This article is also available in audiobook form over at Sufficiently Human!
Spotted Elk, a man known later in life as Chief Big Foot, lived in a place we now call South Dakota from ~1825 until December 1890. Though he was a notable figure in life, today the United States remembers him mostly for his death. He remains famous there, by sight if not by name, because a Chicago newspaper published a photograph of his corpse lying bent up in the snows of Wounded Knee Creek following the massacre that bears its name. Archivists preserved this photograph through the intervening century so that it now adorns many a textbook and webpage. When I look at it I’m tempted to see a sensational primary document depicting the death throes of the Lakota people, the Great Sioux Nation to which they belonged and, in a larger sense, the final defeat of First Nations civilization at the hands of European expansionism.
But then I consider the ways in which this image is deceptive. As I understand it the photographers posed Spotted Elk’s body posthumously, propping him up for the camera before they took the shot. I wonder whether they shovelled that snow onto his thigh to connote the passing of the Sioux into the land, never to be seen again. I wonder if they wretched at the sight of the bullet wound in his neck while working to hide it from view; or perhaps they did not flinch, having already grown accustomed to articulating dead bodies. The most famous version of the photograph, the one you see above, crops out the United States soldiers mulling about in the aftermath of the massacre; it excludes the hundreds of dead Sioux surrounding Spotted Elk in the snow, and the mass grave into which the soldiers shovelled their bodies. It frames the victim rather than his attackers, suggesting he was taken by some disembodied force instead of a soldier’s Winchester rifle. The serene expression on his face makes him seem like some spirit vanishing quietly from the world rather than a sixty-five year old man who was just shredded to pieces in a hail of gunfire. The photograph does not reveal the fact that Spotted Elk died right in front of his twelve year old grandson; it can only hint at the fact that the child miraculously escaped.
What we see in this photograph is not the Sioux as they truly were in 1890. It is the Sioux as Chicago wanted them to be: Tragically and conveniently eradicated. Wounded Knee was to become the curtain call for what whites dubbed “the Indian Wars”; the mighty engine of Manifest Destiny was to be at last decommissioned, victorious in its quest to colonize the continent, and the times of trouble were supposed to be over. In the 1870s, when white settlers still surged into Sioux territory, newspapers might have painted Sioux as wanton rapists and pillagers. Yet as their capacity for resistance gradually waned and they ceased to pose a threat, a gentler image came into fashion: That of the noble savage, a piteous being driven to extinction not by human beings but by the spirit of ‘historical progress’. In truth, of course, the Sioux were never wanton rapists and pillagers nor did they ever go extinct. They are still here, no matter how hard the US government tries to ignore them, and Wounded Knee Creek has remained a battleground (both literally and figuratively) for over a century. Spotted Elk’s family survives to this very day; you can find some of them on Twitter.
I came to study the Wounded Knee Massacre via the unlikeliest of tangents: I heard about it in Bioshock Infinite, a big-budget videogame in which the racist inhabitants of a floating city named Columbia present an astonishingly ‘1870s’ view of the event:
Here we see Wounded Knee as a Disneyland exhibit, were the theme park run (as Columbia is) by the unrepentant perpetrators of the massacre. Inside we find more photographs; more painstakingly articulated corpses, their photographers hoping to sell us a story about the people who killed Spotted Elk that day at the creek. The photographs are nested within one another, each showing conflicting perspectives. On one level we see the perpetrators hoping to erase their guilt from history; on another we see the creators of Infinite seeking to highlight this attempt at historical revisionism. It speaks once again to how images mutate over time. In Chicago 1890 they mourned the noble savage; in Boston 2013 we reconsider who is most guilty of savagery.
The Bioshock franchise purports to tell us ghost stories in a multiverse with three constants: There’s always “a Man, a Lighthouse and a City”. These, however, are not the constants that interest me. When I look at Infinite I see hundreds upon hundreds of photographs, along with the corpses those photos depict. Among these number cardboard Sioux warriors, as we’ve discussed; beside them are cardboard rebels from the Boxers of North China; lastly there are American frontier people, personified by residents of Columbia and the various incarnations of ‘1870s Doomguy’ Booker DeWitt. Recently we’ve all gotten the chance to photograph the corpse of Irrational Games itself, which closed its doors in the aftermath of Infinite’s perilous production and complicated reception. (This article constitutes another such photograph.) I’ve come to believe that in the histories we write about our world there are only two salient constants: There’s always a corpse, and there’s always a camera.
What follows, then, is a ghost story from me. It’s about what happened to the Boxers and the Sioux, whose stories bear an uncanny resemblance to one another despite their separation by an ocean. It’s about what happened to the spirit of Columbia, who was a real world national myth before she became a fictional sky city. Lastly it’s about what always happens to men like Booker DeWitt: The stories they steal from their victims, the messianic cults they fashion for themselves and their ultimate fate lying dead in the very same grave they dug for their enemies. This story begins, once again, in the Dakotas.
Ghosts of the Sioux
The devastation of the Sioux neither began nor ended at Wounded Knee Creek. Indeed, it would be impossible to select a satisfying origin or terminus for an event of such complexity; it can be traced back as far as Europe’s acclimation to smallpox, and it continues to this day. I haven’t the knowledge or experience to tell you the complete history, but I can give you a whirlwind tour. In the 16th century, soldiers arrived in North America on horseback bearing firearms, steel, and a host of deadly microorganisms; as they drove inward from all directions the continent became a roiling boil of displaced peoples, each forced to adapt to these changes at breakneck speed. Some were utterly destroyed right at the outset (I’ve read that disease alone caused an unthinkable 90% depopulation in some places). Yet the Sioux were strong, resourceful and fortunate. They endured the initial wave of smallpox with more than half their population intact, leaving them an advantage over many neighbouring nations. As Spanish horses came north from Central America the Sioux became expert riders; they then utilized their enhanced military and hunting prowess to dominate a large swathe of territory emanating from the sacred Black Hills region, wherein they established a prosperous existence somewhat insulated from the apocalypse befalling their distant neighbours. Sadly, this prosperity was shortlived. By the mid 19th century the Sioux began to encounter citizens of a young United States moving westward in search of better lives for themselves. When gold was discovered in California, a trickle of pioneers became an unquenchable flood; hostilities between the two peoples quickly escalated. Although formidable in their own right the Sioux could never have prepared for the overwhelming numbers, extensive infrastructure and advanced technology made possible by Europe’s vast resources. These factors assured their disadvantage centuries before the contest; though it was not ethical or just, it was all but inevitable.
In the span of just a few decades, less than a single lifetime, the United States dismantled every aspect of Sioux life. Wagon trails formed across their territory whose disruptions to buffalo migration patterns pushed game and hunter alike towards starvation; those animals who did roam near white travellers were often slaughtered in an effort to drive the Sioux away. Settlers, prospectors and soldiers pushed inward building towns, gold mines and forts; when this proximity led to conflict, US soldiers used their superior resources to punish the Sioux with great prejudice, coercing them into greater and greater concessions. The diplomats with whom the Sioux negotiated lied to them routinely: Supplies promised by the government were stolen or simply not delivered; lands granted to them in perpetuity were appropriated at a moment’s notice; freedoms assured them by law were ignored by American violators who knew their government was more powerful than the Sioux and would ultimately side with its own. Friends and family died all around them either in war or from hunger and disease. In these ways, Spotted Elk and his peers lived long enough to watch their entire world become unrecognisable; nearly everything was gone, but the people were left behind to live amid their losses.
