly Comstock is not able to successfully complete the rite.  Instead he has embraces what he was before, rationalizes it and justifies it.  Despite feeling such desperate guilt at killing innocents based on racial hatred, he goes on to found a city devoted to maintaining racist policies and repeat the very same crime, burning civilians, by razing Beijing.  Although he does not refuse rebirth outright like DeWitt, Comstock still fails to achieve rebirth through baptism.

Furthermore, rebirth in baptism requires, at a minimum, belief in a God that can wash away one’s sins.  The preacher at DeWitt’s baptism asks “Do you want to wipe the slate clean, leave behind all you were before, and be born again in the blood of the Lamb?… Jesus, wash this man clean… Father make him born again…”, clearly evoking divine power, calling God and Jesus by name, to effect the absolution and rebirth baptism promises.  However, despite creating a city with a culture founded in religious zeal, evidence in the narrative makes it clear that Comstock does not believe in a power higher than himself.  Indeed, it seems that having failed to find God, he decided to become God instead.

Comstock seems to set himself up as a replacement God in all but name.  He declares himself a prophet, claiming to have been given foresight and divine mission by an archangel.  However, the narrative reveals that his foresight comes from appropriation of technology that allows him to view other quantum realities and future possibilities.  Clearly his claims of prophecy and visits by angels are a cynical manipulation of religious discourse.  Not believing in a power higher then himself, he appropriates Christian mythology in order make himself into God in the eyes of Columbia’s citizenry.  Naturally God needs a heaven, and so Comstock builds Columbia, a literal paradise in the sky, as a replacement heaven.  Indeed, when DeWitt asks a devotee in the womb-church where he is, the devotee responds “Heaven, friend.  Or as close as we’ll see till Judgment Day.”

Although he calls himself a prophet, there is little mention in the ritual and propaganda of the city of the God he is supposed to be a prophet for.  On the contrary, Comstock often appropriates the language of divinity for himself.   He calls his own child “the lamb,” obviously supplanting Jesus, the child of God, as the “lamb of God” of scripture and by extension supplanting God with himself.  Furthermore, the narrative features two baptism rituals by seemingly the same preacher.  One is DeWitt’s crucial baptism that puts him on two split quantum pathways.  The other is the baptism that occurs when DeWitt first enters Columbia.  The first baptism is on the ground, before Columbia, and as mentioned above the preacher asks “Do you want to wipe the slate clean, leave behind all you were before, and be born again in the blood of the Lamb?… Jesus, wash this man clean… Father make him born again…”  in this pre-Columbia analepsis the Lamb can only mean Jesus, and the preacher calls on Jesus and God explicitly.  Tellingly however, the later baptism in Columbia by the same preacher features very different wording: “I baptize you, in the name of our Prophet, in the name of our Founders, in the name of our Lord!”  Gone is the evocation of Jesus, replaced by an evocation of the prophet, Comstock, and the founders of America that he has sanctified as icons of Columbia.  The “Lord” here might refer to God, but it could just as easily refer to Comstock himself, the apparent ruler of the city.   Again, Comstock seeks to replace the God he does not believe in, displacing God in the baptism ritual and putting himself forward as the one with the power to forgive sins.  One who believes that he himself is the source of forgiveness can hardly achieved a rebirth that requires faith in a forgiving God.

The narrative provides other hints that both men have failed to be reborn.  The early 20th century Christian hymn “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” is an important poetic motif that recurs throughout the narrative.  Of particular interest is the refrain, which is sung at one point by the characters within the actual narrative (as opposed to being played as background music):

Will the circle be unbroken

By and by, by and by?

Is a better home awaiting

In the sky, in the sky?

This verse is laden with multiple meanings.  In the original Christian context of the song, “the circle” is the circle of family that has been “broken” by death.  The hymn asks whether there will be a better “home in the sky,” heaven, where loved ones can be reunited and the circle can be “unbroken.”   Of course, in a narrative with a floating city the song takes on a second meaning: the “home in the sky” clearly evokes Columbia itself.  The circle of family has been broken because DeWitt’s daughter Anna has been taken to that home in the sky to be raised as Elizabeth.

However, the image of the circle can also be taken intertextually as a symbol of baptism.  Emily Dickenson wrote several poems about baptism, among them “I’m ceded – I’ve stopped being Theirs -“:

I’m ceded – I’ve stopped being Theirs –

The name They dropped upon my face

With water, in the country church

Is finished using, now,

 And They can put it with my Dolls,

My childhood, and the string of spools,

 I’ve finished threading – too –


Baptized, before, without the choice,

But this time, consciously, of Grace –

Unto supremest name –

 Called to my Full – The Crescent dropped –

 Existence’s whole Arc, filled up,

With one small Diadem.


My second Rank – too small the first-

Crowned- Crowing- on my Father’s breast –

 A half unconscious Queen –

But this time – Adequate – Erect,

With Will to choose, or to reject,

And I choose, just a Crown –

Here the “crescent,” an incomplete circle, represents infant baptism; incomplete because Dickenson’s speaker entered the sacrament “without the choice.”  Upon her adult baptism, however, when she has “will to choose, or to reject,” the imagery of baptism changes to that of a crown, a complete circle.[1]  An incomplete circle, broken circle represents an incomplete baptism.

Within the imagery of narrative itself as well, a circle strongly evokes DeWitt’s first baptism, when believers surround him and the preacher in a baptism circle.  When DeWitt, in his quantum reality, refuses the baptism he literally breaks the circle, roughly pushing away the surrounding people.  The song, however, is sung in the other quantum reality where DeWitt accepts baptism and emerges as Comstock.  If the circle is still broken in that reality Comstock, like DeWitt, must have broken out of the baptism circle without being reborn.   In the analepsis portraying the baptism Elizabeth indicates that Comstock left the baptism to head up the hill, whereas DeWitt left the way he had come, in the exact opposite direction.  The spatial symmetry connects their seemingly opposite movements:  Comstock moves forward while DeWitt moves backwards, but both break the baptism circle without achieving rebirth.

