thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

In the Sky, Lord, in the Sky: Historical Guilt and Bioshock Infinite

In class, dystopian literature, games, gender, race, spoilers, technology, time travel, Uncategorized, violence on April 4, 2013 at 9:30 am

brian psi

Irrational Games’ latest opus, Bioshock Infinite, was released last week, to universal acclaim. Creative director Ken Levine has been making the kind of upscale promotional rounds usually frequented by novelists or filmmakers—rare air for someone who has just made an ultraviolent first person shooter, the most reviled (and most lucrative) subgenre of the most debased popular art form. Like other games of its type, the new Bioshock features plenty of gunplay and gruesome melee finishers; unlike other games in any genre, Infinite’s storytelling, setting and themes explore the most troubling aspects of American history, providing a fairly scathing commentary on the interplay of American exceptionalism, racism, religion and labor exploitation. What really struck me is the way that the game evokes—in its narrative and mechanics—two very different responses to historical guilt, responses which make the game’s politics both fascinating and contemporary.

WARNING: massive spoilers below, including major plot twists and ending!

The game’s initial scenario is a version of the all-too-common damsel in distress trope. It is 1912. You play Booker DeWitt, a down on his luck former soldier and Pinkerton agent who receives a note stating that his ‘debts’ will be repaid if he can find and rescue a girl, trapped in a tower above the clouds, in the floating city of Columbia. Her name is Elizabeth, and she can create tears in the walls separating the ‘infinite’ parallel universes.

No damsel: Elizabeth hits Booker over the head with Quantum Mechanics

No damsel: Elizabeth hits Booker over the head with Quantum Mechanics

At first glance, the city of Columbia is a wonder: a beautiful, impeccably clean paean to bygone Americana. Strolling through its stately boardwalks and cobbled streets is a lot like walking down Main Street, USA on Dapper Day at Disneyland. We are pleasantly regaled with premakes of classic pop songs, which succeed at being both startling and nostalgia-inducing.

…And then Booker wins a raffle at a carnival game, and discovers that the prize is first chance to throw a baseball at an interracial couple.  This is only the first in a series of uncomfortable revelations in which it becomes clear that Columbia is an attempt to create a white, ultra-nationalist utopia. Its prophet, Father Zachary Comstock, has made an old-testament style religion out of America’s founding ideologies and myths, in which Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson are worshiped as saints or perhaps gods. The police here protect the purity of the white race as well as its property. Lincoln is a kind of devil and there are statues of John Wilkes Booth. Segregated washrooms recall the Jim Crow era. To get hired for work, the city’s laboring class must bid at auction: the least minutes to complete a job (and, therefore, the lowest wage) ‘wins’ that job for the day. Columbia’s museums celebrate the glory of Wounded Knee and the firebombing of Peking—complete with standees painted to look like horribly stereotyped versions of American Indians and Chinese.

Columbia's George Washington

The spirit of George Washington defends Columbia from the ‘foreign hordes’

Booker finds Elizabeth relatively early, and most of the game is about their attempt to escape Columbia and the war that they help escalate between Father Comstock’s ‘Founders’ and the revolutionary ‘Vox Populi,’ the city’s racial and economic underclass who live in the basements of their employer’s factories. Early previews of the game led many outside observers to see an allegorized conflict between a hyper-racialist and repressive version of the Tea Party, and an especially bloodthirsty version of Occupy Wall Street. Certainly, some of the rhetoric and propaganda of the Founders and the Vox recall their contemporary counterparts.

