Looking Back at the Politics and Representation of Revolution Within BioShock Infinite
BioShock Infinite was one of the first games I ever properly owned. I was 12 years old when it first came out back in 2013, barely a few months into my first year at high school, but I was bursting out of my skin with excitement. The original BioShock had been my wide-eyed introduction to games as a storytelling medium and I was eager to see what Ken Levine had come up with in the passing years, what mind-bending tale he’d concocted after two controversial delays.
I wanted nothing more than to lose myself in Columbia’s sun-drenched streets and for a long while, I did. I ate up everything Irrational Games had to say and I loved every moment, regardless of how its mismatched themes rubbed me the wrong way. I was drunk on the skyhooks and the time skips and the madness.
During Melbourne’s second lockdown, I was swaddled up in my new apartment with a Nintendo Switch Lite and nowhere to go. A yawning depression loomed over me and, on a whim, I bought BioShock: The Collection in an effort to quell that darkness with something warm and familiar. After all, it’s much easier to play games curled up in bed and I felt as if I needed the mental reprieve. As I said in my yearly review, I sought small comforts during the crisis and, for a short while, BioShock Infinite was one of them.
Irrational Games managed to fit a mammoth amount of ideas into roughly eight hours of gameplay (or 12, if you drag your feet like me). BioShock Infinite made an earnest attempt at blending quantum physics and multiple universe theory into more personal themes of race, religion, patriotism and capitalism. The main game’s ending left many people reeling and the Burial at Sea expansions only added to the proverbial mind-fuckery with its neat, full-circle end to the series’ narrative. The extent to which this attempt was actually successful, however, is… debatable, to say the least.
I have to admit something before going any further – I know very little about quantum physics. For all I know, that aspect of BioShock Infinite’s story functions as intended. I’m not here to argue about that. What I am here to argue is that by placing so much emphasis on its wider metanarrative, Irrational revealed many flaws in its internal assessment of the purpose and drives behind revolution.
Let’s rewind for a moment. The original BioShock came out in 2007 to massive critical acclaim and quickly cemented itself as a modern classic. It was a densely packed political narrative with layers of meticulous world-building. In it, a violent revolution has caused the city to fall into a continued state of ruin, with layered world-building and character monologues to emphasise the cracks in the city’s ideological foundation. It’s a well-founded critique of the objectivist viewpoint, with an engaging and convincing internal history. You could tell that the narrative team put a lot of effort into researching how a city like this might function, both at the political and societal levels.
Six years later, BioShock Infinite revisited the revolution concept, but Irrational changed the formula by showing us Columbia in its prime before tearing the whole thing down. We see the beginning as well as the end, giving us a broader perspective on the cause and function of Columbia’s revolution, but Irrational’s overall message on the nature of revolution within BioShock Infinite is decidedly centrist – violence begets violence and revolution is only a gateway for tyranny.
It’s in this assessment that Irrational’s politics begin to fall apart. As explained by nearly four generations of historians, revolutions are far from simple: they can be violent or non-violent, encompass class struggles or ignore them entirely, and make long-lasting changes or vague, superficial ones. Leading historian and revolution expert Jack Goldstone defined a revolution as “…an effort to transform political intuitions and the justifications for political authority in society, accompanied by formal or informal mass mobilisation…(to) undermine authorities.” Far from Irrational’s stagnant depictions, revolution historians have continually evolved their thinking on what drives revolutions in the first place.
Second-generation revolution historians identified widespread frustration with society’s socio-political situation as the primary cause for revolutions, integrating psychological theory into historical reasoning. Irrational seems to follow this thinking with the revolutions of both Rapture and Columbia – a frustrated underclass rises to the surface to break their oppression. Daisy Fitzroy and the Vox Populi, for instance, are primarily concerned with their victimised, impoverished conditions and express their frustration through violent uprising.
However, later historians found this explanation lacking when it came to non-violent revolutions such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Frustration was not always expressed through violent uprising. Furthermore, one could understand the Vox Populi as violent, not because frustration naturally leads to aggression, but because violence seemed the natural equivalent to the continued cruelty that Columbia’s institutions inflicted.
Even now, historians, anthropologists and economists continue to argue about which elements of society drive the need for revolution, and Irrational’s own political narrative fails to explore this long, complicated history. One only has to look at the state of modern America and what little democratic reform came of the massive, peaceful Black Lives Matter protests mid-last year. Sometimes, the options victimised people have are limited, as is the case with Vox Populi in Columbia.
