Note: This article contains minor story spoilers
I recently completed the stellar adventure found within Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite. It was one of the most memorable gaming journeys that I have experienced, and is easily an early candidate for game of the year. The game was filled with intense combat, memorable characters, a wonderful and unique take on music, some incredible vistas and easily one of the most interesting and creative worlds we’ve seen in recent times. In Bioshock Infinite, Irrational Games created one of the most unique cities I’ve ever visited, in that it was one I admired for its exterior beauty, and hated for its rotted contents.
Columbia was such a beautifully realized city. There is a definite sense of wonder before the chaos begins. You leave from a droll, rainy world of Earth and literally take a rocket ship to another place. The rocket sequence is influenced not only by early pulp science fiction, but also (quite deliberately) by the opening sequence of the first Bioshock.
Where the rocket lands is almost equally as eerie as the original bathysphere opening sequence in Bioshock. The rocket touches down in a dark, candle-lit church or all places. The church has the same kind of quiet eeriness that a lot of the original game had, and this was helped by the fact that the floor was covered in a thin layer of water, reminiscent of the floods of Rapture.
However, upon leaving the church, we are greeted by a world that was nothing like Bioshock’s faded utopia-turned-dystopia. The player leaves and finds themselves in a beautiful, sunlit park, filled with peaceful pilgrims in white, flowers, and a gigantic, overwhelming statue of three founding fathers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The statue, and the text surrounding it, seems to deify the figures. It is the first hint at the extreme nationalism that has gripped Columbia.
Past that odd statue, or even in spite of it, there really is nothing to separate the park from one that might be found in a church garden in our world. As you leave the church grounds, you’re greeted by happy people on a sort of main street. You can get hot dogs from a street vendor, eavesdrop on a few conversations about a festival, watch a small parade or see a barbershop quartet singing a Beach Boys song. The Beach Boys song should stand out, as the game takes place close to 60 years before the game came out, but it fits with the festive atmosphere of Columbia.
The streets of Columbia are beautiful. The use of yellow cobblestones gives them the appearance that they are literally paved in gold. One of the most striking things about the earliest part of the game was that, after the opening of the lighthouse, the rocket ship and the priest, the player does not feel like chaos is about to break loose. We know it must, as this is a game, and conflict is at the center of most games, but Columbia, for that first half hour or so past leaving the church actually seems peaceful. I took my time to explore, and never felt harried after exiting the church.
Rapture was a city long since declined, merely clinging to the last threads of its tragic existence. Columbia on the other hand is a golden city in the sky, one in its prime. While I loved the art deco style that marked Rapture, Columbia’s simple, brick and mortar buildings almost made you forget that the city was floating through the air on 1912 alternate universe technology. It was eerie, but surprisingly not unsettling. Upon making my way to the fair and the raffle, I did notice one thing. The city was white washed. While the rocket took off from Maine, the people in Columbia seemed almost like the stereotype of well-mannered, early 1900’s southerners. They were perfectly nice to your face, but you could almost hear the criticism behind your back. In spite of the warm-yet-cold reception from the people, Columbia was still a stunning place to visit, especially when you could see far off destinations.
Of course, once you hit the fair and raffle, you are reminded of the times you exist in. Upon winning the raffle, you are presented with a couple in rags, a black woman and a white man. Suddenly, the world makes a lot more sense, and as you are encouraged by the host to throw a baseball at the couple, you get a clear view of the ugly side of Columbia.
With Rapture, we were presented with the consequences of vanity. Immediately after the magical opening in the bathysphere, you are presented with a rotting city, and you don’t actually meet anyone sane. Columbia contrasts this by hinting at something sinister, but first showing you a golden city, full of life. The people here, in spite of their prejudices and fervor, are still people, and not crazed genetic mutants.