Both DeWitt and Comstock fail to be reborn because neither can accept the death that is prerequisite.  The association between the death and baptism is attested in scripture: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death” (Rom. 6.3-4).[2]  In the above Dickenson poem as well, the speaker talks of others putting away her dolls and spools of string, as one might put away the belongings of a dead person.[3]  The childhood self of Dickenson’s speaker must die in order for her to be reborn in baptism.

In Bioshock Infinite as well, death is associated with baptism early on in the narrative.  When DeWitt undergoes baptism in order to leave the womb-church and enter Columbia, the officiating preacher holds him under the water so long he loses consciousness.  When he awakes, having passed through the birth canal, he comments “That idiot priest needs to learn the difference between baptizing a man and drowning one.”  However DeWitt, as has been demonstrated, is a person who cannot accept baptism or its concomitant rebirth, and undergoes the rite in the womb-church only because “It’s either this or turn around and get back on that rocket.”    Since DeWitt is incapable of understanding baptism, his statement reveals that the failure in differentiation lies with him rather than the preacher:  there is no difference between baptism and drowning, and it is precisely his incapacity to accept that ritual death which prevented DeWitt from achieving rebirth through the ritual years ago.  Comstock as well, as noted above, did not allow himself to die in the baptismal immersion, but instead has clung to his past self and sought to justify and rationalize it.  Neither version of the man is able to accept the death required for rebirth.

From this starting point of inability to accept the death of baptism, the narrative details DeWitt’s slow but growing acceptance of the necessity of the death of his own ego.  In the early part of the narrative he merely cares about completing a job, but as the story progresses his affection for Elizabeth grows and he eventually becomes convinced of the need to kill Comstock for the injuries he has done to her.  When he finally does so, DeWitt kills Comstock by drowning him in a baptismal font.   Since Comstock is another version of himself, he is finally killing himself in the waters of baptism.  However, his acceptance of death is incomplete.  DeWitt kills the part of himself that has accepted his crimes, seemingly embraced his monstrous enjoyment of them[4] and gone on to do worse.  He attempts to cut away that part and kill it while still maintaining his ego.   That ego, however, is still a man who committed grievous war crimes and enjoyed the act.  DeWitt succeeds in killing the part of him that accepted those crimes and that enjoyment, and the version of him responsible for later crimes, but he is still a man who did indeed commit those atrocities and enjoy them.  Killing Comstock in baptism only destroys the sins accumulated after the branching point.  He cannot achieve true rebirth in baptism until he is willing to accept the death of his own ego in the ritual.

Finally, at the end of the narrative, that is exactly what happens.  After remembering that he sold his own daughter to Comstock, DeWitt realizes that he is the ultimate source of all her suffering.  He realizes that the anger that drove him to seek Comstock’s death on her behalf is appropriately directed at he himself.  He realizes that both versions of himself have done great harm to her, and that therefore he must die completely.  He finally accepts that his whole ego, not just part of it, must die in the waters of baptism.  Elizabeth takes him back to the quantum branching point where everything began and performs a final baptism, drowning him in a clear parallel to the baptism that ritual both versions of him failed to undergo successfully the first time.   This time he does not resist, finally able to accept the death of his own ego.

In the final scene before the credits, DeWitt has disappeared under the brown waters of the river.  If the original baptism that occurred in the exact same spot is superimposed on this one, DeWitt disappears in the center of the baptism circle.  He does not break out of it moving either forwards or backwards, as he did in various realities the first time.  The baptism circle remains intact.  The question the narrative’s poetic motif asks is finally answered.  Will the circle be unbroken eventually?  Yes, the circle is now finally unbroken with DeWitt’s death in the waters of baptism.

Of course, death in baptism promises rebirth, and the final scene of the narrative, after the credits, suggests just that.  DeWitt has not fixed everything in his life: his desk is still littered with gambling slips and bottles of alcohol.  Now, however, an infant’s music box can be heard from the next room.  The narrative strongly suggesting that DeWitt, after allowing his old self to die in the waters of baptism, has been reborn as a new person that will not abandon and injure his daughter.  The other meaning of the poetic motif has been fulfilled as well:  now that the circle of baptism has been unbroken, the circle of family broken by Anna’s removal to the “home in the sky” is unbroken as well.

Bioshock Infinite is a narrative that begins and ends with a baptism, both in terms of the narrative present and in terms of events that take place before the narrative action.  As such, DeWitt’s psychological development can be understood as movement from incapacity to accept the death and rebirth of baptism (both at the river and in the womb-church) to a partial acceptance (drowning Comstock in baptism) and finally to acceptance (accepting death in the final baptism).  Crucial to this development is his growing affection for Elizabeth, which sparks his desire to die in order to prevent harm to her.  As DeWitt finally accepts the death of his ego in the waters of baptism the thematic elements of the narrative resolve, the circle is unbroken, and he able to achieve the rebirth promised by baptism.

[1] Jones, Rowena Revis. “‘A Royal Seal’: Emily Dickinson’s Rite of Baptism.” Religion & Literature 18, no. 3 (October 1, 1986) p.36

[2] Cited in Freedman, Linda. “‘Meadows of Majesty’: Baptism as Translation in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 17, no. 1 (2008) p. 32

[3] Ibid.

[4] When discussing Wounded Knee with Elizabeth, DeWitt comments “There’s survival, and then there’s finding pleasure in the act.”