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In the dingy bowels of a utopian, futuristic city, numerous downtrodden workers toil tirelessly to the rhythmic ticking of the taskmaster’s clock. Their shifts are brutal, ten hours per day, and as they maintain the giant machines that keep the city functional for the privileged upper-class, resentment begins to boil. They work meager wages and survive in a shanty town separate from the city above, and they wait until a charismatic young woman leads them in a violent revolution…
Such is the plot of Metropolis, a 1927 silent science fiction film directed by Fritz Lang and one of the most obvious influences ofBioShock Infinite. It stands as one of the earliest examples of large-scale filmmaking and dazzling special effects to create a spectacular future in which the technological advancements of the modern world reached their zenith only to reveal the dark truths hidden behind the optimism of the Machine Age. BioShock Infinite finds footing in the same dialogue, one that has its roots during a period of technological explosion that fundamentally changed the way we think about art, culture, history, architecture, mathematics, and science.
BioShock Infinite's 1912 setting puts it right in the middle of the Machine Age, and, though the game's focus is particularly American, the world of its time period was getting smaller. By 1912, Frederick Taylor's philosophy of scientific management synchronized workflow in factories, but with the nasty effect of dehumanizing workers as cogs in the manufacturing machine, leading to widespread labor strikes--a lesson Columbia's factory mogul Jeremiah Fink will soon learn. Meanwhile, Albert Einstein had begun work on what would become his theory of relativity, which would be published three years after the Lutece twins "meet" for the first time. Marinetti's "Futurist Manifesto," an aesthetic philosophy that glorified the speed of the machine, reinvigorated Italian nationalism while at the same time the people of Columbia are just discovering the sensation of zipping across the rails. And as resentment and anger bubbles beneath the surface of Columbia's calm veneer, political machinations on the surface below move the world toward the precipice of war.
Though the game captures its turn of the century time beautifully, it's not content to simply make statements about the social injustices and latent dangers of its time period. In conjunction with its historical setting, Infinite asks to be considered as a reflection of its own time, and to some degree, its own presence as technology that has deep roots in the history of the machine. It asks the player to re-think his/her perceptions of both time and space as they exist in digital worlds, and by extension, our own.
Columbia is quite literally a place out of time and space. It hovers above the clouds borne aloft by impossible technologies and theoretical fringe sciences. The concept would not seem out of place in the writings of H. G. Wells, L. Frank Baum, Olaf Stapledon, or even earlier with Jules Verne. It is so historically grounded with its construction for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (or World's Columbian Exposition, as it was also called), its references to the massacre at Wounded Knee, and its grisly participation in the Boxer Rebellion. Infinite's alternate history does what any good work in its genre does: creates a world that's simultaneously believable and impossible.
Such was the promise of the Machine Age, a time when people believed thought the advances of technology would eventually lead to utopia, and utopia is exactly what Columbia sets out to achieve. When Booker first gets there, he's greeted with a bizarre but apparently functional world in which everyone seems in agreement. The fair at the beginning coaxes the player into an uneasy appreciation of the fantastic machines and vigors that (much like any advertisements in early twentieth century magazines) possessed the ability to enhance human existence in new and crucial ways. "What is Columbia," asks Comstock, "but a new Ark" to lead us to Eden?
Of course, we find out fairly quickly that the passage to Eden must be tread on the backs of the impoverished. When the player is asked to hurl a baseball at an interracial couple for the audience's entertainment, the scene erupts in a spectacular display of violence as Booker forces an officer's skull into another's rotating skyhook. The mechanical appendage grinds and tears into his terrified visage, and the bloodied machine becomes Booker's first weapon, setting in motion the systematic destruction of Columbia and its facade of perfection.
Though this is the moment that shatters Columbia's crystalline self-image, I found the most powerful depction of the underlying societal problems surface when Booker arrives at the Finkton docks. The disembodied voice of Jermiah Fink echoes over a loudspeaker as he tells his laborers (who manufacture the vending machines and weapons that you've been using quite extensively) to find meaning in their work instead of their pay. Impoverished employees scrub the docks in syncopated rhythm to an ominous ticking clock, and journeying further down into the poor section, beneath the upper cities, you come across an auction in which workers bid not their money, but their time in order to perform whatever task is asked of them. We see the workers reduced to cogs in the great machine of industry, some of whom became permanently fused to the very technology they had to manufacture.
