Monday, 3 July 2017

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite, a 2013 first-person shooter style video game released by designer Irrational Games and publisher 2K, is both a stunning visual feast and a provocative reflection on both the Scientific Romances of the Victorian-Edwardian Era and the modern socio-political climate in the West. The first Bioshock game was heralded as an artistic masterpiece of modern gaming, marrying an astonishing setting with interesting philosophical concept. In the original game's case, it was a critique of Ayn Rand's economic theory in an Art Deco city under the ocean gone to rot... A survival horror set in a submarine Fountainhead, though ostensibly better written, which extended into a meta-reflection on the very nature of video gaming itself. Bioshock Infinite continues this legacy of using video games as a medium to dissect the nightmare of political and economic utopias by way of a Victorian floating city.

This chapter takes place in 1912 in a city above the clouds dubbed "Columbia." The player takes on the persona of Booker DeWitt, a veteran of the Battle of Wounded Knee and former Pinkerton who has been commissioned to extract a mysterious girl from this man-made Heaven. Making his way to a storm-tossed lighthouse in Maine, DeWitt is locked in a rocket capsule and fired high above the torrent. Sun breaks and bathes a wonder of aerial skyscrapers and flying machines in a golden glow. All of this is the vision of the so-called prophet Zachary Hale Comstock, who claims to have received a vision from the angel Columbia – the personification of the United States in the same fashion as Britannia for Great Britain and Marianne for France – at the Battle of Wounded Knee. In order to enter what has been fashioned as a "New Eden," DeWitt must undergo baptism into Comstock's cult of personality.

Whereas the original Bioshock examined Objectivism, Infinite explores the concept of American Exceptionalism. Columbia is very much like a hypercharged Tea Party, Alt-Right Republican vision of the United States filtered through Disneyland's Main Street USA. Comstock's ever-present propaganda uses the iconography of Christianity and speaks of God, but its religion is the United States itself. After emerging from his near-drowning at baptism, the first thing DeWitt sees are statues of "Father" Washington, "Father" Jefferson and "Father" Franklin, the prophets of America. Wandering the streets of Columbia is very much like visiting a theme park: pristine, gleaming, gilded, delightfully old timey, gay (in the original sense), with red, white and blue bunting, balloons and even parades. Yet there are also posters cautioning racial purity and fidelity to the cult. Abraham Lincoln is vilified as a serpent leading America astray and one of the amusements of the local fair is pelting a pair of miscegenationists with baseballs. Infinite's version of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, called the "Hall of Heroes," is even more transparent than its Disneyland counterpart. In it, the player walks through funhouse versions of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion, complete with howling redskins and the yellow peril.

The setting is appropriate to the theme as more than just a Steampunk window-dressing (in fact it is considerably better than Steampunk, as it is better studied in what Victorian-Edwardian aesthetics actually looked like). Exceptionalism stands on a foundation of misbegotten nostalgia for a conservative "golden age" usually placed before the First World War and its subsequent perceived rise in modernist attitudes. The beginning of the 20th century was considered at the time to be a bright era full of technological possibility. The only comparable era since was the fervour of the early Atomic Age and the Space Race. Like with the Fifties, some also have a tendency to look upon the Victorian-Edwardian Era as a more moralistic time, a utopia of conservative values.

Racism was endemic to this period, and the only people more racist than the conservatives were the liberals. Belief in technological progress and moral development married in the doctrine of human perfectibility, specifically in the realm of eugenics, which was all the rage among the liberal intelligentsia. The concept of ennobling racial heritage and the weeding out of "inferior stock" was an accepted part of the zeitgeist right up to its ultimate flowering in the Holocaust. Even the women's suffrage movement supported such things as the sterilization of mental and moral "defectives." It is unavoidable in the Scientific Romances of the time, particularly those penned by American authors. Unfortunately eugenics still rears its head among the fashionable, going by any number of terms like "transhumanism" or "intelligently-designed morality." The implicit racism and classism of promoting eugenics in a society where even basic health coverage is not universal should be obvious, but the only significant opposition to the far leftist side of the American "culture war" is the straight-up, old-fashion, sheet-wearing racial bigotry of far right wing types. Being a fan of Scientific Romances fosters a strong filter for racism by accepting it as an artefact of its time and thereby compartmentalizing it to better appreciate the aesthetics of the genre. Like Main Street USA, Columbia is a gorgeous place... so long as you can get past the creepy American ultra-nationalism and fundamentalistic cult of personality. Bioshock Infinite calls direct attention to it.

