The following post assumes that you have finished Bioshock Infinite. It includes some huge spoilers!
I finished my first playthrough of Bioshock Infinite last week, and I’m still trying to process it. On one hand, I believe that it–like its predecessor–exceeded the sum of its parts to become a great game. On the other hand, the points at which these desperate parts fail to align are both frustrating and compelling. I guess the primary struggle post-Bioshock Infinite is reconciling its phenomenal failures with its equally phenomenal successes. Specifically, I’m stuck on its depiction of American racism and classism–that beast of America the trailers pound on about–and the way in which the player engages it.
Columbia may be a fantastic city in the clouds, but its institutionalized racism is rooted in American history. When the player is allowed to enter the city, we are presented with an uncanny recreation of American nostalgia, while revolutionary Daisy Fitzroy and her Vox Populi are treated like a boogeyman by white Columbia. Exploring Columbia a little further yields a combination of brutally honest (segregated facilities and public lynchings) and fantastical (a KKK that controls a murderous murder of crows) representations of American racism that lead us to sympathize with the Vox Populi. When we finally meet Daisy Fitzroy face-to-face, she doesn’t mince words–and she doesn’t have to. We’ve witnessed all of the injustices she’s fighting first hand. However, Daisy and her revolutionaries are soon made monstrous when she not only commits the gaming sin of threatening a child, but she embraces the violence as part of her identity–smearing the blood of her oppressor across her face. The game distances us from Daisy, as Elizabeth observes, “Daisy was no better than Comstock.” In game terms, Daisy and her Vox Populi and Comstock and his Founders amount to interchangeable cannon fodder. Any potential for a critique of American ideologies is lost.
But how does Daisy’s relationship with violence really differ from the player’s? The violence of Biohsock Infinite is intense and bloody; just as Daisy smears the blood of her victim across her face like a badge of honor, we receive achievements and trophies on our consoles that reflect our digital body counts. The most obvious difference is that Daisy’s decision to embrace violence stems from a history of systematic oppression, whereas the player’s comes from a history of play using violent systems. This reflects a failure to justify the violence the player commits within the narrative confines of Columbia. It’s especially frustrating when audio logs scattered throughout the game supply an explanation for the player-character’s history of violence that does not necessarily extend to our own.
The audio logs hidden around Columbia weave a slightly more complex narrative in which player-character Booker DeWitt has potential for personal stake in the war. In fact, one audio logs suggests he might have personally taken up the revolution’s banner in one of the thousands of possible timelines. These audio logs directly link DeWitt’s history of violence to his own racial and social identity. Before we learn the details of DeWitt’s service, we know him as a former Pinkerton agent and veteran of Wounded Knee. As we discover in one of Comstock’s rants, he embraces violence as a means to prove himself when his “whiteness” is challenged by his peers at Wounded Knee–when the men discover his “Sioux blood.” This discovery injects new meaning into some of Columbia’s more sinister propaganda. That “Comstock Phrenological Study” we found early in game–the one that compared Comstock’s profile to that of two Native American men? It would seem now that Comstock had something to prove by commissioning this study (or perhaps it was commissioned in challenge by another racist pseudoscience enthusiast?) By contrast, DeWitt is framed as someone who, though downtrodden, is on the right side of Bioshock Infinite‘s moral divide. Another audio log from the timeline in which DeWitt is Daisy’s martyr recounts DeWitt’s translations for an abused Sioux boy in Columbia, swaying one citizen to the Vox Populis; this suggests more than just “blood” on DeWitt’s side, but an actual engagement with Sioux culture–something we never see in the timelines explored in the game.
While it might be tempting to use these audio logs as black-and-white distinctions between the outcomes of Booker DeWitt’s baptism, further dialogue complicates the ideological line between Comstock and DeWitt. When he is not reborn as Comstock, DeWitt goes on to work as a Pinkerton agent. DeWitt tells Elizabeth of the excessive violence he used to prevent workers from unionizing or striking; although this is not explicitly tied to his racially motivated crimes at Wounded Knee, we can’t discount the fact that race and economic mobility are intrinsically linked in the United States. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots for DeWitt; his excessive violence at Wounded Knee and in his work as a Pinkerton agent are assertions of “whiteness”–an attempt to reclaim his place of privilege. However, since this is only communicated to the player in hidden audio logs, the player does not have the opportunity to interrogate how history colors both DeWitt’s and her own presence in Columbia.
The result is a strange cognitive dissonance that trivializes the brutally honest depictions of American policy the first portion of the game so painstakingly set up. Of course, incorporating DeWitt’s own internalized isms into the brutal violence of Bioshock Infinite’s FPS also risks trivializing everything that came before, as well as alienating players who still experience the consequences of the American policies recreated in Columbia. This is always going to be a challenging subject for a AAA game like Bioshock Infinite to tackle, and it will always be with 20/20 hindsight that I wish it was more successful.