BioShock is celebrating its 10-year anniversary today, March 26, 2023. Below, we take a critical eye to how it ultimately mishandles its prominent Black revolutionary character, Daisy Fitzroy.
Let me tell you a story: a story about a slave.
This slave was once the absolute pride of their owner. Strong. Respected. And the slave was well-cared for. The lady ruler of the land decreed it. But the slave was still enslaved. Their only real power was the ability to control a crowd. After being declared an enemy of the state, the slave revolted. They swore vengeance, inciting an entire people to cheer for the fall of their ruler, and made no apologies for their wish to overthrow the government by force. The slave would fight, and die, for freedom.
This is a story about a slave.
Actually, it's a story of two slaves.
One of them is BioShock Infinite's Daisy Fitzroy. The other is Maximus Decimus Meridius from Ridley Scott's Gladiator. But these are two different slaves on another level. One of them is considered an all-time great hero of film. Father to a murdered son. Husband to a murdered wife. His actions defied the Roman Empire through violent revolt, ending in a dead emperor and a new republic. He is a hero, and the film portrays him as such.
The other is a Black slave in 1912, sent to serve her master in a floating utopia for rich, bourgeois, and stultifyingly racist white people of the time. Zachary Comstock, her master and the city's "prophet,", frames her for murdering his wife. While on the run from the racist mob, Daisy dedicates herself to her city's downfall by any means necessary.
And yet, BioShock Infinite spends much of its first half painting her as a selfish, duplicitous monster.
BioShock Infinite's heroes, by contrast, are Booker DeWitt, a private detective killing his way through the floating racist utopia of Columbia, and Elizabeth Comstock, the prophet's daughter--who sees all of Columbia's horrible inequalities, and still has Disney princess dreams of going to Paris for the first time.Granted, she at least has the excuse of living in a literal ivory tower all her life, and those priorities do change later, as we discover Elizabeth has access to the multiverse, which leads to Booker's discovery that his role in the multiverse is becoming the prophet Zachary Comstock after being baptised.
But that's the trouble. BioShock Infinite is not about race and class nearly as much as it is a story about choice, and the way it ripples far beyond the self. Its true concern is the multiverse, and to its credit, BioShock Infinite was doing it before it was cool. It's a story about how one man's simple choice can change the world for the worse. What it is very pointedly not about, however, is how one person--or even many--can change a horrible world in the present for a better future, despite possessing unfathomable amounts of power to do so. This is made disturbingly clear throughout the entirety of BioShock Infinite, as we watch Daisy Fitzroy attempt to do just that only to be portrayed as just as selfish and evil as the systems she aims to dismantle.
BioShock Infinite shows us the nauseating racism and class stratification of the floating city of Columbia early and often. From an interracial couple being tied up and "stoned" by a crowd armed with baseballs at the city's carnival, and the Chinese and Irish being worked to death in the city's bowels just to provide a beach for rich citizens to sunbathe, to the slum neighborhood of Finkton, where Columbia's gleaming splendor turns to appalling squalor. Abolitionists, even white ones, are treated as pariahs and criminals. And the state is defended by immense firepower.
But despite the game forcing us to witness these atrocities, we unfortunately spend our time playing as a man who pointedly doesn't care about them. Booker DeWitt only cares about clearing his debt, and says outright that he sees Zachary Comstock and Daisy Fitzroy as two sides of the same coin, while also offering no thought of his own on what marginalized people who have been given no other options for betterment should do to obtain their freedom. The closest Booker gets to an understanding is a moment where he and Elizabeth wander one of Columbia's inhuman detention facilities, and states in disgust, "Sometimes, you need a person like Daisy Fitzroy."
But even if Booker understands Daisy's necessity, the game doesn't seem to agree with it. It is not in BioShock's nature to offer solutions or condemnations to blatant, screaming evil, but to work around it, creating nuance where it comes across as far more antagonistic than philosophical. When Booker meets Daisy, the only thing she needs from Booker is the guns to start the revolution. Despite her backstory constantly noting her intelligence and how empathetic her cause is, in person, her philosophy and kindness are both nonexistent. Instead of a radical leader, we find yet another selfish mobster.
When Daisy finally does get her guns, Daisy is not the spark that lights the fires of armed revolution. Instead it is another universe's Booker, who sacrifices himself for the cause. And when our Booker--the one players control--shows up again alive and well, Daisy orders him killed to avoid muddying the narrative. Regardless of Booker's one line validating Daisy's cause, the game tells us, time and time again, that we actually don't need a person like Daisy Fitzroy. This is despite the fact that just walking through Columbia for more than 30 seconds shows us this place is screaming for someone like her--especially since the guy with the skyhook and dozens of Vigors flowing through his veins will only lift a finger against the ruling class if they're in the way of the exits.