Like any society of affluence then or now, doctrines of racism, classism, sexism and heterosexism serve an express purpose in maintaining the system of oppression on which the society enjoys its affluence. The Antebellum South, for example, was not gratuitously racist. Racism provided an ideological support for the economic reality of slavery. Belief in the inferiority of Native Americans justified the practice of expansionism. The furor over illegal immigration in the United States is not really about protecting American workers or the American "way of life" from Latino hordes. It's about protecting the profit margins of those people who employ migrant workers so as to avoid minimum wage laws and benefits packages. Comstock's New Eden also has to face this reality even though it was built to literally rise above the unwashed, dark-skinned masses. As one of the characters, Columbia's main industrialist, observes in one of the "voxophone" recordings scattered like Easter eggs throughout the game, no one wants to be a menial in Heaven.

Thus we get the Vox Populi, Latin for "Voice of the People," a workers revolt composed primarily of African-Americans and the Irish. In true turn-of-the-previous-century fashion, even the Irish are not considered white enough in Columbia, thanks to their red hair, incorrigible Papism and, worst of all, their willingness to undercut wages with cheap labour. Literally beneath the gleaming thoroughfares and airways of Main Street Columbia lies the squalor of the Negro and "White Negro" tenements.

The temptation of any work of genre fiction involving issues of class is to swing too far in the other direction. These stories lionize the revolutionaries, a Che Guevara-like idealizing them in ways eerily similar to the ways in which Fr. Comstock and the Founding Fathers were deified in the world of Infinite. This always rings false to those better acquainted with the era and who know that both the left and the right bore racial assumptions, and that the temperance and eugenics movements went hand-in-hand with the suffragettes. The Vox Populi are the Anti-fa or Black Lives Matter to Comstock's Alt-Right Tea Party, and the central Science Fictional twist of the game allows us to see parallel worlds where Columbia is ruled by both. To its credit, the disturbingly prescient Bioshock Infinite is an equal opportunity iconoclast of utopian promises.

Had the game centred only on a flying city in 1912, it would be a nice retro-Edwardian Scientific Romance. The mystery of the girl DeWitt has been sent to retrieve turns it into a legitimate piece of Science Fiction making good use of the concept of parallel worlds with a bit of "just so" quantum mechanics. The opening dialogue when DeWitt is being conducted to the lighthouse where he is carried up to Columbia suggests something off, but it is difficult to make much of until the second play-through. Our real first indication that there is more here than even a flying city is a barbershop quartet singing a Beach Boys ditty. It is eventually revealed that the city is kept aloft by "quantum levitation" and that this, along with the mysterious girl named Elizabeth, is causing tears in space-time to appear throughout the metropolis.

One of the more ingenious novelties of the game is drawing links between quantum theory and religion. A voxophone recording early in the game has Fr. Comstock meditating on whether a baptized man is both sinner and saint, redeemed and unredeemed, until he emerges from the waters to be seen by the eyes of other men... An interesting variation on Shrodinger's Cat. Later Comstock also wonders on what happens to the sinner after the saint emerges. Are they still alive somewhere in some other world? Then there are the questions of what exactly the gift of prophecy is when all of space and time and the multiverse is spread open before you.

This marrying of religion, American Exceptionalism and quantum theory provided further controversy for Bioshock Infinite. One player received a refund from Irrational Games because he refused to undergo the baptism at the beginning of the game that allows DeWitt to enter Columbia. A designer for the company actually went so far as to hand in his resignation as progress reached the game's conclusion. To his credit, creative director Ken Levine sat down with the employee and discovered that doing so helped him to write a more convincing and substantive ending to the game that better understood religious motivation rather than treating it as a stock boogeyman (as well as convincing the employee not to quit).