In spite of itself, the vast majority of what we get to see of Columbia is beautiful. You pass through high end apartments and restaurants, and short of one house filled with a printing press and African-America’s sleeping on small cots, Columbia again seems to be a paradise that you are fighting through. As a player of games, it is easy to not be fooled by the glamour of Columbia’s life, but in spite of itself, the city, at least aesthetically, remains beautiful.
We know the people, at least in the upper city, are bullheaded, spiteful, petty, and even perhaps brainwashed by the jingoistic propaganda, but this can be dismissed as part of the times. That doesn’t make it any less awful of a place. The unique nature of Columbia is a large part of what makes Bioshock Infinite so enthralling. It is a place that is incredibly beautiful on the surface, yet just behind the scenes lurks the awfulness of early 1900’s inhumanity towards other races.
This incredible contrast is most apparent in back corridors of the stunning Battleship Bay boardwalk or the downtrodden streets and docks of Fink Manufacturing’s area. In Battleship Bay, you wash up on a pristine beach. This is already odd because you’re floating through the sky, but the beach is really not all that different from those in our world. The atmosphere is brilliant, with dancing, a boardwalk and bright, vibrant colors. It’s a nice break from the early action, until you get to the back corridors and see the disgusting, ramshackle bathrooms for “colored” and “Irish” people, and the downtrodden people who actually seem to maintain the brilliant exterior. They seem a bleak contrast to all the happiness of the happy citizens surrounding them, and act almost resigned to their fates as near slaves surrounded by a paradise they themselves can’t reach.
Fink’s is similar, with people bidding time for jobs, and slaving over the docks under the watchful eye of Columbia’s police. We get to see that they live in squalor, under the watchful eye of a massive, gilded, industrial clock, reminiscent of Metropolis. It is nothing short of unsettling to watch the blue-collar workers of Columbia clamor for these awful jobs as it hints that the city has grown too fast. Even without Booker’s intervention in the downfall of Columbia, the city appears on the brink of economic collapse. The obvious sign is the burgeoning revolution, but even without that, the city is clearly exhausting its limited resources and heading towards a societal collapse.
The strangest part of the game is that people that you would expect to sympathize with, the revolutionaries, are revealed to be just as awful as those they fight. Their reasons may be better, but their revolution really turns things for the worse. There is an ironic twist to their revolution as well. While these people are clearly second class citizens in their city, as they take over, they appear to harbor similar hatreds and equivalent morals. Anti-Semitic graffiti, civilian casualties, and even the attempted murder of a child do much to make the downtrodden of Columbia almost as detestable as those they rally against. This doesn’t even begin the betrayal of their own chosen martyr for their ‘narrative.’
It’s all brilliant in a way. Irrational Games does an incredible job with Columbia to reveal a striking society. One ostensibly built on the backs of science, progress and pride that reveals itself to be more concerned with vanity, hatred, paranoia and jingoism. The actual soldiers you fight merely want an honorable death in combat as a way out, but almost everyone else you meet is so wrapped up in their own selfishness that the glamour of their beautiful accomplishment is completely eradicated. The best people in the game were Elizabeth, who was so far removed from the society, and the Lutece “twins,” who managed to escape Columbia and become the catalyst for its downfall.
Never before had I played a game where I both loved the location and found myself detesting it at the same time. I wanted to explore every nook and cranny of Columbia’s beauty, while completely avoiding the paranoia and hatred that nearly every citizen exhibited. There were a few apparently good souls in and around the city, but these few were drowned out by the warped jingoism of the majority of the upper class and the faux-revolutionary appeal of the lower. The chaotic nature of the last hour and a half of the game’s narration certainly fits the evolution of the city’s mental state, and only served to enrich the conflicted way I felt about Columbia. At its heart, the game is almost about the downfall of a disguised dystopia as it is about Booker and Elizabeth. Bioshock Infinite is worth playing through almost solely to experience this wonderfully chaotic society trapped in what should have been a paradise, and I for one can’t wait to revisit Columbia again when the DLC is released.