Fauvistically colourful and like deodorised by sunshine, Columbia seems to breathe in smiles and exhale hymns. It’s where burgers, fizzy drinks, and freshly-picked flowers cost something less than a dollar and a pitch-perfect barbershop quartet croons me for free with my absolute favourite The Beach Boys song. Wherever I look the city reminds me of something from the best times of my life. The streets are fretted with big, silvery coins and I imagine the whole place smells of lawn. It has its own chatoyancy and is an architectural miracle. Soaring above the clouds, hidden from whatever ails me back down on solid ground, Columbia feels like Heaven’s suburb; forgiveness, peace, and God’s love are in strolling distance.
White and Black people can’t marry in Columbia. Mexicans, Irish, Native Americans, and Jews are made to live in slums and the Ku Klux Klan’s lodge is lavishly bedizened. Porters stoop for pocket change and the city’s founder, Comstock, buys statues of himself and meticulous posters that say It Is Our Holy Duty To Guard Against The Foreign Hordes. Guns are given out F-O-C and at the yearly carnival children shoot cut-outs of the Watermelon Stereotype. Sedate parishioners with thermogenic stares fear the Sodom below then offer prayer to slave-owners Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson.Before you’re allowed in, a Columbian baptist boards you with Holy water. The city’s customary hooch is bright red and called Vigour, and drinking it causes hallucinations.
From the moment the weird machine that carries me up to it ungracefully crashes down, I know Columbia is crooked. The city doesn’t betray or disappoint: where BioShock‘s Rapture initially rescues me from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and then reveals itself malevolent and torn, Columbia seems wrong from the very beginning, and lives subsequently up to my expectations. There are parts of it I want to believe or at least let seduce me. The Columbian choir’s sonorous canticles, in combination with the purple and sunlight-yellow cathedral through which they echo, are practically inebriating—like I’m a cartoon wolf who’s nosed-in the smell of cooked chicken, Columbia and BioShock Infinite‘s opening aesthetic salvos threaten to lift and carry me along. But I cannot quite go with it. The dead body in the anterior lighthouse. The Miscavige-eyed, baptismal friar. There are too many, early hints of something untoward. BioShock, more directly than a lot of game series, though other games do it too, tells me to think for myself and distrust received information. And so by its third instalment, when I see people monovocally worshipping the Founding Fathers, my stomach instinctively turns. BioShock Infinite doesn’t wrongfoot me. When after an hour of exploration I’m invited to hurl baseballs at an interracial couple, the feeling isn’t shock or surprise so much as resignation. By this point, I know, I just already know, things like this go on in Columbia. Infinite encourages me to feel, in regards to its cloud city, inherently doubtful: regardless of how nice it looks, I am unable to believe.
I feel the same about religion. It’s something I want. It’s something I find occasionally beautiful. It’s something I miss, from my quasi-Christian upbringing. My world is complex and the opposite of parental: where I expend megajoules of energy looking for other, contumacious salve—somewhere, something or someone to belong to—it’d probably be easier and more powerful, to just have a belief in God and Jesus. I feel dignified and calm whenever I go into a church, and love some of the religious art. In its most basal, pamphlet-like form, religion makes me feel like a child, humbled and looked-after, and a man, responsible and wise. Religion’s unbastardised core—I want to follow it.
But for all the reasons every good atheist has already read and probably at some point tweeted about too, I can’t. It’s too fantastic and too susceptible, and too already-ruined by misinterpretation, is religion. And even when it is in some way warm, receiving or true to its word, I find it intolerably tragic. I’m not just a sceptic. I’m unpremeditatedly unsettled around religion, because I feel like—I always feel like—it’s about to live up to my lowest expectations.
The various things BioShock Infinite says about religious belief—that it’s exclusionary, might just be venal, and is, inducement-of-fervour-wise, equitable to American nationalism—are forensic and cerebral. The game suffers from trying to appease everybody’s intellect. But the sheer image of Columbia, its colours, sounds, and the way they unsuccessfully hide its other nature, wordlessly captures what it feels like to wish you believed in God and but don’t. Whether this has some broader, didactic application seems irrelevant. At its sporadic best, BioShock Infinite rejects balance, articulation, and the explanatory and appeals shamelessly to players’ emotions. Presently and nascently conflicted, Columbia concretises the unsteady relationship with God that a lot of us have and the questioning of faith that’s a rite of passage for us all.
Ed Smith contributes to Vice, The Observer, Edge, Play Magazine, and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.