Race, Class, and Quantum Mechanics in Bioshock Infinite

So. Spoilers ahoy.

I finished Bioshock Infinite last week and, like most people who played the game, was busy trying to puzzle out the ending. Did the end really change anything? What, exactly, does Booker’s ability to operate post-lockdown bathyspheres mean? Will Elizabeth get that damned puppy.

That is, until I read this article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. It’s about the striking parallels between Infinite and The Wizard of Oz, a connection I didn’t think about until reading the piece. Well done!

It also linked me to this article over at Super Opinionated. The central premise is that Infinite misses the point in criticizing Columbia’s – and pre-War US’s – racism on one hand, and then, with the other, makes its most prominent black character into a horrible villain before the ending. (Further points include the idea that the “big-titted” woman lead is no longer a romance interest, but a daughter – primarily due to aging gamers in game companies. That, I can see.)

Now, I get where the author is coming from. It is highly suspicious that such a one-eighty happens. However, I feel that the article misses a few points. First, we’re not really given a lot of insight into DeWitte’s racial beliefs – we know that he was a horrible person in both the Battle of Peking and Wounded Knee, and that his only comment on Columbia’s racial segregation is “that’s the way it is,” but the only out-and-out opportunity for him to show his views – the ball-chucking scene in the raffle – is left to the player.

What I’m getting at here is that whatever in-universe racial sympathies Booker might have is up to the player. What does that matter? Well, it matters because that provides the motivation for Booker to join up with Daisy Fitzroy. Is he motivated by injustice, or is he just seeking an ends to the means?

Without a doubt, Columbia is meant to inspire disgust in the player, and it does so by horribly backward racial definitions and practices, but that is as much a sign of the setting as anything else. Would Comstock have remained such a villain without the racism? I think so. The guy did imprison and torture his own daughter, after all. Not much good can be said about that.

Instead, I believe the reason for Fitzroy’s fall had nothing to do with “white people feels,” or insensitivity about race, or hypocrisy, or anything on that count. Instead, I believe that it all comes back to the idea that class divides people more than race and nationality ever will.

That’s right, ladies and gents:

MARXISM COMIN’ AT YA!

Recall that Fitzroy and the Vox Populi are revolting because of their station in life. Does that have something to do with race? Of course. But it has just as much to do – if not more – than degrading work, alienation from the products of their work, and never having hope to move up the ladder in society.

I mean, hell, if you want an in-your-face indication that that’s the case, have a look at the banners, propaganda, handkerchief, and music that the Vox Populi use. It’s ripped out of the Bolshevik Revolution. Bold text superimposed on red backgrounds; triumphant, haggard workers raising their fists in the air; singing “Fortunate Son,” a song so about class that you’re surprised it hasn’t been covered by Pete Seeger.

(NOTE: It probably has.)

Yes, there’s race – and you can’t miss that. But the overriding message in the Vox Populi’s revolt is that they are doing this because they are seen as cattle by Fink and Comstock. They’re not human because they are willing to work for inhuman wages. Instead of being lions and demanding their share, they are cattle, eagerly looking for work wherever they can get it.

But what of Daisy Fitzroy’s turn to villain?

It’s unmistakable. And, in case you can’t figure it out by her attempted execution of a child, the game narrative hits you over the head with it. (“She’s no better than Comstock.”) But, also recall that, while there is a voxaphone recording of her speaking about racial alienation, when she is about to murder the child, and at her most Snidely Whiplash state of mental clarity, she states her reason is because “The Founders are like weeds; you have to tear them up by their roots.”

She’s not espousing a Malcolm X, early Nation of Islam anti-white sentiment – she’s vocalizing the desire to stamp out economic inequality by violent means.

That, of course, does not mean that it’s any more ethical. It’s still incredibly villainous to do what she was trying to do, but the reason is not solely race. It’s not Irrational Games’s missing the point of their own game. It’s their illustrating their point even more – heavy handed, maybe, but they’re still on track.

It is also worth noting that we are not in the same universe as we were when we started the game. We have jumped through tears and gone to a place where Booker DeWitte is the hero of a revolution he, in another universe, had no interest in. What happens in the original universe?

We don’t know. It’s entirely possible that Fitzroy did not become a mustachio-twirling villain. Indeed, on a large enough scale, anything becomes possible – and we are dealing with the whole, mind-numbing mechanic of the multiverse.

And that, my friends, is the crux of it. It is guaranteed – on a scale of infinite universes – that Fitzroy would turn villain. It’s equally as guaranteed that – on a scale of infinite universes – I am banging Scarlett Johansson. (This thought has given me great comfort sometimes. Good on you, Aaron Simon-99,817. You’re an example to us all.)

“When a revolution happens, yes sometimes the leaders become corrupt with power. That usually happens AFTER the power-grab is secure.”

Yes and no. It depends on the revolution. Were many leaders of the French revolution good people? Sure. But there were also bloodthirsty maniacs. Same in the Bolshevik Revolution, American Revolution, everything Che Guevara was a part of, every modern revolution, etc. etc. etc.

