Friday, April 5, 2013

The Politics Of: BioShock Infinite

A Time When Men Were Real Men, Women Were Real Women, And Flying Cities ROCKED YOUR WORLD
BioShock Infinite is, by the early date of April, the game of the year--it might be the game of the decade. Released as a follow-up to the original blockbuster BioShock which, itself, came from the group that produced the well-lauded System Shock II (they claim the Shock series are spiritual successors) it had a high bar to pass. It didn't just pass it--it vaulted over it--into the sky.

We'll take a look at the game--and the politics--of BioShock Infinite.

The Game
The Whole Game Is a Moving, Interactive Work of Art
BioShock Infinite is set in an alternate reality in the year 1912. You are Booker DeWitt, hard-drinking, hard-core ex-Calvary ex-Pinkerton private detective on a mission to ... recover a girl ... or something. You're on a boat, in the rain, going to a lighthouse while the people rowing you there make snide remarks as they banter. When you get there ... well ...

There's a lot to say about BioShock that would count as spoilers and I'd rather not, even in the next potentially spolier-rific section, just give everything away. So let's stick to the basics: where the last BioShock had you in a fantastical art-deco city at the bottom of the ocean, BioShock Infinite takes you to an awe inspiring neo-colonial floating city in the clouds.

Again we see the BioShock system of magical enhancements to go along with your arsenal of weapons. You recharge both energy (Salt) to power these as well as finding ammo and food to replenish health and conventional weapons (if they ever make a BioShock Infinite movie--unnecessary as playing through the game is kinda a movie--they better have whoever is playing DeWitt grab and eat a pear for no good reason--in the game you run around scarfing down fruit, popcorn, and hotdogs in the middle of fire-fights).

The game is polished. The characters are vibrant. The story is intricate and perhaps even deep. We'll talk about that in a minute but there are a few things I want to say up here.

The first is this: Saying that BioShock Infinite is what the future of First Person Shooters will look like is like saying the Mona Lisa is what the future of artwork will look like. First Person Shooters are no more going to be able to recapture Infinite's lightning in a bottle than the multitudes of artist throughout history are going to be able to become Leonardo Da Vinci. BioShock Infinite is an example of the art-form at the top of its, well, game.

That said, it isn't without its problems. If BioShock Infinite does mark a turning point in game-design evolution it will be the point where a game was made that some significant part of its target market came away thinking "I'd rather keep exploring than shooting." Indeed, the slow, awe-inspiring build-up to the first set of running fire-fights does leave you wanting more--and you do get more--but that slow, amazing wandering through the city of Columbia echoes the original opening of HalfLife where the credits came in over a tram-ride through the Black Mesa facility and gamers of a previous era were amazed by the, well, the story-like opening. BioShock Infinite turns this up so high that for some people the eventual realization that this is a shooter is a letdown.

Slate found the ultimate message to be shallow because, eventually, you do wind up shooting everyone:
In changing the frame of reference from deviant computer intelligences or comic book heroes to evangelical racism and labor organizers, Levine's mistrust of extremism begins to feel like sleight of hand. It’s fair to wonder if Levine creates moral equivalence between an oppressor and his victims as a sneaky way to fall back on the same old shoot-‘em-up model, covering over any inconsistencies with spectacle and production value. It would be possible to make a shooting game tied to the point of view of one side in a conflict, but Levine’s expectation that extreme commitment necessarily leads to corruption makes this structure impossible. His stories don’t commit to sides—they mistrust all parties, something that’s easiest to express by having everyone eventually turn on the protagonist.
Kotaku was dismayed by the extreme often graphic bloody violence:
And you can just walk around drinking it in, and you're eating all kinds of candy and hot dogs and there's this amazing carnival tutorial section where you can launch magic at a hidden devil and there are posters, so many posters, posters everywhere, you read them all and see all these names and brands and colors, and you keep having to just sort of stop and stare, and there are flowers everywhere, and a woman offers to sell you a flower to stick in your lapel and then there's this huge robot dude standing there and oh my god it's a barbershop quartet singing the Beach Boys and whaaat...
You grab one police officer and RAM HIS FUCKING FACE INTO A SPINNING BLADE and like, BLOOD AND SKULL-CHUNKS BLOW EVERYWHERE and WOW what in the world and then everyone starts shooting and then this happens: [ Graphic Image ]
Yeah. It's kinda like that. The Kotaku piece notes that when asked, game creator Ken Levine gave an "impenetrable answer" when asked about the violence. I think he was stumbling around trying to say "Dude, I got around 100 Million to make a First Person Shooter. What was I supposed to do?" In an interview Levine likened the FPS design to a musical where, instead of music breaking out, fire-fights do.

