Bioshock Infinite is great. As a work of art, it’s even better
By the time you’re about halfway through the game, you’ll more than likely be ready to side with the majority sentiment, crowning Bioshock Infinite as an early GOTY candidate and conceding that it’s absolutely worthy of the critical acclaim it has garnered thus far. By the time you’ve completed it, there’s also a solid chance that you’ll arrive at the measured realization that Infinite will come to be appreciated over time as having near-transcendence qualities that exceed the often trite, confining industry we’ve come to know and accept.
Yet, for all of Infinite’s strengths, for all of its storytelling prowess and compelling mechanics, Ken Levine and Irrational Games’ masterful climax don’t deliver the same Exorcist-type head-spinning that we experienced during Andrew Ryan’s mind-blowing revelation in the original BioShock. There was a certain expectation that gamers carried over into Infinite, one that provided that the initial world introduced to you is not what it appears at first glance and that the “unreliable narrator” nature of the protagonist and supporting cast are bound to some type of convoluted plot twist above and beyond initial expectations. Playing with the same skepticism you would experience as if you were watching an M. Night Shyamalan film (without the fear that the end payoff will suck), these pre-conceived notions may have prevented certain audience members from being conned a second time.
Compounding the expectation of the eventual twist is the fact that the narrative ultimately took precedent over the gameplay. Make no mistake, Infinite’s culmination has instantly been vaulted into gaming’s most memorable, and was unquestionably handled with the control and precision that most Hollywood scriptwriters fail to possess. But whereas the original BioShock allowed its twist room to breathe and for gameplay to continue, Infinite made us a mere spectator for the final 20 minutes. Even Infinite’s “final boss fight” atop Comstock’s airship lacked the zenith and relief of a battle that’s meant to directly precede the conclusion of such a phenomenal game – mainly because it featured the same bad guys you’d been shooting all campaign-long, but with lots more of them.
The perceived shortcomings of Infinite’s conclusion do not impede its merits as an art form.
Nevertheless, the perceived shortcomings of Infinite’s conclusion as a video game do not impede its merits as an art form. Like any great artistic work, be it in film or literature, the themes that it portrays and the questions that it asks its audience are not confined to the few hours you spend appreciating them. They have a lasting impact after the credits roll, the last page turned, or in this case, after the controller is put down and the system turned off. You feel for the characters as you would through any other medium. You come to care about their fate and are enthralled by their relationships with others and the world around them, as well as the obstacles they incur and their characterization which either facilitates success or failure. Take Elizabeth’s abilities and her fragile equilibrium of controlling them, or Booker’s internal struggle between his relationship with Elizabeth and his cold focus of “delivering” her to pay off his debt, or Songbird’s paternal bond with Elizabeth and its yearning to fulfill its duties as protector. These are corporeal elements not confined to the pixilated digital form – you care about them as you do for any other compelling fictional character.
Irrational has succeeded in further diminishing the now archaic stereotype that games can never be art (Unfortunately, the legendary Roger Ebert never got to see the day in which he realized the error and ignorance in his initial analysis). Levine has even proved capable of transferring certain thematic and aesthetic elements across series installments, ones that are now representative of the Bioshock franchise as a whole. In doing so, Levine may very well have established himself among gaming’s first auteurs. There are no developmental coincidences, no circumstances of sheer happenstance that occur by chance yet just happen to add up at the end. Every minute detail of Columbia has been meticulously planned and processed, each one complementing the other and ultimately creating an impressive cohesion that results in a thought-provoking, interconnected narrative that deserves to be mulled over.
Let’s look at the game’s opening, as you’re strapped to a chair within a pod that is skyrocketing into uncontrollable ascension. When you finally reach your destination, an awe-inspiring view from the pod’s window greets you. A soft wind blows gently as the first magnificent structures of Columbia’s spectacular skyline appear and a brilliant ray of sunlight illuminates the towering silhouette of Monument Island. The unhurried beauty of the slowly gliding pod amounts to a calculated pan of the camera that allows you to truly inhale the exquisiteness of Columbia before it goes to hell, and it does just as well to set the game’s tone as did the original BioShock’s unforgettable first encounter with the crawling splicer on the Bathysphere, welcoming you to Rapture.
