So, when the promotional images for Bioshock Infinite first came out I was interested to see that the game was going to cover racism. I wanted to see how the game was going to approach it. Were we going to get fully realised characters who happened to be ethnic minorities in Columbia? Or were they just going to be random NPC’s that needed to be saved and spout off the occasional line about being grateful? Well, thankfully, we didn’t get the latter, but we certainly didn’t get the former either.
(TL; DR: I found Bioshock Infinite’s portrayal of the Vox Populi and the racism in that time period to be disappointing and clichéd.)
Edit 20/12/2013: Took out the video and screenshot because I wasn't sure if I could use them, and I guess they weren't really necessary anyway.
Teach 'em young
The Vox Populi is a militant group opposed to Comstock and the Founders, led by Daisy Fitzroy. They are made up of Asians, Blacks and Native Americans, as well as the white working class of Columbia. They also happen to be ridiculously underdeveloped. For a start there are only three named ethnic minority characters in the whole game: Daisy Fitzroy, Chen Lin and Ty Bradley. All of whom die and are given limited screen time. There are no named poor white people; in fact you only witness them in the slums.
A Voxophone only character, Ty was a worker in Monument Island who did cleaning and maintenance in the restricted area where Elizabeth was kept. He is implied to have been killed by the singularities happening in the complex.
A Chinese gunsmith living in Columbia who was secretly supplying weapons and ammunition to the Vox Populi. In one universe, Chen is Buddhist and his wife, May Lin, is Chinese. In another universe his wife is Sarah Lin, she’s white and he follows Comstock’s religion. Chen dies in all of the universes visited. That’s basically all you learn about Chen.
I think we encounter two Daisy Fitzroys. The first Daisy Fitzroy hijacks the airship and offers Booker a place in the Vox Populi. He declines and she orders Booker to go and get weapons from the gunsmith if he wants the airship back. Then she shoves him off the airship. That’s all we see and hear from her in this particular universe. Booker and Elizabeth find Chen Lin but he’s dead. So, Elizabeth opens a tear into another universe where he’s alive, but the tools are somewhere else. While exploring this universe, Booker and Elizabeth remark that Comstock and Fitzroy are as bad as each other.
Wait, what? Did I miss a Voxophone or something?
Bear in mind that I haven’t seen Daisy do anything yet. At this point in the game, however, I have seen what Comstock’s guys have done to “undesirables”. The Fraternal Order of the Raven torture and kill people who aren’t white and you can throw baseballs at interracial couples at the raffle. Finkerton doesn’t pay the workers at his factory, leaving them homeless and starving. It’s obvious that Comstock has framed Daisy for the murder of his wife. Daisy chucking Booker off an airship is not quite the same thing.
Anyway, Elizabeth and Booker hop to another universe. Here, an alternate Booker joined the Vox Populi and was killed, becoming a martyr. Fitzroy is freaked out by the pair and decides to send the Vox Populi after them. In this universe, you can find some Voxophones that state that Daisy has been using children in the uprising. This honestly should have been mentioned a lot sooner and would have given a lot of weight to Booker and Elizabeth’s comments in the previous universe.
Daisy kills Finkerton and is about to murder his kid when Elizabeth intervenes and kills her with a pair of scissors.
Yes, Daisy gets disposed of very quickly.
She had the potential to be a great character, only her transition from well-meaning revolutionary to a child killer seemed forced and hackneyed. It just happens far too quickly; she doesn’t have enough screen time or Voxophone recordings. At the very least, they could have fleshed out Daisy Fitzroy in both universes so that you could tell the difference between the two. Look at Big Boss from the Metal Gear series. He used child soldiers on the battlefield and he’s still portrayed as a sympathetic, multi-faceted character. Also, Comstock genuinely cared for Elizabeth in his own twisted way, so I don’t see why Daisy couldn’t have been developed further.
