Bioshock Infinite is without question one of the most critically acclaimed and talked about video games of 2013. It has been praised for a well-crafted storyline, memorable characters, and outstanding gameplay. It has also evoked the most intense feelings of discomfort and disgust I’ve ever felt toward a video game.
(Content warning: this article contains shots of racist imagery and descriptions of racist violence)
I was excited for Bioshock Infinite, really. Though I wasn’t a big fan of Bioshock 2, the original Bioshock always stood out to me. It was probably the first video game that made me consider themes and messages beyond “shoot the bad guy.” (disclaimer: I had just turned 17). It was a popular AAA game with high ambitions, and while it didn’t always succeed, it tried hard and made an impact. It attacked objectivism and capitalism. It challenged the idea of choice in video games. It had incredible atmosphere. It was cool. With the return of Ken Levine to the series, of course I was excited for Bioshock Infinite.
I got it on release day and immediately got into it. The narrative quickly immerses you in the mystery of its fantastical setting. It pulls you along and wants you to find out more about this bizarre city in the sky. The first act of the game is a good, if occasionally heavy handed, attack on the cultural memory that the America of old is an idealistic wonderland filled with good, wholesome values. You’re taken a tour of the bright, optimistic flying city of Columbia, led by the enthusiastic religious leader Zachary Comstock, and at the end of it you’re asked to participate in the public stoning of a mixed race couple in a brutal rug pull. The game gets in the player’s face and reminds them of America’s horrifyingly racist past and from here on, you begin to see the true colors of the Founders’ oppressive society and the conditions that minorities are forced to live in. The game practically beats the players over the head with this. All of the black characters you see are servants to the upper class, racist caricatures fill the art that saturates the streets, and you’re even taken through the headquarters of a Ku Klux Klan parallel. If there’s a single message to derive from this first act, it’s that America’s history is whitewashed and overly idealized. The Founder society’s obsession with the American Founding Fathers makes it seem like it’s pointed directly at the growing modern right-wing movement in the United States. The game was developed during the nascent days of the Tea Party movement, and came out shortly after the re-election of President Barack Obama, with the far right collective growing louder than ever. It didn’t just seem potent, it seemed necessary.
This, however, starts to get muddled with the introduction of another faction: The Vox Populi. The Vox are a minority led resistance group, headed up by a black woman named Daisy Fitzroy. I was understandably eager to assist them after being introduced to the extremely racist values of Columbia. The first time you see any Vox, you find two of them in a house, slumped over dead. A nearby voxaphone (basically an old-timey audio log) reveals that a man named Preston Downes executed them in a particularly gruesome manner as a message to Daisy Fitzroy. It’s a monstrous scene, and it only added to my desire to see the Vox triumphant. But of course, Booker has different things in mind. Booker Dewitt, the protagonist, is a selfish man and it’s very clear that he doesn’t buy into anything other than his own objectives. It’s no surprise that he only assists the Vox because it furthers his own goals. Fine, okay. The problem is in how the Vox are portrayed outside of his perspective. When you first hear Daisy Fitzroy’s voice in one of the game’s numerous voxaphones, she immediately comes off as sinister. The tone in her voice is that of a villain, and the game does next to nothing to subvert this. Your first direct encounter with Daisy has her demanding Booker work for her and tossing him out of an airship, and it only gets worse from there. I initially felt that the game meant to show Booker in a negative light by showing him as purely self-concerned, but as the game goes on, the narrative seems to validate his worldview.
I want to support the Vox, Booker wants nothing to do with them, and the game doesn’t seem to know what it wants. Infinite’s constant attempts to critique historical American culture are tarnished by the portrayal of the single minority group with any power. By the time the Vox finally succeed in their goals, I am celebrating with them. They’ve taken the streets of Shantytown, fighting against the people who brutally oppress them. Confetti falls from the sky, and a celebratory Irish song plays from loudspeakers. This was a natural progression of the narrative, as far as I was concerned. But then Booker says something: “When it comes down to it, the only difference between Comstock and Fitzroy is how you spell their names.”
Daisy has been less than nice to Booker, for sure, but at this point, it’s hard to see where the heck he’s coming from. But as soon as the uprising starts, the game makes it clear that it does not like uprisings. Even idealistic sidekick Elizabeth becomes bitter about Daisy. “They’re just right for each other, aren’t they?” “Who?” “Fitzroy and Comstock.” At this point, the Vox haven’t done anything heinous. They’re openly fighting against a society that’s horrifically oppressive even by 1910s standards and the game expects you to react with disgust. But just in case you don’t, the narrative validates the protagonists by having Daisy turn on Booker and try to kill a white child. Even when she kills Jeremiah Fink, a man who is as close to a slave owner as you can get while paying wages, the game portrays the event as “shocking.” From here on, you never see a minority character that isn’t a direct threat to you.