This thirty year period, from 1860-1890, was one of astonishing strife. There are almost too many stories to recount: The bloody Dakota Uprising and subsequent Sand Creek Massacre; Chief Red Cloud’s famous war to save the Black Hills; General Custer’s last stand at Little Bighorn. Terror and suffering visited both sides, though seldom equally in measure. Ultimately the US would win the Indian Wars, making many of its citizens warm and full while the Sioux went cold and starving. At the conclusion of this period bitter Sioux resolve had given way to desperation; this desperation in turn set the stage for one final, bewildering tragedy.
In 1890 strange stories arrived on horseback all the way from present-day Nevada. They told of a prophet named Wovoka (meaning ‘Cutter’ in his language). Wovoka claimed to have experienced a vision during the solar eclipse of January 1, 1889; in it he ascended to heaven and spoke with a god who gave him knowledge of a ritual called the Ghost Dance. This ritual required participants to don special Ghost Dance Shirts and join hands in a circle, rotating in one direction for hours until they collapsed from exhaustion. When unconscious they would receive visions of god, the messiah and their fallen relatives; as they awoke, elders would ask what they saw and repeat it for the group. Wovoka and his proponents wished for all Aboriginals to practise this ritual; if they did so, he claimed, the following spring would bring a cataclysmic event in which the buffalo would return from near-extinction, the spirits of the dead would come down to join the living, and the problem posed by white people would forever go away. Christ had returned to the world, Wovoka said, but this time he had come to help people like the Sioux.
Stories of the Ghost Dance differed from teller to teller, as well as by translation. Some variants preached harmony with whites; others preached of their impending death. I’ve read one variation in which the cataclysm would take the form of a giant flood washing every foreigner off the continent while raising the faithful harmlessly into the sky. Regardless, the Ghost Dance emphasized non-violence on the part of its dancers, imploring them to wait peacefully for divine providence rather than seek it by their own hands. This aspect of the movement was lost in translation for outside observers, however; thus, as the Ghost Dance spread like wildfire though Sioux reservations it instilled nervousness and confusion among whites (to whom it resembled an insidious cult). Tabloids and other agitators spread rumours about a coming Sioux uprising in which settlers might be slaughtered en masse. US administrators responded by calling in the military, to which the Sioux responded by gathering arms for self defence. The two groups began passing provocations back and forth, each trying to discern what the other planned to do. In the midst of all this brewing panic, Ghost Dance beliefs rapidly mutated to reflect the Dancers’ fears. Somehow, many became convinced that their Ghost Dance Shirts rendered them immune to bullets. This notion in particular would soon prove disastrous.
The military’s orders were to stop the Ghost Dance; its officers believed they could accomplish this by pacifying a handful of Sioux elders, who the military believed were encouraging their younger followers to revolt. One of these elders was Chief Sitting Bull, a man famous among whites for two things: One, inspiring his people’s decisive victory at Little Bighorn, and two, obstinately resisting the US government’s ongoing efforts to make new treaties with the Sioux. Sitting Bull was part of a shrinking old guard that emphasized the preservation of Sioux tradition in the face of US influence (and, by extension, the preservation of Chiefs like himself at the head of Sioux society). Lately he had faced opposition from a progressive movement led by those raised within reservations, emphasizing the value of education alongside closer alignment with the lifestyle of US citizens. The accounts I’ve read suggest Sitting Bull was not a true believer in the Ghost Dance, though he did preside over the ceremonies; he may have endorsed it in part because it helped shore up his political clout. Regardless, he had been a thorn in the side of the progressive agency police force for many years and so they were quick to blame him for whatever impending disaster might lie in wait. When US officers called for his detention, the police were all too happy to oblige.
The events of Sitting Bull’s arrest read like the script to a Coen brothers film. They begin under cover of darkness, when an agency police unit (comprised, for political reasons, entirely of Sioux officers) storms Sitting Bull’s cabin unannounced, apparently hoping to arrest him without leaving his followers the opportunity to intervene. Old Sitting Bull, whom they catch butt naked, agrees to come quietly but not cheerfully; he makes a point of dressing himself very slowly, perhaps savouring the officers’ discomfort. His wife begins moaning very loudly in anguish, and outside his dogs howl in excitement; neighbours start waking up, making the police increasingly nervous. As they attempt to drag Sitting Bull from his cabin his adolescent son Crowfoot berates him, calling him foolish for permitting his own arrest. All the while his wife moans and his dogs bark; there may as well be a fire alarm going off. Finally the police get Sitting Bull outside, but there they encounter a massive audience of his loyal followers all shouting for his immediate release. Swayed by his people, or else having planned this the entire time, the old Chief experiences a sudden change of heart: He will not go quietly after all, and now he begins struggling against his captors while they point guns at him in an effort to wield him as a hostage against the crowd. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a man named Catch-the-Bear draws his rifle and shoots the head policeman in his side. Immediately all hell breaks loose.
The head policeman turns and shoots Sitting Bull point blank in the chest; a second officer simultaneously shoots him in the back of the skull, killing him instantly. Some of the crowd is armed too, and they now seek vengeance. A huge gunfight erupts in the pitch darkness, during which the handful of police officers scatter 160 of Sitting Bull’s followers but take heavy casualties in the process. The police retreat into Sitting Bull’s cabin, where they tend to their wounded. After two hours in the cabin they discover, to their amazement, that the Chief’s son Crow Foot has been hiding behind some drapes the entire time they’ve been inside. He begs them to spare his life, but the head policeman, now gutshot three times over, says to his officers: “Do what you want with him; he is one of the ones who has caused this trouble.” The officers execute the child on the spot. He was 14 years old.
It’s difficult to express how extraordinarily ugly this event was. When I read about it, it feels like I’m walking over the shards of a shattered community. In one jagged facet, friends and family of the fallen police were utterly enraged at the needless loss of their people; in another, there is some evidence to suggest that the police unit never intended to arrest Sitting Bull and were, in fact, plotting his murder. To give you a sense for it, I need say only this: I cannot show you a photograph of Sitting Bull’s corpse lying peacefully in the snow (as I have of Spotted Elk) because as the old legend lay dead on the ground outside his cabin, someone came by with a club and bashed his face into a formless mass.
In the wake of what would remain, for another week, the biggest bloodletting on Sioux land in decades, Sitting Bull’s followers scattered to the winds in search of safety, leaving the army concerned they would flee the reservation and cause trouble. About thirty of these people landed with the band of our friend Chief Spotted Elk, who at this time had become very sick. Spotted Elk accepted these fugitives because they came to him cold, pitiful and starving, but he knew this would upset the US officer who’d already been watching him suspiciously; his people had recently been swept up in the Ghost Dance, you see, and so the army entertained plans to ‘arrest’ him the way it had ‘arrested’ Sitting Bull.