Fink's industrial house of horrors forces us to confront the dark side of Taylorism, the management system that prized efficiency over workers' well-being, and Booker, as an ex-Pinkerton agent, finds himself on the opposite side of an all-too familiar situation. Booker fights alongside the workers, unlike the strike-breaking Pinkertons employed by big businesses. Of course, he is motivated by self-preservation rather than social change, and the rebellion he joins elicits bloodshed on a massive scale. The whole situation combines the elements of sci-fi pulp narrative (a dashing and gruff hero, a damsel in distress, spectacular violence, impossible technologies) and modernist social commentary that would fit into any novel, film, or magazine about the plight of the working class.
BioShock Infinite, however, isn't a modernist novel, nor is it a film that tests the newness of cinematic narrative and special effects. It's sure not a tried and true pulp story because the hero is deeply flawed, the damsel is the most powerful character in the story, and the violence is too grotesque to be cartoonish. Hell, even the word "text" which I use quite liberally in this (and many other articles) is a bit problematic, and looking at the game from my admittedly limited perspective is uncomfortably anachronistic. Then again, I did hear Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" come from an organ grinder at a dockside carnival. A barbershop quartet sang the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." A ragtime version of a Tears for Fears song escaped from the kluge of a phonograph, and a young woman bellows out a bluesy spiritual of CCR's "Fortunate Son." In Columbia, it seems, the contemporary world quite literally tears into the alternate past. Maybe that's the reason the utopian promise of the city in the sky rip apart at its very visible seams.
It's no coincidence, after all, that we interact with a world set in the Machine Age through a box, a screen, and a handheld device to direct our travels. It's not happenstance that we are unnerved when we see tears in reality, and we (or more accurately our companion Elizabeth) can manipulate those tears to change the way we can move within that world that was so enamored with and terrified of the roaring engines of technological invention. It's not a hollow simple plot device that players are tasked with destroying an entire city that has become the very apotheosis of Machine Age idealism, filled with exciting spectacle, cyborg Handymen, electric horses, and social unrest.
BioShock Infinite offers a digital world that feels initially out of time in order to eventually reveal that Columbia and its Machine Age optimism and fear are not bound to one period in history. We're still defining ourselves and our cultures in conjunction with new technologies just as the excitable crowds of 1912 did, and we will be for a long time. Maybe we always have been. BioShock Infinite embraces and critiques the ideologies of the Machine Age because it never truly ended but evolved into the Digital Age we live in now--a time when technology has drastically improved life in some ways while proving to be a dangerous force in others. BioShock Infinite looks at its own anachronistic elements and calls attention to them because, really, they're not anachronistic at all.
Perhaps all video games perform similar Lutecean thought experiments that reveal our collective fascination with technology. Every time we boot up a game we test our relationship with technology; we weirdly submit to entering a digital space removed from our own place and time. We play in worlds that operate by their own sets of rules, each one mediated by consoles, computers, portable phones. When we start up a game, we enter one of any infinite numbers of lighthouses that brings us into new worlds, alternate realities crashing into our own and existing simultaneously yet apart--a phenomenon only possible through the use of devices that have tangential connections to the technologies of an age that really isn't so far back in history as we might want to believe.
In the near future, I'll wake up and step behind the wheel of a machine that I use to get to the university where I work. There, I'll pass the constantly clanking Physical Plant on my way to place where I convert turn of the century magazines into a digital format to make them more accessible and efficient. At the end of the day, I'll drive home, past the giant machines that are tearing up the road in order to make a newer, better one, and I'll read a book, play a game, maybe write a page or two. I'll then go to bed with the window open, listening to sounds of cars on the highway and being sung to sleep by the rhythmic hums of a mechanical world.
So what are your thoughts on BioShock Infinite? It's certainly got people talking, and I'd love to hear what you all have to say about it.
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!