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Strong Pictures and Subtle Themes in 'BioShock Infinite'

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Thursday, Apr 4, 2013
BioShock Infinite's imagery tells an intricate story, but never lectures the player.

It wouldn’t be right to call BioShock Infinite‘s themes subtle.  Its commentary on pretty much every “-ism” under the sun is on plain display.  Even so, the absence of “soapbox moments” instills the game with a sense of quiet confidence and healthy respect for the player.  BioShock Infinite contains imagery and themes concerning race, class, and gender that very few other games touch on, but it doesn’t present a series of heavy handed speeches that spell out how you should feel about them.  The game exhibits a unique combination of restraint in letting the evocative images exist on their own terms. 


In that spirit, I wanted to highlight some of the images that made an impact on me, as well as some of their real-world analogues.  I’ll provide some commentary, but hopefully the pictures from my digital photo safari are worth a few thousand words.
  
Religion


Columbia’s spiritual side is a fascinating blend of monotheism and hero worship.  So few games deal with religion, but BioShock Infinite opens in a church in which you join a group of congregants.  After exiting, you see that America’s Founding Fathers are worshiped as patron saints, a role that is only a slight exaggeration of their real-world status (if that). 


Comstock’s rise to prophethood echoes the ways that other self-made American holy men have established themselves as leaders.


Image of Joseph Smith from Wikipedia

Race


What other game deals with the cultural phenomenons of minstrelsy and institutionalized racism so plainly?  This story isn’t about warring alien races or tribes of elves.  It’s about creating racial “others” out of black, Irish, and Native American people to maintain a particular concept of whiteness. 


The sad thing is that it is really no different than actual historical events.


Image from Wikipedia

Gender


Columbia is also a society that is built upon a gender hierarchy.  Women are used as trophies to measure victory in battle and as ways for men to define themselves as leaders.  The entire city (along with the game’s plot) revolves around controlling and exploiting Elizabeth and her abilities.  The pseudo-scientific angle of her imprisonment calls attention to the way that she is dehumanized and commodified.  She is a “specimen” with no right to privacy or control over her body.  I’m pretty sure that this is also the only game that I’ve played that acknowledges the existence of menstruation. 


BioShock Infinite‘s story follows Elizabeth’s journey to assert her autonomy.  Ultimately, the powers that her captors try to exploit become the instrument of her liberation and the downfall of Columbia.  I realize that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I think it’s worth noting that the “tears” in the fabric of space and time lean pretty heavily on female iconography:


After all, only Elizabeth can control the tears, and they do offer a way to birth new worlds.  It wouldn’t be the first time that such a metaphor was used.


Black Iris, Georgia O’Keefe, 1926

Again, it’s the fact that the game never comes right out and confirms the meaning behind these pictures that makes it special.  They’re striking, but players are invited to draw connections themselves, thereby making the world of BioShock Infinite even more fascinating.

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