BioShock Infinite, the new release by designer Irrational Games and publisher 2K, is both a stunning visual feast and a provocative reflection of both the Scientific Romances of the Victorian-Edwardian Era and the modern socio-political climate in the West. The original BioShock was heralded as an artistic masterpiece of modern gaming, marrying an astonishing setting with interesting philosophical concept, in that case being a critique of Ayn Rand's economic theory in an Art Deco city under the ocean... A submarine Fountainhead, though ostensibly better written. BioShock Infinite continues this legacy of using video games as a medium to dissect the nightmare of political and economic utopias.
This chapter takes place in 1912 in a city above the clouds dubbed “Columbia.” The player takes on the persona of Booker DeWitt, a veteran of the Battle of Wounded Knee and former Pinkerton who has been commissioned to extract a mysterious girl from this man-made Heaven. Making his way to a storm-tossed lighthouse in Maine, DeWitt is locked in a rocket capsule and fired high above the torrent. Sun breaks and bathes a wonder of aerial skyscrapers and flying machines in a golden glow. All of this is the vision of the so-called prophet Zachary Hale Comstock, who claims to have received a vision from the angel Columbia – the personification of the United States in the same fashion as Britannia for Great Britain and Marianne for France – at the Battle of Wounded Knee. In order to enter what has been fashioned as a “New Eden,” DeWitt must undergo baptism into Comstock's cult of personality.
Whereas the original BioShock examined Objectivism, Infinite explores the concept of American Exceptionalism. Columbia is very much like a hypercharged Tea Party Republican vision of the United States filtered through Disneyland's Main Street USA. Comstock's ever-present propaganda uses the iconography of Christianity and speaks of God, but its religion is the United States itself. After emerging from his near-drowning at Baptism, the first thing DeWitt sees are statues of “Father” Washington, “Father” Jefferson and “Father” Franklin. Wandering the streets of Columbia is very much like visiting a theme park: pristine, gleaming, gilded, delightfully old timey, gay (in the original sense), with red, white and blue bunting, balloons and even parades. Yet there are also posters cautioning racial purity and fidelity to the cult. Abraham Lincoln is vilified as a serpent leading America astray and one of the amusements of the local fair is pelting a pair guilty of miscegenation with baseballs. Infinite's version of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, called the “Hall of Heroes,” is even more transparent than its Disneyland counterpart. In it, the player walks through funhouse versions of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion, complete with howling redskins and the yellow peril.
The setting is appropriate to the theme as more than just a Steampunk window-dressing (in fact it is considerably better than Steampunk, as it is better studied in what Victorian-Edwardian aesthetics actually looked like). Exceptionalism stands on a foundation of misbegotten nostalgia for a conservative “golden age” usually placed before the First World War and its subsequent perceived uptick in modernism. As I discussed in my article on the centennial of the Titanic's sinking in 1912, the beginning of the 20th century was considered at the time to be a bright era full of technological possibility. The only comparable era since was the fervour of the early Atomic Age and the Space Race. Like the Fifties, some also have a tendency to look upon the Victorian-Edwardian Era as a more moralistic time, a utopia of conservative values. Not long before writing this review I was embroiled in a debate with a person decrying to the liberal bias of modern public education, unbelievably citing the 19th century as an ideal time when children learned really useful things at the feet of their parents.
Racism was endemic to this period, and the only people more racist than the conservatives were the liberals. Belief in technological progress and moral development married in the doctrine of human perfectibility, specifically in the realm of eugenics. The concept of ennobling racial heritage and the weeding out of inferior stock was an accepted part of the zeitgeist right up to its ultimate flowering in the Holocaust. It is unavoidable in the Scientific Romances of the time, particularly those penned by American authors. In the year that BioShock Infinite is set, Edgar Rice Burroughs was publishing two classic stories of great white men dominating savage peoples. Unfortunately eugenics still rears its head amongst the fashionable, self-styled intelligentsia, going by any number of terms like “transhumanism” or “intelligently-designed morality.” The implicit racism and classism of promoting eugenics in a society where even basic health coverage is not universal should be obvious, but the only significant opposition to the far leftist side of the American “culture war” is the straight-up, old-fashion, sheet-wearing racial bigotry of the Tea Party.
