Why Infinite is Worthy of the BioShock Title
It’s a simple question in essence, three meager words – “What is BioShock?” Yea sure, the obvious answer is a ‘video game series from Irrational Games.’ But what is it that makes a BioShock game – a BioShock game? I recall a time not too long ago – around where BioShock Infinite was announced – when there was a bit of a backlash for it not being set in Rapture (the city in the two previous BioShock games). Can BioShock exist above water? Above the… clouds? Is the environment in which the game takes place what makes it?
What is it we think of when we think of BioShock? Sure, we think of Rapture; but plasmids, Big Daddies, Little Sisters, ADAM, splicers, and Andrew Ryan would all be on that list too. Let’s face it, Big Daddies and Little Sisters are literally the poster boys (little girls) for the BioShock games thus far. There is a Big Daddy and Little Sister on the box art for BioShock and BioShock 2. Even if you mention BioShock to someone who hasn’t played it before(they still exist), they respond with something along the lines of, “is that the one with the robots in vintage diving suits?” Well, yea, that’s not wrong, I guess.
Besides a variation on plasmids and tonics, NONE of these aspects are apparent in BioShock Infinite thus far. So why has Irrational Games slapped a BioShock title on it? Why not just name it something different? Why not just leave Rapture at the bottom of the sea? Why have a game 48 years BEFORE the original BioShock?
When it boils down, though, despite the media poster boys, is BioShock really about these things? Or are these physical aspects of the game just the tools to convey a greater meaning? I think so. Besides gameplay, what makes a BioShock game a BioShock game is the philosophical overlaying story elements.
Ken Levine, the creative director and co-founder of Irrational Games, has adapted components of philosophical texts into the creative thought process of BioShock plots. This, in my opinion, is what BioShock is truly about. It is this nearly metaphysical type of storytelling and the clashing of opposing theories that tell the tale.
In a 2006 interview with Levine on the topic of The Influence of Literature and Myth in Videogames, he said, “I have my useless liberal arts degree, so I've read stuff from Ayn Rand and George Orwell, and all the sort of utopian and dystopian writings of the 20th century, which I've found really fascinating." Utopian refers to an ideal place or state, and dystopia refers to a society distinguished by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.
Most likely, Levine is referring to dystopia in Ayn Rand’s text Atlas Shrugged – overly simplified is about objectivism – and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – overly simplified about government surveillance and mind control. Just from these insultingly brief descriptions, the parallels between them and any of the BioShock games become apparent. Hell, one of the main characters in the original BioShock is named Atlas – a reference to the mythological titan with the globe on his shoulders.
On objectivism in BioShock, Levine told Shacknews:
I'm fascinated by Objectivism. I think I gave it--I think the problem with any philosophy is that it's up to people to carry it out. It could have been Objectivism, it could have been anything. It's about what happens when ideals meet reality. If you had to sum up BioShock's story, that's what it is. When philosophers write books, when they write fictional works like Atlas Shrugged, they put paragons in the books to carry out their ideals. I always wanted to tell a story of, what if a guy wasn't a paragon? What if his intentions were really good, but at the end of the day he was human? I think that's where the problem is. It's not an attack on Objectivism, it's a fair look at humanity. We screw things up. We're very, very fallible. You have this beautiful, beautiful city, and then what happens when reality meets the ideals? The visual look of the city is the ideals, and the water coming in is reality. It could have been Objectivism, it could have been anything.
The human and the individual are a focus in BioShock plots. As Levine said, humans make mistakes and there really isn’t such thing as this ‘paragon’ hero. He also mentions this concept of reality vs. ideals. The best way to look at this is through two characters in the original BioShock.
Andrew Ryan was an idealist, and Fontaine was his rival in physical and ideological ways. While there was the fighting in Rapture, it was their goals that made them opponents. Levine continues, “Fontaine is the only real monster in the game, because he has no ideals at all, and all Ryan has is ideal.” While Ryan attempted to build his utopia, greed and selfishness drove Fontaine to usurp all that made Ryan what he was and accomplished. Neither was without flaw, both were human, and both had distinguishable goals.