Propaganda posters: The Vox Populi and the 99%

Propaganda posters: The Vox Populi (left) and Occupy Wall Street (right)

But the world of Columbia is not exactly bifurcated into the ‘two Americas’ of haves and have nots, and the makers of the game are not trying to enact some tired, dual/simplistic conservative-liberal clash. Actually, Booker embodies a number of America’s historical traumas, and through his hazy or perhaps selective memory, their elision. As his memories slowly return and his backstory is filled in, we become aware of how he—and by extension, we—are implicated in the horrors which underwrite Columbia’s prosperity and undergird its philosophy. Xenophobia: while a soldier, Booker was at Wounded Knee. In a voice recording, we discover that he was one of the most zealous perpetrators of the massacre. Exploitation: Columbia’s greatest industrialist tries to recruit Booker the former Pinkerton as a strikebreaker, cognizant of the agency’s bloody anti-labor history. Extreme violence, racial and class repression: in a genre filled with flawed anti-heroes, Booker’s crimes are especially troubling. Few creators in any narrative form would even contemplate making their protagonist a participant in a genocide, or a man who ostensibly clubbed striking workers.

The big plot reveal—of course, although I didn’t at all see it coming—is that Comstock is actually a parallel-universe Booker. He is the Booker that chose to cleanse his past sins in the baptism that we see our version too full of guilt and self-loathing to go through with. The man we are controlling and accompanying never really recovers from his past actions. He doesn’t take responsibility for them until the very end of the game, but this is far better than the alternative.

The Booker who becomes Zachary Comstock? He creates a floating city on the hill dedicated to American exceptionalism, to an America which not only does not feel guilt about the horrors it has committed—it doubles down on them, praises itself for their commission, and makes plans to burn the “Sodom Below” for daring to criticize God’s newly chosen people. It is an audacious conceit, one that some players will not want to engage with. Many will probably look at the horrible reminders of racial oppression that Columbia evokes and will try to assure themselves that these were things of the past. But the game’s critique is not only of bygone injustice and murder, but also of a curious, contemporary perversity, embodied by Comstock—our inability to take responsibility, and worse—some people’s justification (!) of those actions, with their desperate insistence that America has never, will never, could never have do(ne) anything wrong.

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses..." Or, not.

Don’t give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

Sadly, we do not need to travel back to 1912 to find examples of these, not when one of last year’s candidates for president named his book about American greatness No Apologies. Bestselling pundits bend over backwards trying to justify Japanese internment. And, of course, there are still a number of duly elected politicians who believe that American slavery really was beneficial for the enslaved. Just a couple of weeks ago, at CPAC, one member of a (thankfully small) group of actual activists tasked a panelist to explain on what basis Frederick Douglass needed to forgive his former masters: “For giving him shelter? For food?”  Three days later, Infinite was released. In it, you come across an audio log by the fictional Zachary Comstock which is disgustingly similar:

“What exactly was the ‘great emancipator’ emancipating the negro from? From his daily bread. From the nobility of honest work. From wealthy patrons who sponsored them from cradle to grave. From clothing and shelter!”

All actions have consequences, certainly, but every action is only one possibility: we could take a different path, or even no action at all. Booker is almost certainly named after another B. DeWitt, the physicist who popularized the ‘many worlds’ theory of quantum mechanics, the game’s key plot device. Every decision point, for every person, creates two realities—two universes—which thereafter exist side by side. Booker is baptized: he forgives himself and more, becomes comfortable with  his religious, xenophobic totalitarianism and builds a city-sized shrine and cult around it. Booker refuses baptism: he becomes nihilistic, self-hating, and tries to drown his guilt in gambling and liquor instead. That first choice may be a very small one, but all of the choices which follow, for Booker and Comstock, seem to take on the weight of inevitability. While the metaphysics of choice are of course fascinating, I find the game much more interesting ultimately because of how it frames our response to past choices and actions, those we make ourselves, of course, but also the legacies of our forebears.  We can choose an exceptionalism which is, despite its rhetoric, the real apologism. Or we can choose recognition: of mistakes made, harm done and the need to make amends. With all of the soul-searching and difficulties that this entails.

Brian Psiropoulos is a dad and PhD candidate in English literature. He likes stuff, especially gothic Victorian novels, superhero comics, and video games. Also tennis. Read his scribblings on these and other things here.

  1. […] is difficult now, at least for me, to play a game without my own internal interface simultaneously replaying bits of Anita […]

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