The Bioshock franchise has always had a special place in my heart. Ever since I first explored the decrepit art deco hallways of Rapture in 2010’s Bioshock 2, I have been unable to get enough of the world building that these games incorporate. Ken Levine and the team at Irrational Games originally used ideas from Ayn Rand in the original Bioshock. The game was richer because of the commentary and parallels that could be drawn between Andrew Ryan, Ayn Rand, and Objectivism. I want to demonstrate how Levine and his team did something similar in their highly anticipated follow up, Bioshock Infinite.
Before I jump into this, I wanted to preface this piece by saying that I do not claim to be an expert on the theological aspect of these texts. I read the Puritan authors I have listed but I’m certainly not well versed with the Christian Bible or other religious texts. I merely aim to point out some of the parallels between the game, Puritan ideas and how they affect the overall themes of the plot. Overall, I just think there are some really interesting details so with that let’s get started.
Puritan thought has been credited with laying the foundation of many aspects of early American society and helping to form our early government. The Puritans have had such an impact with their writing that people still to this day take some of the ideals, ideas, and specific text references from their culture to use today. As a result, Puritan writers have had a hand in helping to shape the early structure of storytelling in in the relatively new medium of entertainment, video games.
Many Puritan thoughts can be seen in the game Bioshock Infinite which itself has helped to define what it means to tell a story in a video game. Bioshock Infinite draws upon elements from Puritan writings such as the idea of the ideal society, providence, and the idea of original sin. All of these factors come together to create a rich world that can grab an audience and immerse them into the game.
Bioshock Infinite follows a man named Booker Dewitt who is told his job is to find a young girl and bring her to his employers. He must travel to a flying city called Columbia where he must locate the child. The Puritan ideology rests in the background of the game. The city was founded by a man named Comstock who believed that America had lost its way with religion and decided to take his city to the sky creating a holy city, “A city on a hill” in a sense. He then enticed his people into accepting his hybrid religion that intertwines Puritan ideas with the American founding principles.
Religion and American Exceptionalism are cornerstones of Columbian society and this helps to bring many themes that are common throughout Puritan work to light in a way that hasn’t really been done before. The developers at Irrational games include some direct references to Puritan writers both through audio, visual, and story threads that can be references from Puritanism elements. With these elements, Irrational Games weaves a narrative that creates a believable world while also making a statement about the player and developer relationship.
To get a better sense of the elements taken from Puritan thought, it is best to start with the broad ideas and then to narrow them down to specifics. Keeping this in mind, I believe it best to start with the game’s setting, the city of Columbia first. Columbia is a floating utopia for individuals who want to be closer to God. The city is symbolic for being a city upon a hill, a place where the people who are not blessed to be part of that society will look up and see how awe-inspiring God is. This idea of a city upon a hill comes from John Winthrop who in his Modell of Christian Charity sermon describes this very idea. He gives this sermon on a boat on the way to the New World in order to inspire the new citizens being brought in.
Winthrop wanted people to understand that they (the Puritan settlers) are to be something special in the New World. He says, “Consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill, the eyes of all the people are uppon us” (Winthrop 12). The people not on the hill meanwhile have the opportunity to witness God’s chosen people. The people watching will see that by the grace of God his people have thrived and that they do so by following God’s plan. That is to say through their successes as a society other people will look up to them and see the glory that can come from being one of God’s people. This is how the city of Columbia appears at first glance when the player begins walking Columbia’s cobbled streets.
Now as soon as the player enters Columbia, they are led through a church where the player walks by a couple of monks in the courtyard of the church. Some of them say things to the player, one of which says, “that there is no chance nor luck…only providence…and then you see its divine hand at work, you discern the transmundane.” When this is heard, the statement allows the player to begin to see what type of religious ideas are present in the game. This one begins with the idea of providence which means God’s plan. This is a common theme throughout Puritan writing, and most refer to it often. Puritans attributed anything of good fortune to providence.
Now isn’t this the same as a game developer with his or her characters where they plan out the experiences of those characters. By stating providence right in the beginning of the game, the developers are poking fun at games as a whole and describing the developer and player relationship. The player will have the following events experienced just how the developers planned. It’s the game developer’s own “providence,” so to speak.
While proceeding through the church and garden, the player finds the first of many audio diaries. Audio diaries are a narrative device that gives more background to the setting, story and the people living in Columbia. The first recording that can be discovered is recorded by Lady Comstock, the wife of the city’s founder. Lady Comstock’s recording says, “Love the sinner, because he is you. Without the sinner, what need is there for a redeemer? Without sin, what grace has forgiveness?” In this quote, Lady Comstock is saying a couple things that have significance.
