BioShock Infinite: First Impressions

Since I’ve written about BioShock quite a bit, I’ve been getting a lot of questions here and on Twitter and Facebook about the newest title–Bioshock Infinite–which just released yesterday. I’m wrapping up an issue of Games Magazine this week, and only just managed to get about four hours of play in last night.

So, here are some loose first thoughts about it:

Rumors are circulating that it cost $100 million to make, and I can believe it. This is the first title from Irrational Games since the original BioShock in 2007 (Irrational didn’t make BioShock 2), and they’ve been working on it about that long. The game, which uses the Unreal engine, is not just gorgeous. That’s to be expected in 2013. The wonderful thing is the staggering amount of visual style and invention on display. This is a dazzling act of world-building. Just take a look:

It offers a world that is familiar in our imaginations–early 20th century, World’s Fair-inspired Americana–and adds equal parts steampunk and dystopia. Unlike the dripping, dark, decaying, claustrophobic atmosphere of the original BioShock, this is a sunlit paradise. Project head Ken Levine said they looked not only to the 1893 World’s Fair for inspiration, but to movies like The Music Man, and it shows. Men in straw boaters, ladies in long dresses, carnival midways, and barbershop quartets: there’s color and life everywhere, all seen through a nostalgic haze.

Are you familiar with the Twilight Zone episode “A Stop at Willoughby” or the books of Jack Finney? It’s like that.

Except … it’s not, because the entire city is floating. Buildings dock and separate, dirigibles dot the air, and skyway rails link locations.  The city of Columbia lifted off from America, announced its independence, and disappeared into the clouds. Some things connect our world to this one. At one point, an air barge drifts by with a quartet singing “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. It’s a wonderfully whimsical moment, but like everything in Columbia, it’s tinged with darkness: you soon learn that their idea of God isn’t quite ours, and that this idea has drives much of the madness that ensues.

Thematically, there is something to make everybody uncomfortable. Just like the original BioShock was built on a critique of Objectivity taken to its logical conclusion, so BioShock Infinite uses turn-of-the-century American Exceptionalism taken to extremes.

Columbia was actually created  by the US government as a kind of floating world’s fair dedicated to spreading a Pax Americana. Unknown to many, it was bristling with weapons, which came to light after an international incident. America disavowed the city, and it disappeared. A power struggle ensued between radical racist theocrats led by a Joseph Smith-like figure and a group of resisters who started out with lofty ideas of equality, but soon descended into factionalism and violence.

When the main character arrives  (via rocket) in Columbia, “the Prophet,” Zachary Hale Comstock, has total control over the population, and preaches a twisted and blasphemous inversion of Christianity in which the Founders (Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin) are revered as a trinity of almost godlike figures. Trinitarian formulas crop up in several places, from a baptism at the beginining, to a group of Klan-like radical who worship … John Wilkes Booth. As you can see, they don’t think much of the Great Emancipator:

The game lures you into this dark world gradually. All appears to be relatively okay in Columbia, at first. It seems like a place you’d like to live, until you get to the drawing of the “lottery,” which you win. The curtain on the stage opens, to reveal … an Irishman (presumably Catholic) and his black wife. Your prize for winning? You get to be the person to cast the first stone in their execution. At this point, you have a choice: hit the couple, or the lottery leader. I’m not sure what happens if you choose the former, but I imagine the story takes a darker turn. At that point, all hell breaks loose and the people realize you are the False Shepherd warned of by The Prophet.

Comstock has been purging Columbia of undesirables. Blacks have been reduced to a slave-like servile class. “Papists, Gypsies, Irish and Greeks” must wear special tags to travel about the city.

This is powerful stuff. You’ll come across a black man washing a floor and complaining, in perfect English, of his sorry lot. When he spots you, he immediately goes into a servile “yes massah” routine and begins acting ignorant and happy. It’s a deeply disturbing moment, moreso because you have no doubt it’s grounded in the real experience of minorities in America at one point in our history.