The podcast Associated Geekery, conducted in part by our friends Ryan and Mac, had an interesting discussion on the discomforting racism prevalent throughout BioShock Infinite in their fourth episode. Racism displayed so prominenetly in the game has, naturally, proven controversial to many who are not necessarily accustomed to thinking about the issue nor seeing it so vividly. As Associated Geekery notes, it in turn raises questions about implicit racism in other games: when you see a Sci-Fi future completely full of white people, is it a racist ideal? In Infinite this is lampshaded, the player being made conscious by racist propaganda of the fact that there are only white people around. For myself, I had the opposite problem. Being a fan of Scientific Romances from the time period, I've developed a strong filter for racism. I've simply learned to accept it as an artefact of the time period without giving it much further thought, compartmentalizing it so as to better appreciate the aesthetics of the era. Like Main Street USA, Columbia is a gorgeous place... so long as you can get past the creepy American ultra-nationalism and fundamentalistic cult of personality.
Like any society of affluence then or now, doctrines of racism, classism, sexism and heterosexism serve an express purpose in maintaining the system of oppression on which the society enjoys its affluence. The Antebellum South, for example, was not gratuitously racist. Racism provided an ideological support for the economic reality of slavery. Belief in the inferiority of Native Americans justified the practice of expansionism. Likewise, the furor over illegal immigration in the United States is not really about protecting American workers or the American "way of life" from Latino hordes. It’s about protecting the profit margins of those people who employ migrant workers so as to avoid minimum wage laws and benefits packages. Comstock’s New Eden also has to face this reality even though it was built to literally rise above the unwashed, dark-skinned masses. As one of the characters, Columbia’s main industrialist, observes in one of the “voxophone” recordings scattered like Easter eggs throughout the game, no one wants to be a menial in Heaven.
Thus we get the Vox Populi, Latin for “Voice of the People,” a workers revolt composed primarily of African-Americans and the Irish. In true turn-of-the-previous-century fashion, even the Irish are not considered white enough in Columbia, thanks to their red hair, incorrigible Papism and, worst of all, their willingness to undercut wages with cheap labour. Literally beneath the gleaming thoroughfares and airways of Main Street Columbia lies the squalor of the Negro and “White Negro” tenements.
The temptation of any work of genre fiction involving issues of class is to swing too far in the other direction. These stories lionize the revolutionaries, idealizing them in ways eerily similar to the ways in which Fr. Comstock and the Founding Fathers were deified in the world of Infinite. This always rings false to those better acquainted with the era and who know that both the left and the right bore racial assumptions, and that the temperance and eugenics movements went hand-in-hand with the suffragettes. The Vox Populi are the Occupy Wall Street to Comstock’s Tea Party, and the central Science Fictional twist of the game allows us to see parallel worlds where Columbia is ruled by both. To its credit, BioShock Infinite is an equal opportunity iconoclast of utopian promises.
Had the game centred only on a flying city in 1912, it would be a nice bit of retro-Edwardian Scientific Romance. The mystery of the girl DeWitt has been sent to retrieve turns it into a legitimate piece of Science Fiction making good use of the concept of parallel worlds with a bit of “just so” quantum mechanics. The opening dialogue when DeWitt is being conducted to the lighthouse where he is carried up to Columbia suggests something off, but it is difficult to make much of it until the second play-through. Our real first indication that there is more here than even a flying city is a barbershop quartet singing a Beach Boys ditty. It is eventually revealed that the city is kept aloft by “quantum levitation” and that this, along with the mysterious girl, is causing tears in space-time to appear throughout the metropolis.
One of the more ingenious novelties of the game is drawing links between quantum theory and religion. A voxophone recording early in the game has Fr. Comstock meditating on whether a baptized man is both sinner and saint, redeemed and unredeemed, until he emerges from the waters to be seen by the eyes of other men... An interesting variation on Shrodinger's Cat. Later Comstock also wonders on what happens to the sinner after the saint emerges. Are they still alive somewhere in some other world? Then there are the questions of what exactly the gift of prophecy is when all of space and time and the multiverse is spread open before you.
This marrying of religion, American Exceptionalism and quantum theory provided further controversy for BioShock Infinite. One player received a refund from Irrational Games because he refused to undergo the baptism at the beginning of the game that allows DeWitt to enter Columbia. A designer for the company actually went so far as to hand in his resignation as progress reached the game's conclusion. To his credit, creative director Ken Levine sat down with the employee and discovered that doing so helped him to write a more convincing and substantive ending to the game that better understood religious motivation rather than treating it as a stock boogeyman (as well as convincing the employee not to quit).
Sensitivity to these motivations affects an even broader theme to BioShock Infinite than either issues of race, politics or quantum mechanics. It is ultimately a story of redemption and the lengths that people may go to find it. In some cases, this quest may cause even more suffering when a clean conscience only serves to justify dirty deeds. Sadly the game does not offer a more positive vision of a healthy prescription for reconciliation than it does a critique of pathological pursuit of redemption, but what it does say is still a far greater work of art than simply shooting up bad guys or hunting through castles for princesses.