Sensitivity to these motivations affects an even broader theme to Bioshock Infinite than either issues of race, politics or quantum mechanics. It is ultimately a story of redemption and the lengths that people may go to find it. In some cases, this quest may cause even more suffering when a clean conscience only serves to justify dirty deeds. Sadly the game does not offer a more positive vision of a healthy prescription for reconciliation than it does a critique of pathological pursuit of redemption, but what it does say is still a far greater work of art than simply shooting up bad guys or hunting through castles for princesses.

One of the most surprising things about Bioshock Infinite for fans of the Bioshock series was the fact that it was almost an entirely different game in an entirely different setting. The original game was followed up by Bioshock 2, developed not by the team of Kevin Levine but the ringer 2K Marin. Infinite virtually threw it all out the window by being the equivalent of a socio-political action movie taking place in a floating city in 1912 instead of a claustrophobic survival horror set in an underwater city in 1960.

There were thematic echoes to be sure, and Infinite inherited some affectations of the Bioshock series that ended up making very little sense in this game's context, like the DNA-altering Plasmids that were turned into literal magic potions that didn't feel like an organic part of an Edwardian theocracy. Nevertheless, Bioshock could easily be ignored by a fan of Infinite and by all rights could make an excellent stand-alone film.

Unfortunately, a story that was over when the screen faded to black is never truly over when there is $20 to be made in downloadable content. Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea is a two-episode addendum to Infinite and prequel to Bioshock that adds more to the latter than to the former. Somehow, through the twisting of quantum mechanics, Booker and Elizabeth end up in the underwater city of the first game, on the eve of the disaster that caused the Art Deco Objectivist utopia to descend into horror and madness. Through the course of their new adventure, the connections between this city and Columbia are uncovered and everything is brought full circle.

The problem with this notion of bringing everything full circle is that the story of Infinite was complete. Nothing meaningful could be added to it thematically and plot-wise, its conclusion left no room for a sequel. The only way that Levine's team could find a way around that was by effectively undoing that ending for the benefit of tying it to the first Bioshock. Besides visits to previously unseen areas of Columbia, like the offices and labs of moustache-twirling Victorian industrialist Jeremiah Fink, the most needful part of Burial at Sea looks at some of the key events of Infinite from a different perspective. Those sequences, involving Vox Populi leader Daisy Fitzroy, legitimately add something onto Infinite by enriching it's middle act rather than just tacking more onto the end. That enrichment wonderfully reinforces the themes of the proper game and one almost wishes that they had found some way of including it in that.

Another downloadable addition to Bioshock Infinite was Clash in the Clouds, a combat arena. In previously unseen areas of Columbia, players can practice mowing down waves of gendarmes and Victorian cyborgs. For offline play, Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia board game by Plaid Hat Games and designer Isaac Vega lets players control the armies of Comstock and Fitzroy in a ramped up version of Risk for the non-casual wargamer. Because the development of a board game takes some time, The Siege of Columbia bears some evidence of concepts that never made it into the finished video game. Jeremiah Fink, for instance, looks more like the creepy, weasely character from the concept art than the more stately industrialist he eventually became. Staltonstall, from the Bioshock Infinite promotional reel, makes an appearance with what looks like one of the non-lethal weapon versions of the Skyhook depicted in concept art.

Clash in the Clouds trailer.

Siege of Columbia parts and pieces.

A setting as rich as Bioshock Infinite's begs for interesting marketing and merchandise. One advertisement came in the form of a two-part documentary from the 1980's seeking to unravel the mystery of the lost floating city.

NECA released a series of collectors toys of our heroes and some more distinctive villains, but the real bonanza has been in game replicas. Various companies have made replicas of the Skyhook, Vigor bottles, Elizabeth's cameo, the key to Elizabeth's tower, and even the Silver Eagle coins that serve as Columbia's currency.

Unfortunately the chaos involved in Bioshock Infinite's lengthy production process soured Ken Levine towards working on another. Irrational Games severely downsized and restructured, with Levine stating that they would henceforth work on smaller types of games. It may be that the Bioshock franchise stops here, but it is hard to believe that 2K is willing to let something that profitable and acclaimed go to rest without a fight. It may be that another game will someday be released, tackling yet another utopian nightmare. 

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