The Real Zachary Comstock
This article is about possibly my favorite aspect of Bioshock Infinite. It also has super spoilers. Be advised.
Apparently, I can’t stop thinking or writing about this game.
One of the things about Bioshock Infinite that tends to throw people off is the abject and gleeful racism of the city of Columbia. It’s the first moment you truly realize something isn’t right with this place (the “God Only Knows” barbershop quartet makes you think something is off with the game more than Columbia itself). Sure, the godlike worship of America’s founding fathers is a little intense, and forcing anyone who enters the city to submit to a baptism is, well, pretty fucked, but the city itself, and the people who inhabit it, seem idyllic enough. So when you keep seeing these signs for a raffle, you have no particular reason to believe something untoward is happening. And when you see that the raffle numbers are written on baseballs, you think it’s just another quirky slice of exceptionalist Americana. And then Jeremiah Fink reveals that the “raffle” is more of a lottery, Shirley Jackson style, as you are expected to throw said baseball at an interracial couple tied to stakes surrounded by shockingly racist portrayals of essentially monkeys in blackface. The game intervenes before you have the opportunity to either throw the baseball at the couple or at Fink, or conversely do absolutely nothing, but the image is indelible.
You see it everywhere throughout the game, from the Fraternal Order of the Raven, a secret-ish society that vilifies Lincoln for freeing the slaves, to segregated bathrooms and the fact that every single laborer in the entire city is either black or Irish. You constantly find voxophones throughout the city consisting of Comstock ranting about racial purity, gentrification and eugenics (an example: “As a boy, I had a dog named Bill. And like all dogs, Bill was a loyal friend. If we had not fed him, Bill would have been loyal. If we had struck him, Bill would have been loyal. Only when the colored man can make that claim will he take his place in society.”). You spend the whole time playing through the game wondering why Irrational went in this direction. Sure, it was 1912, when segregation was still the norm in society, and Comstock has the appearance of a man old enough to have been alive during the Civil War (we learn later, of course, that he is the same age as Booker, a ripe 37, and has been unnaturally aged by exposure to the Luteces’ tear creating machine, and was not alive during the Civil War). So if he’s a proud Southerner, you can get why a society he rules is going to be a pretty damned intolerant place. But Bioshock Infinite isn’t that simple. That’s too easy of an explanation. There’s more going on underneath the surface.
Throughout the game, there are three key voxophones that serve to unpack what’s really going on in Comstock’s brain. You can’t actually figure out this fact until your second play through, as two of the voxophones are about Booker. Once you discover that Booker and Comstock are the same man who has taken different paths in different timelines, the truth unfolds before your eyes. The first voxophone is found in the Hall of Heroes (possibly my favorite setting in the entire game), wherein former military colleague Cornelius Slate waxes poetic about Booker in “A Soldier’s Death”:
“My men and I are doomed, doomed as noble Custer was at Little Big Horn. But we shall not yield to Comstock and his tin soldiers. But my scout has seen him…Booker DeWitt is coming here, to the Hall! DeWitt…we called him the White Injun of Wounded Knee, for all the grisly trophies he claimed. A man such as he…might just grant us the peace we seek.”
This is our first real sense of the depravity Booker unfurled at Wounded Knee that pushed him to the river that day of the fateful baptism. But there’s more than that. The second voxophone is found in Emporia, and is from Preston Downs:
“Mr. Comstock, when next we meet, it won’t be to parley. See, I went out to that Hall a’ Heroes to scalp your ‘False Shepard’ for you. Turns out, though – DeWitt speaks Sioux. He helped me swap words with this cripple child I’ve been, uh…looking after. Now after hearing how the kid has fared in your city – I’m thinking, when we take your pelt, I’ll let him hold the knife.”
This voxophone throws you off for a minute the first time you hear it, because you didn’t meet Preston Downs at the Hall of Heroes, and there isn’t a moment in the game when you hear Booker speak Sioux. You must remember that at this point, we are in the alternate timeline where Booker died a hero of the Vox Populi, and he is speaking of a different timeline’s Booker DeWitt. But this Booker DeWitt still shares a backstory with our Booker DeWitt and with Comstock. They were all the same man before the baptism. It’s the third voxophone in this unofficial series, found a little later in downtown Emporia, that cements everything and brings entirely new depth to the story and its characters. It’s from Comstock itself, and is entited “The True Color of My Skin”:
“In front of all the man, the sergeant looked at me and said ‘Your family tree shelters a teepee or two, doesn’t it, son?’ This LIE, this calumny has followed me ALL MY LIFE. From that day no man truly called me comrade. It was only when I burned the teepees with the squaws inside, did they take me as one of their own. Only blood can redeem blood.”