Another Coen-esque sequence begins when Spotted Elk’s band surrenders to this officer, who incorrectly suspects them of planning the very same revolt Sitting Bull wasn’t planning. En route to the nearest fort, however, a white acquaintance who is in no position to know tells Spotted Elk this officer is about to slaughter his entire band (which is not true). In response, Spotted Elk leads his people in a daring escape from the officer (who was not expecting them to run), losing him in the country. The officer’s bungle embarrasses the commander overseeing US efforts to shut down the Ghost Dance, who has spent months trying to prevent various Ghost Dancer bands from escaping containment to join up with one another; this commander soon orders every soldier in the Dakotas to pursue the vanished Spotted Elk as if thousands of innocent lives depended on it (they didn’t). It’s a confusing situation: Nobody knows what’s going on and everyone’s suspicions are incorrect.
What Spotted Elk actually does after breaking away is journey southward to seek what food and shelter remain in the beleaguered and perennially-shortchanged reservation of Chief Red Cloud (whose famous, hard-won treaty to preserve the Black Hills had been shoved under the rug the moment prospectors discovered gold in the region). Red Cloud had invited him several times before, and so Spotted Elk believes he can secure better conditions for his people there. Spotted Elk’s band never makes it to its destination, however; the unit that finally ends up catching them is the 7th Cavalry Regiment, which coincidentally is the very same unit the late Sitting Bull famously helped to defeat at Little Bighorn 14 years before. Spotted Elk, who is by now too sick even to stand, surrenders immediately in hopes of securing an escort to Red Cloud’s reservation; the soldiers then take him and his band to Wounded Knee Creek to make camp, tending to Spotted Elk’s illness while they devise a plan for disarming their new prisoners.
Army reinforcements arrive throughout the night; by the following morning they’ve established a perimeter around the Sioux camp meant to quell all hope of escape. The commanding officer leads all the Sioux warriors, around 100 in total, to hold council away from the noncombatants in the camp, at which time he asks the warriors to give up their rifles. The Sioux announce that they have no rifles, which everybody in the Dakotas knows is untrue. The Sioux were a hunting society; the only thing they valued more than the horse was the rifle, the latter of which was by far the most expensive item a Sioux warrior would ever own. Understandably, the warriors did not want to part with them. Some had stashed their rifles in the camp, leaving their wives or family sitting atop these stashes for concealment; others were hiding rifles beneath their coats at the council. The army first decides to search through the camp, agitating the noncombatants there; it finds far fewer rifles than its scouts had observed the Sioux carrying the night before. It then decides to line the warriors up and surround them, planning to search their persons one at a time. The scene is unbearably tense.
Accounts differ from here, but the most popular version of the story suggests that a soldier spots a rifle concealed under a warrior’s coat and tries to grab it from its owner; in their struggle the weapon goes off, firing into the air. Some Sioux draw their rifles and fire on the soldiers; the soldiers, upon receiving an order from their commander, fire back from all directions simultaneously. From there on, it was chaos. The soldiers’ encircling formation made it impossible to avoid friendly fire; many of their bullets passed through the warrior line and wounded fellow soldiers on the other side. The Sioux, meanwhile, had to fire on soldiers standing between them and their camp; each time they missed, a bullet soared towards the tents of their friends and family members. An impenetrable cloud of dust and smoke soon engulfed the entire scene, making it impossible to distinguish fighter from noncombatant. As the Sioux warriors broke back towards the camp, and then into nearby ravines for cover, they mixed together with their non-combatant kin; the soldiers, working themselves into a frenzy, began firing indiscriminately at anyone they saw moving in the smoke. From the surrounding hills Hotchkiss cannons erupted; they had been trained on the camp before the fight started, and now tore it to shreds along with anyone caught in the vicinity. By this point the US officers had lost control of their soldiers; the gunfight mutated into a senseless massacre, which lasted for hours as troops spread out into ravines and surrounding country.
The press arrived days later to photograph the aftermath; today all we can see are motionless figures, buried in several days’ snowfall. The photographs do not show us the dust cloud, the lead storm, the terror or the violence. They show us only stillness: Spotted Elk propped up in the snow alongside 200 or more of his people. Black Elk, a bystander who survived the fighting and saved several lives in the process, captures the event in six sentences:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream … the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
In a bitter affront to modern ears, twenty or more soldiers received Medals of Honour for their participation in what the military dubbed the ‘battle’ of Wounded Knee. (In the fictional world of Bioshock Infinite one of these twenty is its protagonist, Booker DeWitt.) The United States struggled for months, in newspapers and government inquiries, to make sense of the dubious victory it had won; the Sioux defeat, on the other hand, remained absolute. Proponents of the Ghost Dance had said the prairie was infinitely large; that the bullets of white soldiers would go over it and into the distance, avoiding via divine providence all those who wore the special shirts. They were wrong. In light of this the spirit of the movement was lost. Having become provably dangerous and irreparably tainted by doubt, the Ghost Dance all but vanished from the region. The following spring brought no great flood; for the Sioux, a time of reckoning would never come.
We can envision a tipping point, long before the Wounded Knee Massacre, at which Sioux society’s collective memory of the past grew brighter than its hope for the future; in this moment the relatively prosperous life its people established in the first half of the century ended, and a sort of afterlife began. Where once they had met the uncertain future with ambition and found their wishes fulfilled, now the people desired only some measure of what they had before: Their families, their buffalo, their territory, the remnants of their culture. For some these wishes manifested themselves in the form of the Ghost Dance, a strange and heartbreaking phenomenon that in hindsight looks more like a cult than a religion. I believe it’s impossible for me, privileged as I am, to fully appreciate the dancers’ perspective. At first I ask myself: Was it foolish to seek salvation from an unseen, upstart messiah (especially when doing so would almost certainly provoke the US to harm them)? Was Wovoka deluded (or worse yet, a charlatan) and were his believers naive? Why did these people choose to spend the remainder of their lives as ghosts, dwelling within memories of the past unconvinced of what had ended?
But then I think about the lifespan of people like Spotted Elk: Those born at the apex of the Lakota’s odyssey in the Black Hills, and who survived to witness its nadir. In Spotted Elk’s shoes I must ask entirely different questions. What is it like to observe an awful new reality occupying the exact same space as our fondest memories? How violently does the world have to shift before its state as observed by the senses becomes less believable than its state as remembered in the mind? What should we think and do in the face of such extraordinary cognitive dissonance? I can scarcely begin to approach these questions, but as the Ghost Dance swept into his reservation Chief Spotted Elk had to answer on behalf of his followers. He faced an impossible situation, and he made understandable choices.
