This piece contains a major spoiler for Bioshock 1, an in-depth analysis of a Bioshock Infinite character, and discussions of racism and fascism. Plot details and politics ahead.
Bioshock Infinite is fascinating, engaging, and a hell of a lot of fun to play. As an immersive spectacle it’s basically unparalleled. It’s also unapologetically violent, politically forthright and deeply, mind-bendingly surreal. Smarter people than I have tackled its approaches to quantum mechanics, the uncomfortable dissonance of its storytelling and trademark gore, and its glowing, terrifying vision of white supremacist Americana. Others have pointed out how much fun it is, and they’re right: I’m not sure there’s much we still have to say about it, review-wise.
Bioshock Infinite is very good and you should play it.
Thanks, Ken Levine.
It is capital-A ‘Art’, it works very hard to be. I loved the experience of playing Infinite, the way it messed with time and space to tell a story much larger than it initially appears, and the ways it unfolds that story into a larger meditation on causality and agency. There are a great number of things it does outstandingly well, even seven years later.
Bioshock Infinite has earned its place in the canon, whatever that means.
It also has significant issues in its depictions of people of colour.
Hold that thought, we’ll circle back to it.
One notable thing about Infinite is that it really has no bloat. There’s no optional content to dither around in, no lengthy non-interactive expository sequences, and no named characters that don’t feature extensively in the game’s themes. There are, in fact, only about ten or so named characters at all – not counting the ghosts you find in audio-logs – and each serves a distinct purpose. Fink is the ruthless capitalist, Columbia’s fixer and brother to a talented plagiarist musician. Father Comstock is the racist, fanatical Christian cult leader, hell-bent on fulfilling his own prophecies for reasons that become agonizingly clear. Elizabeth is the expressive and animated caged bird, eager to explore the outside world she’s been denied. The Lutece twins are so deeply symbolic that they’re barely people at all, identical signposts guiding you toward Infinite‘s deeper truths. Each of these characters serves a specific purpose, fleshing out a world otherwise populated by countless nameless soldiers, mechanical horrors and other walking, talking satires of American history.
So far so good. Bioshock Infinite‘s story is much tighter than the first two games, both of which I’ve played over the last month and a half. It’s also impossible to spoil because every twist of the plot is so deeply indebted to every other, coiled so tightly around the thematic core, that to reveal one or two doesn’t really ruin anything. It’s convoluted in a deeply purposeful, meticulous way. By the time it ends you’re confused but satisfied – it works because of its commitment to detail.
This narrative focus is a marked improvement from the first two games. Bioshock relied too much on a single, enormous twist and frequently felt like the Coles Notes of The Fountainhead. The immediacy of its Ayn Rand critique is almost overwhelming in 2020: the final boss is literally a giant gold statue named Atlas. Meanwhile, Bioshock 2 rushes through its criticism of Collectivism so quickly that it lacks meaningful stakes until its exceptional final act.
Where the first two Bioshocks made single, philosophically-intense points, Infinite makes dozens. Its cast is double the size of the previous games’, and much more nuanced. These characters get more room to express themselves and are more compelling as a result. Motivations in Infinite are complex and the central characters are given space to grow and change.
All but one of them.
At the core of its complex take on quantum physics Bioshock Infinite suggests that each person contains multitudes spread over countless other worlds. It’s a familiar concept, if you’re a nerd: there are infinite splintering versions of the self across time and space into infinity, containing every possible probability of events. Everything can happen and does, somewhere, so everyone is the hero and the villain at once. Father Comstock and his rival, the freedom-fighter Daisy Fitzroy, are fundamentally the same, from the perspective of infinity.
Quantum-mechanically speaking, everyone is equal.
Except that the rebel Daisy Fitzroy is Black.
So are her followers. They’re a variety of POC and immigrants forming the underclass of Columbia in 1912, just as they did in the America below. They’re treated as indentured servants to the white citizens of Columbia. The game makes this point very clear: POC exist in Columbia to serve as a labour class to Comstock’s floating white paradise. They’re segregated and aren’t permitted to leave, so they’re effectively slaves. They are oppressed, and largely the game is very critical of this oppression. Its many hideous depictions of historically-faithful racial caricatures, slogans and the level where you massacre the Klan while they’re busy worshiping John Wilkes Booth make the game’s stance on racism abundantly clear: Racism is bad and eradicating it is good.
I’m glad Infinite is explicit about condemning racism, as easy as that should be. The imagery the game uses to do this is not subtle, and sometimes it can feel exploitative. Here’s a relatively tame example:
This is racist as hell and the game thankfully knows it. But let’s return to that alternate universe theory, because it suggests something troubling about the way Bioshock Infinite handles its depictions of race.
