Bioshock: Infinite (A Class Narrative)

The Founders propaganda

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.

Glenn to Lenin: My Transformation

Did you know I used to be a fascist? Well, perhaps not fascist exactly but pretty damn close. Yeah, before I became ‘right with the left’ (notice the religious hyperbole) I believed some crazy shit and spewed even crazier shit. Anyway, not everything is set in stone. No, I changed and know everyone else can change as well assuming the person in question opens their mind and thinks independently. Had I never broken away from the radical right I wouldn’t be who I am today nor would I have abandoned my asinine beliefs, sought out knowledge which was than exotic or evolved into the humanist I am today.

Evolution is a fitting term for no other word in the English language can accurately describe my transformation. Indeed, for ‘once upon a time’ I was a Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh loving American ultra- nationalist. Young and naïve I believed every inch of their nonsense. Eventually, I would even take their ideology further and come to believe that they didn’t go far enough in their quest to protect America from the coming communist threat.

I first started watching Glenn Beck when I was stuck in the quagmire of early adolescence. Perhaps 13 was the age when I first I watched Glenn on CNN. In those early days, when he could still perhaps be called a ‘moderate,’ I watched him at first for two reasons: 1) Because I was bored and thought viewing political stories might make the day slightly more interesting and 2) Because back then he made sense.

I continued watching his show in the coming years and began to view it nearly every day. I hung on what he said and fumed when I heard the travesties he reported on. The more and more he talked the more I was sure that the American nation was going to collapse without a strong radical force taking control and purging it of the conspiratorial left- wing infiltrators.

Illegal immigrants taking jobs from hard working Americans, a government soft on terrorism that refused to invade Iran, a president which lacked the spine necessary to build a border fence, and the constant attacks against the undersupplied military were all major concerns of mine. Also high on the list was the stunning accepting atmosphere that the evil progressives held. Something needed to give. I knew that the ideas put forth from Glenn’s line of thinking would prevail if given the chance.

As I continued watching his program and sunk deeper and deeper into his web of fantasy I gradually developed my own chain of extremist thinking; a variant which radicalized Glenn’s thoughts and brought his vision for America into the reality which would overcome the agenda put forth by the liberals and progressives.

My new train of thought was sociopathic… to put it lightly. Among the vast amounts of ultra-reactionary gems were: A massive militarized border wall needed to be built (10 feet high and lined with watchtowers and armed guards) straight across from one side of the southern and northern border, mandatory citizenry background checks for all employees (Private and public sector), a massively increased military budget (one which would be capable of occupying several more nations if need be) with a massively increased standing army (a million or so just wasn’t large enough for me), a suspension of freedom of the press, speech and assembly until the left-wing menace was wiped out, a massive crackdown (i.e. arrests) of all perceived radical Muslim leaders and prohibition of worship in such mosques, and, if need be, a massive nuclear bombing campaign directed at most if Asia and the Middle East.

Since I had lost faith in the republicans to accomplish such things and didn’t know of the existence of any other political parties, I created my own ideal group (all in my head, of course). This new group would be the catalyst, the vessel in which America was restored to its former glory!  Dubbed ‘The American Imperial Party,’ this new power would cast aside all the Marxist ranting riddled in contemporary American culture and impose strict new laws which would never harm corporations or say to a capitalist that they ‘made too much money.’

While such a creation was merely the brainchild of an angsty teenager it is nonetheless important to note that I earnestly believed such dribble with an ironclad will. I grew upset, angry and confused when those around me couldn’t see the injustices raining down from the courts and government. I was incapable of comprehending why others tolerated such leftist talk when it was all lies. The more I resented those around me the more I succumb to the venom of the extreme right.

The change wouldn’t come for a number of years and when it did it was certainly draped in the power of my own odd desire to understand the world. While during such times I resented the revolutionary left, often conflating it with the run-of-the-mill progressives, I would nonetheless be interested in who they were as people.

I remember the first event that displayed my desire to learn, this was also the first noticeable period of time when I sought out knowledge which was in opposition to my own so it is important to note. I was watching Glenn Beck (surprise, surprise!) and he was ranting on about how an educators march for better benefits was actually a far- left orchestration. To prove this he scrolled a long list of organizations involved in the march. Among the vast amounts of groups were many progressive and left- wing groups. Among the list of groups, however, one stood out among all others: Youth for Socialist Action. It showed only briefly but I was instantly taken aback by them and had the impulse to write down their name. Why I wanted to write this group down among all others I didn’t know; perhaps it had to do with the youth aspect since it only seemed naturally about why young people would accept such a barbaric ideology.

