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.
THE VOX POPULI
As the ultranationalists ramp up their extremist message of god, guns, and liberty, a protest group forms in response. This group, known as the Vox Populi, wants to out-shout the Saltonstalls of the world and extend the freedoms of Columbia to all its citizens, no matter their race or creed.
“This group starts out as a confederation of like-minded people,” Levine says. “As it becomes more serious and more organized, there becomes a need to enforce an ideology, an order, and a hierarchy. As the group becomes more organized over time, it also becomes more brutal. There becomes a line to toe. Different leaders emerge and some leaders aren’t as successful as other leaders, and you can imagine what happens to them. They get pushed aside and a unified ideology comes into place.”
Since none of its members made an appearance in the game demo, much less is known about this group. We do know, however, that Vox Populi is a Latin term that translates to “voice of the people,” and this group likely clings to concepts like the Statue of Liberty's famous inscription: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
“They’re passionate,” Levine emphasizes. “I think a good example is a student movement or a leftist group. At the turn of the century you started to see a lot of these anarchist and leftist movements. It’s been common throughout the 20th century.”
Irony casts a thick cloud over the resistance, as the peaceful message to which they originally espoused is mutated by the rhetoric of its leadership and the growing frustration over the powers that be. As the group’s ambitions become more extreme, their calls for peace and acceptance are eventually drowned out by blind hatred toward the ultranationalists and pre-meditated acts of violence.
As with the ultranationalist movements, Irrational Games canvassed history for inspiration for this wayward faction. One left wing movement Levine drew inspiration from was a German group from the ‘70s known as the Red Army Faction. With many West German institutions still under the control of those who had been in positions of power during the Nazi regime, an earnest protest group developed in open opposition to what it perceived as the fascist leanings of the government and its oppressive bourgeois values. After an incident when one of the protesters was killed, swelling emotions soon transformed it into a radicalized student movement that misappropriated Marxist teachings, bombed police buildings, and formed ties with paramilitary organizations such as the PLO.
Far left movements are still alive to this day, with groups like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front adopting guerrilla tactics and arson as a means to their philosophical ends. Usually far removed from the actual political process, these groups are often poorly organized, with small factions of loosely aligned cell groups acting independently.
Since groups like the Vox Populi historically splinter into sub-factions due to disagreements over ideology, expect to meet many of its members as you journey through Columbia.
BioShock resonated with many due to its bold take on Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Likewise, with the warring factions of BioShock Infinite, Irrational Games has created a rich tapestry to explore the dangers of political extremism from both sides of the spectrum. As to who perseveres in this struggle for Columbia’s identity, Elizabeth plays a pivotal role. “Elizabeth is the center of this conflict,” Levine reiterates. “While the powers that be certainly have an upper hand, Elizabeth is the wild card. The powers that be are more interested in stasis – the status quo – but Elizabeth is the trump card that can turn everything around.”