In Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite, studio head Ken Levine aims to explore the “American Exceptionalism, theocracy-based power structure [that] has been around the edges of American culture for a long time.”
As Breitbart News’s Noah Dulis explains in his preview of the game, Infinite‘s villain is a religious zealot who worships America’s founding fathers and seceded from the country by building an airborne city where he could pursue racial purity while exploiting minorities for hard labor.
The beleaguered working classes, in turn, revolt against the upper class in a campaign of terrible violence–though they may still be sympathetic, as they would not behave this way if they were not provoked by the city’s xenophobic extremists.
But are these merely minor sucker punches defused by the game’s larger sci-fi context? While a review is forthcoming from Breitbart News, here are what several gaming publications have to say about Bioshock Infinite’s political themes.
There are two things that set BioShock Infinite apart: the depth of the Elizabeth character and Irrational’s commentary on how fanatical religion tinged with racism can turn a well-meaning society astray from the path they originally sought. (You might also be surprised at just how much some parts of Irrational’s vision of Columbia can mirror some conditions in America today.)
Irrational Games intended for us to see an incredible world that is still rooted in the prejudices and problems of yesteryear – and by setting their game in a fantastical city floating in the sky, they’ve made it easier to see what problems Columbia has that many Americans still have today.
Nothing is quite what it seems. Columbia is the misguided doctrines of yesteryear writ large: manifest destiny and racial segregation, unchecked capitalism and an indentured labour force. Small wonder a red revolution simmers in the worker slums below.
The year is 1912 and all of the racist and religious zealotry of that time are on full display. It’s a trick that Irrational pull off so well. They plonk the player in an other-worldly environment informed by historical social conventions and then put the ugliest side of humanity on display.
Columbia is falling into utter chaos and is on the brink of a full-on race and/or class war. Some factions of the city preach in favor of maintaining racial purity, and one of the game’s most powerful sequences is an early scene depicting a mixed-race relationship–something the powers in control of the city most definitely frown upon. But this doesn’t boil down to the typical good guys/bad guys scenario. Due to the nature of the world and the way it changes over time, you’ll also see that Vox Populi’s rebel forces are capable of just as much cruelty as the forces they seek to overthrow. The changing relationships between factions and the way the main characters fit into that puzzle make Infinite far more complex than the average video game story, and it’s exciting to see heavier themes like these on display.
Columbia’s idealistic notions quickly [crumble] to reveal its true nature. Founded by ultra-nationalists, Columbia’s fuelled by racism, divided by wealth and run by religious zealotry. The city’s overseer is Zachary Comstock, a self-styled ‘Prophet’ who aggrandises his own history and wreathes Columbia in propaganda to keep the proletariat in check.
Racist caricatures aren’t used for cheap shock value–they help sell the idea that most citizens in Columbia think that skin color dictates status. But Infinite’s narrative stretches far beyond a mere face-off between the forces serving the self-righteous Father Comstock and the freedom fighters of the zealous Vox Populi. The 15-to-18-hour campaign doesn’t limit itself to the ideas of right and wrong, or force you to make dichotomous moral choices; instead, it’s the kind of tale that subverts your expectations time and time again.
On your journey, you’ll be led through Columbia’s seedy underbelly which is rife with racism, cult mentality, and a population that idolizes government officials as religious figureheads. The racist leanings of certain groups in particular are bound to ruffle some feathers, but in a game that shows the pitfalls of following a certain ideology through to its bitter end, broaching the topic of racial inequality draws a fitting, if unsettling parallel to our own world history.
BioShock Infinite’s story dabbles in religious control, racism, and the dangers of extremist thought, even among those fighting for a worthy cause. Some of the game’s most memorable sequences are shocking both in terms of their visuals and the language used alongside them. In its exploration of controversial subjects such as slavery, financial divide, and exploitation, Irrational Games ran the risk of crafting an offensive grab for ideas, but wisely pulls its punches until just the right moment to deliver a classy tale, if one that maybe doesn’t go as deep into its own talking points as it perhaps could.
Serious themes abound in Columbia’s alternate-reality 1912. Racism, sexism, nationalism, and religion are all put directly in front of you, whether you like it or not. It makes a point simply by confronting you with these uncomfortable issues and forcing you to at least think about them. And though Infinite never gets preachy, it certainly offers political commentary, chiming in with obvious nods to the “99% vs. 1%” debate — even if, unlike in the original BioShock, Infinite slyly submits that both sides of the coin have their demons, and neither can claim the moral high ground in Columbia.
BioShock Infinite isn’t afraid to magnify the way religious and racial extremism inform our culture and change lives. It isn’t afraid to depict a less-than-holy trinity diseased by power, deception, and manipulation. As the story circles back on itself, you’re left wondering whether redemption cleanses us of our atrocities, or simply invites us to commit greater ones.
The city, made up of innumerable mammoth structures floating in the clouds, is a potent metaphor for its own unsustainability — but it isn’t mechanical failure that’s doomed the place. A hotbed of turn-of-the-century racism, classism, and xenophobia, Columbia’s idyllic exterior hides a fascist theocracy built on the backs of ethnic minorities, who toil in factories under slave-like conditions. The latter have organized into a resistance called the Vox Populi, and now they’ve escalated from labor riots to full-blown civil war.
Given the fact that there’s inevitable conflict waiting to be joined, you might think that a repudiation of American self-aggrandizement is all there is to BioShock Infinite. The uppity sky-dwellers in Columbia need to be taken down a peg, right? But what’s more surprising than the rude awakenings is the degree to which Infinite is a celebration of Americana. It’s a game squeezed out of Normal Rockwell paintings, set to ragtime music and filled to the brim with jaunty bygone slang…
BioShock Infinite may not the first game to try to say something about the very nature of the country it was made in–and the people who make it up–but it’s certainly amongst the best. Some scenes reminded me of how people who looked like me had an unbelievable array of prejudicial forces from public and private institutions set against them. Yet, even as I played through those moments, I was reminded that America is a big experiment. That experiment in letting people chart their own destinies has sometimes made it so brother fights against brother.
It’s easy to dismiss those people floating in the fractured mirror Americas that we disagree with. They’re wrong; we’re right. Who cares why they are the way they are? But BioShock Infinite asks us to consider that very question and gives an answer that mixes hope with bitterness, wonder with despair and allegory with history. The game doesn’t offer any advice about how to make everyone get along better but it makes a powerful argument for owning– and owning up to–all of our collective past.