Art book shows a new perspective of Columbia
Almost a month after its release, BioShock Infinite is still on my mind, but not for the reasons you might suspect. If you grow tired of seeing the game plastered on just about every gaming website, magazine, and TV commercial, fear not. This commentary does not exist to reiterate the title’s excellence nor is it a rant geared at opposing such praise. Instead, I’d like to shine some light on the world of Columbia before it was a fully realized sky-bound paradise; years ago when the idea of the game was just gaining traction in the imaginations of Ken Levine and creative team at Irrational Games.
After traversing every nook and cranny of the firmament-born dystopia and following the tale of Booker DeWitt and the dimension-tearing Elizabeth not one, not two, but three times, I happily retired BioShock Infinite to its rightful place in my gaming library while tucking away my many admirations into a mental filing cabinet. I’m finally done, or so I told myself before I received an unsuspecting gift shortly after the exhausting completion.
As a spur-of-the-moment present (my friends are amazing), I was given The Art of BioShock Infinite, an art book showcasing a collection of illustrations, concepts, and ideas crafted throughout the game’s development process.
I’m not a game designer or an artist, and as much as I admire the aesthetics of a game as beautiful as BioShock Infinite, I didn’t exactly jump for joy at the sight of a book full of drawings. That is until I took the time to flip through each page, examine every picture, and peruse all the hand-written annotations. You would be quite surprised to discover just how different Infinite was in its early stages.
A city of fragile perfection, the Columbia that we know floats in-between heaven and Earth, residing amongst the cloudy skies of idyllic wonder and concealed malevolence. Serving as a symbol of righteousness, the prophet Comstock’s vision of religious purity and American ideology conceived a metropolis more picturesque than nature, seamless perfection in stark contrast to the Sodom below. Before humanity’s palace of excellence was stained in the blood of Dewitt’s increasing body count, it was pristine, tangibly unspoiled despite the ethereal philosophies of overt racism, sexism, and classism.
Derived from the essence of its predecessors, BioShock Infinite embodied many of the series’ thematic aspirations: questions of self-determination, pursuit of sovereignty, persistence of greed, and the nature of choice, all while deviating from the atmospheric spirit personified by the underwater city of Rapture. Despite the many differences between the newcomer and the previous installments, the three shared quite a few similarities during the infancy of the project from ambiance and landscape design, to enemy types and other conceptual elements.
Before the sky-city of Columbia was born, developers explored the sensibilities of brainstormed elements inside a vacuum. Unhindered by receptivity of a narrative outline, many ideas would surface, but only a select few would color the final product. As expressed by visual depictions and accompanied footnotes within the art book, multiple environmental concepts emerged as plausible settings for Infinite. From an Art Nouveau world inspired by the unruly aspects of the natural world, to a derelict utopia far past its prime, the main aspect of the game, the hovering aesthetic of Columbia, was surprisingly absent during the early stages of conceptualization.
From a collection of disconnected ideas to the final product, the most dramatic divergence in the evolution of BioShock Infinite undoubtedly resides with the enemy design. Capitalizing on the essence of dimensional rifts, early renderings showcase a slew of bad guys that harshly contrast the normalcy of the opponent types in the completed game.
Man-eating brutes who morph into more monstrous forms after feasting on human flesh, a little girl with a face caged behind torn bloody bars, and numerous other gory, creepy, and lurid imagery tint the pages of the illustrative collection. Borrowing from Andrew Ryan’s aquatic landscape, Vigor junkies also make an appearance in the art compilation, bearing the drastic physical effects of vigor addiction similar to the splicers of previous games.
One notable example is an adversary fused together by quantum rifts. These grotesque monstrosities reflect different instances of a person together in one body, the merging of realities in the faces of enemies. Drawings depict a man with features of both an infant and an elderly gentleman sprawled haphazardly across a nightmarish face. If you thought the splicers from the original where menacing or plain ugly, they’re nothing compared to the eerie visuals left on Infinite’s editing room floor.
Besides being a pretty cool book, The Art of BioShock Infinite showcases the creative process of the game’s development in a hands-on, artistic medium. Blending the boundaries between old and new, borrowing from early elements in the franchise while crafting something unique, BioShock Infinite truly epitomizes a hodge podge of symbols, aesthetics, and atmospheric clout that has evolved drastically from beginning to end.
While the book can only represent a microscopic fragment of the overall design process, viewing step by step as the Songbird transformed from an off-putting Big Daddy with wings into a hulking yet emotionally-compelling beast is an experience that necessitates respect for the characters, the story, and the world of Infinite.
If you’re curious about the visuals of BioShock Infinite and all of its intricacies, definitely check out the art book at your leisure. If you are looking for more of a detailed background you might be a bit disappointed by the few contextual annotations present, however.
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