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The game doesn’t flinch at these moments: it relishes them. Patriotic Americana is twisted to serve a dark and racist message. Automatons of George Washington are made to spout The Prophet’s message. Principles of American freedom are used to promote hatred and oppression.

Some gamers may see this as pure anti-American, anti-religious bigotry. I won’t make that call until I’m finished, but I’m not inclined to agree, yet.

This is imaginative alternate history, along the lines of “What would America be like if the English/Nazis/Commies had won?” Taking treasured and precious images and deploying them to make a point is risky business, and I’d be lying if I said I was wholly comfortable with it. At the same time, I know that’s the whole point. We’re not supposed to be comfortable with it. We’re supposed to think differently about familiar things.

What I need to see–and what I can only know after I finish it–is if there was really any point to it. Objectivism is ascendant, particularly in technolibertarian quarters, and radical individualism was worthy of critique. Is American Exceptionalism and antebellum racism really a pressing issue?

Obviously not, thus the critique must be about something else. Iraq and Afghanistan? Maybe. Bush, and now Obama, were certainly looking to spread a Pax Americana to the middle east, if only to keep them from plowing airplanes into our skyscrapers. That it was, and is, a misbegotten mess doomed from the start doesn’t change the idealism undergirding it: liberate the Muslims, make them more like us, and they won’t want to kill us anymore. Except it didn’t work, and never could.

Is it a critique of Occupy Wall Street? Ken Levine admits that the protests were an influence on the developing story, but to what degree remains to be seen. If the Vox Pop of the game are supposed to be an OWS proxy, I can’t see the OWS folks being particularly happy about it.

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If it turns out to be another tired anti-religious screed, I’ll be disappointed. Kicking religion is just about the lowest, cheapest thing an artist can do. People who start from that old lie about religion causing more misery and death than anything else in world history rarely have anything of interest to say, because they’re working from a false premise.

I find it interesting that Levine admits that one of his employees (described as “very religious”) played an early build of part of the game and immediately tended his resignation because of the way religion was treat. Levine, who admits to not being religious, welcomed the input, and says the employee (who stayed) gave him new perspectives that changed the game’s treatment of religion.

My response to that is: I guess I’ll have to wait and see. I’ve respected Levine’s work since his days with Looking Glass, which I covered quite a bit when I was lead writer for PC Gamer. I remember seeing an early version of a game called System Shock, and immediately started flogging it as The Greatest Game Ever in PCG and elsewhere. BioShock was a continuation and perfection of many of the ideas in System Shock, and I consider it the most profound work of interactive fiction to date. It tackled difficult ideas and situations with intelligence and style. And it was fun.

BioShock Infinite ups that ante considerably. The gameplay is a fairly direct updating of that found in the original, but the narrative, character, and thematic elements are far more explosive. In the original, you faced the decision of weather or not to kill children. The proper decision was clear, but you still have a choice. In this, you’re forced to choose whether or not to stone a black person on a stage in front of a mob of howling racists. That’s potent stuff. Dynamite, in fact. By the time I finish, I hope I have a sense of whether or not the developers were deploying it some effect, or just playing games.

You can buy  Bioshock Infinite here.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Patrick

    The employee who handed in his resignation didn’t quit according to this article:
    http://www.gamespot.com/news/bioshock-infinites-religious-themes-led-dev-to-consider-quitting-6404620

    I haven’t played the game yet, but am planning on it. I enjoyed the environment and style of Bioshock, so I’m intrigued with the new look. As far as the story goes, I’ll wait to hear the verdict to see if it has any merit or overarching narrative like Bioshock did. If it goes the route of simply being “religion bad, moral relativism good” I’ll be a tad bummed.

  • http://www.parafool.com victor

    Awesome perspective, and very much appreciated as someone who doesn’t play a lot of the AAA games, but is interested in their take on religion, culture, etc.

    How is it as a game though? Is it any fun? Or more of the same-ol’ same-ol’ FPS stuff?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I thought I pointed out that the employee stayed, but I see that I didn’t. I added a couple words to clarify.

