Intro: The internet is loaded with interpretation about Bioshock Infinite, there you can find a wealth of plot details, easter eggs, and explanations about the game's ending. There's also no shortage of criticism, but this blog is intended as neither an iteration of the story or criticism of the game's mechanisms. This blog will attempt to provide a preliminary videogame context by discussing the historical background for the main characters and city of Columbia, as well as establishing themes (broad patterns) represented within the game. Themes can be used to evaluate games, however I shall only call-out themes during the current blog rather than discuss them. I can safely say that you wont see this kind of commentary anywhere else on the internet. Oh yeah--Spoilers!
One of the first details we learn about the protagonist Booker Dewitt is that he was posthumously commissioned with the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment during the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. The incident is one of the longstanding examples of gun confiscation leading to forced relocation, if not outright genocide. Unfortunately for the Lakota it meant the latter. Five-hundred armed troopers of the 7th Cavalry systematically confiscated firearms from the 120 or so Lakota men stationed at the civilian camp. Nearly all the Lakota had been disarmed when one man apparently shouted in protest, "this is my gun and I bought it with my own money." Although many details of the event are muddled, accounts indicate troopers attempted to wrestle the gun away from the man when a shot was fired. Three-hundred Lakota were left almost defenseless and gunned down in the ensuing massacre. Although 31 troopers were also killed in the incident, it is believed that at least half if not all of those casualties were the result of fratricide--friendly fire. There is no question that several friendly fire casualties were caused by the reckless use of the Hotchkiss cannon. The Cavalry carried four Hotchkiss (42mm) Mountain Guns capable of firing 10 rounds per-minute, each round consisting of a canister holding 30 (.50 caliber) lead balls. This amount of fire power would have projected a lead fan several feet in width that indiscriminately killed friendly troops still conducting searches amongst the Lakota. At the time, news of the heroic deeds of the 7thCavalry was welcomed news by the press and the Army awarded 20 soldiers with the Medal of Honor. Presumably Booker would have been the 21st medal earner, an accomplishment that forever marred his inner psyche.
This leads to the first two themes I identified in Infinite: gun confiscation and forced relocation. These are two themes that Booker already has in his background and are played out through the city of Columbia. One of the major missions in the game is to steal weapons from the Columbian guard and give them to the Vox Pupil revolutionaries. Forced relocation is prevalent throughout the game but isn't clearly fleshed out until we learn that the Lutece twins have actually coerced Booker into kidnapping Elizabeth. Unfortunately, I'm not going to discuss themes at length in this blog because I'm trying to keep it short. Seriously.
Once Booker is baptized he's allowed to enter Columbia and is greeted by statues of Gorge Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. All three men are clad in gold, wearing togas, and each holding a symbolic object of their virtue. Washington holds a sword, a symbol of war and law and order. This image of the first president is reminiscent of the Apotheosis of Washington, which is a fresco painted on the ceiling of the Capitol Building in Washington DC. In the mural Washington is depicted wearing a toga, ascending to heaven, and flanked by a pantheon of Greco/Roman gods. Above his head are the words "E Pluribus Unum," which is Latin for "out of many, one." The Apotheosis of Washington literally translates to: out of many, Washington rises to the rank of god. Below his feet is a scene of war, where a woman raises sword against kings and tyrants in a fight for freedom. This female warrior, a personification of war and allegory for a nation, is named Columbia. Hence, the U.S. capital is known as the District of Columbia. At the beginning of the game Elizabeth is held within the Statue of Columbia on Monument Island, a symbol of the floating city. The game foreshadows that Elizabeth (the lamb) will become Comstock's successor and lead Columbia to war against the U.S., ultimately elevating Comstock (the prophet) to the position of god. The imagery of Washington is rebranded throughout Columbia as statues of Comstock show him with sword in hand. Ascension is probably the easiest theme in Infinite to recognize because symbolism at the very beginning of the game right to the end has Booker constantly moving upwards. Whether flying from the light house to Columbia in the beginning of the game, or rising from Rapture to the light house in the end of the game, ascension is a clear theme.
Benjamin Franklin is also depicted (in lesser status) on the Apotheosis of Washington. He is shown taking school lessons from Minerva, the goddess of science and invention. In Columbia, the statue of Franklin is associated with the key, which is symbolic for academia and science. Franklin was also a well known author and publisher in his day. In 1751 he published a very controversial essay titled Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, ect. In which he suggested the preservation of the "American race" through population control such as immigration and breeding. One of his statements argued for immigration control because people of color had countries of their own, and even the "swarthy" whites of Europe were of mixed complexion, whereas white-Saxons were confined to the small corners of England and Scandinavia. To this end he argues in favor of an America with exclusively white immigrant populations and the perseverance of the white-Saxon complexion. He adds that the Saxon-Americans needed to share the new world with Native Americans because the indigenous populations were the progenitors of the land. Although Franklin owned slaves, he condemned slavery for economic reasons, but mostly for the risk of darkening and maligning the hereditary pool of white-Saxons.
