You might be surprised to learn that a video game about a former Pinkerton agent rescuing a psychic woman from a city in the sky in a steampunk alternate vision of early 20th century America could prove to be one of the most politically controversial products of the gaming industry in years.
Slated for release on March 26th, BioShock Infinite sees players assuming the role of Booker DeWitt, a private investigator hired to infiltrate Columbia, an American-engineered flying city that has split from the U.S. government, and rescue a woman named Elizabeth. Her psychic abilities have made Elizabeth the key to a factional war in Columbia between the governing right-wing Founders and a leftist revolutionary group known as the Vox Populi.
Infinite is a spiritual sequel to Irrational Games’ 2007 hit BioShock. In the original, studio head Ken Levine and his team examined Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy in a fictional underwater meritocracy gone mad called Rapture. This time, the developers are ostensibly tackling the concept of American exceptionalism through the isolated denizens of Columbia.
“The American Exceptionalism, theocracy-based power structure has been around the edges of American culture for a long time,” Levine says. “BioShock Infinite gives it its full day in court.”
The problem is that the representatives of this philosophy, the Founders, are straw men. Racist, xenophobic, religious fanatics, they are progressive caricatures of conservatives writ large, stripped of any subtlety; nothing but ugly monsters full of naked aggression and violent bigotry. Levine claims, “We don't try to go into these things with a particular axe to grind,” but it’s hard to accept his assertion based on what has been shown of the game to this point.
The game’s antagonist, Zachary Hale Comstock, is the leader of the Founders faction and the lazy embodiment of every Tea Party stereotype you’ve ever heard: old, white, angry, and religious to the point that the citizens of Columbia refer to him as “Father Comstock” and the “Prophet” of the city. Comstock is revered by the city’s inhabitants as the “hero” of the Battle of Wounded Knee, the last engagement of the American Indian Wars in which over 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota tribe were killed.
The setting of the game itself is a twisted vision of idealized turn-of-the-century America; Levine calls Columbia “the memory of America that people think existed that never really actually quite existed.” White picket fences and star-spangled banners are intertwined with posters spewing extremist propaganda such as, “Patriots! Arm Thyself! Against the Foreigners & Anarchists!” and “We must all be vigilant to ensure the purity of our people!”
The most blatant example of Levine’s disdain for the hero worship of America’s founding fathers is found in the design of one of Infinite’s signature enemies: the Motorized Patriot. Sporting a porcelain-doll visage of George Washington’s face on a “clockwork Terminator,” the Motorized Patriot is the heavy-hitting enforcer for the Founders; dressed in a Continental Army uniform with two American flags draped across his back, the mechanized nightmare merrily spouts jingoistic propaganda as he fires a hand-cranked portable Gatling gun at the player.
As the game’s release nears, Irrational and 2K Games are saying all the right things to avoid any controversy. Animation director Shawn Robertson claimed in a recent interview that “You’re not trying to make the audience feel one way or another about a particular political subject. You’re trying to tell a story.” Levine has maintained for some time that Infinite should not be viewed as a direct critique of the Tea Party or any contemporary political movement in particular.
To be fair, Levine claims he's heard similar criticisms of Infinite's politics from the left over the characterization of the Vox Populi: "I saw a lot more left-leaning websites being like, 'This is trying to tear down the labor movement!'" It remains to be seen if Columbia's socialist revolutionaries will receive the same level of scrutiny as the city's right-wing overlords or if they will be presented as sympathetic victims of the ultra-nationalist authoritarians.
Maybe BioShock Infinite will prove to be the more nuanced and balanced examination of American politics that Ken Levine has assured gamers it will be. The gameplay itself looks fantastic, and Levine’s narrative chops displayed in past efforts like BioShock and System Shock 2 are unparalleled in the industry.
If Levine’s goal truly is to create “a point of entry for a deeper discussion,” he’ll be better served by not framing the discussion around an extreme bastardization of conservative positions while painting everyone right-of-center as old, white, wealthy zealots.
Image credit: BioShock Infinite/2K Games/Irrational Games