Playing soothingly in the background are the notes of one of Infinite’s major audio motifs – “Will the circle be unbroken?” – a Christian hymn of the early 1900s. Included and eventually beautifully sung by Maureen Murphy throughout the game and at significant narrative points are the lyrics:
Upon first play-through, Columbia’s presence “in the sky” will more than likely be the only element of analysis. But after you’ve completed the game, reference to an “unbroken circle,” combined with an audio motif that deliberately begins upon Booker’s first sight of Columbia, begin to take on a much more profound meaning. A similar set of circumstances occur during Booker’s early steps in the city. If you’re taking in the massive scale of creativity that Infinite has to offer and not rushing toward your next objective, you’ll come across Albert Fink’s quartet singing a rendition of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” as a couple embrace and a hummingbird flutters nearby. Putting aside the fact that the narrative actually implements context later on as to how a pop song from 1966 could possibly be sung at the turn of the 20th century, the lyrics themselves again prove to be worthy of further analysis upon a second play-through.
Levine and Irrational did not just pluck a 60s pop tune out of their musical library for its catchiness. They consciously chose one that referenced the “stars above you,” nodding to Elizabeth’s later explanation of stars as gateways to parallel universes, as well as a love that has been filled with inequity and in need of some sort of drastic action as a means to prove it.
Every detail, every seemingly foreshadowing element of Infinite was placed there with meaning and with purpose, and as a result, it becomes a game not easily forgotten on its artistic merits alone. But as with all fictional art, the best works do more than make us clap upon completion, they make us question the contemporary world as it exists outside of the game, page, or theater. And, because Infinite stands as a medium-advancing art form, it too contains heavy themes and symbolism representative of larger, perhaps more controversial issues that exist in our society.
Religion: the opium of Columbia’s masses
Irrational tackles some themes that other creative producers wouldn’t dare go near, and they do so with impressive control and discipline. The touching bond between Elizabeth and Songbird unquestionably presents elements of an abusive relationship, but I felt as if their association had a more multifaceted meaning. Personally (and with a sense that I may be far overreaching what the developers had intended to convey), I saw Monument Island as a tangible symbol of the enormity of religious institutions, while Songbird represents the means by which those institutions attempt to control the population and Elizabeth signifying the danger of individuality to them. Monument Island stands quite literally as the immense center of the citizens’ daily lives. Within the statue itself, a rebellious young woman with out-of-the-ordinary powers yearns to break free. It is out of this problem that the concept of Songbird is born – to keep Elizabeth subordinate, and the rest of the population subdued, through intimidation and fear.
It’s probably no coincidence that Booker’s first “baptism” upon entering Columbia is juxtaposed with a premonition of the city’s fiery demise. It is this zealot priest’s attempt to wash away sin that initiates the first instance of violence and destruction in the game.
The inherent power of religion to manipulate the masses and the ability of its leaders to guide large numbers under the semblance of spiritualism is a theme that is reiterated throughout Infinite, with Comstock symbolizing the human error in attempting to create purity under false pretenses.
Through his religious fervor, Comstock keeps the population of Columbia compliant while facilitating the imprisonment of Elizabeth. In this sense, his words/ideas are a figurative pretext for the more-than-questionable work being done behind the scenes. He serves to maintain his leadership and protect his secrets by weaving them into the mythology he has created for Columbia, one that is adapted by and believed wholeheartedly by the city’s population. Whether it be Jim Jones or Charles Manson, history has taught us that the most powerful infection is that of an idea. When backed and spread through the eloquence and charisma of those capable of convincing others to take their extremist beliefs as truths, it can often result in a precarious recipe for violence and disaster.
Even Columbia itself is not without elements of religious sentiment when considering the ideals of the city and its initial concept as a paradigm of an American conservative society. The “City upon a Hill” phrase immediately comes to mind, a reference to a section in a biblical parable that gradually began to be used as political rhetoric in the U.S. Puritan John Winthrop is the one credited with bringing the term into the American vernacular around 1630 when he declared that the Massachusetts Bay colony would come to be known as a “city upon a hill” that would be looked upon by the world as a model society. Perhaps playing on this concept, Irrational utilized Columbia’s physical presence “above” that of the rest of the world and intertwined Winthrop’s remarks with the convictions of Comstock, who believed that Columbia could be a utopian archetype that would ultimately serve as the idyllic blueprint for how American cities should be constructed.
Finally, the theme of baptism as a way of being cleansed of previous transgressions is one that is continuously revisited throughout the game. Booker is in every way, shape, and form an imperfect man with guilt on his conscious. In addition to giving up his only daughter to a life of torment and imprisonment, he must also confront his wrongdoings resulting from his military career. Booker is deemed by Slate to be a “hero” at the Battle of Wounded Knee – a period of U.S. military history that any American would like to forget as at least 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux tribe were slaughtered.