  • Harry Piper

    Does it have to have contemporary relevance for it to ‘have a point’? I figure a game exploring the issue of race in America’s past would be a fascinating subject all on its own. It’s not really a contemporary issue, but it would be worthwhile to explore a dark side of American history that many would prefer to ignore. There are individuals out there who have a rose-tinted view of the past, airbrushed of all the ugliness- for example, I’ve seen that quite a few conservative Catholics have a warm regard for the Confederacy, and downplay or ignore slavery and racism (Thomas Woods ‘Politically Incorrect Guide to American History’, or H.W Crocker’s ‘Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War’, for instance).
    Really hope it doesn’t fall into the trap of “Dur, religion and America’s bad, m’kay?” Has there been any discussion of religion in-game so far?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    You make a good point, but of course we look to the past not just to understand as the past, but to understand our present better. I didn’t mean to reject the idea of probing these issues, but I do feel when someone chooses a period and a subject to explore in fiction, they’re usually trying to make a contemporary point. Pure history can exist, but it’s not usually found in creative/fictional projects. Perhaps I’m overanalyzing.

    As for the gameplay, it’s very much in the FPS mold of the original, mixing weapons, upgrades, and “vigors” (basically, magic) to combat foes. For instance, you can shoot crows out of your hands. Just because.

  • deiseach

    “liberate the Muslims, make them more like us, and they won’t want to kill us anymore”

    But what does it mean to make the Muslims (or anyone else) “more like” Americans? This game sounds as if it’s exploring that, the bad as well as the good side. The example of the black labourer you give above, and the idea of a “servile class”? This may not be so far-fetched as we’d like to think; one person’s 6-point panacea for youth unemployment includes:

    “3. Legalise discrimination
    A capitalist visits a high school. He invites twenty young men—not a diverse bunch—to an IQ test. The successful ten are put to work as unpaid servants, cleaners and errand boys. Five who last the month are employed at £1-an-hour for the summer and autumn, after which they gain permanent jobs and an improved wage.
    Intelligent, conscientious and competent youngsters would prosper. But the selection procedure is untaxed and arbitrary, hence illegal.”

    In other words, be prepared to work for nothing (possibly bed and board, though that’s not stated) for the chance to get a derisory pay and then the further chance of a real job. And if you fall out earlier, too bad – you’re too stupid/lazy to make the grade. Dealing with the “unemployables” by the creation of a ‘servile class’ to do the jobs like washing the floors, picking up litter and so forth can easily mutate into ‘certain types are natural serviles and good for nothing better’. Hitting us in the face with a black person in that role is just making it harder to ignore how easy it would be to go from thinking of the problem of the lower classes to thinking of it as being a problem with the lower classes (ignorant, lazy, greedy and stupid, and not willing to work unless you force them to do s0).

  • Nobody

    Hmmmm … Patriotic American Exceptionalism twisted into a religious cult with a tyrannical and charismatic Prophet borrowing creatively from Christianity, but adding racism and continually adding and changing “doctrine” … sounds like Mormonism to me. I know, I live there … sigh …

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    No question. The prophet is definitely a Joseph Smith stand in.

  • Perg

    I’m very religious. I purchased this game for PC not knowing much about it. I got as far as the quartet singing ‘God only knows’, and had to cut it off. I am extremely offended. As a Christian it’s too blasphemous, dark and perverted for me. How do I go about getting a refund on a PC game? I guess PC owners can’t… another slap in the face… Good bye bioshock infinite. I now chunk you into the trash where you belong. It’s not the money I lost though, it’s the realizing what people have become to do things such as this.
    Now everybody can take pop shots at me because I’m a Christian and got offended. It’s ok. God said that would happen.