Then I think about Bioshock, itself an object of great dissonance: That lithely lumbering populist arthouse blockbuster, born in the nation that killed Spotted Elk but which now approaches an afterlife of its own. Here was Ken Levine and the Irrational team’s attempt to advance the dialectic of the videogame industry, which was rife with contradictions. Here was an audience demanding ‘serious’ entertainment that was simultaneously ‘just for fun’, settling more often than not for World War II-themed military porn. Here were attempts at ‘maturity’ that typically came off as puerile, even when compared to the standards of the Hollywood film industry. Here were studios that habitually employed writers from places like Hollywood solely to squeeze glue into the cracks between large, expensive and immovable bricks of ‘content’ requiring hundreds of people to make; lavishly-detailed set pieces in which players could enjoy a violent and peculiarly un-narrative encounter with digital Nazis, aliens or occasionally the very same savages people once saw photographed in Chicago newspapers. Here was an enthusiast press that clamoured for sophisticated ‘gameplay’, yet whose fetish for fancy computer graphics had contributed to a downward spiral of increasing production budgets alongside decreasing margins for experimentation.
Bioshock sought to overcome these contradictions: To be more than merely ‘fun’; to be mature and not puerile; to tell a thoughtful story, and to do so using sophisticated interactive storytelling techniques. But to push the status quo it needed to reach a wide audience, and to reach a wide audience it needed to look and feel great, and to look and feel great it needed a huge budget; and the bigger your budget, the more fingers you invite into the pie. Today it’s easy to view the end result as compromised. The game promised more than it could deliver: It was not entirely above puerility, nor was its story entirely thoughtful, nor were its interactive segments entirely sophisticated. Yet in our rush to critique, we sometimes forget that despite these problems the game was a monumental success! It did shift the status quo. It did convince a massive audience to think differently about videogames. It did change the way we developers go about making them.
It is in this context that I try to evaluate the game’s successor, Bioshock Infinite, in its treatment of events like the Wounded Knee Massacre. On one hand I feel it appropriates: It snatches the juiciest, tenderest piece from a complex and valuable history so it can put that piece on display, neglecting to offer its historical subjects their due consideration. I think it telling that the game’s plot reduces the Massacre to a mere skeleton in the closet of its protagonist Booker DeWitt; I think it tells us that Infinite is a game about white experiences to the detriment of non-white experiences, greatly complicating any sympathy it may bear towards the myriad victims of white imperialism. Yet on the other hand I must consider in its defence that it uses Wounded Knee as shorthand because that is the most its matrix of contradictory constraints permits it to do; that in employing this shorthand it creates a tiny space for others to approach the game’s subject matter with more focus and more empathy (a space I now hope to cultivate).
I believe the people inhabiting Bioshock’s fictional cities of Rapture and Columbia root their stories in the plight of people like the Ghost Dancers. Rapture’s splicers have also become ghosts, lingering in the miserable afterlife of their once-prosperous society. They too are frustrated by the superposition of their ruined present with images from their happier youth. In one memorable scene the player observes two such ghosts literally dancing together in a ruined music room, escaping for one fleeting moment into their past before their DNA finishes unravelling; or, more likely, until the player shoots them dead. Then in this inclination towards violence lays another historical root, hopelessly entangled with the first: Bioshock’s protagonist Jack, like Wounded Knee veteran Booker DeWitt, is doomed to be the perpetrator of massacres. These men exist as instruments of new power, employed by forces beyond themselves to crush the vestiges of the old. They are weapons of the state; their purpose is to kill the people their masters judge to be inconvenient, and as players we compel them do so over and over again.
In the case of Columbia the situation is more complex. Its citizens, like Rapture’s citizens and the Ghost Dancers on whom Infinite bases its fiction, look to past glory instead of anticipating the future; they too are like ghosts, lingering on after hostile powers bring their era of prosperity to an end. Yet Columbia differs from the Ghost Dancers in one key respect. The society it represents — frontier society — was not dismantled as the Sioux were by some overwhelming alien force. It was decommissioned, in triumph and shame, by the citizens of its own nation.
Ghosts of the Frontier
Of Infinite’s many references to real world historical iconography, its characters’ shocking displays of xenophobia and racism have proven themselves most discussed:
Less frequently have we examined the iconography underlying the city itself. Consider, for example, the etymology of the word ‘Columbia’. This word was originally conceived as a thinly-veiled euphemism referring to the American colonies (literally ‘the land of [Christopher] Columbus’); it first appeared this way in 1738, during which a British magazine used it to escape prosecution for illegally reprinting parliamentary debates. At that time these colonies, the so-called land of Columbia, were Othered in the European imagination; theirs was a wild and mysterious continent best personified by its ‘savage’ inhabitants. As such, we can find images of a mythical ‘Indian Queen’ scattered throughout 16th to 19th century works of Western art and architecture:
I’ve read that her image mutated to suit the times: As Europe began exploiting the Americas’ considerable natural resources, depictions of the Queen grew fat; later, as the British colonists living there grew weary of imperial rule and mounted a revolution against it, she became a warlike princess. She fell from favour, however, in the era of the United States; citizens of the new republic, having cast off the chains of British tyranny, now found they had little in common with the Aboriginal peoples over whom they themselves were fast becoming tyrants. Soon a new symbol emerged from an unlikely source: That sly British euphemism, first conceived as tongue-in-cheek, had over time become poetic to the ears of a young United States eager for original myths with which to define itself. Thus the nation gradually replaced its Indian Queen with a new and vital symbol: The star-spangled, fair-skinned Columbia, a homegrown national muse:
Where the Indian Princess represents America’s first great source of national myth (the revolution), Columbia represents its second: The western frontier. Settlement in the west, like the rush of British colonists across the Atlantic, promised pioneers a fresh start free from the old power structures and traditions of their birthplaces; since they could not attain upward mobility at home they resolved to seek it elsewhere. As with every other conquest in history, these people faced a choice between improving the lives of friends and family or respecting the lives of people they’d never met (in this case, people like the Sioux). Having inherited its political sensibilities from the world’s greatest imperial power, the United States swayed its citizens towards conquest in a distinctly imperial way. Firstly it left most of the requisite brutal violence to soldiers trained to diffuse responsibility for their actions (soldiers like Booker DeWitt). Secondly it employed the very same racist propaganda we see throughout Infinite to provide moral justification, branding Aboriginal people as subhumans deserving or even in need of the atrocities its soldiers committed against them.
Thus emerged the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. It preached that the nation should stretch “from sea to shining sea”, doing the world a universal good by bringing the light of freedom and civilization into the proverbial heart of darkness. Doves of the political sphere depicted Aboriginals as savages in need of guidance. Hawks, by contrast, preferred to live by the popular frontier refrain: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”. (In one of US history’s sickest jokes, this turned the phrase “Good Indian” into a double entendre: Some commentators used it to characterize progressives such as the Sioux police who tried to arrest Sitting Bull, while others used it to describe the old Chief’s mutilated corpse.)
