[Spoiler free, but intended for those who’ve played the game]
The thing about Bioshock Infinite, apparent to anyone, is the sky-shattering, apocalyptic, and transcendent existence of the city of Columbia. So often, we speak about incredible settings as being “characters in themselves”: if this is true, then Columbia has many of the properties of the god from the Old Testament: Here is a place vengeful and jealous of other living spaces, which watches you, demands your love, attention, adoration; it demands the slaughter of all who oppose or threaten its existence. It is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent: it knows all, can do all, and is all.
After all, most of the game exists and takes place on the very entity that is the central focus of devotion to your opponents.
The game begins in the ocean, in a world apparently devoid of land. Eventually you reach a lighthouse. The tip of the hat to the original Bioshock is obvious – travelling above the ocean only to be forced to get off by a lighthouse that leads you to a remarkable city. At this lighthouse, you appear to start the apocalypse.
The sounds of deep trumpets ring through the sky, as clouds the size of mountains change colour according to the notes. Eventually, you ascend to meet the god that is Columbia.
I tend to find non-scientific ways of engaging the world to be problematic: evidence, reason, critical reflection matter a great deal to how we make the world a better place.
However, such a mindset need not undermine your engagement with the wondrous, the numinous, or, as with Columbia, the transcendent. Images from the Hubble Telescope could turn any rock-hard scientific into a fountain of tears; the beauty of maths is not lost on those who recognise the discipline’s power; discoveries from cosmology that link us, scientifically, to the rest of the universe are so mind-numbingly bizarre, our pathetic brains can’t comprehend them.
And meeting the god of Columbia stirred this awe and wonder, as it also instilled fear and foreboding. As with many things religious, Columbia’s serenity, unity and peace are a façade for the invisible web of control tethered to each person’s life: peace is maintained only because everyone falls in line, not because there’s nothing to fear. The people of Columbia are united in the same way canned tuna might be.
The game makes no illusion about this beauty being an illusion, despite powerfully instilling how grand, monumental, and powerful this society is. Yes: the bottom of your jaw will scrape the ground as you play, but you’ll not be fooled for a second into thinking such order and peace is maintained because these people are or this place is inherently good.
Many people have given the game back due to realising it makes no qualms with playing with powerful religious imagery for its own design. Baptisms, churches, preaches, imagery of Lambs, shepherds: the nod toward Christianity is more a face-pulling. It speaks of gods but never Yahweh. There is no Jesus or Saints venerated; there is only The Prophet (which is more Islamic than Christian). To think it is making fun of your religion is, first, to miss the point and, second, to be arrogant: Why your religion and not all religion, not all ways people try to rule over other people?
Columbia is engaging with those aspects that have made religion so powerful, so potent, for so many. It is powerful, shocking, beautiful, expansive, it links the individual to the wider world. Today, most people who are religious are not religious in the way Columbia’s residents are: that is, in a way that sees them drop their lives to go kill heathens or a person of a different faith. We can surely see the similarities of Columbia’s religion to the Plasmids of the previous Bioshock games: “too much” of it leads people to become homicidal maniacs, leading to the downfall of the very society supplying it.
Andrew Ryan, in the first Bioshock, didn’t dance around his hatred of all forms of control as his reason for creating Rapture, including his hatred of theistic religions. As he said in the first game:
What is the most vicious obscenity ever perpetrated on mankind? Slavery? The Holocaust? Dictatorship? No. It’s the tool with which all that wickedness is built: altruism. Whenever anyone wants others to do their work, they call upon their altruism. Never mind your own needs, they say, think of the needs of… of whoever. The state. The poor. Of the army, of the king, of God!
And yet, inevitably, control happened anyway and the lack of unity led to attrition. Instead of growing, people’s raised expectations were simply raised high enough to fall harder. Ryan falsely believed people could live without rule, and instead corrupt rule found its way into his hallowed city.
Columbia is the opposite: rule is believed to be good, but too much of this rule – like too much of Rapture’s freedom – eventually poisoned the people. We know that poison is, in many cases, excess: if such a thing as water-poisoning exists, we should be wary of anything in excess.
All Bioshock games are about a man, his city, his vision of perfection leading toward its and his own downfall. It is a story of every dictator throughout history. Yet, what we are made to experience is the awe, wonder and beauty that can arise through a vision of absolute control. We are made to step into his vision as if it were real, as if it were possible, to relish in this possibility and potential, before reality – in the form of upsetting the status quo – happens to our protagonist. The moment when Booker finally hits someone is like a rude awakening, like someone roughly shoving you awake from a pleasant dream.
This really is an American dream, since, to paraphrase George Carlin, you’d have to be asleep to take it seriously. God or dream or both: Columbia manages to make us see those spectacles that many religions want us to feel, want us to believe; they want us to feel and experience the (near) impossible. But the cruel mistress of reality will always seep in through the cracks called human fallibility.
We will never have perfection, peace, unity because we are imperfect. It is like trying to draw a black circle with a red crayon. Bioshock Infinite, in its brilliant story, beautiful setting, and fully realised characters, made me look into the mind of a madman to see his vision of the impossible. That I loved what I saw is troubling but also humanising: we all want peace and unity, and it is mostly recognising these as impossible – but a flying city achievable – that is really striking about meeting the god that is Columbia.