The first third of the game had nuance. Even in a society led by racists, you could find white progressives who sought to help change society. There were plenty sympathetic people of color. There is even a debate early on whether a violent uprising would be the right way to change things. I wasn’t expecting the game to take a side of that debate so horrifically. In this middle act, there is no alternative to the Vox. They turn into absolute villains who kill innocents in the most brutal ways possible. They steal, they scalp, they rape. In one grisly scene, you come across the scalps of various apparent oppressors nailed to a headboard with a message of warning. The game now makes the point that the Vox are no better than the Founders (and are essentially portrayed as worse). The hours after Daisy turns on you (and is nearly immediately killed) are some of the most infuriating hours I’ve ever experienced in a video game. The only nuance this game has at this point is for the white citizens of Columbia. You see them desperately fleeing from the Vox. You pass by terrified families and crying children trying to evacuate. You are supposed to feel bad for the people who would happily stone a mixed race couple. In a radio announcement by a Vox leader, a parallel is drawn to the death squads of the Khmer Rouge. “Shoot anyone who looks like they might cause trouble. Anyone with a gun. Anyone with glasses.”
I know what the game is trying to do here. It wants to tell a story of a revolution gone bad. It wants to compare the Vox to some perceptions of the French revolutionaries, the Sandinistas, and any revolutionary group whose ideals got “out of control.” He who fights monsters etc. The story of someone becoming just as bad as the ones they fight is a familiar one, but this isn’t the place to do it, and by drawing these parallels winds up displaying some pretty hefty right wing politics. The first portion of the game points at racism and shouts how bad it is but the middle act is an unironic depiction of the racist caricatures displayed in the art of the opening act. Every minority in the game becomes a ruthless monster, and the only major woman of color (and the only major person of color) becomes a cartoon villain who is killed by the Pure White Girl. What started as a tale of America’s overtly racist past becomes an example of America’s covertly racist present. It is a racism that is veiled in “impartiality.” It takes minorities in one of the most oppressive times in America’s history, makes their situation worse and puts them firmly in the wrong when they fight against their violent oppression. While I doubt Ken Levine actively thinks less of people of color, his condemnation of violence against even the most extreme oppressors and his willingness to rehabilitate some truly awful characters feed into racist, fascistic worldviews.
Of all the characters who support the Vox, the only ones who are portrayed sympathetically in the end (Booker Dewitt, Cornelius Slate, and Preston Downs) are white. Booker is a selfish, flawed man (and a literal war criminal), but in the end he receives a redemption through death. Slate is an unhinged soldier (and also a war criminal) who is a victim of Comstock’s society, his military achievements minimized by Comstock, driving him to become a sad shell of a man. And Preston Downs, the guy who starts off killing and scalping black people, decides to help the Vox after one of the most idiotic changes of heart I’ve seen. This cold hearted killer accidentally catches one of Daisy’s child couriers in a bear trap, and nurses the Native American boy back to health. Eventually, the boy tells Preston how he is treated in Comstock’s society, and he decides to fight for the oppressed. Seriously.
The first part of the game very effectively showed off the extreme racism of America’s past, but rather than follow through with a closer examination, it throws all of that out the window to switch to a parable on why violent revolution is bad, which begins to border on “reverse-racism.” It retroactively dilutes the attack on the idealization of America’s past. Booker’s violent roles in imperialistic suppressions of Native American and Chinese uprisings are brought up, but aren’t really examined past his regret for the things he did. Bioshock Infinite does have overarching themes of repentance (that seemingly only apply to the white characters of the game) and choice, but underneath those are unfocused, constantly discarded attacks on racism, imperialism, anti-unionism, and revolutions. It all distracts from the supposed core themes to the point that on my first playthrough, I didn’t really understand what was going on in the end. And honestly, with a final battle that has you killing an extreme amount of minorities, I found it very hard to care.
I do believe that Bioshock Infinite has a fun, interesting science fiction story at its heart, but it is wrapped in the grossest, most sloppily handled take on American racism that I have ever seen. There was real room for it to turn the examinations of the original Bioshock into something truly important for the modern climate, but as it is, it winds up reinforcing the most regressive elements in American society. It spends a large amount of time rehabilitating truly awful people while tearing down the only group in the game that’s actually in the right. In that way, it might be the quintessential American game. Five years later, as an overtly fascist President openly degrades minorities and the U.S. media seemingly dedicates itself to fawning profiles of bigots, Bioshock Infinite has grown from a game that was already abhorrently ill-considered to one of the greatest shames of modern media.