It was under the visage of Columbia that Manifest Destiny succeeded in its frequently-brutal objectives. It was she who presided over the consolidation of America from a loose confederation of former British colonies into a unified people with its own culture and myth. Yet her reign, like that of her predecessor the Indian Queen, did not last forever. The rush for land and gold gradually subsided as the frontier grew increasingly occupied by settlers; by the late 19th century there was little valuable land left to settle. Thus in the absence of clear economic and social incentives for conquest, the imperial machine paused. Political hawks found difficulty arguing for additional “Good Indians” now that so few of the ‘bad’ ones remained; increasingly, the public came to believe it was shameful to kick people like the Sioux while they were down. Elsewhere in the nation, events marched in the same direction. Black Americans’ struggle to end slavery had come to a head during the Lincoln presidency and, in the aftermath of a bloody civil war, at last succeeded; though they would suffer to this very day under reconstruction, Jim Crow and ever-evolving new forms of racial discrimination, the nation now lurched in fits and starts away from slavery and towards the equality of which its constitution currently speaks. Finally 1886 brought the completion of the Statue of Liberty, a testament to the nation created by these brutal institutions yet which now possessed the wherewithal to discard and, in a certain abstract way, regret them. This was not the nation of Columbia anymore; she had been a frontier spirit, a spirit of liberty and justice for some by right of violent conquest. Having played her part, the nation yanked her from the stage; now it was Lady Liberty’s show, and her rhetoric included freedom and justice for all within her borders.
Booker DeWitt, who through science fiction magic becomes both the protagonist and antagonist of Infinite, is 17 years old when he participates in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. As an adolescent the state trains him to conquer the continent in the spirit of Columbia, and he relishes the opportunity to do so; he discovers upon reaching adulthood, however, that this spirit is already gone. He therefore finds himself displaced: A murderous bigot who despises the Sioux in an era when murderous bigotry no longer yields very much upward social mobility or very many material rewards. He is a relic, disgraced in the eyes of his fellow citizens and inconvenient to the state that raised him. In this way DeWitt represents the last of a complicated generation of Americans whose actions were crucial to ensuring their nation’s eminence in the coming century, yet which the beneficiaries of these actions now regard as abhorrent. He is, in other words, present at the birthplace of white guilt.
The defining characteristic of white guilt is, of course, equivocation: The notion that an ethical burden carried by the perpetrator of a crime might equitably compare to the losses suffered by the victim. It is in precisely this way that Infinite invites us to compare the plight of fictional Booker DeWitt to the experiences of DeWitt’s victims: The band of Chief Spotted Elk. Just as Spotted Elk was born into the heyday of the Lakota’s migration through the Black Hills, DeWitt is born into the throes of what his society calls the Indian Wars. DeWitt’s nation expands and consolidates at the same incredible pace that Spotted Elk’s nation decomposes, albeit with an equal and opposite degree of violence. DeWitt is a child of that incredible pace: The world of his adolescence, the world he comes to know, is that chaotic roiling boil on the Western frontier. Thus at the moment of the massacre, when the chaos finishes evaporating and the frontier finally closes, DeWitt’s world ends.
In the years afterward DeWitt receives his Medal of Honour and retires from the now-vanished frontier. Yet his new life as a relic cannot coexist with his previous life as a prospective national hero. As with the Sioux, his view of the past grows brighter than his hope for the future. He observes an unthinkable new reality occupying the exact same space as his fondest memories; his world shifts so violently that its state as observed by his senses becomes less believable than its state as remembered in his mind. In the face of extraordinary cognitive dissonance, many Sioux turned to the Ghost Dance. But DeWitt is more privileged, both by virtue of his whiteness and by his presence in the pulpy sci-fi storyworld of Bioshock. As such, he has the power to make a different choice: He chooses to split in two halves.
The first half of Booker DeWitt is our protagonist: A sad-sack private investigator and former weapon of mass destruction whom the state has permanently decommissioned. This Booker DeWitt is progressive in the sense of the Sioux police force: Seeking some sort of life for himself in the strange times he now inhabits. The second half is our antagonist Zachary Comstock. Comstock is DeWitt’s ghost: A memory of the past, unconvinced his world has ended. Comstock is conservative in the sense of the Ghost Dancers. Determined to restore his vision of a world now lost, he recreates it as a floating sky city whose citizens shall forever retain their peculiar sense of liberty and justice for some; a place where they can remain just as bigoted and murderous as him, and where Comstock can be free to celebrate those qualities within himself. Just as Comstock is the ghost of Dewitt, his city is the ghost of the national muse Columbia: A place for basking in the infinite afterlife of the frontier.
In this context we can read the story of Infinite as a wish-fulfilment fantasy in which DeWitt criss-crosses the multiverse attempting to resolve the dissonance between his status as heroic relic and as abhorrent historical bogeyman; a duality his guilt projects upon him. (I think it telling that this multiverse contains nothing except guilty white men, their cities and lighthouses by which to reach them; once again, I think it tells us the Bioshock franchise focuses narrowly on white experiences.) As a weapon of mass destruction DeWitt has only one tool at his disposal: An infinite capacity for violence. With it, he spends the majority of the game seeking absolution by murdering various symbols of his shame. First he is repentant: He murders scores of his fellow racist bogeymen in the name of Daisy Fitzroy, whom the game introduces sympathetically as slave-turned-liberator. But then, after hopping between parallel universes, DeWitt equivocates: He murders Fitzroy as well, whom the game has now switched to depicting as a vengeful tyrant corrupted by her new-found power (in allegory to American enslavers’ ridiculous fears regarding the liberation of their victims). The multiverse is a magic mirror for men like DeWitt, showing them whatever they wish to see; DeWitt, whose expressions of violence are incapable of resolving his internal crisis, uses his science fiction powers merely to vacillate between a fantasy of acceptance from what he imagines as the new world and one of vindication for his racist beliefs.
In another fascinating sequence DeWitt invites the player to help him murder Cornelius Slate, a fellow Wounded Knee veteran who symbolizes DeWitt’s military service. DeWitt chases Slate through the ‘Hall of Heroes’, in which stands the aforementioned Disneyland exhibit aggrandizing Zachary Comstock’s role in the Massacre. DeWitt encounters scores of Slate’s followers, heroic relics from past wars who, having been defeated in their bid to usurp Comstock, now use his Disneyland exhibits as venues for their own private afterlife. In keeping with Bioshock tradition, they throw themselves upon the barrel of DeWitt’s gun so that he might murder them in a way the soldiers deem ‘honourable’; presumably they are pleased to aid their fellow weapon of mass destruction in fulfilling his designer-given purpose.
After re-enacting his massacre of the Sioux upon a fictionalized Wounded Knee Creek (this time murdering symbolic representations of his former self) DeWitt injures and at last corners the old man Slate, who once again upholds Bioshock tradition by begging desperately for his own death. At this moment the game entreats us players to decide whether or not DeWitt murders him. It’s a hollow choice, since DeWitt has already granted death to dozens of Slate’s people; it serves mostly as another magic mirror with which DeWitt can use the medium of murder to contemplate his own nature. Which is better for the discarded tools of empire: Death in disgrace, or an afterlife of disgrace? Neither can rid him of his guilt, but DeWitt is incapable of grasping this.