  • Shambels

    Well I just finished the game and all in all I think it’s a major stab at Mormans and depicts both sides of the political ile in their most extreme beliefs. I think that’s just how bioshock is though to to make us uncomfortable and how bioshock one was about the fall of a godless city and lack of morals this one shows the opposite of a cult-like religion (they worship the founding fathers as gods) and how it’s destroys the city. I will say that I am a Christian and I wasn’t offended by the game untill maybe the very end.**SLIGHT SPOIlER** With booker and the choice with the “baptism” **END SPOILER** but all in all I enjoyed it but I will not say I was comfortable with everything portrayed.

  • Some Guy

    The much vaunted choices are usually just parlor tricks. I tried to through the baseball at the black and white couple, but the game stopped me.
    When playing dragon age origins, I always played the outrageously evil villian, because God Damn it, it’s a game.
    We don’t play games to simulate taking a dump in real time because we don’t care about realism. I want to mow down mobs of people (GTA 4) or betray those closest to me for no good reason (Dragon Age Origins), I want to kill and rob innocent people in oturageously brutal ways (fallout 1-3), and ya, I want to throw a baseball at a virtual interracial couple.
    But no. Apparently this company will paint the most insulting caricature of 18th century society and then force the player to not throw a baseball at an interracial couple. After that, I made a point of killing friendly black people in the game at random (Which is apparently totally fine.).
    Stupid. It’s just stupid.

  • Some Guy

    Throw…

  • ducky

    Hey man, I’m a christian too, and I don’t think it’s right for you to say that now people are going to take pop shots at me, it makes you sound above them. As for the part with the song, I don’t think Ken meant that to turn off christians but instead show what a christian cult looks like, AKA mormonism. but hey, it’s your decisions and everyone has to decide how much is too much.

  • Nobody

    I don’t blame your for not wanting your face rubbed in what sounds like some nasty stuff. Not everyone is like “Some Guy” down there … and thanks be to God for that. I wish you had some recourse beyond writing a letter …

  • Perg

    Brother I’m not above anybody. We’re all the same. Just preparing myself for a negative comment. It is the internet :D Didn’t realize my comment sounded “above anybody”. Wasn’t going for that at all. God bless.

  • Khorum

    I’m curious why you’d be offended by the Beach Boys song more than deification of the founding fathers and the sham baptism?

    I’m not taking a “pop” shot at you, just genuinely curious what it was about that quartet that broke the camel’s back? Was it the “gayest troupe in Columbia” poster?

  • Perg

    The song is where i stopped playing the game. I wasn’t offended that they did the song that way. It was actually kinda cool. And was nothing to do with “gayest”. Didn’t even cross my mind until you just mentioned it. Just seeing people praying, folded hands, getting almost drowned by a “priest”… worshiping Franklin or whoever… And they replace The Father , Son, and Holy Spirit with 3 other things. It’s games like this that make people think Christians are crazy. I’ve actually gone back into the game with a more open mind. It’s a good game, but the mockery and similarities of Christianity is what makes it hard to play. But I’m going to hang in there to see if there is any other hidden meaning.

  • ComicGuy89

    Thanks so much for writing this. There aren’t enough Catholic commentators on video games on the Internet, so your game reviews are very much appreciated. I look forward to reading your full review after you’re done with the game.

  • Perg

    edit:
    I’ve had to uninstall it again. Just cant play it. It’s like toying around with Christianity. Not about to do that. I want no part of it.

  • David

    I apologize in advance for how long this is. It got away from me, but I felt like I needed to keep most of it to say what I wanted to say.

    “What I need to see–and what I can only know after I finish it–is if there was really any point to it. … Is American Exceptionalism and antebellum racism really a pressing issue?”

    I read the comment policy about insults, but: Good God, man, what’s Catholic for “duh”? Of course American Exceptionalism is a pressing issue – and perhaps not “antebellum racism”, but racism in general is. This has always been the case. And on the race issue – as disturbing as the overt racism is, what turned my stomach even more was noticing, as I played the game, that just about every single janitor, poorly paid repairman, waiter and attendant was black. This was more stomach-churning because it’s closer to present-day reality: the lowly jobs, the long hours and poor wages, the menial positions – they are almost always held by minorities. Whence comes this legacy? Racism is very much a modern issue.

