Can something as seemingly trivial as a video game deliver a powerful political statement? In 2007 game designer Ken Levine and his team Irrational Games sought to do just that with Bioshock. While on the surface the game seemed like nothing more than another sci-fi shooter, with its magical powers, hulking mechanical foes, and implausible art-deco underwater setting, digging just a little bit deeper revealed a much more thoughtful work. Everything from its setting and characters to its gameplay systems worked together to argue how objectivism, while capable of towering achievements, would ultimately destroy itself through its sheer selfishness. Six years later, Levine and his team are back with Bioshock Infinite, a game that tackles even headier topics like American Exceptionalism, theocracy, and struggles of race and class. However, the question now is what’s the message this time? Is there is even one?
When players are first rocketed to Columbia, a 1912 city religiously devoted to the American ideal that also happens to be literally floating among the clouds, it’s obvious that things aren’t quite right. After earning safe passage by way of baptism, players soon find themselves battling the crazed citizens. These people are so racist they stone interracial couples and so in love with America’s founders they worship George Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as actual gods while Abraham Lincoln is reviled for his relative progressivism. Controlling it all is the Prophet Zachary Comstock whose ultimate dream is to have Columbia rain fire on “the Sodom below.”
As a liberal, it’s hard not to get excited when these kinds of people are presented as the enemy no matter how unfairly exaggerated their villainy might seem. However, deeper into the game a new antagonistic force is revealed: the Vox Populi who claim to speak for Columbia’s disempowered working class. “Your lives are ours! Your wives are ours! It all belongs to the Vox!” their blood-smeared faces scream while gunning their way through formerly idyllic beaches and parks. They obviously represent the evils of rampant left-wing ideology compared to the right-wing tyranny of Columbia’s ruling class. Heck, Comstock is as old, white and male as the past 43 presidents while the Vox’s leader Daisy Fitzroy is an oppressed Black woman.
Despite how problematic I found it to be personally, casting Columbia’s opposition in an equally contemptible light smartly protects the game itself from any accusations of partisanship. When the violence becomes particularly out of control characters talk about how power corrupts anyone and how “the only difference between Comstock and Fitzroy is how you spell their names.” Comstock’s conservative fanaticism comes from very believable deep-seated guilt, denial and experiences with human evil while Fitzroy is willing to play very dirty to uphold the “noble” narrative of her pretty justified liberal causes. So anyone worried that Bioshock Infinite is harboring some political agenda should rest easy. It has valid criticisms of both sides.
The problem is that while centrism is all well and good, this non-committable stance robs the game of any real statement. “Extremism is bad” isn’t exactly the most controversially idea. Compare this to the first Bioshock where despite acknowledging objectivism’s good points the game ultimately comes down hard against it. Of course, the differences are obvious. Not too many people these days are super into Ayn Rand whereas the conflicts in Columbia and its fake Tea Party and Occupy movements are still very much of the moment. For all of its artistry, the game is still a mainstream commercial product and it’s wise not to turn off large segments of potential consumers. Besides, without spoiling anything the game’s narrative focus is really on its two leads, debt-ridden Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt and the captive sorceress Elizabeth, as well as its bigger, crazier sci-fi concepts. For as fascinating as Columbia’s ideological struggles are they are ultimately a fancy backdrop for the more intimate story of Booker, Elizabeth and their infinite possibilities.
It’s disappointing that Bioshock Infinite doesn’t do more with the deep, important topics it brings up. Still, it should be commended for even bringing them up in the first place. The fact that such conversations can be had about a video game is further proof of the medium’s continuing intellectual growth. Still not convinced? Well the parts where you shoot people and launch crows at them are pretty fun too. It’s worth playing just for that.