God Only Knows: Some Musings on Bioshock Infinite

There’s a lot that’s been said about Bioshock Infinite and the rafters of the internet creak with the mass of speculation and praise that the game has received. That will not stop us for a second. So here, with the caveat that I’m not going to use any traditional structure for this article and will leap from idea to idea, is what I took from Bioshock Infinite. There will be spoilers after the break. This is a warning. Do not read further without completing the game.

bioshock infinite founding fathers

The world-building in BI is sublime. It’s something that the Bioshock series has done rather well previously, but they’ve reached the pinnacle here. The ascension into Columbia is blatantly a homage to the original descent into Rapture and the lighthouse at the beginning, well, we’ll get to that later. It’s the slow ascent that allows you a glimpse at the towering statues and floating architecture that becomes your battleground, the enemy territory of a foe all too familiar. People saunter its cheery lanes and pathways, giggling, buying, loving; they’re us, miles above the clouds. The posters and banners that punctuate the hovering homes seem so wholesome and so vintage and then you’re at a raffle and the prize is to begin the beating to death of an interracial couple. Then you realise the people sauntering the city streets are white people, affluent people. With a single moment you understand that the world of Columbia is not only one of boulevards and buoyant buildings, but one of bigotry. A world ostensibly happy, only with the racism apparent upon even a superficial look? Doesn’t seem like anything I can think of.

Speaking of which. The familiarity of the otherworldly Columbia seeks to confuse as well as act as an emotional anchor for the player. Much has been made of the anachronistic pop songs that creep into the game’s soundtrack (and rightly so; they remain one of the less subtle glimpses into the intricacies of the Tears), but we should be talking about their role, not the fact we recognise them. They’re the normal world. They’re the songs we’ve heard repeated on radio stations and heard blasted in shopping centres. But these songs, so familiar, are produced in new ways; music-boxes and barbershop quartets act to make the songs alien to our ears and we need to strain to recognise old favourites. Homely, yet alien. Just like Columbia itself.

bioshock infinite god only knows

Got to shoot a lot of folk too, both fascist and revolutionary alike. The combat grew on me as the game continued; the actual enemies were rarely ever that interesting for me (to learn about, their position in the society and their origins, sure; to fight, not really), but the mobility and the battlegrounds were fantastic. The skyhook works as a fast-travel system for the battlefield, a dynamic way to reach vantage points and cover that Elizabeth can pop into existence with a brief press of the F key. Setting up a turret to slow down the advance on one side of a plaza while you fly to the other side, dropping fiery traps along the way, is exhilarating. The guns were pretty dull though, I must say. Pick one that isn’t the pistol, buy all the upgrades for it and you’re set. The carbine never stopped being useful, and as such, excluded the other weapons; a headshot dropping most foes in a single bullet, thankfully getting around the ammo scarcity that crops up when Elizabeth isn’t present as an ammo depot.

The polarisation of the Vox Populi rather annoyed me though. I understand that a violent insurrection would be necessary against a religious/military dictatorship, but Daisy leapt straight into the role of villain so quickly. I recently read the tie-in novel that described how she was kept in a behavioural adjustment centre and even with this back story, the fact she leapt to the murder of a child was perhaps a step too far. There wasn’t enough build-up to the movement, perhaps a side-effect of the dimensional leaping that leads to that scenario. I did, however, think that the Vox Populi scalping their enemies was a nice touch. Comstock and Slate together emphasise the foes at Wounded Knee throughout the game and the almost karmic revenge of the Vox Populi just works.

bioshock infinite raffle

Which brings us to the ending. It’s a spectacular deconstruction not only of the Bioshock series, but also of gaming as whole; the protagonist not only a mere step away from being the villain of the piece, but also corralled through the same stories and the same general shape of the story each time. The Booker/Comstock twist at the end is subtly hinted at when Elizabeth first runs from the carnage the player as Booker enacts; you’ve murdered dozens of people in front of her and she reacts as any human should: with disgust and fear and panic The callousness that the player encompasses matches that of the main antagonist.

In the ending, each lighthouse you see is the beginning not only of a Bioshock Infinite, but of all previous Bioshocks and all future Bioshocks. It does leave me wondering exactly how they intend to bring in DLC (an alternate universe, you’d assume), but also leaves me almost positive that they’ve killed the series off. There’s nowhere to go from here; each story would have to ignore the ending and the meta-analysis of the series and self-consciously pretend that they’re not part of the extensive multiverse of Bioshock stories. They’ve written themselves into one hell of a hole.

So that’s some opinions I have regarding Bioshock Infinite. I’m sure you have more and want to scream them at me, so feel free to do so in the comments; I’ll keep an eye on the piece and I’ll try to promote a dialogue about the game. It’s an important game, regardless of whether it’s a good or bad game. So let’s talk.

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2 thoughts on “God Only Knows: Some Musings on Bioshock Infinite

  1. Neil says:

    It’s interesting to look at the story as a journey from a dream sitting atop a nightmare, where the punctuations into the nightmare become more and more frequent. The lighting and atmosphere of Columbia is very dreamlike to the point that it’s literally in the clouds. The Vox Populi can come to represent the totality of that nightmare sitting inside Columbia. It’s no error that the Vox rapidly turn on you over something that makes so little sense if we consider this world to operate like a dream – they are Booker’s nightmare of Wounded Knee and this is made obvious from their scalping and war cries. They turn on him because they are Booker’s nightmare of his sin made real.

    We can pull this analogy back further to see Booker as America’s past and Elizabeth as America’s future. Booker is trying to come to terms with and fight against the sins that he is directly responsible for (the Vox/Wounded Knee Massacre, Slate as hero, Comstock/Us nativism and slavery). These are the incidents and horrors that would shape Elizabeth into what she would become in the 80s if these sins are not accounted for. The narrative suggests that America must come to terms with its history of racism, slavery, genocide, war, atrocity, oppression, etc. It can’t ignore it or pretend that it didn’t happen and hope for good to come in some unspecified future.

    This ‘easy’ route would be to mythologize history and pretend the US is a paragon of for all that is good in the world. In this sense, just as history revisionists like to leave out the nasty parts of a country’s past, Elizabeth attempts to literally write the bad things, which all happen as a direct result of the sins of her father, out of existence with no regard for how that change affects the people around her.

    Clearly the solution to global imperialism is a fifteen minute narrative dump from Jesus and a suicide by baptism pact for all citizens every where at every when.

  2. Ralsar says:

    Great write up, very insightful.

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