Irrational Games’ BioShock: Infinite, released in 2013, transitions from the underwater world of Rapture to Columbia, a floating city in the sky that makes parallels with the United States capital, Washington, DC and stirs up nostalgia about the infamous Columbian Exposition.
The World’s Columbian Exposition was a World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492. Attended by over 27 million people from 46 different countries during its six-month run, the World’s fair featured nearly 200 new buildings of predominantly neoclassical architecture, canals and lagoons.
While the centerpiece of the World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition was the original Ferris wheel, also known as the Chicago wheel and built by George Ferris, the real legacy of the Chicago Columbian Exposition was how it showcased the United States’ growing stance in the world. Similar to the Great Exposition of 1851, which has became a symbol of the Victoria era of British history; the Chicago World’s Fair has since become a symbol of American exceptionalism.
The theory of American exceptionalism refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty. Often referred to as the “City upon a Hill,” a phrase first evoked by British colonists as early as 1630, many say that the United States is exempt from certain historical forces that have negatively affected other countries. These include the absence of monarchies and the ability for individuals, families and other groups of people to rise in social stature.
However, critics of this theory have pointed to the fact that, like their predecessors, the United States is still imperialistic and willing to wage war.
Named in homage to the female personification of the United States, Columbia was founded by the self-proclaimed prophet Zachery Hale Comstock, who used his connections in Congress to have the government build the symbol of American exceptionalism. Originally intended to serve as a floating world’s fair, tensions eventually arose between the U.S. government and the city of Columbia, due to the latters increasingly militant stance across the globe.
Columbia’s Hall of Heroes exhibit glorifies America’s involvement in the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890), which occurred on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the U.S state of South Dakota, and the Boxer Rebellion (1900), a Chinese uprising in northern China against the spread of Western and Japanese influence. Stereotypical characteristics of America’s Indian and Chinese counterparts are also heavily exaggerated throughout the tour.
It is also argued that like the ways of old Europe, the United States has retained class-based and race-based inequalities.
After Columbia seceded from the United States, the city transitioned into a neo-Christian society under Comstock’s governance. The Founding Fathers are viewed as religious icons, while president Abraham Lincoln is demonized. Ironically, his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, is glorified as a righteous social crusader.
Apartheid-like posters, promoting white supremacy and encouraging racial segregation, also litter the city. “Why is one bathroom for colors and another for whites?” ponders Elizabeth, a young girl who holds the keys to Columbia’s dirty little secrets. “Seems like an unnecessary complication,” she realizes.
On the boardwalk, where the ocean is simulated, a poster of the popular cartoon characters Dimwit and Duke, inspired by Highlights magazine’s Goofus and Gallant, shows one shooting at a clearly Jewish caricature. Another Dimwit and Duke poster urges their readers to, “Help fight back the foreign hoarders,” as the latter stands beside racist depictions of Chinese, black and Mexican children.
At one point, a white mother scolds her young son for hanging out with girls with Irish sounding last names. “It’s bad enough your father employs those potato eaters,” the mother lashes out.
However, not all of Columbia’s citizens adhere to the majority’s status quo. When the protagonist Booker DeWitt find himself on the run from Columbia’s police force, a man takes the former Pinkerton guard into his home. There, we see protest paraphernalia stating, “Until the Negro is equal, none of us are equal.”
Class warfare is also a common theme in BioShock: Infinite. When Booker first arrives in Columbia to, “repay the debt,” he finds the city on the verge of civil war. On one side are the Founders, the ultra-nationalist ruling elite; led by Comstock, and on the other side is the Vox Populi, an anarchist-communist rebel group; led by Daisy Fitzroy.
Zachary Comstock bears a strong resemblance to the United States Postal Inspector and politician Anthony Comstock. Known for his commitment to Victorian morality and the Comstock Law, the real-life figure criminalized usage of the U.S. Postal Service to transport erotica, contraceptives, abortion bills and sex toys.
Throughout his political career, Comstock was often at odds with birth control activist and sex educator Margaret Sanger, who was instrumental in the formation of Planned Parenthood, as well as anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman. Although, Goldman is just one of the several influences that may or may not have been blended together to form the Vox Populi’s leader Daisy Fitzroy. Others include Fidel Castro, Soviet women during WWII, and the American civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
Immediately after Columbia’s revolution breaks out, Elizabeth draws a comparison between the events unfolding and the climax of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862). “These people are going to have better lives,” she rejoices. After spending the majority of her young life tucked away in a massive library with nothing else to do but read, it is only natural that Elizabeth would romanticize the upcoming violence. As anyone with any knowledge of the French Revolution (1789-1799) knows, plenty of heads rolled during the Reign of Terror (1793-1794).
Like many of the famous revolutions before it, Columbia’s quickly turns into a blind slaughter of the city’s upper class. Among the causalities are Jeremiah Fink, the founder and president of Fink Manufacturing. “What is the most admirable creature on God’s green earth? Why, it’s the bee! Have you ever seen a bee on vacation? Have you ever seen a bee take a sick day? Well, my friends, the answer is no! So, I say, be… the bee! Be the bee!” Fink implores his workers.
While Fink doesn’t share the same religious fervor as Zachary Comstock, he is a ruthless businessman and an advocate of social Darwinism, labeling himself and Booker as lions, his workers as cattle, and Daisy Fitzroy and the Vox Populi as hyenas. Since Fink is always seen sporting the same obnoxious top hat, it is not unusual to associate him with the notable robber barrens of the early twentieth century, like J.D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford.
So, perhaps, like the main character in H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), where the titular setting is populated by half-animal, half-human hybrids, BioShock: Infinite’s players will leave the suspended city in the sky for a world that is perhaps just as much on the brink.