Christian Themes in Bioshock Infinite (Part 1 of 2)
Back around January of 2013, months before Bioshock Infinite had been released, a curious story about one of its developers circled the sociosphere. Various videos, tweets, and blog posts told of an Irrational Games employee—a self-professing Christian—who, upon witnessing the game’s denouement, quit his job. There had been no fuss, no argument, no bitter tirades or exclamations of moral outrage. He simply closed the game, turned to his own laptop, and wrote a letter of resignation.
Individual reactions to the story varied. Some used the occasion to voice their dismay at the stupid people who were so thin-skinned as to be offended by opposing ideas (which, with no small amount of irony, is what prompted them to respond). Others took time and care to express just how little they cared about the whole thing.
I freely admit, I wanted to know, and still want to know: What did he see? What could have prompted such a sudden and profound reaction? And I have to think it was profound. I can’t imagine someone would casually throw away a job working for a triple-A game company making one of the most highly anticipated titles in the industry, all because of some minor ideological disagreement.
But then, the internet lies. Was this, perhaps, a minor myth of the Snopes variety? If so, someone went through a lot of trouble to make it look real. It was reported multiple times in different video and print interviews with Ken Levine, IG’s creative director and co-founder.
(Unless, of course, Mr. Levine lies like the internet. Just sayin’.)
Was it a sales ploy, something to stir up publicity before launch? Maybe, but it’s not likely, is it? Anyone wanting to drum up media coverage these days would need to find a story that’s far less niche and far more controversial than that of one singularly offended Christian.
So what was it then? I haven’t played the game yet, so I honestly don’t know. I, too, am a self-professing Christian, and I have some ideas and predictions based on that perspective. I thought it would be fun and interesting to jot them down before playing the game. Once I’ve finished it and have seen the ending, I’ll come back and write Part Two summarizing my experience and reactions.
Hypothesis #1: Bioshock Infinite professes a non-Christian worldview.
Well, duh. I think the employee probably knew that going in. If that’s all it was, what changed towards the end of the development process? Was the employee just indecisive and looking for a clear-cut reason to leave? The facts don’t seem to support this.
Hypothesis #2: Bioshock Infinite professes an anti-Christian worldview.
By this, I mean that something in the game clearly and explicitly advocates or assumes the view that Christianity is evil, a moral wrong, something to be shamed and stamped out of existence.
This is a touchy point, so I need to make a few things clear.
First, this is not the same thing as having characters in the game who espouse this view. If these characters help to tell a good, worthwhile story, then why not use them? In the extreme case, where nearly every person in the game is towing the same philosophical line, it would be disappointing, mainly because it would be a sign of naïve, amateurish writing.
Also, this hypothesis concerns what the game might say about Christianity itself, not some fictional, warped version of it.
I have a hard time believing this was the issue. The story about the IG employee made it clear that the employee’s problem arose out of something in the game’s ending. If anti-Christian proselytism was the concern, wouldn’t it have been spread more evenly throughout the game? Wouldn’t he have seen it sooner?
This one-sided approach would also be uncharacteristic of the author based on his earlier work. In Bioshock, Ken Levine presented an honest exploration of objectivist ideals. It was a strong theme, interwoven throughout the narrative, but it never felt like propaganda. I would hope he was able to give the same, thoughtful treatment to other ideas. I might not always agree with his conclusions, but so far I’ve been able to respect his approach.
Finally, there’s the simple matter that it would be extraordinarily difficult to accomplish what I’ve described here. Try to imagine some event in a story that, in an instant, without any foreshadowing, manages to convey an idea with such far-reaching philosophical implications in a convincing way.
I doubt it could be done, or at least done well.
Hypothesis #3: Bioshock Infinite plays free and loose with scripture and/or core tenets of Christian doctrine.
First, I doubt this was the issue for the same reason cited above. It would’ve been spread throughout the game and so the employee wouldn’t have been caught off-guard by it at the end.
Even so, I think this still merits discussion. I’ve already heard in interviews that scripture (primarily Old Testament) is used throughout Bioshock Infinite’s setting and story. I’ve also heard that there’s a kind of “forced baptism” scene that offended some players. I’m curious to see how it all fits together.
But would it be a cause for concern to Christians who play the game? There’s no one answer.
Some people don’t ever want to see scripture cited in “questionable” contexts. They don’t like the idea that someone might be using it for their own purposes, particularly if they sense that those purposes aren’t meant to honor God (ignoring for the moment that this is often a contentious matter in itself).
I can’t fault anyone for that. If you hold anything sacred or inviolable, you probably don’t enjoy seeing it portrayed in ways that, by your own interpretation, abuse its sanctity, integrity, or intent. Those people might want to avoid this game, if only to spare themselves the frustration.
