Bioshock Infinite and the poetical metaphor of time travel

This is spoiler-heavy. You will probably need to know the story of Bioshock Infinite to follow this completely, although if you haven’t and don’t mind the spoilers, go ahead and read on. You will understand the core message.

Years ago I had a very profound and troubling experience on ayahuasca, during my heightened efforts to improve my life, and much later, when I played through the finale of Bioshock Infinite, I got a very unsettling feeling and my heartbeat increased and I was trembling – very much like at the onset of said experience. It was a reminder of an all-too-familiar experience – beginning when you step through the lighthouse door – the breakthrough threshold.
I think, based on my own experiences, that the overall message of this story that has been portrayed so elaborately and at length is this:

If you want to unmake something that has already happened for you (because you refuse to accept those painful parts of your life), then you have to unmake yourself. Your life experience is inherently your journey, beyond the confines of linear time, so if you want to change that, you have to change yourself. You have to kill a part of yourself; the part that reflects on the outside world in that way.
Comstock is the version of Booker who conveniently accepted to (because of the potential actual superficiality of the baptism ritual) abandon all influence of his past wicked deeds, while Booker, refusing the baptism, couldn’t forgive himself for what he did. Or at least he accepted the path that would offer a chance for him to maybe forgive himself some time in the future, as a gradual process.

Booker’s whole story is about being torn between two extremes, when the solution is to accept what you have done and decide to live with it, to forgive yourself without refusing personal responsibility. Refusing the baptism might have been the right choice of two alternatives, but following that right path eventually became too painful and depressing for him, so his own internal nemesis offered him to wipe away the regret and go in sync with Comstock’s path, which is like a mere relapse. He was acting based on the accumulated pain, thus inviting the other extreme.
This is really close to things I went through during said ayahuasca trip. It’s like the same message that I had been taught then, which I now mention here, since I recognize it in the writing of the game’s story.

Time travel themed fictional writing often follows the idea of inevitability of fate for a good reason. Time is ultimately just an illusion, and time travel is an idea borne out of the egoic mind’s desire for power. Thus, time travel is part of the limited egoic experience, and actions of time travel are incorporated into the flow of time in the first place. Time travel, for the egoic mind, changes the course of history, but that change of the course of history has been part of the plan all along.

This is, again, the very poetical and dramatic aspect of the whole idea of time travel, about not being at peace with the past and wanting to change what has already been done. About lack of self-acceptance.

Again: Booker chose the difficult path of the uncertain chance of eventual, gradual self-forgiveness. Comstock chose the cop-out of refusing responsibility. (Even changing his name – that’s like saying: “I’m not that person anymore anyway, so his actions don’t concern me.” Profound denial that doesn’t really erase the past, and deep down he knows it, thus he became such a problem for society, projecting his inner issues on the outside and condemning things he himself had taken part in in a righteous, holier-than-thou way.) So as the combined person of Booker-Comstock, the actual problem was that Booker was torn in the first place – that he couldn’t decide between two sub-optimum extremes and couldn’t find the middle path. Comstock is like a metaphor for regret at having made the wrong decision. You could even say that Booker eventually had wished he had chosen to become Comstock, and that made it possible for Comstock to exist and offer him that opportunity. Booker couldn’t forgive himself for his past deeds because he still kept Comstock as an alternative alive in his mind. The metaphor here is that Booker is at war with himself, which was depicted literally via the game.

This is why I appreciate the game: The story is remarkable. Some might say it’s just “standard multiverse stuff”, but they’re overlooking the crucial human touch, the metaphor, the poetry in this story.

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5 comments

  1. I think your interpretation of the story is one of the many reasons I liked this game so much. Booker is an interesting, three-dimensional character, and I found myself wanting to see how his redemption arc would play out. Ultimately, I was not disappointed. I’ve seen this game get bashed in certain circles for having an ending that ostensibly made everything pointless, but I personally enjoyed it because it was very creative and took all the tropes that were established in the narrative to their logical destinations. If nothing else, I’ve played games that had flat-out bad endings which actually did make their respective stories pointless, so I’d say an ending that’s up for interpretation is a major upgrade. Also, the sky-rail system and impressive action sequences certainly didn’t hurt. Whatever the case may be, BioShock: Infinite is one of my favorite games from 2013 along with the likes of Fire Emblem: Awakening and A Link Between Worlds.

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    1. A good ending is indeed important, because we cannot ‘change’ the future, only the past. Our actions can change how we look at the past and thus the effect of the past on our life, and equally a story’s ending has the power to ruin or enrich everything that happened before. Especially important in a game where the player is the one who experienced that actively.

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      1. That right there is precisely why I’m such a big stickler for endings. It’s exactly as you say – a lousy ending can retroactively lower the quality of any given work. It’s especially bad when it happens in video games because it’s an interactive experience, so if the protagonist’s journey was all for naught, then by extension, the player’s efforts were similarly in vain. To me, a work with a poorly constructed ending can never ascend past the level of being merely “okay”. A work with a bad ending ceases being good as soon as it concludes; a work with a good ending is good forever.

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        1. It’s even better because BI has an ending kinda related to time travel, and we know how tempting THAT is for lazy endings, haha. Comes right after “It was all just a dream.” Both things that BI scratched a bit without falling for the easy way.
          I bet you didn’t like the ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, haha. … I don’t think anyone did.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Truth be told, I’ve never seen that movie. Though if what you say is true, it’s strange that a movie with such a glaring flaw would be considered a classic. Maybe I should see a Monty Python film at some point; I do enjoy dry humor.

            If it’s one game that I think was ruined by the ending, it would be the spiritual predecessor to BioShock: System Shock 2. It’s one of the dumbest ways I’ve seen a competently made game conclude.

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