It's easy for modern readers to describe these sentiments as racist, however they were more accurately eugenicist. The belief of a white America was widely held among aritocrats of the time and was at least partially influential in Charles Darwin's publication: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. [Yes, that is the real title of the book.] Eugenics was born out of Charles Darwin, who himself was obsessed with purity of breeding. Darwin and his family pedigree were well known in England for promoting the Poor Laws, which restricted people of certain social-economic classes from having children. Fixated with racial purity, Darwin himself married his first cousin--with whom he had 10 children--then after the death of his wife, he married his mothers sister. The only reason I mention Darwin is due to his proliferation within the eugenics movement, which is a major theme in Infinite, and he bears a striking resemblance to Comstock.
The social philosophy of Columbia is strictly eugenicist, people with desired traits are encouraged to have children, and people with less than desirable traits are segregated or discouraged from reproducing. During the early 1900s the U.S. was the first country to openly adopt forced sterilization under their eugenics program. The topic of a genetic purity through nationalism (not strictly racial purity) would have been a viable subject matter within the political theater of the day. Propaganda scattered throughout Columbia urges racial purity and calls for restrictions on "foreigners." The essence of Columbia is bound by a conscience of faith in nationalism, for which there is a deeply rooted background. The theme of ethnic purity is plastered on the walls of Columbia.
Thomas Jefferson is not depicted in the Apotheosis of Washington, however his role as a founding father is more than noteworthy. People around the world know Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence. He also wrote another very important political document known as The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. The act is short, easy to read, and more to the point than this blog. In Columbia, the statue of Jefferson holds a scroll, for all intents and purposes the scroll is blank. Jefferson understood religious freedom, insomuch that the name of the act is embossed on his tombstone. Legislation can be enforced at the edge of a sword, and bad choices can be made in the pursuit of law and order, but Jefferson believed that none should be coerced against their conscience to follow a monopoly over truth. Religious freedom is a dominant theme in Infinite, free mind and natural rights cease to exist in the presence of oppression and revolution. The narrative builds tension by casting this theme into disarray, and does it ever. There are very few references to Jefferson in Bioshock Infinite, but perhaps I'll recognize more connections on a second play through.
There are two more themes I'd like to briefly mention. During Elizabeth's first introduction to Booker we get to visit her personal library, where she picks up a quantum physics book and throws it at Booker, she literally throws the book at him. Then she picks up another book, The Odyssey, and clutches it to her breast. Two major themes running through The Odyssey are homecoming and the guest/host relationship. When we first meet Odysseus in the The Odyssey he has been away from home for 19 years, and on the 20th year he finally has his homecoming only to find his house in disorder. In Infinite, Elizabeth has been living in the Comstock timeline for 19 years and the Lutece twins eagerly await Booker to rescue her and bring her home to the proper timeline. Unfortunately, along the way Booker continuously violates the hospitality of the guest/host relationship. On the other hand the Lutece twins also violate this relationship by kidnapping Booker and coercing him to believe false memories in order commit atrocities. The game becomes quiet convoluted as these themes play out.
The reason I wrote this blog is to demonstrate what a videogame context might look like. I'm not saying it's a good example, or that even anything I say is right, but this is the direction a written context would take. I've been frustrated lately with the gaming industry's complete lack of understanding in this area. I've heard very well known high profile game commentators discuss videogame context and completely butcher their argument because they don't know what a context actually is. One gentleman in particular has posted several videos on youtube criticizing the Australian government for their attempt censor Saints Row 4. His basic argument is that the censors aren't considering drug use and/or sexual violence within the context of the game. The obvious problem with his argument is that their currently exists no such context for Saints Row 4. It is a fallacy to state that something is being taken out of context, when infact there is no context. Once a context is developed themes can be identified, and only then can a proper evaluation of the game take place. If this all seems overly academic it's because it is academic.
So, now that you've suffered through the end of this, please keep in mind that most of what I talked about is within the first half-hour of the game. As you can imagine, I could provide much more context or commentary if desired.
[Sorry there's no pictures, the original blog included pictures but GS is glitching and telling me each photo is like 20,000 characters long. I tried like ten times then gave up, I can't even post a single photo. I can't even read a PM someone sent me. Does anything work on this POS site anymore?]