Months later I finally had the opportunity to search for the group I had written down. We had just discovered our landlords had a wireless connection (prior to my only access to the world was through the television) so I was able to access the internet via my PlayStation 3. In Google, I typed in the words “Youth for Socialist Action.” I found my group quickly and was immediately repelled and fascinated. The pictures of young socialists testifying why they were against capitalism, the historical quotes from Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and others, and the links upon progressive links astounded me. I was disgusted by their animation of a cartoon character holding a sign that said “Capitalism sucks” yet at the same time intrigued by the reality facet; that actual young people organized their social lives around such ideas.

In the coming months, I would occasionally pop in on the site. More just to relive the feelings than anything actual but it was a starting point. The next major event would take place sometime later, perhaps as much as a year later when I was about 17. I was posting on a site for queer teenagers when one of the newbies introduced himself as a socialist. My exact words fail me but I and he quickly took to arguing. Eventually, after a pointless back and forth, he linked me to Revleft and said that they would be able to answer my questions/accusations far better than what he was capable of doing.

I could have ignored the site and never bothered to follow the link… I could have deleted the message and went back to the Satanist forum that had piqued my interest recently, but I didn’t. Maybe it was my sense of ‘honor’ but I told myself, “Fine, I will go on there and read some things, do a bit of posting then go back to that unpatriotic asshole and tell him off knowing that I gave his traitor site a chance.” Oh, how things turned out!

My first moments on the site were awkward. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of members (I had previously only been on very low member forums), topics, and ideology I lost my way quickly and ended up more in the learning forum as my exclusive place of residence. Not even knowing about an introduction forum I gave my intro in the same post I asked questions on. Known back then as Wanderer I asked the typical newcomer queries: What is the difference between socialism and communism, what is socialism, what is [X] tendency and so on. As a ultra-nationalist I defended absurd positions (such as support for the nuclear bombings in the second world war) but never carried on lengthy debates (as I saw my presence there as a strictly learning oriented one) for I was still frustrated by all the leftist concepts that my all mighty Beck never mentioned: the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex (seriously, how many complexes are there?!… I said to myself), planned economies, the intent of Marx and so forth. Oddly enough I was never restricted.

My transformation, however, was not by any means instant. It took months of considerations and learning before I finally decided I was a socialist and it took even longer before I began to defend my positions on other sites. I manually copied down lengthy manifestos and seriously studied leftist topics. I was extremely weary when others used the terms “Imperialist, bourgeois, and proletarian,” and I often felt out of place in such an alien world. However, not all were bad. When I discovered Revleft’s myriad user groups I felt some hope: I saw that leftist had an interest in video games, movies, space exploration, writing, sports- I saw that they were human and not a cult. It was an odd realization for someone who had assumed that every leftist was a hardcore activist that did nothing else but antagonize hard working business men. I felt more secure and at ease.

Revleft served as my learning zone. And difficult learning was for amid all the clashing definitions I routinely had headaches trying to understand how each tendency interacted with on another.  As I learned more I lost sight of my old views. Reading, discovering the leftist perspective to history, and contemplating how the world should be run gradually led to massive change. I had dropped each of my reactionary views and adopted progressive ones. Beliefs which I once held as dogma gradually faded into the background as forgotten lore.

My political transformation signaled a new step when after talking with a comrade I finally decided to join the youth branch of Socialist Action (the aforementioned “Youth for Socialist Action); the oddities of enlisting with the very group which first brought me over to my first legitimate leftist spectacle was not lost on me. Though I do not believe in any superstition it is nonetheless amazing when such events transpire.

Today I am a Pan-Leftist who believes that there is no “right way” to bring about revolution; I am a fierce advocate for the queer struggle, a tireless writer and theorist, a dedicated activist, and a loyal soldier in the fight against capitalism. I triumphed over my time in the far- right, learned the nuances of the left and now am the only thing a decent, well-politicked human can be: A socialist.

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