The video game industry, as much as television or film, has been exploring the possibilities of alternate or fictionalised histories for a long time now. Sometimes overlooked for their importance, sometimes self-confessed by their creators as unintentional in the significance of their re-imaginings, they are becoming increasingly more important sources in the way in which current and, more importantly younger generations, are absorbing information and learning about our past– or at least the past (and sometimes present) that video games portray. Whether you play for the challenges of battles, or shooting a variety of weapons and using fancy powers, or look past these possibilities to question the themes, ideologies and philosophies it explores, Bioshock Infinite presents the player with an incredibly rich experience.
Note: there’s no possible way I could write about all aspects of this game I’ve wanted to without this becoming a book, so this is just a brief(ish) exploration, for now. I’m sure after playing everyone will come away with a different idea, interpretation, or opinion.
(THERE WILL BE SPOILERS!)
Choice and Perceptions of Existence
Robert Lutece: Why do you ask “what?”…
Rosalind Lutece: When the delicious question is “when?”
Robert: The only difference between past and present…
Rosalind: is semantics.
Robert: Lives, lived, will live.
Rosalind: Dies, died, will die.
Robert: If we could perceive time as it really was…
Rosalind: what reason would grammar professors have to get out of bed?
Depending on your personal experience, Bioshock Infinite could be subtle or painfully obvious in the way it communicates not only history, but also greater questions of existence and being. The intricacies can be totally missed, or at least gotten at via the more superficial route of completing the game by gunning your way through, rather than taking the time to collect and listen to Voxophone recorded messages from key characters, enabling the player to piece the mysteries together as they go.
The most crucial elements of Bioshock Infinite are those of choice, and that with choice comes infinite possibilities. While choices do not necessarily affect gameplay outcomes as much as in other games that could be mentioned, the player is consistently confronted (and equally mindboggled) by the existence of infinite strands of different and opposing realities, all existing simultaneously. The possibility of shifting between those is imagined and eventually attained by physicist Rosalind Lutece, who creates ‘tears’ in the fabric of time in order to reunite herself with her ‘brother’ Robert, trapped in another space and time. Without wanting to spoil too much more of the story, these jumps between space and time are the bones of the storyline of this game, and act as a catalyst through which we can question the nature of existence, and the possibilities and determination of our own destinies.
American Columbian Exceptionalism
These core, gigantic questions about the nature of time and existence are set against a backdrop of known ‘truths’ and realities of American history.
In the world of Bioshock Infinite, Columbia is a former American State created in 1893. It hovers in the clouds thanks to the scientific efforts of Rosalind Lutece. In this “new world” a fundamentally conservative, racist, slave-owning, religious and political extremist mindset is bred, and the original Founding Fathers of America have become saints to devotees who are led by “The Prophet”, Zachary Comstock. Comstock hopes to preserve his line with his child, Elizabeth, known as “The Lamb”, the one who will continue Columbia’s salvation and finally lead its people to heaven, to freedom, and to the destruction of the impure, sinful world of America below. Meanwhile, a revolutionary uprising is being initiated by a group known as the Vox Populi. The Vox represent the working, enslaved classes– those exploited by the capitalist white elite, and looking to remove their opressors from power. So first, we have a little of the past, melded together with perhaps a little of the ongoing present, and of course, the age-old class struggle.
The protagonist of the story, Booker DeWitt, is the player’s character: a soldier turned private investigator charged with the task of capturing Elizabeth and returning her to New York City, in exchange for the removal of his gambling debts. It is through these key characters (Comstock, DeWitt, Elizabeth, and the Lutece’s) and altered historical components that the story and examinations of time unfold.
