Made in America
According to Google, “Boxer Rebellion”, “Pinkerton” and “Wounded Knee” have been trending lately. BioShock Infinite is teaching gamers about the American history that often evades classrooms, churches, and homes. After years at botched attempts at American commentary in games, either failed or cancelled, and much discussion in the academic crowd, Infinite finally delivers subtle, insightful, and fair commentary on America but it feels like no one is noticing.
The internet doesn’t need another editorial on BioShock Infinite‘s narrative, I can imagine you thinking upon seeing this article. I thought the same myself, until I realized that most writers are focusing on the violence of the player’s actions or the science behind Columbia. On my second playthrough of Irrational’s stellar first-person shooter, it became clear that these are only bookends and it’s unfortunate that what comes between them isn’t what is being focused on: America.
Great science-fiction, from The Twilight Zone to Star Trek, provides commentary on the state of our society through the lens of another, offering an outlandish world that parallels ours in ways subtle enough to be lost on the greater populace. Instead of focusing on the present, Infinite focuses on our overlooked past, exploring a history in miniature that isn’t talked about much. It’s the forgotten history of our country.
America never floated away or invented sky-hooks, but the majority of Columbia’s history is not so unlike our own. Columbia isn’t a complete fantasy and that’s what makes Infinite such a brilliant, disturbing, and emotionally complex adventure at times.
Before going further, I must warn that there will be early-to-mid-game plot spoilers.
I also recommend reading Rober Rath’s excellent historic look at Infinite on The Escapist. I will not go as into depth, but I owe his history lesson a great deal as it opened my eyes to what makes Infinite such a smart game.
Booker DeWitt, Infinite‘s anti-hero, is the embodiment of America’s ills of the time that it wished its citizens would quickly forget, ignore, and move past. Booker served at Wounded Knee, where 150-300 Native Americans were slaughtered, many of which were unarmed women and children fleeing. After that, he became an agent at the government funded Pinkerton Agency that hunted down and armed union leaders that protested for fairer treatment at factories and other industries. Whether Booker is a willing participant in 20th century America’s deplorable acts or a victim of being part of a country that would ask him to do these things is something that is left to the player to decide. Perhaps, a closer look at Columbia may guide your feelings.
While Rapture was an outlandish social experiment populated by cartoon psychos that embodied unrestrained Objectivism, Columbia explores unrestrained Capitalism that mirrors America in the early 20th century to a surprisingly accurate degree. Columbia has three leaders that progress the story throughout Infinite: Fink the industrial leader, Fitzroy the anarchist leader, and Comstock the spiritual leader.
To tax the black more than the white, is that not cruel? To forbid the mixing of the races, is that not cruel? To give the vote to the white man, and deny it to the yellow, the black, the red, is that not cruel? Hm. But is it not cruel to banish your children from a perfect garden? Or drown your flock under an ocean of water? Cruelty can be instructive. And what is Columbia, if not the schoolhouse of the Lord? – Comstock
Comstock’s pursuit of spiritually cleansing the world (via fire and brimstone) makes him feel it’s okay if the lower class and minorities are treated like caged animals as long as the true men of worth (read: wealth) live honorable lives. Comstock’s philosophy and actions reflect those of the Third Great Awakening ministers of the mid-to-late 19th century. Comstock’s take may be a bit more extreme, but it’s a fair comparison, nonetheless. These beliefs and leaders also made their way into colleges, industry, and political offices. That Comstock is a spiritual leader who also runs the city is not so far fetched. It’s this philosophy that allows a man like Fink to exist.
The truth is, I don’t have a lot of time for all that prophecy nonsense. I tell you, belief is…is just a commodity. And old Comstock, well, he does produce. But, like any tradesman, he’s obliged to barter his product for the earthly ores. You see, one does not raise a barn on song alone, no sir! Why, that’s Fink timber, a Fink hammer, and Fink’s hand to swing it. He needs me…lest he soil his own. – Jeremiah Fink
Discovering Fink and his hellhole factory Finkton is one of the most interesting parts of Infinite, as it lets the player see what really goes on below the realm of shiny happy people. There are parts of Finkton that seem far too extreme to have ever been part of American history, but it’s really not. Paying employees with time tokens? That happened. Having laborers compete at work auctions? Yes. Threatening unhappy work forces with hired military force? It didn’t stop with Booker leaving the Pinkertons. In fact, most of these awful conditions continued until the 1930s.
You ever see a forest at the beginning of a fire? Before the first flame, you see them possums and squirrels, runnin’ through the trees. They know what’s coming. But the fat bears with their bellies fulla’ honey, well–you can’t hardly wake them up from their comfortable hibernation. We’re going to Emporia. And then, we gon’ see what it takes to rouse them from their slumber. – Daisy Fitzroy
And then there is Fitzroy, who went from Comstock caretaker to being wanted for assassination attempts against the Comstock house. In our history classes, we like to pretend that progress was made in the treatment of factory workers, minorities, and lower class through discussions on Capital Hill. As Infinite so aptly demonstrates, it’s through bloodshed that these discussions were ever even raised. Horrific acts of terrorism, that led to public bombings and the death of innocents, were done on the part of unhappy workers who demanded change, even if it meant death must come first. Fitzroy may be a monster but her environment made her that way. If these class terrorists never acted, would America be what it is today?
This is what I love about Infinite. It demands you to look at America’s history and not ignore the hard truth. Great force is necessary to incite great change. There will always be a janitor to clean up the upper classes’ mess. And unrestrained capitalism can create a society in unrest. But maybe you got something else out of it, because Infinite is so subtle in its delivery that it never tells you what to think. It only asks you to look.
Science fiction serves as a conduit to serving the player a history lesson in condensed time, Wounded Knee, zealots, and worker retaliation all fit on the same platter through the game’s use of science fiction. It paints a much clearer picture of American history, since it is taken out of context and exists in its own little floating utopia. To say that you disagree with Columbia’s actions is to say you disagree with America’s actions of the time, but you likely wouldn’t know it.
It’s unfortunate then that all the interesting ideas, characters, and places of Infinite get thrown out in the final act, as the narrative turns the lens off its world and onto its protagonist. Much like the original BioShock, it’s the world that I invested in and fell in love with so the finale felt like a distraction. So much of a distraction that it seems like the only thing I see people discussing when there is a much more interesting dialog to be had about the game’s representation of early America.
From the abandoned Six Days in Fallujah to the lukewarm Spec Ops: The Line, we’ve often been let down by game developers’ reluctance to provide commentary on America, industry, war, and politics in the way that great films like Apocalypse Now and There Will Be Blood have done. BioShock Infinite is the first game to really put the lens on our country and dare to have us ask ethical questions.
If the downloadable expansions to come don’t further explore the world of Columbia and its combating leader’s ideologies (or explore new ones), I’ll be disappointed because science-fiction is only the tool that gets us to the point of introspection. It is a means to an end, but never the actual end. So, let’s observe, continue this dialog, and hope another developer comes along that is as daring and smart as Irrational. We could use another, but that we focus so heavily on violence and science-fiction logic makes me worry that we may not be mature enough an audience to deserve one.