The following article is a review of the political narrative of Bioshock: Infinite, a game recently released by 2K software and Irrational Games. My document is not meant to be the “end all” script for the game’s analysis but it is intended to begin discussion on the topic at hand. For the purposes of this article I have limited myself to talking purely about the game’s political overtones and social-commentary; comments concerning the finer aspects of the gameplay I have intentionally excluded.
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Infinite is a unique experience. Much like its predecessors, lying within the game’s plot there are political overtones which carry significant amounts of social-commentary on American (United States) culture. Yet despite this I cannot say that Infinite is a watershed game in the same manner its past-contemporary was; during the narrative there is ups and downs. A genuinely progressive streak of intriguing musings on race and religion, intermixed with labor struggle, are abruptly hampered by a decadent liberal turn for the worse.
To understand what I mean we must delve into the world of Bioshock: Infinite.
Once there we will emerge onto a city which floats in the sky-Columbia! A city of pure Americana Columbia is the world of any ultra-conservative’s dream: there is no sex before marriage, children’s know their place and are well disciplined, labor activists are shot, and inter-racial marriage is a crime punishable by exile and even death. The guiding light of this utopia is the prophet Zachery Chomstock who reigns over Columbia as a demi-lord, a righteous holy man who shines the path towards salvation for the thousands of Columbia’s residents.
Enter: Broker DeWitt. A veteran of the brutal combat of Westward expansion, Mr. DeWitt served in the United States cavalry where he not only fought at Wounded Knee but also in the Yellow Boxer Rebellion. Haunted by debts the ghosts of his past have given him a final chance to pay off his obligations: bring them a girl-Elizabeth- and his slate will be wiped clean.
Entering Columbia through a shuttle which he rode at the top of a lighthouse (a familiar locale, eh?) our protagonist fights his way to the prison where Elizabeth is held; a giant tower in the shape of an angel and more than a bit reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty (among other grand monuments). Helped along the way by a paradoxical couple who know their way around the city, the player encounters many signs which allude to unrest within this morally upright paradise.
The first sign manifests as gossip concerning a group called the “Vox Populi”. Whispered in feared revelation the player learns that these people stand in opposition to the founders of Columbia, a aptly named group led by their Prophet called “The Founders”.
To call the Founders racist is an understatement. For they are not your great grandmother’s unnerving comments about the “superior qualities” of Whites but rather a raucous diatribe against the Negro cloaked in the visage of religion; the police force motto being “Protect the Future of Our Race” is then combined with the theocratic enforces use of Ku Klux Klan-esque robes to full effect. Together with the painting depicting Abraham Lincoln as a monster and John Wilkes Booth as a hero, we begin to see the true colors of The Founders.
This even extends to Elizabeth. The player soon discovers that she is locked away in the tower due to a religious frenzy. The prophet has done this because he has “foreseen the future” and knows that she is his successor, the one who will lead Columbia and pure the world of sing and vice.
As one might imagine this setting has much to see. By the time the player rescues Elizabeth from her tower, relatively early in the game (about a couple hours in), even more fascinating threads are introduced: Elizabeth can open “tears” in the fabric of the universe. She can even bring in objects from the other side to aid the player in their quest.
As one might expect all this makes for dynamite gameplay; the action is solid, the graphics flourish, and the soundtrack a reliable companion. Yet the political narrative is not as tight. Going into Infinite I believed I was about to play the “Avatar” of 2013. Meaning I was under the impression that Infinite was to deliver a hard-hitting package of progressive social-commentary which bordered on the revolutionary. Unfortunately such wasn’t the case.
The plot of Infinite is as described above: The Founders and the Vox Populi are at war, one side represents patriotism the other radicalism. Due to this nature the game packs quite a political punch but it is mostly contained to the first half of the game. This second half deals heavily with interpersonal actions across multiple universes (otherwise known as the “Multiverse”). This in turn negates the conflict in Columbia and regulates it to background details for the journey at hand.
So to analyze the content at hand we must look beyond the beginning. Near the quarter-progress mark is where the relevant social-commentary picks up and it is where we see Infinite take a turn for the worse.
It is at this point in the game where the player is tasked with acquiring weapons for the Vox. To do so they must travel to an area collectively known as “Fink Company”. This comprises the Docks, factory, slums, and market place. All of it belongs to an industrial magnate named Mr. Finkerton. As one might imagine within the conservative realm of Columbia there are no trade unions and so blaring throughout the PA system are tirades against demanding better wages, improved working conditions, and imagining something better. To this extent “labor agitators” are rounded up and placed in stocks.
