Why I Love Bioshock Infinite Part One: Bioshock as Noir
"Love the Prophet, because he loves the sinner. Love the sinner, because he is you. Without the sinner, what need is there for a redeemer? Without sin, what grace has forgiveness?"
I don't believe in God. I believe in Art. I believe that Art can save a life because it saved my life.
A few years ago I had a nervous breakdown. I became convinced that my friends wanted me dead. I refused to leave the house. When my father asked me what I would love to do that I couldn't do, I said play Bioshock Infinite. He took me out and we bought a television so I could play my favourite game. At the time I did not find joy in anything. I didn't have the attention span to even watch a movie or TV show. Then Infinite, much like it had every time I played it, lifted me up.
Two hands together. One holding onto another. Free falling. Booker DeWitt wants to be forgiven but he doesn't know how to ask. From the first refusal to wash his sins away to his forced baptism in Columbia, he does not believe that God can make what he did right. Booker DeWitt is a bad man, and as the player takes on his sins, they become a bad person too. It is only an awareness of one's own evil that makes it possible to ask for forgiveness. Many of you will have heard me speak on my love for Noir. Bioshock Infinite is Noir to its core.
"Not all debts can be repaid, Booker."
Like all good Noir, the truth is obscured from the offset. You learn with Booker DeWitt as you get further into the game. At first this comes through strange visions, then through certain words that jog the memory. The twist in Infinite is the discovery that through your own moral failings you have set events in motion that cannot be stopped by a gun. For as much violence as there is in the game, it is not violence without context or purpose. As already mentioned, the player's complicity in the events of Infinite is an essential part of the story it is telling. In every way you must face your guilt in the evil that has been made possible by the weakness in your character and your desire to block out the bad parts of your life. I find this to be the most compelling story element in the game. I relate to it and I find great comfort to be found in cleansing one's self through accepting guilt and erasing a life badly led.
When I was sick I was suicidal. I had plans to end my life by overdosing on tablets. I came close a few times to ending my life. This is not something which I am proud of. Every time I reach the end of Infinite I cry. There is no game in history that dared to present suicide as the only moral conclusion. Often I feel like Booker DeWitt: the victim of my own callousness and stupidity. When he realizes that he is the evil he has been fighting, I lose it. The only good thing Booker ever did was create Elizabeth and the way in which she eases his passing is one of the most moving in any creative media I can name. She has been your companion throughout the game, the one unsullied human being who looks on your actions with the eyes of an innocent. You can't remember the last time someone was shocked by savage violence. This goes for the average gamer too. The way in which the game examines violence is just as much a commentary on the artform as the original Bioshock's "Would you kindly?" moment. This is one reason why the criticisms of excessive violence are so off the mark. It is the opposite of gratuitous. It stands as a metaphor for the society of Columbia: it is at once brutal and at once beautiful. It is both Heaven and Hell.
Booker DeWitt is a classic Noir character: he's a private detective for Christ's sake! He is flawed by insecurities about not being seen as white enough. In order to fit in with the crowd, he commits heinous deeds. His crimes in an infinite set of possibilities always, as Comstock says, end in blood. The only way in which he understands the world is by looking down the sight of a gun. If you think of some other classic characters in Noir - Humphrey Bogart, In a Lonely Place, Elliott Gould, The Long Goodbye, Casey Affleck, The Killer Inside Me - you can compare them favourably with Booker. He makes the player recognize the same lies and half truths in themselves. Like Bogart's character Dixon Steele, Booker likes to believe that in his heart he is a good guy but really, deep down he knows who he really is. This either presents an opportunity for the player to confront themselves in stark clarity or for them to continue to deceive themselves. You are not a hero. You are a self-serving, murderous villain.
I feel guilty for a lot of things in my life. I didn't always treat people how I should have done. I wonder about people who can play a Noir and not feel a twinge of guilt. Do they really have nothing to be ashamed of? Perhaps I am just more flawed than others but I like to think that everyone, when they get down to it, will have some of the same feelings as Booker DeWitt. Bioshock Infinite is a way that everyone can ask for forgiveness, outside of religious or legal solutions. It is the dark night of the soul. Get your affairs in order. Prepare for the end. Noir is all about that slow train coming. Infinite is a game with insight into violence, guilt and depravity that very few creative works have come close to. It is my favourite thing.