Clueless the entire way through the game, DeWitt stumbles from murder to murder until in the end the only catharsis he can muster involves sacrificing himself as Slate did. At Infinite’s dramatic climax DeWitt travels through space and time to the moment of his splitting in two, joined by the multiverse’s myriad instances of his daughter Elizabeth to whom his selfish and misguided stumbling has done irreparable harm. He permits Elizabeth to murder him, as he murdered so many others, and by this murder she magically erases Comstock and the city of Columbia from history; in this way, the only way he knows how, DeWitt finally succeeds at protecting his daughter from men like himself.
(It is telling, of course, that the magical multiverse does not send DeWitt so far back in time as to erase his participation in the Wounded Knee Massacre, nor does the game offer any comment on that fact. By now I think you know what this tells us.)
Ghosts of the Yellow River
The Wounded Knee Exhibit represents only the first third of a messianic myth Zachary Comstock has built around himself. The next third, and another root from which Infinite draws its fiction, also lies in the Hall of Heroes: It takes the form of a second racist Disneyland exhibit, this one dedicated to Comstock’s quelling of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Boxer Rebellion, like the Wounded Knee Massacre, is a real world historical event; yet once again, Comstock misrepresents it for the purposes of propaganda. The two real world stories differ greatly from one another, especially in scale: Several hundred people died at Wounded Knee Creek whereas the Boxer Rebellion killed hundreds of thousands. Yet what fascinates me about their juxtaposition within the world of Infinite are the numerous uncanny parallels that run between them. Examining the Boxer Rebellion we again come upon a foreign empire dismantling the lives of its unwilling subjects. Again a strange new religion sweeps through the community promising to cast out the oppressors via divine force. Again, a tense and desperate situation ruptures into bewildering violence; again, the consequences are horrific. This second story begins where the Ghost Dance prophet Wovoka’s was supposed to conclude: With water.
Although no great flood ever rose to expel Wovoka’s enemies from the American West, an entire series of them would appear seven years later to strike the rural territories of China’s Shandong province. As the Yellow River overflowed, it shot a streak of destruction through North China: Many dikes burst, and in the ensuing chaos many people died. If the floods had only brought destruction to the areas surrounding the river, it would have been enough; yet as displaced farmers returned to their fields in hopes of resuming their lives, they found nature still prevented them from doing so. A drought had settled on Shandong province, and nothing would grow so long as it remained. Whereas the Sioux based their subsistence on buffalo, the people of Shandong based theirs on agriculture; as such, each day without rain pushed them closer and closer to starvation.
Shandong was a poor and perennially-neglected province. Even at the best of times its borderlands remained plagued by bandits, the state never procuring enough soldiers to repel them. Yet in China’s wealthier provinces this was not the best of times. China’s state government, the Qing dynasty, had in recent decades faced bloody insurrection both from inside and outside its borders. From inside it had narrowly succeeded in quelling the Taiping Rebellion, a decade-long civil war whose staggering ~30 million fatalities number it among the bloodiest conflicts in human history. From outside it faced the all-too-familiar forces of European imperialism, which had brought opium to China and with it both war and addiction. By 1897 the Qing government was fast becoming a puppet state; its moments of weakness had led to lopsided treaties with powers like Germany, Great Britain and Japan, and these nations now sought to carve up China’s vast resources as if the country were a melon.
With the influence of these foreign powers had come many Christian missionaries seeking converts. These missionaries enjoyed considerable success, partly because Chinese Christians enjoyed protection both from foreigners and by foreigners; many bandits in the province’s borderlands took advantage of this, converting to Christianity in a bid to obtain absolution both from God and from local law enforcement. This dynamic reminds me very much of Sitting Bull’s reservation, and of Booker DeWitt’s two halves. Progressive Chinese sought respite by embracing new power, believing acquiescence might one day gain them equality with their oppressors; conservatives strove to maintain the traditions under which they’d once thrived, believing equality would never truly come. As had happened on Sioux reservations, violence sometimes broke out between these two groups. Whenever Christians came to harm, foreign powers harnessed the incident to demand even further concessions from the Chinese government (a time-tested imperial choke hold, one the US deployed routinely against the Sioux). When non-Christians came to harm, however, no state power could help them. As temples in the countryside gradually became churches, poverty and hunger turned to outrage.
From this miserable condition emerged a people’s militia called the Yihetuan, sometimes translated as ‘Righteous and Harmonious Fists’. Part religion, part insurgency and part real world Merry Men, its adherents took up a long-standing local tradition of secret societies dedicated to addressing problems the state government tended to ignore. Among them were former members of the Big Sword Society, a separate people’s militia which had until very recently cooperated with local authorities to repel bandits from its members’ villages. Recall, however, how frequently bandits became Christians; as the line between these two categories grew increasingly blurred, the Big Swords’ vigilantism drew the ire of foreign emissaries. Its membership had for a time dispersed following the state’s agreement to decapitate its leadership (in every sense of the word ‘decapitate’), but some now joined back together under the Yihetuan banner. The Big Swords had been famous for utilizing a martial technique called the Armour of the Golden Bell, which at the time of its conception promised its users immunity from bladed weapons. Now this technique mutated to suit Yihetuan needs; members claimed they could use it to avoid bullets, precisely as the Ghost Dancers had sought to do.
Also joining in this new people’s militia were shenquan, monks of a sort known for practising spirit possession. Usually their rituals entailed writing spiritual charms down on slips of paper, then burning them and swallowing the ashes. As they did so they claimed gods would descend from the sky to possess their bodies, casting them into a trance during which they wielded various divine powers. Traditionally the shenquan operated essentially as faith healers. Yet like the Big Swords’ Golden Bell Armour (and the Ghost Dancers’ special shirts), the rite of spirit possession mutated to suit the moment in two important ways. Rather than conferring the power to cure ailments, it now conferred divine strength and fighting skill. And instead of emphasizing the possession of one person by one god, the ritual now emphasized spirit possession en masse: Its users sought to call 80,000 spirit soldiers down from the sky all at once. Members of the Yihetuan amalgamated beliefs of Big Swords, shenquan and many others who joined the cause; they aspired to become an army of divinely-possessed warriors, immune from foreign weapons and filled with righteous purpose. The movement’s infamous banners would soon make this purpose clear: “Support the Qing, destroy the foreign.”
The ranks of Yihetuan swelled at an unprecedented rate throughout the drought. The populace, like the land itself, had become a tinderbox: Crammed full of hungry mouths, idle hands and excited xenophobia the conditions were just right for a revolt. At first, rumours would spread through villages that the gods, angry at the presence of foreigners, were causing the drought; then came members of the militia, bearing precious food items they’d stolen from nearby Christians alongside dazzling displays of martial training (including, of course, the vaunted rite of spirit possession). All the young people came out to watch; many opted to join. The same government that had succeeded in decapitating the Big Swords tried once more to decapitate the Yihetuan, but this time it did not work. This was a leaderless movement, powered by rumours and slogans and other such memes. The ‘gods’ by whom these people claimed possession came not from some hierarchical religious institution but instead from folk culture: From popular works of historical fiction like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West, which they had experienced as youths through local opera troupes. These characters were iconic to Yihetuan in the way Columbia was iconic to the frontier, indelible manifestations of a spirit now papered over by crucifixes and Christian saints. They were not so easily extinguished.
