Bioshock Infinite Taking American Exceptionalism to the Extreme
Published May 06, 2013The year is 1912, just not our 1912, and up above the world so high floats the fantastical city of Columbia, an art nouveau "utopia" that fancies itself the ultimate expression of divinely inspired, capitalism-fuelled American Exceptionalism. But this diamond in the sky has some fatal flaws and you — a post-traumatized veteran of the massacre at Wounded Knee and a subsequent strikebreaking hired thug — just might be the spark for a race and class war that could bring this right-wing fantasia crashing down. Welcome to Bioshock Infinite.
Now the name Bioshock only really fits Irrational Games' retro-futuristic sci-fi franchise if you consider how startling it is for a shooter to expect gamers to use their brains for more than coordinating hand and eye.
But where the 2007 original took on Ayn Rand's then-relatively obscure philosophy of Objectivism — it has since become the primary driver of the modern Republican party thanks to disciples like congressman/VP candidate Paul Ryan and senator Rand Paul — this time they delve into America's undercurrents of religious fundamentalism, income inequality, nationalism and racism.
"It's a little broader in scope," level designer Shawn Elliott explains during a springtime Toronto visit. "It's not quite a one-to-one comparison with Bio 1 where objectivism was really the sole line of thought that pervades the entirety of the game and the way the world was built. This time around, it would be American Exceptionalism, but that's a very big grab bag."
Infinite may be set a hundred years ago — when the fundamentalist-nationalist philosophy was enjoying a surge even if the actual term hadn't yet been coined (ironically a few years later by Josef Stalin) — but it's infused with everything that has happened in America, socio-politically speaking, since the last game, from the Tea Party to Occupy. (Just consider that the 2012 Republican Party platform had an actual American Exceptionalism plank referencing "peace through strength," "a worldwide Marxist advance" and "a continued reliance on Divine Providence.")
"That's just the notion that America, whether by divine intent or for whatever reason, is unique on the world stage and has a special destiny. Clearly the people who constructed Columbia very much believe that. They also believe a number of other things as well," Elliott says. "It's an umbrella under which a number of other lines of thought fall. They have attitudes on race, on class, on work and labour, all that come into play, and religion."
Indeed, you'll encounter all of these as your character, Booker DeWitt, navigates this floating ultra-American theocracy run by a self-declared prophet, defended by robots dressed as George Washington, segregated by skin colour and riven by strife between the elite white Founders and the 99 percent-y multicultural revolutionaries of Vox Populi who can be just as cruel and callous.
But as touchy as race and class are, the most shocking target is religion. "There was no real trepidation on our part. [Publisher 2K Games] know we want to engage with ideas that are interesting to us so we try and find respectful but still thoughtful ways to do it," Elliott says. "Clearly the religion in Columbia is not a direct correlation to any religion practiced in the world today."
But the fact that "it's still very much a Judeo-Christian religion" led by a megalomaniacal minister with an American superiority complex provides a pretty strong link to Mormonism, something creator Ken Levin recently told NPR was an inspiration.
All of which makes Bioshock match up amusingly well with the 2012 campaign that pitted Mormon Mitt Romney and his Objectivist running-mate Ryan against a black president and economic philosophy fights over the "47 percent" and "you didn't build that" tropes.
"Some things are really happy coincidences," Elliott says, also noting former federal reserve chairman Alan Greenspan "was going crazy with Randian thinking" when the first Bioshock came out. "I'm not going to say the recession and financial collapse of 2008 was directly the result of objectivist attitudes from people working for the treasury but people made those accusations so that it became a germane topic.
"Similarly here, it was really uncanny those [2012 campaign] connections. We weren't saying, 'hey let's grab this from a headline and that from a headline, because you can't do that anyway — you're going to be late to market so you don't want to be allegory for some shit that was topical three years ago."
So while one might be tempted to draw direct correlations, Elliott recommends against it. "I think what makes art work is not when it's allegory — where there's a puzzle to decipher which character represents which figure and which event is which — but when it speaks to history and engages with history, but not directly."
Elliott adds they didn't first decide on social policies and work outward, but instead settled on the historical period, a moment of great progress marked by technological leaps from the likes of the Wright brothers, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
"The sky was the limit and science seemed very much like magic. Yet there was so much turmoil still happening: emancipation was only 40 years old; women still couldn't vote; we had terrible issues with the labour movement at the time and navigating that transition from agriculture to industry; and we were at the dawn of war."
This is all used to comment on contemporary American politics, of course, but Elliott notes they go beyond the "left-right angle" to instead examine extremism on both sides.
"We're not presenting our moral attitude; we're creating a space where various themes can interact with one another. When Bioshock 1 one came out, half the people I knew said it's a complete celebration of objectivism and others were like, 'you're smoking crack, it's a complete deconstruction of the folly of it.' The fact that we can have that discussion among players is what we want in the first place and that's a result of acknowledging the range of viewpoints and not being propaganda and trying to beat you over the head with a single thing.
"It's very easy to show you the flaws in any type of utopian or social thinking, so we need to make things seductive so you can see it's not just bat-shit insane people who are your opposition."