Bioshock Infinite is a game that plays with your expectations. Bad is good, up is down, and no one is quite what they appear. The game does a masterful job of it, as well.
Like the previous article Bioshock Infinite article, I’m going to have to insist that people who haven’t completed the game not read past the jump. Trust me, you’ll thank me in the end.
The game starts off with a few hints that Booker isn’t a typical protagonist. Even in the first few seconds, there’s a lot of subtle hints that you’re not a nice guy. Or, rather, that Booker isn’t. He’s in debt with the sort of criminal element you only deal with if you’re at rock-bottom in your life. The opening sequence on the boat gives you the merest glimpse into his personal kit- and reveals that he was one of the main players in one of America’s greatest atrocities, and was a hired goon for the Blackwater of the day. As stated in my review of the game, he was an active participant in the Indian Wars and at Wounded Knee, and he was a Pinkerton… both of which characterize his personality. He has a history of cruelty- one backed up by Comstock’s voxophone detailing the murder of native women to ‘prove his blood’ earlier in the Indian Wars. And yet, throughout the game, Booker makes a lot of ‘good guy’ decisions, all based on the idea that he was rescuing Elizabeth. Despite this, his cruelty shows through as he brutally and casually kills anyone in his way, and his large lack of ability to feel any empathy for most of the tortured souls he comes across. Often, you can hear Elizabeth cry out in shock and disgust at the way he dispatches some of the enemies encountered. The first kill of the game is an excellent demonstration of this- a cop grabs him, and his response is to drive the cop’s face into his partner’s skyhook. There wasn’t even an attempt to slug the cop in the face- he casually, brutally murders the man. Admittedly, the cop was in the wrong, but at the same time the jump from ‘no force’ to ‘brutal, casual violence’ is striking. It isn’t an act of desperation, or last-minute improvisation Booker knows exactly what he’s doing.
Likewise, the Vox Populi start off as idealists fighting oppression, a grassroots revolt against a racist theocracy. The group seems idealistic, wanting nothing but equality as a rebellion led by a scullery maid framed for murder. There’s a lot of sympathy for her cause that slowly erodes over the course of the game. You find out that they use children as messengers, which is morally questionable in and of itself (no matter how righteous your cause, endangering children is never quite right). The revolution itself quickly goes from ‘American War of Independence’ to ‘Khmer Rouge’. As the uprising advances, we see grim little glimpses of it spiraling out of control. It begins with trophy pictures, then escalates to summary executions of combatants, to issued orders for the killings of ‘anyone who looks like them-anyone with glasses, even. The uprising ceases to be about liberation, and becomes about revenge and mindless destruction. It’s a given fact that there’s inevitably reprisals whenever the social system is changed. The ousting of the Vichy regime in 1945 provides the ‘tamest’ modern example of this. Women who had slept with Germans or collaborators were dragged into the street, stripped down and had their heads shaved. Men were simply dragged behind the nearest building and shot- estimates range, but the given number is roughly ten thousand men were killed before the state established control over the many Free French factions. The simplest way to contrast this to Columbia are the shouted words of one Vox Populi miscreant: “Your homes are ours! Your lives are ours! Your wives are ours! It all belongs to the Vox!” Others are seen summarily executing those perceived to be better off, and torturing one poor family in a basement. The transition from freedom for minorities and the poor transmutes quickly into a ravenous, rapacious destructive streak.
Columbia is a sin-soaked city in every aspect. Despite the straining, puritan utopia presented throughout the first quarter of the game, everything is false to the point that even the music is stolen. It soon becomes clear that the city is racially segregated. Even the city’s so-called liberators are little more than criminals, and the protagonist has committed acts that would make a man shudder. Even the children are being molded into racist zealots. Beneath the veneer of civility and all those bright colours, Columbia is a dark place indeed.