However, it’s worth noting that the man who emerges as Comstock is not born out of Booker’s guilty conscious nor his troubled memories. It is the baptism of Booker that proves to be the diverging point of every reality Elizabeth encounters. Elizabeth serves as the “sacrificial lamb” in more ways than one, and it is only through the blood of the lamb that Booker is born again into the man that becomes the feverous Comstock, as well as the Booker who we play as – the one who comes to the sobering realization that certain transgressions can only be atoned for through great sacrifice, a lesson that our Booker pays for with his life.
Bioshock Infinite’s Guise of Exceptionalism
Infinite is one of the most beautifully crafted games of the decade and Columbia deserves to be mentioned alongside the most engaging and comprehensive settings the gaming world has ever seen. An absurd amount of painstaking detail went into the making of Columbia, and that becomes more evident the longer you spend in the city’s clouds.
Irrational has perfectly captured the flair and theatrics of the Vaudeville era. Reminiscent of the spirit palpable during the 1893 World’s Fair, fast-talking salesmen line the streets with new technologies that are advertised with the utmost passion and enthusiasm. Airships drift in and out of view behind the backdrop of mesmerizing Victorian architecture.
Unlike the secrecy of Rapture, Columbia was a government financed and supported initiative shown off with the most elaborate publicity. Using the concept of American Exceptionalism as the backdrop for the city’s construction, its ultimate demise following its attack on Chinese civilians in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion represents the age-old external balance between patriotism and blind nationalism taken to its most extreme degree.
In 1899, a citizen-instigated movement in China began to outright reject the Western imperialist and Christian ideas that had been forcibly introduced to Chinese society. Columbia’s violent intervention in this anti-Western sentiment characterizes the inadvertent consequences of Exceptionalist concepts as well as the psychological effects they may have on the population that accepts the idea of superior peoples. One historical example in particular that occurred in Germany at the outset of World War II perfectly encapsulates this very idea, as ignorance toward other cultures, a belief of genetic supremacy, and a will to impose a particular way of life on surrounding areas resulted in one of mankind’s worst atrocities.
The misplaced ideals of a “pure” society
Prior to even entering the city, Booker asks a holy man dressed in white garb where the hell he has landed. The man replies, “Heaven, friend. Or as close as we’ll see till Judgment Day.”
For the game’s first half hour or so, it certainly looks that way. There are few signs of a dystopian environment (unless you consider being surrounded by a bunch of holy-rollers an absolute nightmare, which I’m sure many do) and Columbia itself initially appears to be a paradise literally and metaphorically beyond the societal issues that plague the towns below.
The city’s charm and enchanting lure abruptly end when, as the “winner of a raffle,” you’re given the highly sought-after prize of getting the chance to throw a baseball at a young interracial couple. Even before you start splitting heads open and shooting everything that moves, the game forces the player to confront just one of Infinite’s many weighty themes that include the often taboo subjects of racism and slavery. The voxophones found throughout Columbia’s nooks and crannies expand upon the city’s segregation and elaborate on Comstock’s thoughts on the importance of slavery and racial prejudice within an advanced society. You may even stumble across the erected tribute statue of John Wilkes Booth. Needless to say, there is a vastly dark and racist sub-component of Columbia (coinciding with the era’s real-world counterpart, mind you) that is not only hard to miss, it’s hard to ignore.
Equally hard to ignore is the presence of the Vox Populi and the contemporary themes they portray. Utilizing real life examples such as the Occupy movement and the growing income gap following the ongoing global recession, the Vox represent the true wealth disparity within Columbia as well as the city’s deep-seeded underbelly. Much like the Industrial Revolution proved at the turn of the 20th century, there are consequences and tangible human suffering when expansion and advancement take root and begin to develop.
While business magnates such as Albert Fink look upon their impoverished cogs with a whip in one hand and a cigar in the other, the workers actively responsible for the technological development also happen to be the ones afflicted the most. Columbia’s shantytowns showcase the often squalid living conditions of the common worker who makes industrialization possible, and in turn, who makes the ruse of opulence in Columbia’s “touristy” districts possible. When juxtaposed with the ornate flamboyance of Comstock’s mansion, these destitute ghettos present an eerily similar depiction of early 1900s London.
The Vox’s resentment and hostility toward the Founders also illustrates a struggle in existence since the first industrialized societies were in place – the native population who yearn to keep the city “pure” from immigrants and foreigners, and the “commoners” who wish to achieve the rights they are so vigorously denied.
In almost Marxist fashion, the conditions that Fink’s workers are kept under combined with the dominance of the overtly wealthy Founders become cause for revolution. Yet as history has demonstrated countless times over, and as Daisy Fitzroy aptly shows us, revolutions rooted in even the most noble and democratic of origins tend to stray into areas of violence and coercion that were never initially intended to pervade.
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