The first time you step into an alternate time-stream you emerge to a prison riot, and then to an underclass in the middle of a violent revolution. Daisy Fitzroy and her army the Vox Populi have taken arms and are engaged in a populist revolt, tearing down institutions of power and waging literal warfare on Father Comstock’s overtly-racist peacekeeping authority. They tear down statues, march and chant, and spray-paint revolutionary slogans on walls.
If this isn’t reminding you of anything yet, it should.
They take over institutions, steal weaponry, cut supply lines and generally wreak havoc on the aristocratic white population. It’s violent, but again, it’s a metaphor: the working-class revolt is cathartic as a response to the overwhelming racism earlier in the game. We’re already conditioned to accept extreme violence in Columbia. Hell, Booker massacred that Klan hideout in the first level and didn’t bat an eyelash – in this universe, bombastic violence is how problems are solved. This is how Daisy and her Vox solve theirs. This isn’t shocking, in itself.
And yet, the game’s rhetoric around this violence is disconcerting. Our player-protagonist, Booker, labels Daisy a threat immediately, but he’s suspicious of everyone. Daisy Fitzroy is fighting for freedom and blowing up a racist police station at this point. We’re still on her side, and so is our ward, Elizabeth. But Booker’s misgivings never go away, and eventually Elizabeth begins to feel the same, fearing the strength Daisy has amassed. Eventually Daisy justifies their fear by rising to power and ordering the Vox Populi to slaughter the defenseless, aristocratic whites of Columbia in the streets. Out of armed enemies to fight, the Vox turn their vengeance on civilians and children.
In Daisy’s timeline Booker died a martyr of the rebellion, so when she finds out he’s still ‘alive’ she sets out to ensure he stays dead, to protect her political clout. She becomes a villain and the Vox turn on you unquestioningly. You slaughter them in turn.
In her climactic scene, just to outline how much of a cartoon villain Daisy has become, she holds a gun to a child’s head – the child of white super-capitalist Jeremiah Fink. Surely this is wrong and Daisy must know it, but in the moment all we see is a furious Black revolutionary about to kill a child in cold blood. This is the nadir of Daisy’s cruelty on display for all to see – Father Comstock is a nightmare, but Daisy is too, and she’s willing to kill a child to prove it. She is, according to the game, just as bad.
To be clear: you’re eventually tasked with wiping out not only the evil white aristocrats, but their rebelling slaves as well. As far as Bioshock Infinite is concerned, given sufficient firepower underclasses like Daisy Fitzroy’s will rise up and immediately become worse than their original oppressors. Therefore everyone is equally prone to evil, violence is neutral, and there are no good and bad guys in this, or any class war.
That’s the statement.
So Elizabeth, a white aristocrat herself, sneaks up and murders Daisy Fitzroy. It’s the first and most significant time that she hurts anyone at all – and she kills a Black revolutionary woman. Elizabeth stabs her in the back with scissors, cutting the only notable Black character out of the game. She departs from the narrative without so much as a eulogy: Fitzroy is not revisited in any form until the second Burial at Sea DLC episode, a full year after Infinite‘s release.
To suggest that Daisy is just as bad when she commits violence – as the game does when Daisy threatens to kill that child, and the increasing fascism of the Vox’s dress and speech – is to ignore the very real consequences of this rhetoric, and the reality and language of actual racial violence.
Yes everyone, in a quantum mechanical sense, is capable of profound atrocity in a foreign universe. Hypothetically even the same atrocities as their oppressors! Logically, okay, there’s a way to get your brain to that idea if you ignore historical context, precedent and reality. I guess.
Things change when Bioshock Infinite confronts you with Black (Asian, Irish, Latinx) men in Communist-red hoods reminiscent of the Klan you murdered earlier. The new hoods have devil horns.
In another scene, the rebels have clearly scalped people; nearby you find a pile of white, civilian bodies. This imagery is eerily reminiscent of conspiracy theories around ‘white genocide’ and the non-existent oppression of white people. The notion that POC would rise to power and immediately become racist is absurd, and it borders on ‘reverse-racism.’ To be clear, Black people and other POC cannot be racist to white people because racism by definition relies on historic and deeply entrenched power dynamics. These dynamics do not exist in reverse in our universe, so this representation has real consequences. Perhaps everyone has the capacity to become the Klan in some parallel timeline – but does that justify the statement the equivocation makes in this one? Does it justify the depiction of Black revolutionaries turning into genocidal hooded killers, or is that depiction harmful to real-world social justice?
What about when the depiction validates actual racist conspiracy theories?
Maybe March, 2013 was a different time. In 2020 we’re keenly sensitive to this kind of messaging. The U.S. president equivocates between the actions of fascist white supremacists and the people fighting against them because, very clearly, the president is a white supremacist and a fascist. Left to his own devices, I’m sure he’d praise his racist supporters and jackbooted thugs much more than he already does. America is embroiled in what are effectively Civil Rights protests because it is – increasingly obviously – a violent Police State geared to the oppression of minorities. It always has been.
