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Columbia: A City Divided

BioShock Infinite protagonist Booker DeWitt’s job sounds relatively straightforward – arrive in the airborne city of Columbia, find a woman named Elizabeth, and extricate her from captivity. The reality of the scenario couldn’t be more complicated. Since its disappearance into the clouds, the city has fallen into a bitter civil war over clashing ideologies and differing interpretations of the American Dream. While one faction clings to a concept of American exceptionalism tied closely to religious and Aryan values, another violently champions the inclusion of all races and religions, and will go to great lengths to unseat the powers that be.

In the middle stands Elizabeth. A notion of prophecy regarding this unusual young lady swirls throughout Columbia. Both groups want to exercise control over her – one wants to keep her imprisoned and the other hopes to unleash her extraordinary powers as a method of furthering their cause. To shed more light on these two factions, we asked Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine what makes these rabble rousers tick.

THE POWERS THAT BE
After Columbia’s mysterious disappearance into the skies, the ruling class precariously clings to power in the face of a violent uprising. Their predominant rallying cry? Either you’re with us or against us.

While conceptualizing the motivations for this antagonistic incumbent group, Irrational drew much of its inspiration from the ultranationalist movements that have appeared on the international scene and in America over the years. “Through the history of almost all countries you see periods of national identity being more or less important as time goes on,” Levine says. “You see a buildup of a nativist or nationalist movement, and often there’s an event that comes out of that – whether it’s a war or whatever – which either enhances that or pushes it back.”

For Columbia, the event in question is an international incident that sullies America's reputation and divorces Columbia from the motherland. Once thought to be a shining beacon of American industry and ingenuity, Columbia had a deceptive ulterior motive – it was also a fully functioning warship. When this is revealed to the world in a catastrophic event, the United States severs ties with the floating city, triggering a civil war within Columbia as splinter factions fight for the soul of the fleet. For the powers that be, their primary interest is in preserving the status quo.

During the BioShock Infinite gameplay demo, we got a glimpse into the thought process of this faction through the agitated ramblings of a politician named Saltonstall. Standing in a gazebo filled with barrels of rifles in front of an audience of empty seats, the frantic orator pontificated to anyone within earshot: “Only by the blessed powers of our Constitution and our savior can we set it right,” he said. “And if our guns thunder, then I say let them thunder. The needs of our great city of Columbia must come before the desires of any foreigner, whether they be enemy or friend. For I have looked into the future and one path is filled with amity and gold, and the other is fraught with the perils of a hostile and alien world.”

Saltonstall’s message is an inflammatory cocktail of xenophobia, religiosity, antagonism, and selective reading of the U.S. Constitution. Take Saltonstall out of the gazebo and place him on the set of a contemporary 24-hour news network and his tirade would hardly be out of place. His position eerily echoes some of the race-baiting positions taken by far right personalities like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Rand Paul during the virulent debates over the current direction of our country. That’s hardly a coincidence.

 “There’s definitely a component in America today that nationalism is extremely important to certain people – a sense that America is a separate case,” Levine says. “It’s something I’ve always found fascinating. It’s an interesting element to divide over – where you’re born. It’s kind of an accident, right? And how porous those borders are – people who are in the same country with different ethnic backgrounds and religious backgrounds – there are a lot of ways to draw demarcations. It’s interesting to me how important those become to people and I wanted to explore that.”

As with any political movement, there is a figurehead who energizes the ultranationalist base, but Irrational isn’t ready to reveal the demagogue yet. “He’ll be very present,” Levine confirms.

Read on to learn about the anarchist group running rampant in Columbia.

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