That said, whatever the future impact of BioShock Infinite is, if you half way like computer games you ought to take a look at it: it's a milestone of some kind. As I said at the start, early in the year, it's probably the game of the year. Early in the decade, it's probably the game of the decade.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of BioShock Infinite
Let's start with the language. The floating city is called Columbia. It's named after the Hollywood studios, no? No. Columbia is the female persona of America (until she was replaced by Miss Liberty--you know, the Statue and, post WWII, by her brother Uncle Sam. The studio's icon comes from her--not the other way around):
In the political cartoons of the 19th and early 20th century, this personification was sometimes called "Lady Columbia" or "Miss Columbia." She was a classical goddess of the New World, comparable to the British Britannia, the Italian Italia Turrita and the French Marianne.
The city in the sky is America--a timely name for her, anyway.

The city was created by The Prophet Zachary Hale Comstock after receiving a vision from an archangel. The character of Comstock is a callback to two people. The first is Joseph Smith, founder of the Later Day Saints movement known today as the Mormons.

He's Not A Good Guy--But Up In The Clouds, Almost Nobody Is
In this case the echoes are extreme patriotism (of a sort, we'll get to that in a minute) and the relocation of the religious center of gravity from Jerusalem to America. In Comestock's world, his city leads the people out of the "Sodom Below" and into, literally, the heavens--but it's still America (at least until they have a falling-out and he takes his city up, up, and away).

The second call-back is to his name: that of Anthony Comstock. Anthony Comstock was a US Postal Inspector and anti-pornography crusader. He created / inspired a battery of laws called the Comstock laws that prohibit the sending of pornography through the mail. They also prohibit mailing contraception or even information about contraception. These laws were used to go after doctors mailing various legitimate contraceptive devices and found themselves in court as lately as 1965. He is considered by some to be the inspiration for presidential candidate Rick Santorum and some of the laws in modified form remain on the books today.

The language of BioShock infinite runs deeper than this (click for a look at parallels to the Wizard of Oz that appear, probably quite intentionally, in the game)--but the meat of the politics of BioShock isn't exactly the language or the references--it's racism and religion.

Father Washington. Certainly George Would Agree--AMIRITE?
In BioShock Infinite the citizens of Columbia literally worship the Founding Fathers--Father Washington, Father Jefferson, Father Franklin. You even fight things with porcelain Washington faces ... and a chain gun. They pray to them. Literally.

They are also, well, totally racist. The first episode of shooting happens in Shirely Jackson style, at a raffle where you draw a lot and are selected to hurl a baseball (the coming deluge of which will no doubt be lethal) at ... a bound, pleading interracial couple:
You Do Get An Option To Throw It At The Barker ...
It's the punctuating moment of stark horror that kicks off the bloodbath. Whatever else you may think, the makers of BioShock Infinite knew exactly what they were doing.

The question that we have to ask at this point is this: Are the creators of BS Infinite making a political statement--or just following the contours of a narrative they know will be resonant without taking a particular side in the fray? Consider that, at five years in the making, the game (and, presumably) the story-line predates a lot of modern politics ... Comstock's resonance to Joseph Smith isn't directly applicable to candidate Romney, for example. While I haven't read their minds, though, I think the answer is pretty clear: Irrational Games is horrified by the Tea Party.

The first BioShock was set in a visually amazing--but overrun with mutants--undersea dystopia that was created by Ayn Rand (okay, Andrew Ryan--but let's be serious). While it was not, shall we say, a sophisticated critique of Objectivism (Main problem with the philosophy: It leads to rampaging magical mutants!) it wasn't friendly to it either. The soaring iconography and sloganeering of the undersea miracle was rendered Ozymandias like (Look upon my works, ye mighty and despair) as it had fallen to wreak and ruin in a Hobbsean war of all against all.

In Columbia the worst elements of constitutional worship and xenophobia are realized in an actual still-standing paradise and it's a terrible place (even as it's comfortable for its inhabitants unless they happen to be, you know, black). Is this actually a critique of right-wing politics? You be the judge:
Despite the fact that the number of interracial marriages in the U.S. reached an all-time high this year, there are many who still believe that mixed-race marriage is unacceptable and should be made illegal, according to a new report.
And ... Here, from Salon:
For a bunch of people who worship the Founders and like to play dress-up American Revolutionary War, Tea Partyers sure hate knowing anything remotely reality-based about the Founding Fathers. Tennessee Tea Party groups have introduced a proposal to take what few minorities there are in American history textbooks out of American history textbooks, along with any negative portrayals of the wealthy white men who led this young nation in its infancy.
To be sure, this isn't everyone on the right nor even on the Tea Party--but was it in the heads of the people creating Columbia and Comstock and the rest of BioShock Infinite?

If you want to argue there isn't a bright-line between Ayn Rand and the Tea Party, I suggest you look to Rand Paul who is both a Tea Party hero, objectivist hero (kinda, less so now), and revitalizing the GOP. If there is any counterweight to the idea that Infinite's ideology is left-wing by virtue of making Columbia evil and right-wing, it's that eventually everyone tries to kill you.

I'm going to comedown on a side though, and I'll pick the side that says: "That's because it's a video game and they needed more enemies." I'm not sure Ken Levine is a Democrat--in fact, if I had to guess, I'd doubt it: he does seem to espouse the view that all power structures tend towards badness. But I think it's clear that whether or not Infinite draws from the current state of politics Levine would find himself agreeing that, in some ways, it echoes it.

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