The Puritans believed in original sin, that is “everyone is born into sin and subsequent sins are repetitions, further instantiations of this first one” (Yarbough 47). Now everyone is a sinner since Adam was a sinner and everyone must now live with the consequences of his actions by being born into sin. Everyone is born with sin while they try to find God to sway away from the sin that plagues the individual.
Everyone is born with sin and, just as the Puritans recognize this, the developers at Irrational Games do as well. The characters all have their faults, and this leads to the entire premise of the game. For example, there is the crazed founder of the city Comstock who goes too far in his ambitions. That is how the story is initially presented, but it also hits on the faults or sins of the main character Booker Dewitt, who is not free from sin himself. Comstock and Booker are literally the same person who took different paths in life and created different timelines.
Once the player learns this, they understand that they are actually the cause of the whole situation that is occurring in Columbia. Dewitt is the original sinner of the plot, since all versions stem from the same moment of either accepting or not accepting baptism and becoming a born-again Christian. Looking at the plot like this, one can see a remarkable resemblance to Adam and original sin. Booker being Adam, the sinner whose actions fuel the plot.
Now in the eyes of a Puritan how could a flawed character like Booker, be the hero and save the day? For starters, Samson Occom, the first ordained Native American minister, said this about the nature of sin “sin hath blinded their eyes, so that they cannot discern spiritual things: neither do they see which way they should go” (Occom 359). Occom says that sin is a poison that restricts a person’s perceptions and makes them more or less the servant of the devil. A person who plunges the rest of the world into irrevocable sin. Booker upon entering Columbia is described by the city’s citizens as the false prophet meant to lead them astray.
He is depicted as this servant of the devil and targeted by Comstock as being too twisted in his ways to be a part of the Columbia community. In a way, it makes sense. Consider that Comstock knows Booker’s past and knows that he has not repented for his sins. Every time the player restarts a checkpoint, Booker is woken up in his apartment with lottery tickets and alcohol covering his desk. He is shown as being far from righteous however, when Booker starts to learn the truth about himself and Elizabeth, he wants to undo all that has been done. He craves redemption.
William Bradford was a Puritan leader in the Plymouth colony. Bradford explains how “by an absolute faith in the over-ruling providence of Almighty God” the colony will succeed (Bradford 69). Essentially, this means to trust in God’s plan and do not doubt the bumps along the way. Bradford later gives an example of this idea when he retells early relations with the Native Americans stating the thievery that was present at the time until an English-speaking Native came forward by the name Squanto to help ease the relations. Bradford described Squanto as “their interpreter, and was a special instrument sent of God” (Bradford 188). Bradford saw Squanto as God’s plan to help out the struggling Puritans. God had given them a useful tool to solve multiple problems that they had during their time there. This story with Squanto can be seen as providence by understanding that when the colony needed help, they received it from an unlikely source.
Enter the girl that Booker was sent to save in the first place, Elizabeth. Elizabeth has special powers and can see things normal people can’t. She can see through rips in space where she can see other alternatives that can occur in the timeline. In the beginning, Booker was trying to control her so that he could accomplish his mission. Telling her what she needs to do in order to save her. However, by the end, Booker began to follow and listen to Elizabeth. Elizabeth asks Booker to trust her and takes him on a journey to rectify the sins of the past. Booker yields to the plan that was laid out and let it unfold to its end point.
This transition is more or less Booker beginning to listen to God with Elizabeth being God’s messenger or angel. To wrap things up perfectly, the very last scene of the game is Booker’s martyr baptism, which according to Elizabeth is meant to right all the wrongs that had occurred up until then by wiping out the split timelines. However symbolically, it can be interpreted as Booker accepting Christianity and eliminating his original sin.
The team at Irrational Games used Puritan ideas to construct one of my favorite stories told in a video game. Through the use of symbolism, audio diaries, and characters, the developers managed to make a game that had multiple layers of meaning. The base story can simply be enjoyed as a fun story but when it is looked at closely things can be seen that the developers left for people who really enjoy their story. Giving extra life to a game that some people may simply write off as a normal first-person shooter and nothing more. When in fact, Bioshock Infinite is a journey of redemption and forgiveness.
Occom, Samson. “Samson Occom.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter, Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014, pp. 348–373.
Rowlandson, Mary White, and Thomas Fleet. The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Printed by T. Fleet for S. Phillips, 1720.
Winthrop, John. “A Modell of Christian Charity.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, by Paul Lauter and Richard Yarborough, Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014, pp. 188–197.
Yarbrough, Stephen R., and John C. Adams. Delightful Conviction: Jonathan Edwards and the Rhetoric of Conversion. Greenwood Press, 1993.