Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Bioshock Infinite's Columbia and the City Beautiful Movement

At the turn of the previous century, the United States of America was undergoing a veritable cultural crisis at least as serious - if not as violent - as the Civil War. The 1890 census declared that the Western frontier had closed to new settlement, limiting the amount of available farmland and driving ever greater numbers of people into the bursting cities. By 1910, 46% of Americans lived in cities, which challenged the agrarian base that had previous defined America's economic activities. Those Americans, some 42 million people, needed to work, and found that work in factories. Factories, in turn, needed people to buy the goods they produced, creating a new culture of consumerism. However, an economic depression hit in 1893, which itself came after and during a long string of labour strikes starting with the Chicago Haymaker Riot of 1886. Advances in mass transportation allowed the better-off to retreat to the suburbs, leaving the inner cities to struggling, impoverished, working classes stuffed together in dank, diseased tenements. This decay of the city centres just as they were required to meet the needs of ever greater numbers of people created a very real problem in need of creative solutions.

In the game Bishock Infinite, Zachary Comstock suggests simply taking a whole city aloft and letting the Earth sort out its own problems. The design of Columbia, however, falls very much within one of the civic planning solutions proposed at the time in which the game is set: the City Beautiful Movement.

The guiding principle of the City Beautiful Movement was a belief in aesthetics as a moral philosophy. Beautiful environments, they maintained, would inspire civic pride and moral uprightness as citizens strove to live up to the standards of the architecture and city planning surrounding them. Charles Mulford Robinson, a journalist and leader in the movement, outlined the view that "Modern civic art desires for the beauty of towns and cities not for beauty's sake, but for the greater happiness, heath and comfort of the citizens." The chosen style of the movement's advocates was Beaux-Arts, imported from Europe. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris emphasized the principles of compositional unity and symmetry, the relationship of the elements of a building within itself and to other buildings, and the continuity of history, manifesting most frequently in Greco-Roman Revivalism. Its use would suggest that America had reached a cultural parity with the Old Country, finding a new identity as a world power now that notions of the agrarian frontier were passed. As a Neo-Classical style, Beaux-Arts was also seen to embody characteristics of order, harmony and dignity... All things that they hoped would rub off on the city's airs. In the process, the movement established the de facto official architecture of the United States.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Bioshock Infinite, New Religious Movements and Utopian Communities

It is sometimes joked that the United States has never met a heresy that it didn't like. Constitutional barriers to the establishment of religion and the frontier mentality of American settlement fermented a petri dish of new religious movements throughout the Nineteenth century, many of which translated into would-be utopian communities. These communities were not strictly religious either, with many established on secular political, economic and philosophical ideals. All of them failed in one way or another, whether they fractured from within or could not sustain themselves in conflict with the laws of the nation. Both of these trends are reflected in Bioshock Infinite's flying utopian city of Columbia and its cult-like leader Zachary Hale Comstock.

Father Comstock sees a vision of a floating city, a new Eden.

When the Nineteenth century began, Christianity in the United States was in the early stages of what would be called the "Second Great Awakening." This movement was expressly evangelistic, restorationist and personalistic, eschewing the established denominations for forms of religion that emphasized personal conversion, charismatic leaders, heightened emotionalism, and counter-culture radicalism, while dispensing with what they perceived as accumulated traditions, and expressed through ad hoc associations like "cults," camp meetings and tent revivals. Their success can be attributed in many respects to what was later described in Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis": an ethos of individualism and self-reliance that was responsive to the demands of frontier settlement, with a mistrust of the established, systemic authority of governments, aristocracies, the arts, churches and academics (including scientists and formal theologians). The more spread out Americans got, the more they looked for solutions that fit their particular contexts and values. Some might argue that we still see echoes of these tendencies in the American zeitgeist.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy on

A few months ago, Ashley and I debuted our new Disney-inspired blog Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy. Our readership has been slowly building and we're pleased to announce our next big move. As of this past Thursday, Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy is now a part of the family!

We're looking forward to continuing to share our explorations into the stories, people, and places that inspired Disney's films and attractions with our current readers while reaching countless more. If you haven't had the chance to check us out yet, our fresh new start is the perfect time to jump aboard! Even if you're not a dedicated Disney fan, our column is very similar to Voyages Extraordinaires in style, idea, and content, so you might still enjoy it!

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Bioshock Infinite and American Exceptionalism

In Bioshock Infinite, the visitor to Columbia would first take note of its religiousity. The Welcome Center is essentially a tremendous baptismal font by which one may wash away the sins of Earth before ascending to the New Eden of this flying city. When the player character Booker DeWitt is nearly drowned in his unwilling full immersion, he regains consciousness in a pleasant garden loomed over by three statues representing the particular religious fervor of Columbia: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin rendered as holy saints. If only this extravagant fusion of patriotism with religion was invented in the minds of a team of game designers! It is, on the contrary, a logical extension of belief in American Exceptionalism.

Bioshock Infinite mural art.