Looking at BioShock 2, there is a twist to these ideals. The main antagonist, Sofia Lamb, focuses more on altruistic ideals. Through “The Rapture Family,” Lamb attempts to create a Rapture community where no one is selfish and everyone gives what’s best to the community for the betterment of all. Through Eleanor, Lamb attempts to create a ‘utopian’ or the ‘people’s daughter’ through ADAM and splicing. Delta, like Jack before him, is by no means a ‘paragon’ hero since he’s an Alpha Series. Once again, we see attempts to create a utopia, but it ends with more of a murderous dystopia with a populace that acts like spliced up sheep. Where Ryan didn’t want gods or kings, only man, Lamb took a more religious attempt to control the masses.
On to BioShock Infinite and why it deserves the BioShock title. Building upon the model from the previous two games, what we know of Infinite fits the mold perfectly. A state of the art city built in an unusual location – check; a split of ideologies causing violent conflict – check; the protagonist is an outsider entering a hostile scenario – check; giant / protective automations – check; and an environment that can easily kill you – check. There are our surface similarities.
Under the surface, the split of ideologies causing violent conflict is the focus. Levine told GameInformer:
There’s definitely a component in America today that nationalism is extremely important to certain people – a sense that America is a separate case. It’s something I’ve always found fascinating. It’s an interesting element to divide over – where you’re born. It’s kind of an accident, right? And how porous those borders are – people who are in the same country with different ethnic backgrounds and religious backgrounds – there are a lot of ways to draw demarcations. It’s interesting to me how important those become to people and I wanted to explore that.
This statement puts in place the two major factions in BioShock Infinite. Saltonstall is an ultranationalist who pontificates his message of xenophobia, religiosity, antagonism, guns, and liberty, while choosing from very selective reading from the U.S. Constitution to base his governmental views. On the other half of the conflict, the Vox Populi is the more rebellious extremists who want to extend the freedoms of Columbia to all its citizens regardless of race or creed. As from the previous BioShock titles, I’d expect both factions to have the cliché ‘all that glitters isn’t gold’ motif. By this, I mean while the Vox Populi seems like the faction to support, you can guarantee that they have their own internal issues. Not to mention that Vox Populi is a Latin for “voice of the people” which sounds rather similar to Lamb’s “people’s daughter” with Eleanor.
As far as textual influences, Levine told OfficialPlayStationMagazine, “A bunch of guys in the team had read a book called The Devil In The White City and they had turned me on to it. It’s an amazing book.” This Erik Larson non-fiction novel tells the tale of a serial killer which takes place in Chicago and the World’s Fair during 1893. The World’s Fair is where the concept of exceptionalism was developed and where in Infinite the city of Columbia notion stems from. The backbone of Columbia is rich with American Exceptionalism – the ideology of not conforming to the norm; emergence from revolution based on liberty and the individual. Again, this sounds familiar.
On the topic of The Devil In The White City and Bioshock Infinite, OfficialPlayStationMagazine says:
While Devil In The White City is about the World Fair and its construction, a large part of the story focuses on Doctor H.H. Holmes. He was actually one of America’s first documented serial killers and tracked down by Pinkerton agents, BioShock Infinite hero Booker DeWitt’s former employers. Holmes actually used the huge World Fair as a base of operation to source victims from the crowds that flocked to see the show. His final count could be as high as 200 murders.
So there it is. If you are able to look past the surface of the two previous BioShock titles, you can see the underlining elements which are alike in all three games. I’ve always loved the Big Daddy and Little Sister connection, but all that love still wasn’t the core of why I’ve been enriched by the BioShock series. This tie to real life history, steampunksish interpretation, and conflicting views in ideologies are the elements which make the stories of the BioShock genre so rich. So while BioShock Infinite might not seem like a fitting game to have the successful BioShock label slapped upon it on the surface, this third game still holds the important aspects in which the previous titles did such an exceptional job with. I’m excited.