“Burning the City on the Hill,” by Astrid B

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Each of our articles on Bioshock Infinite, and virtually any piece of writing you pick up on the game, acknowledges the visual impact of Columbia. The pearlescent city in the sky is an indelible, engrossing setting, rich with the kind of calibrated, blunt-force set design Irrational perfected with the previous Bioshock games. Each space communicates what it is, who lives there, and what it means with the immediate clarity of a diorama.

The early stretch of Infinite is the strongest part of the game for letting you walk around Columbia and, as Ed talks about in his piece, get a sense of the place. But the doubled artificiality of the city—once as a videogame environment, and again as a city constructed to give a specific impression of itself—becomes impressively suffocating. The usual invisible walls and impassable barriers imposed by a game’s engine limitations also function as diegetic markers of the version of Columbia its rulers want to present to newcomers.

The image of the “city on a hill,” as Yussef points out in his piece, is a fantasy passed down through America’s history, a bit like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s passive, but visceral notion of whiteness’ “bloody heirloom”: first culled from the Bible by a Puritan settler, revived by John F. Kennedy (himself posthumously placed in Camelot, another gleaming citadel), and ground into total meaninglessness by slick-talking piece of shit Ronald Reagan.

If you doubt that last part, consider that everyone from Barack Obama to Ted Cruz has wheeled The City out for their own rhetorical ends. Thus the city is now a blank device, little more than a speechwriter’s flourish. But it did hold power, once, and the gilded hatred of Columbia recaptures some of that impact. Columbia doesn’t lie to itself, the way the United States has for centuries. It proudly flaunts a racial caste system rife with inequality and squalor. It knowingly twists the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ said to those assembled, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Columbia does not wish to hide. It is built, brick by brick, out of entrenched racism and capitalist brutality—the meat carved from beneath the thin skin of American exceptionalism. Of course, Bioshock Infinite is not content with this brute, effective metaphor and spirals off into Doctor Who-style stupidity and cheap moral equivocation. It fails to understand its own power, that it has hit upon the engine of American life; a surface of agreed-upon norms that keep the country’s power structures neatly in balance for the right people.

The moment in these early hours of the game when Booker gores a policeman head-first with a sharp, spinning “Sky-Hook” completely ruptures Columbia’s facade—violence being the one thing which it tries to keep hidden under its civility. In that moment, as the hook lodges itself in the cop’s skull, spitting blood all over the place, the violence at the city’s heart comes spurting out as well. In that moment we can read philosopher Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject, the irrefutable proof of the thing which is repressed; splattering Columbia’s impossible purity with blood, innards, and refuse is as clear a metaphor as you could ask for. Mangling the agents of the state, and their less human counterparts, who pursue you throughout the game becomes a form of righteous comeuppance, each torn limb or gouged throat another lash on the body of the oppressor.

The violence was, naturally, the one aspect of the game mainstream writers balked at, for reasons which are largely ridiculous. But having set up yet another fascinating dynamic, Bioshock Infinite scuttles its potential power by suggesting that the violence done by Columbia’s revolutionary proletariat is unjust and misguided. This failure was rightly pounced on by games critics,and it’s impossible to ignore because it demolishes the entire enterprise. Even my description of these scenes lends them a weight they frankly do not achieve in action; the smug self-importance with which the game literally wheels out an interracial couple, while characters continue to bark world-building noise at you, is ugly. The cherry on top is that Infinite doesn’t even touch on anything that explicit again. It’s there for a gasp, positioned early on as an attention-grabbing hook good for a few wowed articles.

The game does, as Reid discusses in his piece, eventually posit self-destruction as the only possible atonement for Columbia’s sins, embodied in whitebread cover boy Booker DeWitt+. The childish notion that a single sacrifice—toppling the bad guy—can undo entrenched systemic oppression is only made possible through the game’s climactic science-fiction contortions, which entirely abandon all the interesting work of its brief opening sequence. The game cravenly turns away from resonant real-world material to offer infinite universes of bullshit. It may be, in a perversion of Infinite’s climax, that every discussion of it ends up here, at the same fucking lighthouse, where we sit and commiserate over the game’s utterly wasted potential.

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+See Ken Levine’s tortured explanation of Bioshock: Infinite’s box art (which is a thing games used to have) which taken with the post-Infinite closure of Irrational Games and the years since, in which Levine which has yet to do anything but talk a bunch of shit about immersion and “narrative Legos,” make it tempting to assume that massive financial and studio pressures molded the game into its lumpen shape. But that lets the actual game off too easy.   

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Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.