    This isn’t, as you said “patriotic Americana twisted to serve a dark and racist message.” There’s precious little twisting needed to be done here: you can just go straight to the source material – history – and find these things, exhume them, and put them on display. Patriotic America has been, for a majority of history, coupled together with racial and religious purity – not Columbia’s religion, necessarily, but protestant Christianity, yes. Fifty years ago America’s first Catholic president had to assure the nation he wasn’t taking direct orders from the pope.

    Turn-of-the-century American Exceptionalism didn’t disappear, it just morphed into the exceptionalism that permeates society us today. How many politicians speak of America as the indispensible nation? Columbia is merely American Exceptionalism taken to the extreme: a special nation, uniquely blessed by God and given to men. This is not an unusual belief – and Infinite takes that and raises it to the Nth power. Not only special and blessed by God, but specifically mandated by God to America’s founders: the Golden Scroll for laws; the Golden Key for industry; the Golden Sword for strength. Each of these are in turn deconstructed – laws that are racist and create a permanently poor minority class; industry that is built on the backs of the poor; and strength that is found in militarism. The Mormon-tinged mythos is not, I think, accidental, as Mormonism is in some ways the most American religion, born of combining Christianity with American Exceptionalism, along with a charismatic, compulsively lying leader. Other Christianities in America – Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Baptist, whatever – may not go to the extremes Mormonism does (where Jesus will come back to the earth at Independence, Missouri) but a great many of them are quite happy to marry religion to a belief in the unique blessedness of the country. If you’ve not been in a protestant church in the US on Memorial Day weekend celebrating America, you truly have not lived. It may be a perversion of religion, but it is a present reality. The US is suffused with patriotic religion, if not quite to the degree that Columbia is.

    “Do you love your Exceptional America? Your shining white city on a hill?” asks Bioshock Infinite. “Very well, here is your American Exceptionalism: exceptional racism, exceptional labor exploitation, and exceptional militarism. All these things have been present in America nearly from the start. This is the vision you wanted, was it not?”

    It then – with somewhat less success, I think (and there are problems with its take-on of America, too) – criticizes the revolution that doesn’t care about the individual lives trampled in its wake. The goal is to upturn the system, no matter who in the interim may be destroyed by it: we are marching on to a better future.

    “Bush, and now Obama, were certainly looking to spread a Pax Americana to the middle east, if only to keep them from plowing airplanes into our skyscrapers. That it was, and is, a misbegotten mess doomed from the start doesn’t change the idealism undergirding it: liberate the Muslims, make them more like us, and they won’t want to kill us anymore.”

    Exactly. This is the same as Columbia’s description of the rest of the world as “The Sodom Below” – the unclean masses who are not in our American Citadel. And treatment of “the Muslims” as unable to govern themselves, in need of a liberator, is not terribly different from Comstock’s rant about “the white man” being the only creature born free, it being his duty to care for the rest of Creation. We of America are exceptional, special, and blessed. The Sodom Below – or the Muslim Over There – are not, and need us to aid and guide them, like a father guides his child.

    “This is imaginative alternate history, along the lines of ‘What would America be like if the English/Nazis/Commies had won?’ Taking treasured and precious images and deploying them to make a point is risky business”

    I think that a lot of Bioshock in general, but particularly in Infinite, is concerned with the dangers of hero-worship. The treasured and precious images are revealed to have a dark and propagandistic underside. That part is not so much alternate history as an attempt to tear down the idols of country. The way we treat The Founders in this nation is so often idolotrous – we appeal to them for authority on all matter of politics and public life, praise them for their vision and great deeds, granting them something approaching mythical status. This kind of hero-worship when taken uncritically can lead to dark places, for these men were not gods, they were flawed (sometimes deeply flawed) human beings who for every good thing they did brought much negative with them. Perhaps those treasured images should be destroyed, replaced with knowledge of the reality hiding behind the facade, and a more nuanced understanding of ourselves and history.


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