So after a long and unexpected delay, I’m back with another article on Bioshock Infinite, this time focusing on the philosophical and political messages in the city of Columbia, and contrasting those with Rapture’s themes and philosophies.
Rapture and Columbia
When I first saw the city of Rapture I knew the city was bad news, and it wasn’t just because I’d read the back of the box. While impressive to look at, it was also dark and forbidding, located in the black depths of the infamously unfriendly ocean. The twisting labyrinth of tunnels, the wrought-iron pressure domes, and even the glowing billboard advertisements all created a corrupt, and rotting atmosphere, foreshadowing the corruption we’d find inside Rapture’s walls (bulkheads?). When I stepped off the bathysphere I was immediately on edge, ready for anything, and if I remember correctly, the first thing you see when you step off is a splicer scuttling away into the darkness. Like a good magician though, Irrational never repeats a trick, and Columbia operates as the polar opposite of Rapture. Aside from the heinous crime scene we see inside the Lighthouse, my first visit to Columbia was actually a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I was awe struck by the beauty and wonder of this floating paradise, and for a split second I fooled myself into believing that the goal of the game would be to save this heavenly city from some outside threat. Surely saving this golden metropolis was the act that could cleanse the sins of a former Pinkerton like Booker DeWitt. Five minutes later I was ready to blow that city out of the sky.
Both Rapture and Columbia represent more than just a setting, they’re far more than the stage that the story is played out on. Instead they become part of the story itself, and are the physical representation of the philosophies and themes that the game is choosing to explore. In essence these cities are their own characters within the story. Not in the conventional sense, they don’t grow or evolve throughout the story like a normal character, but they both have their own personalities and dispositions. To better understand how this works, let’s look at Rapture:
In many ways I think Rapture was the superior setting, in that it was more visually interesting to play through. It’s dark, claustrophobic buildings created an oppressive atmosphere that haunted every action and consequence you made throughout the game. It was a labyrinth of cruelty, deception and fear that the player was forced to navigate while fighting off the splicers and big daddies that made their home within its twisted depths.
It also gave us a none too subtle look at Objectivism, the philosophy first put forth by Ayn Rand. Objectivism is a lot like Communism and Anarchism in that it’s one of those ideas that looks good on paper but turns into an utter nightmare the minute you ask fallible human beings to follow that philosophy. In a perfect world where everyone played by the rules, and there was no such thing as greed and cruelty, then objectivism wouldn’t be an inherently bad idea, but we don’t live in a perfect world.
Rapture shows us a pretty convincing picture of what would happen to a society built on the groundwork of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. For those of you who didn’t google objectivism or if it’s been a while since you played Bioshock, let’s take a look at objectivism and how the philosophy was embodied by the city of Rapture. Ayn Rand’s philosophy revolves around the idea that life should be lived in the pursuit of one’s own rational self-interest (basically happiness, but in a twisted and complicated sense of the word), and that the knowledge and values of mankind are objective rather than subjective, that the ethics that we hold onto are an objective reality. Initially I had all these quotes I was going to throw up here, but if you’re like me, you’d just have to look those quotes up in the original text because they make little sense outside of the massive essays she wrote. Instead I’m just going to boil this down to its simplest components. In essence, she wanted reason and logic to rule the world. She didn’t like the idea of having to support other people, or other people supporting her, and she felt that if everyone acted in their own logical self-interest we’d be a much happier race.
And undoubtedly we would, if that were humanly possible to achieve but Ayn Rand, as much as she claimed to be an objectivist, was really just an idealist. While she knew what she wanted the world to look like, she didn’t quite know how to get there. Her ethical outlines are vague and difficult to pin down at best, basically she felt that if everyone stuck to the “logical self-interest” thing everything would work out. Of course she neglects to mention what happens if two people’s logical self-interest conflict, because in her mind that’s just not possible. She also didn’t state how she expected community services like police, firefighters and doctors to function in her philosophy since she says that you shouldn’t sacrifice yourself for others which all those professions do on a regular basis.
She wanted to think away the problems of the world, but it’s never that simple. If it were, I’m pretty sure Stephen Hawking would have already created world peace and colonized Mars by now.
