“A man chooses, a slave obeys.” From Rapture to Columbia, an exceptionalism ideal has been placed on display for all gamers to digest. Parellels in Columbia to America are stark. As a culture, Americans have been know to be exceptional at seeing themselves as exceptions. Bioshock 1 perpetuated this idea with Rapture, a city underwater, and again with Bioshock Infinite and Columbia, a city in the sky. (There was a Bioshock 2, but it is a dark shadowy place that should never be visited.) The parallels between Bioshock Infinite and the time period it is set in (1912 America) may be overlooked.
Bioshock Infinite is set in 1912 in a floating city called Columbia, a city which separated from America. Unlike Rapture, which was Andrew Ryan’s underwater brain-child used to escape the governing world above the water, Columbia is full of living and talking people. These people see themselves as the true American’s; the exceptions to the rule. From interacting, it is not hard to see the parallels of Columbia to America in 1912.
Firstly, the political “system” is much like that of America at the time. There is the right-winged “Founders” and the left-winged revolution-minded “Vox Populi” who are in bitter battles with each other. Columbia itself is a picturesque ideal America, with white picket fences, flying flags, and machine-gun-wielding statues of George Washington.
The struggles of the Vox Populi resemble those of most Americans who are oppressed by the elitist leaders. The upper-class members of Columbia, who are encountered first in Columbia, claim the members of the Vox Populi are nuisances and anarchists. As the game progresses, an unrest is discovered before all-out-war explodes. The “voice of the people” are led by Daisy Fitzroy, an African-American woman brought to Columbia for cheap labor.
Second, Columbia has a serious racist undertone. In one area of the game, players hear a white mother talking to her son, scolding him for kissing a girl with an Irish last name because it is bad enough that his father employs “those potato eaters.” The city is set in 1912, long before Dr. King. most of the city is Caucasian, aside from the Vox Populi. A carnival in the beginning of the game showcases two people tied up on stage, on display for being an interracial couple, and has players throw baseballs at the charged. The words “Protect Our Race” are plastered everywhere. The contrast between the pure-white fences in Columbia and the cardboard box shelters in the slums where the Vox Populi live is a stark representation of past America with segregation and extreme nationalism.
Ken Levine, the games creator, talks about the racial themes as follows:
“I think to take sides you have to be more idealistic than I am. The conflict between the Vox Populi and the Founders doesn’t really get resolved. I think to have it all get wrapped up would not be reflective of the existing left/right conflict. “Political positions are often secondary to our nature; the idealistic natures of political movements are sullied by our weakness as human beings. We’re not as strong as our ideals…I think the American Utopian ideals that Jefferson and Franklin and Adams set out to make were designed specifically with a kind of cynical viewpoint. You can’t just make a set of ideals and expect those to change people.”
Third, the religion in Columbia is a central theme throughout. In 1912 America, religion was booming along with a sense of nationalism. Columbia is run by Comstock, a religious prophet who believes this city is the way. The city has floating parades highlighting Comstock’s victory and prophesying. Citizens of Columbia seem almost brainwashed by Comstock as they float on this “second ark” in the sky. And for the citizens of Columbia, nationalism and religion go hand in hand. People worship “Father Washington.” These are very much like America in that time period, where citizens almost worshiped the ground the President walked on, brought their kids to church every Sunday, and flew an American flag on every street corner. Ken Levine, the game’s creator,
Finally, the actual trailer for the game is a fair representation of similarities from Columbia to America simply in the song choice. (I have embedded it for your viewing pleasure; make sure to listen to the lyrics!)
The parallels between Columbia and America are much more easily seen than those of Rapture and America. Columbia came from America, essentially. It was a city in America before it was a city in the sky and that is the difference between Rapture and Columbia in that aspect. Unlike Rapture, Columbia is very much alive and able to convey the ideals Levine weaves into the gameplay that reflects views of past American society. So, next time your history professor says you need to take a lesson and brush up on your American history, simply binge-play Bioshock Infinite.