This article about Bioshock Infinite is coming about half a year or so after Bioshock Infinite’s release and relevancy (the DLC is just starting to appear, actually), but I just got Bioshock Infinite on a handy Steam sale, so I suppose I have to write about it now. First off, I gotta say that I really enjoyed Bioshock Infinite, probably as much as the original Bioshock. The world of the floating 1912 steampunk cloud city of Colombia is amazing and richly detailed, the main characters of gruff Booker and naive, super-powered Elizabeth are sympathetic and fun and the high-flying combat with everyone zipping around on rails and casting magic spells is great. I loved the out-of-this world ending and the later portions of the game set in the alternate future asylum of Comstock House seriously scared me. I love this game so much that it’s one mistake — its portrayal of the rebellious anarchist movement the Vox Populi — grates on me all the more.
The Vox Populi’s bomb-throwing anarchist ways are probably particularly awful because Bioshock Infinite gets so much else right about American history. Colombia at first seems like a wonderful, idealized version of straw boater-wearing Turn of the Century America, right up there with Disneyland’s Main Street USA, but with a cool steampunk aesthetic. There are even Barbershop Quartets! But as you go further in the game, the ultra racist, super capitalist heart of the place is revealed. Colombia’s run by an insane Christian fundamentalist ‘prophet’ named Zachary Hale Comstock, racist iconography is everywhere and brutal violence is used to suppress anyone who disagrees with the government. The city’s poor consist of Black and Irish citizens who work in the horrific company town of Finkton, run by robber baron Jeremiah Fink. It’s great stuff, pointing out that America’s supposedly glorious history is founded on the oppression of minorities and the poor. When you see a museum celebrating the Massacre of Wounded Knee like it’s a glorious battle, it’s a perfect example of how America still whitewashes its history. When you visit Finkton and hear Fink’s recorded messages talking about how it’s important for the poor to better themselves with work instead of wasting their time gambling and drinking, you realize that it’s the 1912 version of the ‘Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps’ nonsense that has led to our current myths of ‘Welfare Queens’ and the slashing of food stamp programs today. It’s some insightful stuff and Booker (an ex-Pinkerton and strike breaker himself) even comments that Colombia isn’t that different from the ‘normal’ world below.
But then the Vox Populi arrive. They’re a bunch of anarchist rebels led by the Black demagogue Daisy Fitzroy. Booker and Elizabeth are drafted as unwilling helpers of the Vox Populi and while Booker treats them cynically, Elizabeth thinks they might make things better. Then the revolution starts and, as you might expect, they turn into a Reign of Terror, slaughtering the unarmed upper class civilians, destroying large portions of Colombia, dressing up in devil costumes and attacking Booker and Elizabeth. I can see why Bioshock Infinite chose to go this route. It’s a game about combat after all and you’re always going to need new enemies to fight. But I wish they had paid more attention to history, because while the Founders have a basis in historical reality, the Vox Populi really don’t.
You see, the Vox Populi are explicitly based on early 1900s anarchists — with their love of workers’ right and incendiary language of Class Warfare. Giving them Daisy Fitzroy, a minority female leader, even calls to mind Red Emma Goldman. But here’s the thing: the historical anarchists never had an armed revolution that murdered tons of innocent people. That’s not to say they weren’t occasionally violent — anarchist Leon Czolgosz famously killed President McKinley — but there was no brutal Reigns of Terror like Bioshock Infinite shows. Emma Goldman even wrote an essay saying that the violent assassination of President McKinley was wrong, though she could understand the forces that caused Czolgosz to act. It’s also important to note that there are plenty of revolutionary movements that were violent. The French Revolution and the Bolsheviks killed plenty of people. But the Vox Populi aren’t meant to be the French Revolution or the Bolsheviks. They’re not French or Russian and Bioshock Infinite isn’t set in the 1790s or 1918. Bizarrely, they get compared to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, which feels completely out of place. Instead, the Vox Populi are Turn of the Century American anarchists and they’re portrayal is little more than a paranoid, Turn of the Century stereotype.
That stereotype — ‘the bomb throwing anarchist’ — was the perfect excuse for the people in power to persecute the poor. From the farce of the Haymarket trials to the strike-breaking violence that occurred throughout the Industrial Age to Emma Goldman’s deportation in 1920, anarchists and worker’s rights activists were declared dangerous and persecuted. Bioshock Infinite, perhaps unintentionally, proves that these stereotypes are true. The Vox Populi really are dangerous, after all. It leads to a dramatic decision that, bizarrely, J. Edgar Hoover would agree with. The game does state, multiple times, that Fitzroy and the Vox are just as bad as Comstock and the Founders and while that does seem like a condemnation of Colombia in general, you still have the fact that Bioshock Infinite upholds a bit of ridiculous 1912 propaganda, even as it lambastes that propaganda in its other sequences.
Is there a better way to criticize the violence of anarchists? Stephen Sondheim manages to do just that in his portrayal of Leon Czolgosz in the musical Assassins. Czolgosz listens to Emma Goldman and then goes to kill President McKinley at the Pan American Exposition in the upbeat ‘Ballad of Czolgosz’ number. The song’s ironic mentions of ‘in America, you can work your way to the head of the line’ and the Turn of the Century/World’s Fair’s Temple of Light and Fountains of Abundance has the same sort of satirical bite of Bioshock Infinite’s portrayal of the American Dream’s rotten heart — mixed with the same sort of violence (Colombia itself is a World’s Fair exhibit that flew away and became independent). But, unlike Bioshock Infinite, Sondheim sort of validates Czolgosz and then condemns him in a much gentler way. The musical’s final song, ‘Another National Anthem,’ has Czolgosz and all the other assassins explain their motives behind their acts of violence, only for the narrating Balladeer to calmly say ‘you didn’t help the workers’ — which is probably true. That notion — that the violence really didn’t help and Czolgosz’s dreams won’t come true — is much more biting than the silly, devil-costumed Vox Populi in Bioshock Infinite.
Of course, ineffectual, mentally unhinged assassins don’t make a good force in a video game. I suppose I can forgive Bioshock Infinite for their portrayal of the Vox Populi, in return for getting so much else right. I’m excited about their Burial at Sea DLC, which returns to the undersea Objectivist utopia of Rapture. Since there are plenty of real world libertarians eager to create their own floating seaborne would-be utopias (here’s a great article by fantastic author China Mieville about that: http://inthesetimes.com/article/3328/floating_utopias), that’s one bit of satire that hits right on the mark.