As the player continues with their harried quest to find the weapon smith capable of forging their much needed weapons, a cache which if obtained will grant the Vox Populi the strength needed to launch a revolution, the player journeys through several distortions; rips in the universe which lead into alternative pockets inside the Multiverse.
After several leaps through these “tears” the player finally succeeds in their quest to create weapons for the Vox. Soon thereafter the player is thrust into a realm of revolutionary upheaval. Gone are the police filled streets searching for political dissidents and “in” are the days of armed workers overthrowing the rich. Any revolutionary is sure to be inspired by the sight of armed “leftists” storming police headquarters, slaying policemen with summary executions, and deriding the lies of the capitalists. I know I was quite taken.
It is for these very reasons, however, where the game slips and starts down on the reactionary slippery slope of moralism. Let’s first look at the dialogue: during this tumultuous moment in the game, where the Vox are taking matters into their own hands, conversation between Broker and Elizabeth take a right-wing turn.
Prior to the start of the revolution the player was regaled with musings on how because the Vox had weapons they would be able to make a better life for themselves. Yet after the Vox get weapons, and the protagonists see the carnage of class warfare, they suddenly begin this lopsided moralizing: “Comstock and Fitzroy [the leader of the Anarchists] they are no different, aren’t they… they are the same… they are just right for each other” and on and on in this manner equating the two as different sides of the same coin.
This was a severely disappointing development. In what manner were the Vox and Founders similar? Did the Vox exploit their fellow man’s labor in exchange for profit? Did the Vox institute slavery and White Supremacy? Did the Vox have visions of drowning the world in a sea of theocratic flame? No, they did not. At this moment we hear that these two factions are “one in the same” because they (wait for it…) use violence!
To spell out how “corrupt” the Vox Populi have become the developers take the cheapest road possible: they show the Vox leader-Fitzroy- nearly murder the son of Finkerton; with blood smeared on her face and shouting lines of how the boy’s death is necessary to ensure the complete destruction of the workers oppression, the scene is cut short in Fitzroy’s unexpected slaying[i].
Narrative wise the confusion heightens even more when you hear dialogue which advocates not for the workers to take control of the means of production but to burn down Finkerton factory; to not place Columbia under socialist leadership but to “drag it from the sky”. While Mr. Levine was inspired by (a picture of) Eugene Debs it doesn’t seem that any of the rhetoric of revolutionaries rubbed off on him as at this point in the plot I got the impression that the lead creative team was inspired more by the popular conception of Anarchism (destroy everything, no leaders!) than its reality (destroy capitalism, no bourgeoisie!).
It is almost as if Ken Levine decided to take such a grotesque turn as if in recompense for the wicked depiction of the virtues of “traditional America”. As if he had to paint the workers uprising as a hypocritical, needlessly bloody event so as to not be mistaken for advocating socialist revolution in the real world.
While the ideals of the Vox Populi are never truly expounded upon, and it is only in propaganda posters that they are referred to as “Anarchists”, if we take on their chosen lexicon then we know for certain that they represent a revolutionary, anti-capitalist faction. In this manner we cannot excuse the developer out of cop-outs (I.E “the Vox weren’t actually Anarchist so hence it isn’t actually anti-revolution). Between the rants against wealth, hoarding, advocacy for striking, and multi-racial worker brigades, we have all the proof we need that this faction is the perceived revolutionary pole thus making this event (the turn against the Vox) anti-revolutionary; or as we call it in the legitimately revolutionary circles: petty-bourgeois.
The narrative here is one of class collaboration. Of stressing the needs of unions and of liberal approaches to race relations, of free association of religion separated from politics. It is an endorsement of the status quo ultimately preaching the need for a smaller “worker friendly” version of capitalism. While I was hoping it would be so much more than that it isn’t. So it is true: we all cannot get what we want.
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So we see that Bioshock: Infinite is a mixed bag. While the gameplay is great and story engrossing when we take a closer look at the class narrative it becomes muddled. In the very least it is what I would consider to be False Progressive; or, an ideological outlook which leads masses to reactionary dead-ends. Still for all its short-comings it packs a punch if you are searching for an interesting world Post-Rapture.
[i] The historical parallel to be made here is that of Vladimir Lenin; when the Russian revolution was triumphant did they allow the Czar’s family to live? No, they did not. They executed them precisely because the Bolsheviks understood that one cannot allow heirs to “the dynasty” roam free and someday organize resistance to the new regime. Such deaths are an unfortunate yet necessary part of history.