Owing to their martial training regimen, foreigners came to call Yihetuan by a different name: Boxers. For all their similarities to the Ghost Dancers (the most uncanny being a belief in their immunity to bullets), the Boxers were in many ways distinct. Unlike the Ghost Dancers, the Boxers were not pacifists: They sought to resist bullets so they might kill the people operating the guns, and frequently they succeeded in doing so. Yet their killing was not limited to combatants; where they encountered the Christian churches that had once been Taoist temples they burned the structures to ashes, often with Chinese Christian converts still inside them. As is typical of leaderless movements, the Boxers had little success governing themselves or the places they occupied. Gripped by the otherworldly atmosphere of a class riot and guided solely by the voices of god (as filtered through the imaginations of adolescent farmers), these places came to resemble Salem during its witch trials: Steeped in superstition, rife with paranoia and reeling with every wild rumour.
By the summer of 1900 the movement had permeated the walls of Beijing, leading the Westerners living inside the city’s foreign-centred Legation Quarter to fear for their lives. To them this was not a bona fide populist movement. It was instead a savage, bloodthirsty peasant rebellion reaching out from the heart of darkness to strike at the extremities of their civilization. Sensing a crisis, foreign propaganda machines sprung to life: Doves called for pacification while hawks called for death. Once again, foreign governments seized the Boxer crisis as an opportunity to demand outrageous concessions from the Qing government; this time, however, their demands became the straw that broke the empress’ back. Instead of sending China’s army to repress the Boxers she accepted them as allies; she then declared war on every foreign power in the land. The moment she did so, hell broke loose in North China just as it had in the Dakotas ten years previously.
The Imperial Chinese Army was among the most formidable military forces on the continent; though it had fallen behind in recent decades, it remained far better equipped to fight European invaders than the Sioux had been throughout the Indian Wars. Unfortunately for the Boxers, however, the Qing dynasty had weakened alongside its army; the empress now possessed too little influence to assert complete control over her generals, leading several to pursue their own objectives at cross purposes from one another. Some units attempted to aid the Boxers in their near two-month siege on the Christians barricaded within the Legation Quarter. Other units prevented the siege from succeeding, hoping their restraint would help negotiate mercy from the 50,000 strong Eight-Nation Alliance that now stormed towards Beijing. These hopes were tragically misplaced.
The Alliance was preceded by abject terror and left little except death in its wake. Upon hearing of its approach, many Boxers tossed their uniforms aside in an effort to escape punishment; others committed suicide in anticipation of its arrival. Some groups of Boxers intensified their massacre of Chinese Christians (or anyone they suspected of being such); I read one account in which a group of men herded suspected Chinese Christians into a large hole and buried them alive with rocks. The Alliance, for its part, was hardly interested in distinguishing Boxer from non-combatant; its soldiers committed all manner of murder, looting and sexual violence with little discrimination. The rivers leading towards Beijing became choked with corpses, many missing their heads; the moats within the city’s walls stopped flowing, for too many had drowned themselves therein. The air for miles and miles came to reek of decomposition. On the siege’s 55th day the Alliance reached Beijing and successfully rescued those trapped in the Legation Quarter; the remainder of the city then fell victim to a now-familiar pattern of looting and violence, as did the surrounding countryside throughout the ensuing winter and spring. The Alliance crushed the Boxers mercilessly. Their Armour of the Golden Bell proved no more effective than Ghost Dance shirts; and if 80,000 spirit soldiers had indeed descended to possess the Boxers in combat, some dying farm boy must have glimpsed 80,000 ghosts returning to the sky in defeat.
In the decades following the Rebellion, many different cameras framed the event to suit the hands that held them. In China, progressives used the Boxers as a convenient symbol for the ‘old’ national culture. They sought to replace dynastic rule, superstition and myth with republicanism, science and atheism; in 1911 they finally succeeded in deposing the Qing dynasty, though their struggle against tradition would continue long afterwards. Conservatives from the United States, meanwhile, employed the word ‘Boxer’ to evoke images of a lower class riot grown drunk on its own power; to them it constituted the realization of Booker DeWitt’s racist fantasies. It is true that Infinite’s Vox Populi insurrection (led by the tyrannical version of Daisy Fitzroy) bears far more similarity to the Boxer Rebellion than it does to any aspect of US history (despite the social background of Infinite’s rebels suggesting unfair and inaccurate comparisons to black Americans during the reconstruction era). The key difference between these two events concerns DeWitt’s role in the story. To some extent we witness the Vox Populi behaving as Boxers, yet we do not witness DeWitt behaving as members of the Alliance did. We do not witness him steal valuables from a freshly-buried coffin, whipping the corpse to one side. We do not witness him fire blindly into a crowd of non-combatants as they scrabble to escape through a locked city gate. We do not witness him behead a row of bound captives with a scimitar, one after the other. DeWitt’s science fiction magic leaves him free to gaze upon the lower class’ atrocities while eschewing all participation in those of his own class; somehow he arrives in the midst of the riot as a reformed man, free to indulge whatever beliefs he might possess concerning the rioters without bearing any responsibility for the riot. In this way the guilt that divides him in two proves itself a convenience and a privilege.
In actual history the US contributed several thousand troops to the Alliance war effort, constituting Lady Liberty’s first steps out from the isolationist shadow of Columbia to greet the coming ‘American Century’ (a period of global imperialism via diplomacy rather than bald-faced genocide and enslavement centred nominally on the North American continent). In the plot of Bioshock Infinite events play out differently: It is Comstock who interjects on his nation’s behalf, sending his flying city of Columbia to wreak havoc in Beijing and, ostensibly, to rescue the US citizens trapped within the Legation Quarter. Ironically Comstock had until this point characterized his city as a sort of travelling theme park (in other words, a Disneyland exhibit) bearing a breathtaking vision of the future; yet when the US government realizes the theme park is in truth an aerial battleship bearing nothing except relics from the nation’s brutal past, it disavows Columbia’s actions and seeks to decommission it (just as it had decommissioned people like Booker DeWitt 10 years beforehand). In response Columbia secedes from the union and vanishes into the sky, becoming in earnest a city of ghosts.
Squinting through the propaganda for a moment, what we see in the Hall of Heroes are three afterlives. First is that of the Ghost Dancers, seeking to relive their heyday in the Black Hills. Second is that of the Boxers, seeking to recapture their days of bountiful crops and treasured folk stories. Third is that of Zachary Comstock, who dreams of places where his past self Booker DeWitt can murder shamelessly: A winter creek full of merciless savages; a walled city full of crazed peasants; even a floating fortress full of hollowed relics. Then atop these afterlives stands a new religion. In the world of Infinite it is not the Sioux who rise into the air at the moment of Wovoka’s great flood, but instead Comstock and his followers taking to their flying city. Nor is it the gods of Chinese folklore who descend upon Beijing to wipe out the Christians and foreigners; it is instead Comstock’s soldiers, the ghosts of his beloved frontier, who descend menacingly upon the Boxers. In these ways Comstock declares himself to be both the messiah of whom Wovoka spoke and also the gods whom the Boxers sought to summon; in the true fashion of Columbia, he appropriates these events to create a revised history in which his tortured dreams come to pass.