Clearly, there is hate in this man. That’s not particularly difficult to see. And that’s all you think about during your initial play through. That this Comstock, who claims to have been some sort of hero at Wounded Knee even though it appears to be the case that he wasn’t even there, has conflated this story among his followers by convincing himself that he was there and committed these atrocities to prove himself a man worthy of God and Columbia.
You don’t forge the connection during the ending when you discover Comstock and Booker have the same past (or, at least I didn’t). There are much larger, more important things to consider (such as what I discussed in my previous article here) before you get down to some of the subtleties of the ending’s implications. It was hearing these voxophones again on the second go around that I pieced it together. If Booker and Comstock were the same person before the baptism, this means that Comstock was the same “White Injun” that ran roughshod over Wounded Knee (this is one of the more wonderful ironies of replaying the Hall of Heroes section of the game. Slate goes nuts that Comstock is taking credit for all these things he didn’t do, even though he actually totally did those things, but was Booker DeWitt at the time). This means Comstock knows how to speak Sioux. This means Comstock (and Booker) is part Native American.
The content of “The True Color of My Skin,” namely being accused of being part Sioux and going off the deep end at Wounded Knee to prove his allegiance lied with the military, happened before the baptism. This means that while the anger and the fervor is all Comstock’s, the event happened before the split when they were both Booker. Both characters share this event in their backstories. This is why Booker felt compelled to go to the river the day of the baptism when the timelines diverged. Booker was unable to take the easy way out and chose to wallow in his grief and guilt for years. Comstock took the plunge and was, according to Preacher Witting, completely absolved of his sins. No fuss, no muss, no guilt. Just a free clean slate at the cost of a quick dip in the river. The same rotten, festering soul was there underneath, only now he’s been empowered by false salvation and religious fervor. He didn’t see a reason to fix or heal himself. The baptism did all that dirty work for him.
Bioshock Infinite is a thematically dense game. One of the more dominant themes of the game that unfurls during the ending and on the second play through is the folly of born-again religion as a bandage to fix the evil things we have done in the past. Booker DeWitt may have some problems. Lots of problems, really, but he is, at his core, a good man. Part of the reasoning for that is what he went through after Wounded Knee, after refusing the baptism. Nothing came easy for Booker DeWitt. He had to live with his sins. Comstock just flushed them away, never actually earning anything. His evil behavior was reinforced and strengthened by his religion. He even brings Preacher Witting along with him to Columbia to force the same baptism on any other person who wants to enter his utopian paradise. His resentment toward his fellow man for slighting him over his muddled racial past has exploded forth in an act of extreme violence against that same minority group. Instead of being punished for his unconscionable actions, Comstock is rewarded with the option of rebirth through baptism without actually earning anything. Thus, he becomes not only a tyrant, operating under the perspective that his life and history have been divinely ordained, but also a massive, towering bigot. Plus, he’s got religious fanaticism on his side, which is an awesome way to indoctrinate your populace, especially when said populace is in a confined and captive area such as, oh I don’t know, a floating city in the sky.
An understanding of Zachary Comstock/Booker DeWitt’s racial makeup is not required to understand Bioshock Infinite. It’s not even required to enjoy or find deeper meaning in the game. Booker’s Native American heritage is a second or third order layer to the tapestry that is the world of Columbia, only grokkable if you are constantly paying attention, writing notes, doing internet research or want to go back and listen to all of the voxophones for clues. The White Injun voxophone is found hours of gameplay time before you get to Emporia and find the other two recordings about Comstock’s heritage. And even then, you can’t physically figure it out until after you know the ending, because two of the voxophones are about Booker. So you hear Comstock ranting about Native Americans and you think ‘Huh. This guy’s a prick,” when you’re actually thinking “Huh. This guy, who is also the character I have been inhabiting for the last X hours, is a prick. It’s amazing how one small decision can affect so much.” There are all kinds of moments like this throughout the game. This one happens to be my favorite of those I have found so far, but that could change. I plan to write about another one in the near future. It’s the subtlety of how these moments are layered into the game, how it is secretive without being exploitative in its narrative and its themes. How its Easter eggs are always exciting to find and never come off as cheap or tacked on. It is a fully realized, living world that seems to have been fleshed out in every possible way by the folks at Irrational Games. It’s why I keep coming back for more.