On the other hand, whenever questions of scriptural and doctrinal truth, accuracy, and meaning arise in creative media like this, there’s one or more authors behind the content. What are they trying to say? What are they questioning? What are their own values and assumptions? What do they hold to be sacred, inviolable?
Sure, there are plenty of cases where the answers to these questions are shallow and uninteresting, maybe even flippant or petulant. I’ll personally hold out for the few where the questions are sincere and the asking prompts an open, honest exchange.
Hypothesis #4: Bioshock Infinite presents factual and well-reasoned arguments that have the potential to create deep ideological conflict in Christians.
This hypothesis is by far the most vague and abstract of the lot. I’m unable to make it more specific simply because I can’t imagine what might create that kind of conflict. That also makes it one of the more interesting possibilities.
Might there be something in the game so shocking as to shake one’s faith? It would depend on whether that faith were tenuous or well-tested. Anything we hold to be true has to stand up to constant questioning and scrutiny or it won’t last. A faith that undergoes many trials and challenges either matures or falls away.
I know nothing about the IG employee, but if I give him the slightest benefit of the doubt, then this probably wasn’t the problem.
Hypothesis #5: Bioshock Infinite has nominally Christian characters who turn out to be jerks.
Put another way, the “Christian” characters turn out to be thin, poorly developed straw-men who are strategically placed in the game solely to be knocked down as a set up for someone else’s moral grandstanding. This is common enough, but would be a major disappointment.
Given that Ken Levine went back and re-wrote portions of one or more characters after this incident, this is likely to be at least part of the cause for concern, but I can’t imagine it tells the whole story. It doesn’t seem problematic enough for someone to quit their job.
Hypothesis #6: Bioshock Infinite puts words in God’s mouth.
Wow, really? Bold move.
The idea here is that Bioshock Infinite might depict Jesus, the voice of God, or maybe a Biblical prophet as a character in the game. Assuming it’s a speaking role, one naturally wonders what their lines would be.
It’s interesting to note that this idea isn’t too far out of the realm of possibility given that Elizabeth, one of the main characters in the game, can open tears in the space-time continuum leading to alternate realities and/or other times.
Most of the questions and concerns this might raise are called out in all the other hypotheses I’ve presented. Depending on what was said, the character’s words could be used to espouse a non- or anti-Christian worldview, to make a hash of scripture and doctrine, or to portray the speaker as—well, anything the writer wanted, really.
And that’s where this idea becomes questionable. It’s one thing to express one’s own views through creative media. It’s quite another to make free and liberal use of a venerated figure to do so. It looks cheap and disingenuous.
I would be surprised if this proved to be the problem.
Hypothesis #7: Bioshock Infinite points out historical Christian hypocrisy or otherwise recounts real evils carried out in God’s name.
Now I feel like we might be getting close to the heart of the matter.
I’d like to think I could view something like this objectively, but if I’m honest I have to say my reaction would depend on how the matter was presented.
Case 1: Blatantly Skewed Ideology
If, on the one hand, abhorrent acts and crimes against humanity are somehow portrayed as being accurate representations of “true” Christianity, then I admit it: this would get under my skin. It happens too often, and it’s akin to having someone I just met tell me with self-righteous authority what it is that I believe.
As an example, suppose someone made a game that presented the bare facts of the Westboro Baptist Church’s existence (please don’t), then presented the opinion that they accurately showed people living out an ideal, doctrinally sound Christian life. That would be annoying to say the least.
It would also be a notable example of mind-boggling ignorance, but that’s another matter.
But if my employer engaged in this, would I quit my job? If I were in a position to voice my objections and I quit instead, I think I might feel like I had run away. Wouldn’t it have been better to speak out and risk being fired than to quit?
Of course, that’s easy advice to offer while sitting comfortably at one’s own writing desk. It’s far more difficult to live it out in the workplace.
And then there’s the notion that, under the right circumstances, resignation is an effective (and bold, if not courageous) way to give voice to profound, personal conflict or disapproval.
That was certainly true here. In response to the resignation, Ken Levine interceded, discussed the matter with the employee, and used the situation as an opportunity to write more depth and realism into the game’s characters. I’d prefer to include a direct quote on the matter, but I don’t dare google it for fear of reading spoilers.
Case 2: Uncomfortable Historical Truth
If, on the other hand, Bioshock Infinite presents accurate portrayals of gross injustices and then leaves them to stand on the strength of their own horror, well…
I think it would be dangerous to deny or ignore history. Where real wrongs are called out, it seems to me we should denounce them, and then give credence and weight to our denouncement—and our faith—by the way we live out each day.
And now, finally, after nearly six months of waiting, writing, and painful rewriting of my “Bioshock” blog posts, I’m off to the city of Columbia. Wish me well, I’ll be back soon!
(Well, not soon. I’ve waited too long to rush this.)