The world of Bioshock Infinite is a utopia so long as you’re a white American. This is a neat phrase, but it’s also wrong. It’s perhaps unfair to assess Bioshock Infinite by the current cultural conditions, it being released seven years ago and the company responsible for the game having released nothing since to benchmark it against. Regardless it is important to look back at our cultural products and Bioshock Infinite is a story that fails to satisfactorily look at the system it presents. A better, though maybe less neat of a phrase to describe the world of Bioshock Infinite is that it is held up by a fear that we, the player, only get hints of.
Bioshock as a series is about demagogues, the figures that stand on a pedestal and make promises for the future. These stories are situated in the birth of modern capitalism, a time rife with the cruel pseudoscience of eugenics, vivid racial oppression, and class exploitation. Bioshock paints these issues well and warns against those that promise a better society based on these principles. It is, however, Bioshocks’ critique of demagogues which is also its undoing. While those that set up these societies are the true villain, any figure that promises an alternative is painted in the same light. They are the victims of a false equivalency that is common in the world, often presented with the common trope that if you rise up by violent means then you are as evil as those you overtook.
What does Bioshock pose instead? Not much. Rapture, the location of the first two games, naturally degrades into chaos. Columbia, the location of Infinite, meets much the same fate. These descents, a result of class and racial revolutions respectively, both leaving these false utopias a wreck and offering no hope of a future. The only hope your characters seem to have is to get away and never look back on the failed experiments that have left countless lives in ruin. Bioshock’s ultimate failure is its hopelessness. Individuals may survive, but a better tomorrow is always a doomed mission, regardless of if it is promised by the capitalist individualist Andrew Ryan, the communist collectivist Sofia Lamb, the pious segregationist Zackary Comstock, or the populist revolutionary Daisy Fitzroy. All are shown in starkly evil terms.
These games are far from being on the side of the oppressors, they paint the oppressed in a sympathetic light and refuse to shy away from the hardships, albeit at the same time they use tokenistic stereotypes for some of their POC characters. By refusing a positive future for revolution, Bioshock is adding to a culture of fear mongering that leads to half-steps towards progress. Its message for society is inherently nihilist, the present, the past, and the future, all impossibly flawed, the only hope left is in escape. What message does this have to the real world beyond a complacency born out of fear?
Ironically, considering the first two games’ penchant for shock, fear is the biggest element that is overlooked in Bioshock. Most notably for those whose lives benefit from Rapture and Columbia. Fear is a big part of the demagogue’s promise, particularly in Bioshock. To lift some relevant analysis from Roger Eatwell and Mathew Goodwin’s book on National Populism, there are a few big pillars that prove the foundation of this movement. These are a fear of destruction of a historic national identity, a distrust of the established elites, and a fear of incoming deprivation, all leading to a dealignment with traditional political systems. This dealignment is where the demagogues come in, they sway people using these fears, offering a direct, pragmatic solution.
But, so long as a fear is fed it will never disappear. Those that benefit from the systems offered by Bioshock’s demagogues have their fears built up day by day, manifesting in a paranoia that Bioshock fails to depict. We are expected to believe that Rapture and Columbia are ideal for those that fit in, but we only see its successes and failures, never the people in the awkward middle. This kind of societal paranoia manifests in self-hatred and internal struggle for all but its most pious members. These kinds of totalitarian societies can only work in the way that they are shown if they have constant cycles of reasserting paranoia. In ways this is shown in both, but the focus is always on the other rather than any internal threat, failing to address the impact on even those that the system benefits.
Bioshock’s worlds are open to be seen as functional for the lucky few, but the reality is that in these societies no one wins. The oppressors become trapped by fear, forced by a mental oppression of their own making to fulfil their role, keep their identity in check so they remain on top. These figures don’t need a game to show them sympathy, but Bioshock misses out by not depicting them. The world of Bioshock Infinite is not a utopia, even one for the white American, it is a form of mental and physical oppression for all involved.
Unlike the characters, we cannot run from our systems of oppression and we cannot be fearful of every promise of the future. Instead, we should strive towards unpicking these notions of a perfect past and live in hope for a better future.