Only two people in the Vox Populi get their own Voxophone recordings and that’s Daisy Fitzroy and Cornelius Slate. Preston Downs and Vivian Monroe start off on Comstock’s side and then join the Vox Populi. We don’t get to hear from anyone else on that side of the conflict, not even the poor white people. All the other Voxophone recordings are from the privileged, rich, white, upper-classes. You don’t even get to hear from other ethnic minorities and poor white people who didn’t want to join the Vox Populi. And why would joining the Vox Populi be the only option available to them? Wouldn’t it have eventually splintered into different movements, like how the Fraternal Order of the Raven are fundamentalists murdering ethnic minorities while the Founders are more concerned with keeping people in their place?
The Vox Populi are portrayed as murderers who scalp people. There is no nuance to them, no attempt to empathise with them. We don’t even know who took over the Vox Populi after Daisy died, he’s just a voice coming from a speakerphone. Conversely, the people on Comstock’s side get more character development. Even Finkerton gets more screen time then Daisy. I suppose you could argue that the way Columbia treats ethnic minorities and poor white people is a self-fulfilling prophecy: treat them like savages and they will retaliate savagely. But then, why would every single member of the Vox Populi behave in the exact same manner? As an example, early on in the game, Booker can hide in the house of a white, rich couple who are against slavery. There could have just as easily been scenes, say, where a member of the Vox Populi lets a civilian go instead of killing him/her. Or in one area you can hear a member of the Vox Populi ordering rebels not to kill civilians and only go for the Police and Founder soldiers. It would be a contrast to other members of the Vox Populi shouting about murdering everyone and taking everything.
Booker and Comstock are revealed to have Native American ancestry, but this is never expanded upon, and it’s not central to plot or character development. An alternate Booker can speak Sioux and translates for a Native American boy but that’s as far as it goes.
I didn’t like how the game reduced both sides of the conflict to “they’re both as bad as each other.” How is actively choosing to oppress people and treat them as less than human the same as retaliating?
The racism that occurred in that time period wasn’t explored thoroughly. It was basically set-dressing. Most of the characters you meet are on the privileged side. The ethnic minorities and poor white people get fobbed off with one slum level.
Now, to be fair to Bioshock Infinite, the way racism is portrayed is quite similar to how historical racism is portrayed in other mediums. For example, in TV dramas set in the past, the quickest way to show that someone is a bad guy is to make them ridiculously racist.
The quickest way to show that someone is a good person is to make them against racism and slavery.
When I say racism is used as a prop in the game, this is what I’m talking about. It’s the treatment and attitude of ethnic minorities being used to show the moral compass of a (usually) white person, to show if they’re a decent person or an evil person. We know that Father Comstock is the bad guy because he’s racist and he has whole organizations devoted to murdering ethnic minorities. Chen Lin and his wife get offed, to once again, show us that Comstock is brutal. Daisy Fitzroy becomes a monster because of Comstock’s actions and gets killed by Elizabeth so that Elizabeth can feel guilty over murdering someone and make us feel sympathetic towards her.
So, know we know exactly how evil Comstock is, let’s forget all about the racism and focus on multiple universes! And meta commentary on game design!
Yeah, I was expecting a lot better than this. For example, even though Assassin Creed 3’s gameplay was average and Connor was a bit boring, it still approached the themes of racism and revolution in much more balanced and thoughtful way. Granted, the American Revolution was a real historical event and there is lots of material and perspectives to draw from compared to a fictional city in the sky with flying, magical racists. Bioshock 2 ‘s DLC Minerva’s Den had Charles Milton Porter, who was a much more developed and well-written character. That one exchange with his colleague who tells him to splice white to get ahead in Rapture, tells you all you need to know about how he was perceived in society. I haven’t played Burial at Sea yet, so I have no idea if the topic of racism in Rapture will be further explored.
To summarise, I found Bioshock Infinite’s portrayal of the Vox Populi and the racism in that time period to be disappointing and clichéd. If you’re going to create a game that focuses on racism, please make sure your ethnic minority characters are just as developed and important as the white characters. Seriously.