To pick just one example of violence in the real world, in our timeline, right-wing supporters (and cops!) keep driving vehicles into crowds of protestors. People have died, and will continue to be harmed so long as this administration continues to lean into fascism. So it hurts when Bioshock Infinite, a game that’s clearly trying to make a certain rhetorical point, forces me to battle POC and immigrants en masse, many of whom wear pointed hoods and spout the same brand of fascistic bullshit as Father Comstock. It doesn’t make sense.
The Vox Populi and the Columbian authorities, in gameplay terms, are identical once they turn on you. You kill them in equal measure.
This troubles me because it implies that violence is a neutral force pushing the scales of power back and forth. The equivocation is chilling, and it does a disservice to the point of real-life revolutions like Daisy Fitzroy’s. This kind of violence is never neutral, and the purpose of working-class, POC-led revolution is not simply to put a different uniform on Fascism.
We do not become the villains by fighting against them.
While I understand the intellectual game that Infinite is playing, I’m not sure it’s an argument worth making in 2020. Of course POC are capable of profound evil because all human beings are. The statement just isn’t interesting because it ignores context entirely. The videogame can’t make me feel good about crushing a pro-Black revolution because that’s not how history works in our own world. There’s no rhetorical fairness to these conflicts. There is no white genocide and we can’t equivocate. To bring the specter of this racist conspiracy theory into an otherwise historically-sensitive game is ridiculous and disappointing.
Contrary to what Booker tells us, over and over, Daisy is very different than Comstock.
Violence is not a neutral force: I don’t feel comfortable doing Comstock’s work and as a player, I know I’m not meant to. Why then make me do it? Maybe everyone is everyone else, in some other universe, and hypothetically capable of every evil. What’s the point in generalizing this widely, when the game focuses on a particular moment in history? Perhaps Daisy just is monstrously violent and a villain at heart – why then is she the only spokesperson for the Vox, and more importantly the only named Black person we meet?
We only ever meet Daisy face-to-face twice. The first time she beats us up.
Why is it that the second time we meet we kill her?
I’m not trying to call Bioshock Infinite an essentially racist work because I believe the game’s depictions of racism are more nuanced than that. I do, however, think that there is an enormous blind spot at the game’s core, and that it’s a dangerous one. It’s a question of representation.
The game’s intentional, graphic depictions of racism, while overwhelming, are accurate to the period portrayed and indeed accurate to many lingering attitudes in American politics. They’re horrible, but they serve to prove a point about America’s intimate relationship with extreme racism. Bioshock Infinite can be a challenging play when these elements emerge because of just how blatantly offensive they are; I can understand folks not wanting to put themselves through this game when one of the opening scenes gives you the option to attack a mixed-race couple on stage. Totally fair, it’s a hard scene to watch.
But however heinous the racism in an individual scene, the game at large is very clear in its disgust for these portrayals: they sting because they’re meant to. They’re a reminder of America’s very real, ongoing history of racism. Even when the game briefly comments on the rebels’ bigotry – both sides of the conflict are antisemitic – the portrayal feels grounded in ugly realism. It has weight because it’s grounded in historical context. It earns these scenes because they respect actual, ugly American history.
Why then does Infinite ignore historic context later on? It loses me when those same white supremacists are swapped for identical villains in the shape of the marginalized people I previously chose to protect. I understand the statement on moral relativism and the point the game thinks it’s making about violence and power, but in 2020, is it really? Even when we play Burial at Sea 2 and find out there’s a noble purpose behind Daisy pretending to hurt that kid – is there really?
Why wasn’t she given that nuance to begin with, when it mattered?
Why, in a game with such a limited cast of nuanced characters is Daisy still a cardboard cutout?
I don’t feel great about Daisy Fitzroy and her backslide into fascism. I acknowledge Bioshock Infinite‘s statement on the universal capacity for evil, and I get where they’re coming from. It’s a great story. I’m just not sure I needed the game to equivocate between the heroes and villains to understand it. We’re living through actual history in 2020: we don’t have the luxury of moral relativism. Bioshock Infinite‘s story is a masterclass in interactive storytelling, its art direction is beyond compare, and the places it’s willing to go with its narrative and depictions of racism are, largely, very impressive. Meanwhile, Daisy Fitzroy’s story ends halfway through the game. It’s a relatively short part of the experience, but it casts a long shadow. I wish there were more to her.
For the record, I don’t think Bioshock Infinite is fundamentally racist, they just didn’t think this through. I don’t hate the game, I just wish it wouldn’t make me play both sides.
All screenshots, and hundreds more, my own.
September 7, 2020 at 8:05 pm
Excellent text. I loved it. I wonder how different Bioshock infinite would have been if the authors had let us make the choice of killing daisy or not (but then the option of killing black lead ex-slave characters would be extremely questionable.) I wish the game didn’t have such an incredibly black and white viewpoint. Because it really is one of my favourite game to play over and over.