Im not sure how (if at all) intentional it was to make the Booker DeWitt/Zachary Comstock question an allegory for American identity and past action, but it’s an interesting theme to look at nonetheless. Booker DeWitt is a brutal hero of the Battle of Wounded Knee, a stain on America’s past. Nicknamed ‘The White Injun’, Booker returns from war scarred by his experiences and barbaric actions. In his dismay, he turns to Christian baptism as a form of redemption, and here we have our first major fracture in time– the point from which infinite possibilities splinter away. The version of Booker who redeems himself is reborn as Zachary Hale Comstock, fanatically religious and powerful leader of the extreme-nationalist, all-white political party The Founders. The version of Booker who does not accept baptism remains Booker DeWitt, and through his guilt and tortured conscience descends into a pit of gambling, further brutality and alcoholism that results in the loss of himself and even his own daughter, Anna. Each of the two alternatives has its own multiple splinters of personality; Booker as the False Shepherd who will ruin Columbia’s salvation, or the Martyr of the Revolution, saviour of the Vox Populi, freer of slaves and ridder of oppression; Zachary Comstock as The Prophet, another kind of saviour or the ultimate antagonist, oppressor and villain. But which is worse? Both are brutal, both are morally warped, and both do things to their ‘child’ that are unspeakably awful. They are, as we are always reminded, two sides of the same coin. Being redeemed of past brutalities and actions, and reinventing yourselves anew as something else does not mean you are any different, just another splice of reality.
Booker DeWitt lives in the world of conventional America, whereas the new world that Comstock creates and rules is seen by his followers as the true, pure America– purer than it’s worldly motherland, which has become to them nothing but “Sodom”. In a scathing critique on turn of the Twentieth-Century America, to Columbians ideals of “American Exceptionalism” continue with them, not the land-based United States which has lost sight of its founding moral principals– which in the Columbian agenda apparently consist of preserving the dominance of the white Christian race. This confrontation, and Columbia’s secession from the Union it sees as now imperfect, comes about after another alternate historical event: during a world tour to show off America’s technological, ideological and scientific prowess, Columbia takes up arms against the Boxer Rebellion of 1901, proving to be only another powerful weapon in America’s arsenal. Rather than American in its exceptionalism upholding the mission of spreading liberty and democracy, Columbia’s is to destroy all those in opposition; all other nations and people viewed as impure, even the American homeland itself.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that Columbia’s version of the Statue of Liberty, “Monument Island”, houses ‘The Seed’, ‘The Lamb’, aka Elizabeth– the one who will carry on Comstock’s line and bring about the destruction of all those below Columbia’s clouds. As Lady Liberty exemplified the ideals of liberty and democracy, and open arms to all the world, a future imagining of Elizabeth and her tower in the shape of an angel of salvation exemplifies the more fundamentalist principles of Columbia’s leaders– destruction or exploitation of all those beneath them.
It’s not the only time prominent American iconography is used or exploited in Bioshock Infinite. One of the main enemies in combat is the Motorized Patriot, a mechanical version of figures of American history that have become sacred to Columbians. Comstock and his allies, the traditional antagonists of the game, employ a Patriot in the form of George Washington; a traditional Founding Father, a perfect icon for these new Founders. On the other hand, the Vox Populi uses a Patriot in the form of Abraham Lincoln, ’emancipator’ and freer of slaves, icon of a civil war very much symbolic of the one being waged in the new Columbia, but just as deadly as its Washington counterpart. In the context of this game these two ‘Patriots’ are alike in their abilities but, and perhaps historically, so different in their causes and motives (or at least, the motives these robots have been programmed with). Icons and elements of American history are so often evoked and often take on new meanings and symbolisms, highlighting how easily and dangerously such icons can be manipulated to convey different meanings to different people, seeking very different things.
There are too many other themes to be explored here that are of historical significance to those who seek them: ideas of memory, and the images of the past the mind will create in their absence, and so much more to be said on the ways in which the past is reshaped, replayed, reinvented, engaged with and experienced anew by generations who can now access history in many diverse new ways. But Bioshock Infinite will cause those people who want to be provoked in such a way to think about history not as ‘the past’, but as what could have been, what will come, and what has happened– seeing alternatives, asking “What ifs?”, and learning about true realities, despite their being warped to fit into the game’s proxy-historical narrative. As a text it might serve as a reminder of the dangers of extremism, while perhaps educating us on how close we have, at times, come to it. It forces us to ask questions about notions of historical truth– which version, or perhaps whose version of the past is more true than others? It shows the seamless ease with which the past can be manipulated and morphed into alternative realities and memories– not only by figures of power but by contemporaries seeking to reinvent it for a particular means or message, or maybe just for entertainment’s sake alone. It also forces us to ask even more personal questions: If we choose one path, where would the other have led us? If we act in a certain way, how different will our world be? If we seek redemption, to what extent will we actually be saved?