Critical analysis and reviews, Videogames

In search of Columbia – dwelling on BioShock Infinite

In a bar down in the depths of Shanty Town, inside its basement, there’s a starving child. He’s just one of many who dwell in the smoky, polluted depths of this part of Columbia. You see him scrabbling about under the basement’s staircase. There are a few apples on top of a barrel, but he’s clearly too frightened to go near them. As Booker, you peer into a corner of this dark space and spot an acoustic guitar propped on a chair and decide to pick it up and play a song. Elizabeth begins to sing, her voice softly filling the room, and she picks up one of the apples. Like a nervous rabbit, the boy creeps out from under the stairs and takes the apple and returns to his little nook. The the song is done and¬†it’s time for Booker and Elizabeth to continue onwards.

It’s not the grand arrival in Columbia that’s stuck with me most or the attempts to depict racism, skylines or the violence or Elizabeth’s role – it’s this one moment in the basement of a run-down bar. And I missed the entire scene the first time I played through¬†BioShock Infinite.

Getting the most from it

Before I go into more depth of a post that will have spoilers, I want to make it clear that the game probably needs to be played through at least twice in order to drink-in all that it has to offer in terms of themes, non-essential dialogue, sightseeing and not being bogged down by combat. My initial feelings towards the game were mostly negative.

But after playing it through for a second time a week later… I’ve warmed to it a bit more.

The opening

A lighthouse at night. Different circumstances and an eerie reference to the first game in the series with the immense ivory lighthouse sitting atop the waves. Weathering the storm far better than most of the structures that tend to appear in the BioShock games. This, along with the book excerpt as the game opens is already setting-up for the weird science fiction that often takes centre stage in this game.

BioShock Infinite opening lighthouse

It’s strange though, that Booker doesn’t comment on the blood written note that’s on the door to the lighthouse and he’ll only briefly remark at the religious embroidery inside, but the shot-up body – that receives a response. The¬†strangeness¬†comes, for me, from the fact that Booker doesn’t always react where a player might. Despite all the crazy, scary and wonderful sights you may encounter over the course of the game, we’re kept distant from much of what Booker may or may not be thinking about certain things.

Reaching the lighthouse’s zenith, the scene that plays out most reminded me of¬†Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I doubt that was the intention, but the notes that scream out from the lighthouse and the sky are reminiscent of the notes that the humans use to communicate with the alien spacecraft in Spielberg’s film. And I hope that one day, someone will do an edit of this scene from¬†Infinite¬†with the notes switched.

Being bedazzled

Screaming up into the sky and reaching Columbia… my initial feelings were a sense of wonder and awe, because everything did look beautiful from a graphical perspective. The soft lighting was amazing and it did give the impression, as the recorded voice played out, that you had reached heaven and it certainly makes it easier to later understand the beliefs that the white citizens of Columbia hold close to their hearts. All around you is at complete odds with the world that begins at the lighthouse, which is one of darkness and violence in comparison to Columbia’s light and peace. You can see how the game’s minor characters could be fooled into thinking they had reached some kind of living salvation from the world below.

BioShock-Infinite-lift-sequence

Because if the words of indoctrination aren’t enough to bedazzle the citizens of ¬†Columbia, then the scenery is probably enough for them to seriously consider the words of Comstock, which you are made familiar with as you touch down. The way that Booker is treated to a similar process to anyone who might be joining Columbia for its religious and social mores and doesn’t get swept up in the tide of belief, despite the wonders he’s already seen, shows the importance – at least to him – of his task: “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.”

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One thought on “In search of Columbia – dwelling on BioShock Infinite

  1. A point about the reaction of Booker at the Lighthouse; I watched a BAFTA Q&A with KL and he pushed the voice actor – Troy Baker – to underplay his acting thus allowing the player to do the reacting not the game. Still I agree that I prefer a little more emotional prompts from the characters.

    Talking Troy, I feel his role(Joel) in The Last of Us will be far more engaging.

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