Fitzroy was not corrupt with power, she was corrupt with revenge.

And of the final paragraph:

Why do the twins care so much about saving Manhattan? I mean, I get *we* lived through 9/11 but they didn’t, so why does the bombing of a place we never go to in the game matter so much more than all of the people living in Columbia? For a game set in US history, this was the one piece of the game that actually stank of US entitlement. Who gives a shit about the city off-screen, let me save the city in front of me, yeesh.

I believe that the Lutrece twins acted not because they wanted to save Manhattan, but because they wanted to save Booker and Anna.

Now, it’s hard to get into the minds of what are arguably – at this point in the game’s continuum – Science Gods, but I’d wager their actions come from trying to right their wrongs. They did, after all, give Booker the means to start all of this by ripping him away from his daughter. It is entirely possible that they regret doing so, and are attempting to fix it.

(Case in point of their re-found ethics, one of the Drs Lutrece states, “To your credit, you did try to back out of the deal.” This, to me, states that they admire the glimmer of humanity in DeWitte at that time, and attempt to help him because of that.)

In other words, Manhattan doesn’t enter into it. It is, of course, wrong to murder an entire city – be it Columbia or Manhattan. But, consider that Booker is battling soldiers, and the Columbia that-would-be is bombarding civilians. (And yes, you are given the opportunity to murder civilians. That is a fair point.) Murder is murder, but the soldiers under Comstock’s orders are acting to preserve a truly fucked-up society.

US entitlement does not enter into it, either. (Well, it does. Columbia is the physical personification of US entitlement. How much more cartoony, Bush foreign policy can you get than a floating, war-producing society that spews out death-robots made to look like the Founding Fathers and bombs foreign nations?) Booker wants to save New York because he’s from there. Remember: This is an RPG just as much as it is a shooter. The player is Booker, a man whose home will be leveled by this city. Would it not stand to reason that the character would want to defend it?

It’s not entitlement, it’s defense.

So, I think that’s all I got.

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5 thoughts on “Race, Class, and Quantum Mechanics in Bioshock Infinite

  1. Pingback: Bioshock: Infinite and Privileged Narratives | Pixelated Geek
  2. I’m a little annoyed that the pingbacked article beneath this one completely misses your initial article’s point.

    Furthermore, I’m even more annoyed that that one acknowledges messed up people’s rebellions like the Khmer Rouge and then denies that they can ever happen in the same breath.

    Mao Zedong sent wealthier farmers to gulags due to being class oppressors (i.e. simply existing). Admittedly, I don’t put much stock in what Booker and Elizabeth say with their “both sides of the same coin statement,” but why are we wishing away the French and Bolshevik Revolutions as if this sort of thing is rare? I took those allusions not as attempt to justify Comstock’s cruel racial Panopticon, but as a description of either what arises from such a brutally polarized system or what the other hand holds in store. In many ways, it’s a criticism of the United States’ two-party system, which holds that people cannot rest in the middle but must veer from side to side.

    How can an author simultaneously acknowledge such atrocities as the murder of the Romanov’s children (who were sons and daughters of brutal, brutal rulers, it must be said) and then either deny that they happened or label outrage at such casualties as privileged? I’d argue that the game certainly glossed over the revolutionary “side” and pulled an underdeveloped cheap shot with the child, but still . . . why this widespread denial of actual, provable historical atrocities?

    Lastly, is it really so hard for us to condemn both the Romanov’s reign AND the murder of their offspring? Denial of validation for the Vox does not mean validation for Comstock. Right now, all the objections seem to sound a lot like “THEY STARTED IT!”

    I’m not sure if you reply to these. What do you think?

    • Sorry for the late reply! I tend to ignore responses because about 99% of them are spam bots trying to sell whitening products. Gimme a day or two to respond. Thanks for reading!

      • Sure. I understand that it’s a worn topic as well. I’m just getting the impression that many commentators out there take issue at my mere observance of these doubts, so I feel a need to discuss them in obscure places where I don’t think I’ll get shafted for them. Jeff Kunzler’s posts on it genuinely scare me.

        Seriously, though, do you want some Ugg boots?

      • Again, sorry for the late reply. Life is nuts.

        I agree with your comments, wholeheartedly. I’d label myself as a social democrat/socialist, but not acknowledging the horrible stuff that happens as a result of zealotry and extremism is just plain stupid. There’s a mildly annoying trend online of bloggers and their fans throwing around terms like “privileged” or “triggers” like they’re social scientists, but without any of the training that involves studying data, formulating logical and cohesive arguments and, you know, not making an argument based solely on emotive pictures from Reuters. When BInfinite came out and you had this discussion going on, I think there was a whole lot of that I-want-to-be-a-sociologist stuff applied to the game haphazardly, and, being an out-and-out liberal arts and soft sciences guy, that makes me very, very sad.

        I haven’t read Jeff Kunzler’s posts, I don’t think. I’ll check itout.

        I’m also not in need of Ugg boots, Mr. Spam Bot. Thanks for asking, though. Your concern is noted, and you will be spared in the Luddite Revolution.

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