Bioshock Infinite’s floating city of Columbia is a fantasy. It’s a fantasy not only because it’s a picturesque turn-of-the century cluster of islands floating effortlessly through the clouds, but also because it presents an idyllic and carefree society -one whose white citizens are supported off the labor and oppression of its poor and non-white ones, most of whom are black. Like America’s founding myth of the City Upon A Hill or the South’s pernicious Lost Cause narrative, fantasies of the kind represented by Columbia are often constructed to justify systems that benefit one group of people over another. Columbia’s fictional ideology exaggerates the white supremacist tenets of the above myths, but in setting them in opposition to violent, unsympathetic strawmen, the game’s creators, Irrational Games and writer and director Ken Levine, build a fantasy of their own.
The Vox Populi, Columbia’s resident militant revolutionary faction, is led by Daisy Fitzroy, a caricature of the black revolutionary, cribbed from mainstream recollection of groups like the Black Panthers and Mandela’s African National Congress. Wild, violent, unpredictable and untrustworthy: this is how the one character who might overthrow Columbia’s white supremacist nightmare is painted, as a villain just as poisonously evil as Father Comstock, Columbia’s “prophet” and the game’s’ central antagonist. In one cutscene Booker DeWitt argues: “The only difference between Comstock and Fitzroy is how you spell the name.” She is, according to Levine, “destroyed by oppression”: the tragic, but inevitable outcome of a once powerless person taking power for herself. How that transference of power actually comes about is barely touched upon. Instead, the player is expected to witness the fighting in the streets and assume her guilt.
By casting FItzroy in this light, Infinite throws away the possibility for its fantastical allegory to deliver a lesson. Criticisms of the segregated and authoritarian kleptocracy of Columbia’s white society are balanced against criticism of the violent methods the Vox Populi employ when resisting that society. As a result their struggle is swept aside, so that the plot of the final act, dealing with themes of guilt, parenthood, and forgiveness, culminating in a zany twist ending involving quantum mechanics, can take over. The true heroes, DeWitt and Elizabeth, are sent on their very important mission, and pass above the ugly fray of the poor, non-white citizens of Columbia, inconveniently fighting for their freedom.
Levine’s privilege-laced moralizing about the violence and chaos of Fitzroy’s uprising reflects recent mainstream media op-eds that place white supremacists on equal footing with the anti-fascist protesters that have organized to resist them. It shares common ground with the ideology that results in Google’s anti-bullying AI allowing talk of racial genocide to pass its filters as long as it is politely expressed. This is a natural and unfortunate outcome of ascribing to the horseshoe theory that equates the oppressor with the person acting out uncivilly against that oppression.
Levine’s paragon of civility appears to be Elizabeth, who only ever dirties her hands to murder the seemingly out-of-control Fitzroy. Elizabeth is Levine’s admitted daughter surrogate; locked away in a tower like a Disney princess, and rescued from the brutality of Columbia by the hyper-violence of DeWitt. It’s telling that Levine’s hero spends most of her life kept away from the fray, and Fitzroy, the woman who would be ours, is judged for being born into it.
Levine’s narrative wags a finger at Fitzroy’s violence while also painting a society where violence from the other side is as common as it is brutal. In depicting Columbia as he does, in dredging up the awful imagery of the American south at the height of Jim Crow, and in allowing these associations to slink off into the distance as he focuses on the game’s two white leads is irresponsible. It’s even more so in light of the inexorable rise of white supremacy in the U.S. over the past decade.
HBO’s newly announced Confederate series treads on similarly dangerous ground. Purporting to tell an alternate history where the South “won” the American Civil War, Confederate takes place in a contemporary society where half of the country still engages in slavery. The writers claim it will shed light on the racism that persists in our own society but, if Infinite is any indication, the opposite outcome is far more likely. Infinite doesn’t tell us much about America’s modern racist trends. It chooses, instead, to show us boogeyman like carnival barkers inviting a crowd to pelt an interracial couple with baseballs, and filthy, segregated black bathrooms next to shining clean white ones. The intended effect of all this gruesome pageantry is to proclaim: this kind of explicit racism is awful, but we aren’t like that anymore.
While it’s true we may no longer have segregation enshrined in our laws, our society remains deeply divided, deeply segregated, and as the election of President Trump shows, deeply resentful of the prospect of non-white advancement. What exactly can a caricature of racism tell us about that? Especially when the character you play is complicit, and the character who wants to burn this shit down is cast as a cartoon villain? According to the writer, James Baldwin: “A black man who sees the world the way John Wayne sees it, would not be an eccentric patriot,but a raving maniac.” Fitzroy is thus condemned, while the player gets to act as John Wayne, made righteous by a nihilistic conclusion where everything DeWitt did and everything he believed is neatly erased.
After all, we never get to learn much about DeWitt and Elizabeth’s existing views on race—aside from offering the player a narrow series of binary, ultimately meaningless decisions concerning how bigoted to make DeWitt—because it doesn’t ultimately matter to their narrative. In writing a story where racial oppression is merely a first act, Levine is allowed to compartmentalize that oppression in a way a writer of color couldn’t. He is able to cast Fitzroy as an angry black woman without having to consider the racist stereotype that label is rooted in. For the plot to move forward, for DeWitt to come to terms with his past and Elizabeth to uncover her future, freedom and possibility must be stripped away from Columbia’s downtrodden. Despite being received as a politically progressive game, Infinite is allowed to rely on the same equation of minority disempowerment for the sake of white empowerment that underpins not only games like Infinite, but America’s wider self-image as well.
After all, how many examples are there of stories featuring black slaves, gangsters, preachers, and other stereotypes taking a backseat to the more pressing concerns of white protagonists? How many Mammies reinforce the selfish outlooks of their Scarlet O’Haras? How many wise old Reds exist to passively root for the prison break and redemption of their Dufresnes? How many slaves have to be whipped for modern white America to satisfy its cultural guilt without honestly answering for its criminal past? Film, books, and games all exist as part of a vast myth-building enterprise. Just as Columbia must mythologize its roots, the past century of media has served to mythologize and forgive America’s. And when games like Infinite ask us to remain civil, to turn the other cheek in face of oppression and dehumanization, it builds upon the myth that doing nothing—as most white Americans,as Levine has done in Infinite—is fair and good.
As a result, countless characters of color wind up stuck in the background, lacking voice or agency, there merely to spice up the narrative. One of Confederate’s writers, David Benioff describes the show’s modern day slavery premise as “scary, but it’s also exciting. It’s what gets the adrenaline pumping and what gets you excited to sit down at your computer and start typing up themes and running them off the other three [creators].” If one is telling stories about people who have widely been ignored in the storytelling of this nation, it’s natural to feel like one is doing important, transgressive work. But bringing them into the picture is only the very first step; there’s a mile left to walk in the direction of characterizing them, in giving them human concerns and ambitions. (If you even need to situate them within historically open wounds like slavery and servitude to begin with).
Fitzroy and the Vox Populi are ultimately included in Bioshock Infinite to add grit to the narrative, and to raise surface questions about capitalism and white supremacy. But they were never meant to be free. They necessarily go down with the sinking ship of Columbia, a faded backdrop, overshadowed by DeWitt’s quest to “wipe away the debt.” Baldwin, again: “The future of the negro in this country is precisely as dark or as bright as this country.” One must wonder, why writers like Levine see fit to damn the entire country, with all its contradictory and damaged elements, just to focus on one white man’s absolution.
Yussef Cole is a writer and motion designer hailing from the Bronx, NY. Much of his time is spent animating for the screen but he spends the rest of it thinking and writing about games. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.