When I told the Magistra I had played Bioshock Infinite, and I was shocked by its graphic violence, she was surprised. "I didn't think you would play another Bioshock game." After the review I gave Bioshock, I suppose I'm not surprised my wife would say that. I called the game disturbing, and I felt afterward that it might have scarred my soul a little bit. When I was younger, I didn't think much of the the argument of Lt. Col. David Grossman (ret.) that we have learned how to overcome our innate resistance to killing another person, but now I am starting to see his point. Especially now that I am a father myself, graphic violence in games, and the FPS genre, seem to hold less and less appeal for me. After the very first fight in Bioshock Infinite, I felt disturbed. I think it was the sense that I had violated the peace of Columbia that made me feel this so acutely. Until the first fight, every scene in Columbia was visually and musically idyllic and peaceful, even if there were a few subtle hints that all was not well.
It was the Beast of America trailer that convinced me I might want to play Bioshock Infinite. It is a pretty damn good trailer, and it hinted at a lot of the better elements of the game. Well done, whoever designed that trailer. Of course, I waited to pick the game up until the Steam summer sale, since I won't pay full price for a game anymore, but I was really interested.
After playing the game, I decided to write a review because I didn't see a lot of reviews that address what this game is about: The End of the World. Bioshock Infinite, like Bioshock before it, is about the apocalypse. Literally, it means ‘disclosure’ or ‘revelation,’ particularly of the circumstances
attending the end of the world. In the narrowest sense, it is simply an ancient literary genre. It also refers to a dramatic event, which marks off a different type of time.
Everyone wants to talk about the ending, but I'm not that interested in the ending. I liked the ending. I was underwhelmed by the game until the ending, which catapulted the game in my estimation from just another FPS game to a classic. I am just tired of amateur philosophy hour and amateur physics hour. You all don't know what you are talking about.
I am much more interested in how we are all fascinated by the apocalypse, and kind of embarrassed by it at the same time. Richard Landes, a scholar of the apocalyptic, has a theory that I am sympathetic to. Millennial movements are major players in history, and millennialism is inherently interesting to all people. However, millennial predictions are usually [although not always] falsified in the lifetime of the believers, which leads to a persistent bias in the telling of history that minimizes the influence of the repeatedly discredited prophets of doom. Especially when some of the writers of history used to be believers.
Millennialism is not just a Christian thing, or a Western thing either. It is a universal human phenomenon, found in all cultures and religions. The Mahdist uprising in the Sudan, the Ghost Dance, and the Taiping Rebellion are all nineteenth century examples of millennial movements that are neither Western nor Christian, although the Taiping Rebellion did have some weird syncretistic elements. The millennium is a future paradisiacal state or stage of history, where constraints of human experience such as war, death, and poverty will no longer exist. It is the attempt to achieve this state that makes a movement millennial. Just so, both Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite are millennial through and through.
Bioshock had an obvious hint in the name of Andrew Ryan's underwater city, Rapture. Even though Ryan himself was thoroughly areligious, his attempt to build a perfect city apart from the rest of mankind and bring about paradise is clear enough. Columbia follows this same blueprint, although we get to see Columbia at a different stage in its history. Booker DeWitt joins Columbia during its halcyon days. We get to see Columbia in all its glory. Whereas when Jack descends into Rapture, the introductory apocalypse has already occurred, which has reduced the wicked city to ruins. Jack serves as the agent to bring about Rapture's terminal apocalypse. As an aside, this is why I never played Bioshock 2. Ken Levine wasn't involved, so it was clearly not going to be as good, but also the story was done. A terminal apocalypse is the end. Period. There was clearly nothing more to be said about Rapture, although there was equally clearly more money to be made.
Booker DeWitt is the introductory apocalypse for Columbia, and fittingly, he is also the terminal apocalypse for Columbia, although not precisely in the way one might think. The way in which this plays out is why I enjoyed the ending so much, and also why I will forgo my usual practice of discussing the ending of whatever I am reviewing. It is just too much fun, and it also fits the template I am discussing here so well, yet simultaneously so imaginatively, that I have to leave it it be.
Thematic continuity between Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite is not limited to the millennium, we also return to the struggle of the poor against the rich. Some have drawn links between the Occupy Wall Street protests and Bioshock Infinite, but I think this is mostly coincidence. The same theme was present in Bioshock, and the dehumanization and brutality of labor relations is an accurate reflection of America, and the world, in 1912. While Bioshock was set in 1960, it always seemed to me to belong in the 1930s, both because of the style of Rapture, and the way in which the working man in Rapture had no hope.
America by the 1950s and 1960s had figured out a pretty good solution for the working man. That was a time of unprecedented social mobility and economic growth. The economic pie was more evenly distributed then than any time before or since, and that was the fruit of the lessons learned by the ruling class in fin de siècle America.
Columbia represents America, and it exaggerates both its virtues and its sins. There really was something magical about Western Civilization just before the Great War. That sense is captured perfectly in Bioshock Infinite. There were also many things deeply wrong, and you can see all them on display in this game as you progress. Columbia celebrates the Massacre at Wounded Knee as a pivotal event in its history [because it is], but America at the time of the Massacre was far more ambivalent. 20 Medals of Honor were awarded to men involved in the Massacre, but at the same time General Nelson A. Miles described it as, "Wholesale massacre, and I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than at Wounded Knee." One of the recipients of the Medal of Honor, Lt. Harry L. Hawthorne, was posted to MIT as a professor of military science while he was recovering from his wounds, and was mocked so severely by the students that he gave up his posting at the school. We Americans did a lot wrong, but Columbia represents an America that never was.
The plight of the underclass in Columbia that is particularly stark. In the shantytown surrounding the factories that supply Columbia, you see workers bidding hours of pay to perform the same work, in one of the ugliest illustrations of unequal bargaining I have seen. Labor relations in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were bad. This was the era when Communism was on the rise, papal encyclicals were searching for a viable middle between socialism and laissez faire capitalism, and strikes were something the public feared. The biggest conflict between labor and management in America was the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1920. It was the culmination of a struggle over coal mining in West Virginia, and nearly 10,000 men took up arms to fight their corporate oppressors.
Yet, America didn't burn in the fires of revolution. Most of those 10,000 miners just went home. Starting in the 1920s, America started on a remarkable equalization of income that finally bore fruit in the 1950s. Racial inequality was not included in the settlement, but it seems that class war in America was averted by a conscious choice by the haves to give more to the have nots. It was a stable solution for a while, but it seems to be breaking down again as income inequality rises in America.
Yet for all its sins, I wept for Columbia. I did not rejoice in its destruction, and I don't think we are meant to. All great cities are built on great injustice, including ours. That is what St. Augustine meant by the City of God and the City of Man. We owe allegiance to the imperfect polities in which we find ourselves, but in and of themselves they cannot truly deserve it. And the alternatives are usually much, much worse. The revolution Booker and Elizabeth unleash upon Columbia is not a liberation, but an orgy of vengeance and destruction.
Columbia deserved to be destroyed, but in the same way, all of our homes, great and small, bear the weight of similar sins. Perhaps this is the reason why we find the apocalypse so mesmerizing: we know we deserve it.
*In all of the foregoing discussion of millennialism and the apocalypse, I am greatly indebted to my late friend, John J. Reilly. Especially his book, The Perennial Apocaplyse, which provides most of the analytical elements in this post. You are missed John, requiescat in pace.