So how were these philosophies seen in the game itself? Let’s take the most obvious ones first:
The Plasmids: A beautifully simplistic metaphor that doubles as a gameplay mechanic. In Bioshock canon, plasmids were a scientific invention and Ayn Rand’s entire philosophy hinges on the idea of following scientific progress and evidence regardless of the consequences. If life gives you a DNA-altering superdrug, you don’t put regulations on it or anything silly like that, you put it on the free market and let everyone rationally choose how to use it.
Splicers: This is what happens when you put a DNA-altering superdrug on the market without any kind of supervision.
The Little Sisters: There’s a reason that things like minimum wage and child labor laws were invented. It’s because they were fucking needed. Prior to 1916 in the United States, there was no minimum age law and that coupled with a still forming public education system meant you had tons of kids working in mines, factories and other hellholes where their tiny bodies just couldn’t take the strain. You had kids getting Black Lung from the coal mines at the tender age of twelve, and kids coming home without their arms after a hard days work at the factory (and no worker’s comp for the loss of the arms either). The philosophy of Ayn Rand exemplifies Laizzez-Faire capitalism as the epitome of human civilization, as the one system that works and its the system that Rapture adopts. Unfortunately she wasn’t around to see this in action (she was suffering a different kind of horror in Russia at the time), but the early 20th century showed us child labor and shit pay are what you get when you tell corporations to go wild. The Little Sisters embodied this flaw in Objectivism, children used as both test subjects AND a sellable product.
The Big Daddy: The Big Daddy was the antithesis of the Objectivist philosophy, a lumbering simpleton that reacted on pure animal instinct, in this case the pheromones produced by Little Sisters. No logic, no self-determination. Worse yet, their entire existence was dedicated to the welfare of another, the Little Sisters.
There was also the moral choice system that took so much flak because, let’s face it, it was pretty basic. Where it failed to provide a compelling gameplay mechanic though, it succeeded in giving the player the ability to follow or discard Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Either you help yourself by sacrificing the Little Sisters and harvesting them for ADAM, or you make a sacrifice and let them escape with all their delicious ADAM and your future powers. Of course that was later undermined because the Little Sisters gave you stuff too, sometimes better stuff, but the idea was there.
You’ve all heard Ayn Rand philosophy if you’ve played Bioshock. That you heard it through awesome dialogue of Andrew Ryan (an anagram for Ayn Rand) is immaterial. They’re reworded or rearranged, probably to avoid any messy litigation that might result from direct quotes, but it was Ayn Rand’s ideas and philosophy you were hearing. Of course Armin Shimmerman’s amazing performance as Andrew Ryan helped disguise their origin too, because Ayn Rand was no orator. Still the most famous line in the game is undoubtedly “A Man Chooses; A Slave Obeys” is really just Ayn Rand’s philosophy in a nutshell, provided Man means selfish bastard looking out for himself and slave stands for altruistic individuals. If Ayn Rand had been that succinct in her writing, researching her philosophy would have been so much easier.
Of course here I am criticizing someone for being verbose when I’m nearly 2000 words in and we still haven’t gotten to Columbia!
Even though Rapture was the superior setting, and was more visually interesting to play through, I felt that Columbia was the superior character and was better at conveying the horrific effects of its society. Mainly for two reasons: we got to see the good as well as the bad of Columbia whereas in Rapture we only ever saw the city after its fall, and because there were actually people living in Columbia. While you ran across a few survivors in Rapture, they were usually just as deranged as the splicers and never gave you good look at what Rapture would have looked like in its prime. In Columbia we get to see people enjoying themselves, and provides a much needed foil for the traumatic events that follow. Horror loses its effect when all you’re exposed to is horror, by letting us see Columbia in a state of normalcy the impact of the racism and cruelty we latter experienced had much more impact than they would have otherwise.
My mouth actually hung open in shock when they rolled out the interracial couple, and not just because of the disgusting (and unfortunately, historically accurate) imagery employed, but because of the shock of seeing such a provocative and downright disturbing scene in a video game. Of course the idea that racism is horrible isn’t really a new idea, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it dealt with in a video game, at least to this extreme. There have been several criticisms of Bioshock Infinite relating to its depiction of racism, mainly that they don’t go far enough with it, but I think Bioshock showed the exact amount of violence necessary to get its point across. That one scene made me despise the people of Columbia for the rest of the game, and this is one of those occasions where less is definitely more. Constantly bombarding the player with violence against minorities would eventually become exhausting to watch. Finally, the racism of Columbia was a backdrop to the rest of the story, not the story itself. This isn’t a story about racism, and I’d argue that if Infinite had shown more violence, it would have overshadowed the sickening and downright traumatic torture of Elizabeth later in the game.