Bioshock Infinite is a game wholly unprepared to fully wrestle with the ramifications of its backdrop, but for what it's worth, this is less a bug than a feature of the Bioshock series as a whole. With crystal-clear hindsight, Infinite is not an outlier, but instead the culmination of the series' politics up to that point, attempting to take an apolitical stance in radically political situations. The first BioShock garnered praise for how its grimly detailed portrait of strict Libertarian individuality was allowed to blossom and fester to its ultimate end. Unchecked human avarice ultimately leads to a community that cannot band together to fix itself or keep its house in order. Rapture is "eff you, got mine" on the grandest scale, and that unapologetic lack of care for one's community creates monsters. But the player protagonist, Jack, is not here to save Rapture from itself, but to murder its founder, the industrialist Andrew Ryan. The first BioShock is a portrait of avarice already having failed, but the statement--the punctuation mark on it all--is about choice.
The underrated BioShock 2 does fare a bit better in that regard, showing Rapture attempting a shift into collectivism or communism that eventually curdles into one woman, the social scientist Sofia Lamb, attempting to kill individualism in its entirety. It's at least a game showing every major resident grappling with their role in such a society, and our protagonist, Delta, physically unable to be an individual. But the thrust of the story is ultimately about Delta's bond with the Little Sisters, turning Sofia Lamb into a generic mad scientist by the end. Paraphrasing a great little film called Clue, communism was just a red herring.
For clarity, it should be said that this doesn't necessarily make BioShock Infinite a racist game. It's very clearly not on the side of the monsters of Columbia. It's just a game that wants to say racism is bad, but without using its platform to offer anything of worth to the conversation beyond that. It frames the desperate act of desperate people just as abhorrent as the deep-rooted, ungodly systemic violence and oppression that made them this way. That mostly just makes it kind of a waste of psychological space and time. Bringing up a topic as pervasive as race, but refusing to acknowledge it in its entirety doesn't make it a theme of BioShock Infinite so much as the wallpaper. Compare that with, say, MachineGames' Wolfenstein titles, games that hate Nazis with all the fire in their hearts, but also, more than this, fully address the problems, pitfalls, and discomfort required to truly fight evil. Revolution is not the backdrop of these games; it is the narrative.
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BioShock's concerns predominantly have to do with individual choice, not collective responsibility, and the only individual choices that matter in these games are the player's. Aside from Sigma in the brilliant Minerva's Den DLC for BioShock 2, these are all the stories of people with no literal or figurative skin in the game. And the player is helpless to substantially liberate Columbia from its oppressors, which makes someone like Daisy Fitzroy, indeed, necessary. Oppressed people have every right to fight for freedom, but that's a privilege a lot of media fails to afford marginalized people, especially now. Much ink has been spilled about the trend of villains in big-budget films and TV shows making great, salient points, and calling for revolutionary change in the way overarching culture does things, but none of these works can let these people betooright. Someone being too right might inspire real-world change. That's obviously dangerous. And so it goes. Killmonger has to be a misogynist. Thanos is genocidal. Daisy Fitzroy threatens Jeremiah Fink's children.
And then there's the DLC, Burial At Sea; the ultimate, disrespectful cherry on top of this whole situation, positing Daisy threatening Jeremiah Fink's child as a pantomime meant to inspire Elizabeth Comstock into awakening her powers and "becoming a woman." Daisy's agency, what little she has, is retroactively stolen valor that eventually gets stolen back. Daisy taking up the sword against those who threaten her people is monstrous.According to the Luteces, the twin quantum physicists who tell Daisy of her destiny, Elizabeth taking up the sword is meant to "make her a woman."
That's not only stunning, insulting dissonance, but it makes the existence of a character like Daisy into collateral damage, another person of color broken in half, so that an apolitical, generic, faceless white guy can march past her to self-actualization. When someone like Daisy Fitzroy makes a stand,with the knowledge that armed revolution is necessary in the scenario presented by BioShock Infinite, it's somehow a bridge too far to allow her to be the hero of her own story. The people she aims to set free and the very real, pervasive societal problems that plague them are little more than just window dressing to a science fiction fairy tale that never required their presence. It all leaves an aftertaste so acidic and off-putting it sours the series.
In 2013, when 2K introduced BioShock Infinite to the world, it was to the tune of Nico Vega's Beast, an absolute fire-breathing banger about standing tall in the face of America's problems. How utterly disappointing it is that trailer was for a game too cowardly to stand tall for anything.
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