The notion that the United States of America is somehow uniquely blessed in the history of humanity dates at least as far back as the American Revolution, with precedents in Puritan minister John Winthrop encouraging the settlers to build a "City on a Hill" as an example to the world in 1630. Thomas Jefferson defined the Revolution not merely as a conflict over taxation and governmental representation, but as a battle for the "Empire of Liberty" against British imperialism:
...we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends.
He went on to suggest to James Madison, when he took over the Presidency from Jefferson, that the invasion and assimilation of Canada was necessary to the extension of his ideological empire:
...we should then have only to include the North in our confederacy... and we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: and I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self government.
From the outset, the United States of America was viewed as much as a belief system as a country, its cause not merely one of territorial gain but of evangelistic zeal.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Cloud Raiders

The good folks at Game Insight recently got in touch with me to share the release of their new app game Cloud Raiders. According to their official press release:
Cloud Raiders takes action-packed strategy games to dizzying new heights by entrusting players with a massive island stronghold floating in the sky. Players assemble armies of ruthless raiders while also fortifying their bases with defensive emplacements to fend off enemy invasions. Over time, players can also form in-game clans with their friends to blast their foes right out of the skies by launching daring player-versus-player (PvP) raids.
In the glutted market of app games where you collect resources and fight off other players, each new game needs an overlay to make it stand out. That isn't an indictment of the game... After all, how many platformers and first-person shooters are there? Be prepared that what you get out of a game like this is what you are willing to invest in it by way of time and money. What sets Cloud Raiders apart is its theme blending classic "dwarves with guns" fantasy and airship pirates.

As the release outlined, you are the commander of a floating island which you must outfit with troops and weapons to fight off pirate attacks and raid other players' islands. The vast majority of the action is harvesting clouds and gold for constructing your machinery and arming your airships. The islands you are sent to raid (which costs you gold each time) can be a shot in the dark. Sometimes you land on a virtually undefended island belonging to someone who doesn't really know how to play, but the loot is small in return. Other times you are sent to a virtual flying fortress and the only thing you come out of it with are ideas for how to organize your own.

Pirate attacks come in two types: when they attack you, or when you hunt them down. These attacks are also a bit variable and exposed one of the weird bugs, it seems, on the Facebook version of the app I played. No matter how many troops of different kinds I had built up, they all seemed to go missing as soon as air pirates landed on my island. Perhaps they had the smart approach, though, when seeing some of the eye-patch bearing behemoths that Game Insight developed. The art is a nice cartoonish style that isn't necessarily clear on what things are supposed to look like but is still enjoyable enough in its own right. While decorative items are available for purchase, it's not really the sort of game where you're too concerned with beautifying your floating island. Surviving the next stranger's onslaught is a more pressing concern.

Pay-to-Play elements enter in with the diamonds you can earn by completing tasks, but which you can only get in volume by purchasing. They allow you to speed up building projects and make up for any want of gold and harvested cloud you might have when rebuilding your troops after particularly devastating attacks. The game is currently available on Facebook and Android devices, and is coming soon on iPad. Click here to visit the official website:

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Bioshock Infinite - Columbia and its Environs

As stunningly beautiful (if creepy) a setting as the floating city Columbia is in the game Bioshock: Infinite, it compels one to simply stand in awe. Unfortunately the demands of giant mechanical monsters shooting at you often prevent you from doing so. Thankfully, JLBiggs has gone through the labour of tweaking the game's gravity settings and began posting a series of screenshots to their now-defunct Tumblr. Below are a few choice scenes of different sights from around Columbia, over which I could pour for hours.

One of the things that truly comes to the fore in examining these scenes is how well-studied Columbia is. Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games dd not simply ape the aesthetics of brass and gears. They endeavoured, and succeeded, in creating a Science Fiction environment adapted to the Victorian-Edwardian Era, inspired by the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. This is a perfect example of the genre as it should be: steeped in the history and aesthetics of the time period, wedded to intriguing drama and Science Fiction. Bioshock: Infinite is well within my top ten examples of the genre.

The statue of the angel Columbia on Monument Island.

Statue of Zachary Hale Comstock, prophet and founder of the city.

Garden of the New Eden, the pilgrim's entryway to Columbia.

The Battleship Bay shoreline.

Soldier's Field, the amusement park.

Columbia's wealthy district, Emporia.

The factories of Finkton.

A Motorized Patriot robot soldier.

The safe way to get a good look at a Handyman.

The First Lady airship besieged by the Songbird.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Thomas Cole's The Cross and the World

The influential American artist Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, began attending his local Episcopal church following his marriage in 1836. In 1844, he was officially baptized, reflecting how his heart, spirit and mind had been entranced by his newfound religious faith. In this period he began his string of allegorical works like The Voyage of Life, but left one sadly unfinished by his untimely death in 1848. That series was to be The Cross and the World, outlining the voyage of two travelers: one en route to Heaven, the other to the other place. Many themes and motifs recur through both The Cross and the World and The Voyage of Life, suggesting the extent to which these are not merely allegorical of life and spirituality but of Cole's own life and spirituality. All that we have of his would-be series are four rough sketches, as we see them here. 
The first study shows the beginning of the journey, where the Pilgrims of the Cross and the World go their separate paths, the landscape around them and ahead not looking very different. The Pilgrim of the Cross, however, seems to be embarking on a path of greater extremes. On the one hand the road appears to be rockier and darker, yet on the other the reward of holy light shining from the Cross seems to be greater than the vague luminousity of the Pilgrim of the World's path. The second study shows the Pilgrim of the Cross at the end of his journey, the world around him barren and desolate but the Cross still shining brightly. Angels await to usher him into the glories of the Divine Presence. Meanwhile, the third study shows the Pilgrim of the World as he takes a pleasure stroll through a beautiful, Arcadian forest, with his own evanescent castles in the sky fixed firmly before him. Nevertheless, the final study shows that the Pilgrim of the World also arrives at the desolates wastes of life's end, but with no Divine hope. His castles are only toppled ruins. Instead of Holy Light, there is only further vast desolation.  
The Cross and the World (Study)

The Pilgrim of the Cross at the End of His Journey (Study)
The Pilgrim of the World on His Journey (Study)

The Pilgrim of the World at the End of His Journey (Study)