BioShock Infinite reads like a backward progression in narrative complexity for Irrational Games. The first BioShock places you in the aftermath of a political revolution, one that is dynamic and interesting and filled with despair. Furthermore, Atlas — better known as Frank Fontaine — is a prime example of a flawed “revolutionary.” Fontaine and business magnate Andrew Ryan are constantly at odds, not necessarily because they wanted better conditions for Rapture’s citizens, but because they both violently clung to what little power they still possessed. If anything, Ryan and Fontaine fit that dichotomy that Booker comments on with regards to Fitzroy and Comstock: they are one and the same.
There’s both overt text and subtext in BioShock Infinite arguing that Daisy Fitzroy and Zachary Comstock are just as bad as each other. Booker’s opinion of Fitzroy continually changes: he supports her viewpoint throughout the Hall of Heroes segment but then condemns her throughout the Finkton levels. Elizabeth, as well, seems ambivalent toward Fitzroy and only comes to the conclusion that she’s a danger after she threatens the life of Finkton’s son. Fitzroy’s shift from earnest revolutionary to a violent extremist is sudden and only partially explained by BioShock Infinite’s constants and variables. The story would have you believe that the violence of this revolution against her oppressors has driven Fitzroy not only insane, but insane enough to murder children for their sins of their fathers.
While this could be a believable plot twist if done correctly, there simply isn’t enough to justify it. The Fitzroy we know may be bitter about the state of her existence but she also cares deeply about the people and the future she fights for. Killing capitalists seems much more her style than butchering children. The cards are stacked against Fitzroy, even when the game actively wants to condemn the system she fights against. Booker and Elizabeth have constant conversations about Columbia’s injustices, how its pristine exterior hides a decaying interior. The pair of them are right in the middle of it all, so far in that they end up fighting with the Vox Populi against Columbian forces to take the city.
Furthermore, the game makes continued reference to the oppression that America has wrought on minorities, with the Boxer Rebellion and the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee being centrepieces for the propaganda in the Hall of Heroes. Booker himself expresses shame at being involved in these events, causing the game to be intrinsically allied with the oppressed. You’re even rewarded with gear for not participating in an interracial couple’s execution at the beginning of the game, implying that there is a “correct” side to be on.
Columbia, like the America it sprang from, is rotten to the core. Its caste systems are economically, architecturally and spiritually separated from one another, with the affluent, white citizens basking under the sun while their Irish, Chinese and African peers are relegated to slavery below decks in Shantytown. Paid in Finkton credit instead of real money, the oppressed are shackled by their station and denied a chance to rise above it. The police are also corrupt and brutal, while Columbia’s white citizens get away with just about everything… One hardly even has to look to see the parallels with modern America. All of this tastes even more sour upon realising that Irrational chose to condemn individuals like Daisy, who are just fighting back against the perpetrators of a system that victimised them.
I have to wonder if anyone at Irrational proof-read this. For what it’s worth, Levine did seem to regret what happened to Fitzroy and he goes out of his way to exonerate her in the second part of Burial at Sea. In fact, while we’re at it, let’s talk about Daisy some more, as I can hardly believe there’s a character done dirtier by a narrative team than her.
Barring her sudden shift to an aggressive radical in the main game, Fitzroy is characterised by her resolve and fierce, genius-level intelligence. She’s brutal and uncompromising but also compassionate and well-spoken, determined to better the conditions of her fellow oppressed. One could easily argue that the system in which she exists is so fundamentally flawed that her position is the morally correct one. While scalping business owners is far from agreeable, neither is segregation, systemised slavery and annual public execution. If we’re going tit-for-tat, I’d say the Vox Populi are more than square. Though I’m glad Irrational set things right in Burial at Sea, I wish it could have given her the same deference in the main game. Daisy Fitzroy, above all, deserved better than what she got.
I love BioShock. I say this with all my heart. It was the first game that showed me how video games could be a perfect medium for story-telling and it will forever remain as my personal favourite franchise. I love BioShock Infinite just as much and, regardless of my ramblings, I have and will play it over and over again. However, I cannot deny that there’s something… wrong about the way Irrational Games handled its revolution in BioShock Infinite. I can only imagine why – perhaps in all its grandiose imaginings of constants and variables, it neglected to attend to the portrayal of very real, painful concepts within its game. I can only hope that 2K Games learns from Irrational’s mistakes in the upcoming sequel and makes a better experience for all people who wish to partake in it.