And thus concludes our discussion of Bioshock Infinite (until “Burial At Sea” next month)! In our second episode, we discuss how players interact with both Columbia and Rapture’s founding philosophies and whether Bioshock Infinite‘s portrayal of Columbia’s counter-movement might work to the game’s detriment.
Transcript under the cut!
This episode includes spoilers from Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, and Bioshock Infinite: Mind in Revolt
You are watching the second part of our analysis on Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite. In our last episode, we touched on how Bioshock Infinite shares a lot of the same structure and story beats as its predecessor Bioshock, mainly in its narrative twist discussed previously, and its “ideology of the week.”
“A city at the bottom of the ocean… heh, ridiculous.”
Players of the original Bioshock found themselves in Andrew Ryan’s Rapture, an underwater city founded on and ultimately destroyed by the principles of objectivism– the advancement of the self and pursuit of “objective” knowledge above all else.
Likewise, players of Bioshock Infinite find themselves in another ideological paradise on the verge of collapse, this time Columbia, a city where antagonist Zachary Comstock has elevated American Exceptionalism to the status of religion–the people of Columbia worship the founding fathers and a perceived, uniquely remarkable America… at the expense of anyone who isn’t white. The challenge for Bioshock Infinite is that American Exceptionalism and all the racist policies that come with it carry a lot more baggage than Bioshock’s objectivism. It’s a deep-set ideology that still affects many people–and many players–today.
The game showcases brutally honest depictions of racism, such as intense segregation, lynching, and exceptionalist propaganda in addition to fantastical, on the nose depictions including a mystical Klan that uses literal crows to enforce their white supremacist agenda. It makes sense that the city of Columbia would be such a tragically dystopian society when led by Zachary Comstock, but the game barely touches the surface of the issues it depicts, instead using the racism of the time as a set piece without really unpacking what it means for the people of Columbia and the player.
The first turning point in the game’s narrative is whether the player will choose to throw a baseball at either a mixed race couple that have been put on display or the fair organizers who make them a spectacle. This set up promises a far deeper look at racism than we’re given.
Instead, halfway through the game the focus of the narrative is flipped and the institutionalized racism is left at the wayside for some extremely problematic depictions that further the game’s new narrative goal.
The choice of whether to throw the baseball echoes how players progressed in the original Bioshock. As they made their way through the derelict metropolis, players were given the option to embrace the objectivist ideology by harvesting helpless “little sisters,” or to reject it by saving them. The perceived payoff for each action was an immediate increase of super-powered ADAM for harvesting, and a delayed payout for saving. Ultimately, though, rejecting Rapture’s ideology meant getting the “good ending,” in which players are rewarded with seeing how they dramatically improved both the lives of the little sisters and their silent protagonist.
As we find when we try to throw the baseball in Bioshock Infinite, players don’t really have a choice in Columbia’s racist policies. On one hand, the inability to throw the baseball reads as Bioshock Infinite denying the ability to embrace American Exceptionalism, but as the game progresses, we see that we don’t necessarily have the means to reject it either. As more and more of Elizabeth and Booker’s personal story is unveiled, the infuriating racism of early scenes becomes more akin to Bioshock’s art deco than its little sisters: it’s an indicator of the time and place for the player, not something to get angry or do anything about. One character that does get angry about it is Daisy Fitzroy, a revolutionist-turned-folk hero.
“There’s already a fight, DeWitt. Only question is, which side you on?”
Daisy Fitzory is introduced as an almost mythical character who you hear about through second-hand accounts, audio diaries, graffiti, and over-the-top anti-revolution propaganda. She is elevated to the status of folk hero in the players eyes as she is shown “fighting the good fight” leading the people of Columbia to reject Comstock’s ideology and embrace change. She personifies the revolution for the first half of the game. She is one of the very few disenfranchised people Bioshock Infinite gives time to explore. She starts out as a complex character whose motivations are deemed completely rational and justified. She is painted as a sympathetic savior in many of the Vox Populi propaganda, extending a welcoming hand to the people of Columbia, as well as the player. The real Daisy, who we meet on the Zeppelin and hear from through scattered audio diaries show us, not the doe-eyed woman from the propaganda posters, but instead a hardened and weary leader who is resigned to dismantle a broken society.