That said, I found the deifying of the founding fathers of America to be far more disturbing than the racism. That’s probably because of the overt racial hatred of Columbia is something that’s been largely eradicated in most of the world, we don’t have people being lynched for having interracial relations anymore and while racial discrimination is still a huge problem in parts of the world, I’d like to think the type of racial slavery and abuse depicted in Infinite will never be something I have to contend with. The deifying of America’s founding fathers though, that’s something that many people would do right now if they could. At its base, Columbia personifies American Exceptionalism, which is essentially the idea that America is unique in its greatness and free from the historical flaws of its European parents. Essentially its a slight variation on plain old nationalism, and isn’t inherently evil, but like so many things, when its taken to its furthest extreme it becomes a vehicle for incredible destruction and suffering.
Gay marriage. Religion in schools. Gun Control. Bank Regulations. Government Spending. You know what all of these have in common? A politician saying “this isn’t what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the constitution!” and there isn’t one particular party that says this either, it’s all of them, they just use the line on different issues. The politicians, radio and TV pundits that spout this line would all love to see the founding fathers deified like in Columbia. Now don’t get me wrong, the original founders had some great ideas and wrote a damn good constitution. Are they deserving of respect? Absolutely. Should we make all of our decisions based on what they said in the constitution? Absolutely not. They wrote the damn thing nearly 250 years ago, they were born in an era when slavery was legal, women were still largely considered property and protestants and Catholics were still gutting each other in Europe. As much as I ragged on Ayn Rand’s philosophy up there, I did like a couple things she had to say and one of them was this: don’t let other people do your thinking for you. By constantly referring to the constitution every time we run into an issue, we’re basically asking 250-year old men for advice. It’s like asking your 100 year old grandpa for advice on how to fix your Ipod, there’s just no way he has any useful information.
Then after incorporating militant nationalism and overt racism into the framework of Columbia, Irrational decided to make the perfect trifecta by also making it a theocracy. Ruled over by one man’s very narrow and literal view of biblical script. You’ve probably heard of Iran, and you’ve probably seen the crazy ass president they have talk about nuclear power on the news, but the thing most people forget is that the crazy president that’s always jabbering on TV is actually just a mouthpiece. The real power lies in the hands of a theocracy, led by this man, Ali Khamenei:
Apparently if you want to become a Theocractic dictator, you need a white beard like Santa Claus. And yes that entire last paragraph exists solely to point out the similarities between the two.
And on top of all those, Columbia shares with Rapture it’s economic policy of laizzez-faire capitalism, making Columbia an absolutely miserable place to live unless your a white, blue-eyed protestant with absolutely no moral character. Then it’s a paradise.
So how were these themes seen in the game?
The Patriot: The patriot represents the ultimate display of deification possible. It’s a walking monument to one of the founding fathers and it epitomizes American Exceptionalism through its technology and arsenal. Really this one is self-explanatory.
Order of the Raven: A hybrid of the KKK and secret police, the Order of the Raven are dedicated to the racial purity of Columbia. Honestly I think these were the most interesting enemies in the game, but unfortunately aside from a brief section in their headquarters, they’re never really elaborated on. A pity.
Handy-Man: The tapes you can recover through the game reveal the Handy-men to be rather tragic characters. Usually they’re people that were critically ill from the toxins produced by Fink’s factories, or just straight out maimed by the machinery of the same. Again, a bit more focus on these enemies could have gone along way to furthering their examination of unrestrained industrialization.
You know I’m just going to stop there. In the end Columbia simply failed to explore the themes it set out to explore, at least to the extent that Rapture explored Ayn Rand’s objectivism. It touches briefly on all the above philosophies I mentioned but it never really stops for an in-depth look. And you know what?
I’m okay with that. It may have failed to deliver on the exploration of its philosophical themes, but like I said before, while I enjoyed Bioshock I never felt the emotional investment with that game that I did with Bioshock Infinite. If the exploration of its philosophies was the sacrifice they needed to make in order to create such a grand character-driven story, I’m glad they did it. Later this week I’ll be exploring Bioshock’s drowning and water metaphor, and taking a final look at the story and the flaws that I didn’t notice the first time around.