In the weeks since its release, Bioshock Infinite has sold something like a million copies, touched off political controversy, and so offended at least one religious believer that he demanded a refund.
Not bad for a video game.
At first glance it’s hard to see what could make Bioshock Infinite stand out: Like so many games today, it’s a “first-person shooter,” meaning it’s basically the same thing as Doom, a game released 20 years ago. The player sees the action through the eyes of the protagonist, and the action consists of lots and lots of shooting — resulting in lots and lots of blood and lots and lots of dead bodies.
Over the years game designers have done their best to keep this formula fresh, and Bioshock Infinite is as inventive as any of its competitors — there are plenty of gruesome ways to kill the bad guys and plenty of ways to make your character better at gruesomely killing the bad guys. But there’s also a compelling story that touches on serious questions, and that’s something most shooters don’t have.
Bioshock Infinite is a successor to 2007’s Bioshock, a game that was set in Rapture, an underwater city that had been run according to the principles of Ayn Rand for a few years too many. This time, we find ourselves in Columbia, a city that seceded from the United States, is run by a racist religious fanatic who fancies himself a prophet, and floats high in the Earth’s atmosphere. The year is 1912, but there is a heavy dose of science fiction here.
Players step into the shoes of Booker DeWitt, a man who has been sent to rescue — or is it kidnap? — a young woman who is being held captive in Columbia. He has a rough time of it: To enter the city, he has to undergo a baptism into Columbia’s cult. (Pushing a button to accept the baptism is what offended the aforementioned religious gamer.)
Soon thereafter, he finds himself at a public stoning and is asked to throw a baseball at an interracial couple. You can have DeWitt throw the ball at the official presiding over the stoning. Or you can have him do as he’s told. Either way, DeWitt will work his way deeper into the political conflicts brewing in Columbia.
Video games often get a bad rap — and often for good reason — but they are unique in allowing viewers to actually explore a world of an artist’s creation, rather than just looking in on it. Not only is Columbia beautiful to behold thanks to modern-day graphical technology and top-notch art direction, but it’s also alive with all sorts of political activity. A group called the Founders has emerged to support the city’s ruling class, and a group called the Vox Populi is sowing the seeds of revolution.
There was no Tea Party and no Occupy Wall Street when Bioshock Infinite’s creators started their work, but those movements inevitably had an influence on the game’s development; lead writer Ken Levine even attended OWS rallies as research. The Tea Party is evident in the Founders’ obsession with early American symbols — I particularly enjoyed the giant armed robots dressed up as George Washington — and OWS manifests itself in the seething anger of the Vox Populi.
If Levine and his team meant for the resemblance to go any deeper than that, however, they failed. The leaders of Columbia are openly oppressive; workers in one factory labor away for credits that can be spent only at the company store, and a PA system constantly reminds them to serve dutifully rather than try to better themselves. There is a 50 percent tax paid to the ruler. One subgroup of Founders, the Fraternal Order of the Raven, worships John Wilkes Booth. Levine knows what capitalism is, given that his previous game was about Objectivism, but economic freedom — the Tea Party’s main concern — is not on the Founders’ to-do list.
Similarly, the Vox Populi are violent revolutionaries protesting actual oppression, a far cry from the mostly harmless dolts who squatted in Zuccotti Park to demand a college-debt bailout. And without spoiling much I can say that neither side emerges from Bioshock Infinite looking very good, so there is no reason to denounce this game as Marxist propaganda as some conservatives have. If anything, the message here is Burkean: Change is sometimes needed, but even the best-intentioned revolutions can descend into anarchy or tyranny.
Criticisms of the game’s treatment of religion are not well founded, either. The religion here is certainly an offshoot of Christianity, but it’s a warped cult led by a man who more or less sees himself as the second coming. It’s not clear what, if anything, this is supposed to say about mainstream religious believers.
Bioshock Infinite is best seen as a self-contained world — a world containing flawed and realistic human beings, but a world not all that politically similar to modern America. This world is frightening to explore, and it presents countless philosophical, moral, and political questions, all while telling a story dense with twists and turns. Again: Not bad for a video game.
— Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.