Bioshock Infinite: Mind in Revolt, the prequel e-book written in house by Joe Fielder with input from series creative director Ken Levine, fills in some of the gaps in Daisy’s backstory. Set before the main game, we find Daisy captured, being interrogated by a Doctor after she is framed for the murder of Lady Comstock. The story itself is fairly problematic in how it attempts to build sympathy for Fitzroy, by describing her torture and implying sexual assault by the guards. This is a common trope used to build sympathy for hardened female characters, but is also completely unnecessary. Throughout the book we are given insight into the plight of the oppressed and shown how poorly Daisy is treated and looked down upon in spite of her genius-level intellect. It is a shame that what could have been a deep character study focusing on one of the few people of color in the game had to be sullied by such a tired and overused trope.
Even after building up all this sympathy–problematically or otherwise–Bioshock Infinite ultimately dismisses Daisy and her outrage by painting her actions as monstrous. At the revolution’s climax, Daisy corners Fink–the man who is not only depicted as controlling the working class in Infinite, but was personally responsible for Daisy’s torture in the book. After shooting him point blank, she looks straight at Booker–at the player–and smears Fink’s blood across her face like a badge of honor.
In addition to Fink’s borderline-satirical stance on worker’s rights, the novella adds a dose of personal stakes to Fink’s killing. Thus, in a story dictated by violence and debts, he had it coming. If this were Daisy’s game, Fink would be her third-act boss. Achievement unlocked: Revenge is a dish best served cold.
However, what should be read as an act of triumph for a sympathetic Daisy instead marks her descent into infamy. In killing Fink, she becomes the villain from Comstock’s scripture. But how do Daisy’s actions really differ from our own?
The only way we as players engage with the world of Bioshock Infinite is through violence. For the most part, it is the only way to solve any kind of problem in the game. To get from point A to Point B, we tear through room after room of faceless goons under the flimsy pretense of “wiping away the debt”–and it’s a debt we don’t even understand until the endgame. As players, we’re even rewarded for the violence we commit with both story progression and non-diegetic trophies or achievements. By contrast, we know Daisy’s motivations. If anything, we have seen why a revolution is needed through the horrific displays of inequality and violence that permeate Columbia.
However, when Daisy resorts to violence to solve her problems, and claims her trophy, she is disproportionately branded monstrous compared to the carnage we as players have left in our wake. But this game doesn’t let the player see events through the eyes of the disenfranchised, which is one of the main downfalls of it’s portrayal of racism. As soon as Daisy has served her purpose of inciting a revolution her character, and the themes that came along with them are left on the wayside in favor of Booker & Elizabeth’s personal journey.
This is never more obvious than when we see how Elizabeth and Booker view the revolution themselves. Upon learning of their chance to spark a revolution, Elizabeth exclaims that it’s “just like Les Miserables,” referring, of course, to the failed student revolution in Victor Hugo’s novel–an inadequate parallel to the revolution brewing in Columbia.
However, instead of indicating Elizabeth’s privilege and inability to understand the plight of the people of Columbia, it becomes symbolic of Elizabeth’s naive perception of good and evil. As Booker counters later in the game, Fitzroy is just as bad as her oppressor, Comstock, through their use of violence. A fine message, if violence wasn’t the only tool players had for dealing with Columbia’s degeneration as well.
Bioshock Infinite has moments of sheer brilliance spread out through its many hours of gameplay. Navigating the many ins and outs of Columbia was always an exciting experience. The personal journey of Booker and Elizabeth is a compelling one and serves as the backbone of the overall narrative, but it is also unfortunately bogged down by disparate plots and problematic characterization of its side characters. I thoroughly enjoyed my first playthrough of Bioshock Infinite, but upon closer reflection, wished that it followed through with its proposed moral and ideological complexity with the same care it afforded its thesis.
Thanks for watching this episode of Push To Smart. Please like and subscribe if you enjoyed our discussion, and join us next episode where we examine another Troy Baker-starring game from 2013, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.
You…. you just complicate the narrative!
Written and edited by Jaylee and Stacey
Music by DJ MapReduce
Footage from Bioshock Infinite, Bioshock, The Last of Us