The final third of Comstock’s myth concerns his vision, in which he claims an Archangel shows him the city God ordained him to build: The city that would become Columbia. I believe this is the same vision sad-sack protagonist DeWitt sees at the beginning of the game: New York City, Lady Liberty herself, burned to the ground by the ghost of her predecessor. This is to become Comstock’s moment of revival; the moment when his people cast out their enemies and return from the afterlife into a new world of the living. In pursuing this vision he unknowingly follows the same pattern as the movements from which he appropriates his beliefs. It’s a pattern historians encounter so frequently they have a special term for it. They call it “millenarianism”: The belief that a coming critical moment, usually a supernatural moment, will reshape all the world in some radical and hopeful way. Despite numerous trans-dimensional fever dreams in which New York does and then doesn’t burn to cinders, Comstock’s story ultimately concludes the same way as that of the Ghost Dancers, the Boxers and everyone else: His moment never comes.
The Ghost of Irrational Games
If the original Bioshock represents Irrational Games’ attempt to advance the dialectic straddling the videogame industry’s critical and commercial capacities, Infinite represents the studio’s attempt to simultaneously exalt and surpass its previous achievement. The city of Rapture feels to me like a place built by deduction. Centring on the crucial dynamic between Big Daddies and Little Sisters the studio extrapolated outward; every aspect of the city, from characters like Andrew Ryan to the citizens’ Objectivist worldview, serves to focus and complicate that dynamic. With Columbia the studio attempted an entirely different task: It sought to build from induction, drawing fifty years’ worth of distinct and often contradictory historical narratives into one massive whole. The result is a project of perilous scope, in pursuit of which the studio struggled to be at once broader in the spread of its historical roots yet also more intimate in its characterization of people like Elizabeth; grander in the scale of its mythical city, yet sharper in that city’s fine details.
Though the game succeeded at becoming a commercial blockbuster and obtaining high review scores (two feats which in the game industry are inextricably linked), critics like myself reacted to Infinite with some measure of cognitive dissonance. The five and a half years following the release of Bioshock had brought us the rise and fall of Indie Games, helping to diversify audience expectations; they had brought sites like Critical Distance whose communities had spent a great deal of effort examining the intersection of videogames with subjects like violence and choice. Thus as Infinite came bursting onto the scene we were aware it bore the same troublesome appendages as its predecessor: The same unexamined, bizarrely-fetishistic shooter violence we’d had for 20 years, and which now made us suspicious; the same contrived voiceover diaries we’d had for 14, now resembling the sorts of preservatives Campbell’s uses to make its canned goods pass for soup. At the same time the game’s myriad new appendages flailed about beyond all control. It had time travel, racial caricatures, parallel worlds, literal poltergeists; a thousand disparate ideas inducted into one giant primordial Kraken of a videogame. Infinite felt momentous, that much none of us could deny. But we felt it was a moment of collapse.
Now that Irrational is closed and we all stand over its corpse with our cameras, there are many photographs I could take for you; none of them represent the entire truth.
When I read Simon Parkin’s gripping chronicle of the original Bioshock’s development process I feel tempted to draw comparisons between Irrational as a studio and the societies it depicted in its videogames. It’s easy to cast Ken Levine in the role of Andrew Ryan or Zachary Comstock: An autocratic mastermind utterly devoted to realizing his ideals, sequestered amongst his subjects in some distant city as everyone slowly unravels.
Then I revisit Leigh Alexander’s Now Is The Best Time, which helps me picture a studio shattered by the birthing of the original Bioshock yet bravely determined to birth another. I imagine its developers lingering for years in their own private afterlife. By day they descend into infinite crunch. By night they dream of their own private millennium: The moment when the game comes out and changes the world again, restoring its developers in the process. As ever, that moment never comes. Writes Alexander three weeks after the game’s release and a full ten months before Irrational shuts down:
BioShock was a revolutionary and a singular performance. To try to repeat it is ambitious; to try to outdo it would probably tear a body in half.
I can show you Infinite as the ghost of the AAA shooter game; a final, hopeful monument to some obsolete ideal. I can try sending it into history as a relic of the medium its predecessors helped build, but which now decommissions it. I can regard it, the way Alexander argues in her piece, as a Disneyland exhibit aggrandizing the first Bioshock; I can editorialize it as one final demented gasp from a bankrupt and doomed philosophy about how to develop videogames. I can show you Booker DeWitt, our quintessential 1870s Doomguy, staring dramatically to one side of the game’s cover art with a shotgun slung over his shoulder; I can frame him so he fades peacefully from the world, as the newspapers framed Spotted Elk. If you read a lot of game criticism, you’ve seen all these photographs already.
In my photograph, Infinite makes clear what the original Bioshock implies: That all its men, cities and lighthouses seek above all else to capture one singular historical moment shared between every dying culture. We see this moment reflected in the game’s roots: Spotted Elk laying prone in a storm of lead and smoke, bleeding from his carotid artery while near him a crumpled farm boy stares in amazement at the retreating spirit of Guan Yu. In the game’s content we watch Booker DeWitt equivocate, fashioning a narrative in which he can seize that moment for himself: He drowns in a little pond by the hands of his loving descendants, appropriating in the most self-centred of ways the final plot point from his victims’ shared experience. In the myth surrounding the game we can even imagine Ken Levine following his characters towards oblivion: Hunched over a workstation at 3 in the morning, faced by an impossible problem, the author tears himself in half.
I think it telling, but in no way surprising, which themes permeate the game’s endless trans-dimensional lurches of plot: The march of history by right of violent conquest; the mediation of guilt through equivocation with victims; the appropriation of identity by coercion. We see in them a cavalcade of ugly white men doing ugly things to other people, then lying about it to themselves and everyone else. In these ways Infinite is very much a story about American Exceptionalism in the 1800s. Yet not far beneath the surface lurks a story about the United States of today.
This painting comes from New York City in 1872. Just like a photograph, it tells us what the author wanted us to see: Columbia in the centre of the frame, striding confidently westward. If you held voting rights in New York back then you would probably identify with the angel and her followers. Yet there in the western shade is another subject: Aboriginals, depicted as savages from the heart of darkness who retreat upon Columbia’s approach. Infinite does not take place in the eastern two thirds of this painting, where people look forward to the future; it takes place in the shadows, where the doomed people live. It doesn’t expect us to identify with Columbia because it doesn’t come from New York in 1872; it comes from Boston in 2013, where oceans grow warmer, clean water grows scarcer, and the national muse Lady Liberty dissolves into a swirl of Orwellian nightmares. In Boston 2013 the inheritors of Columbia’s empire recognize instinctively that the painting shows them a double-edged sword. On a good day they might still see themselves in Columbia. Yet on a bad day they might instead see their afterlife in the shadows: As little painted caricatures over whom new powers shall walk.
The shadows give you cause to wonder; they speak to you, in a way. They pose questions. What will become of you when the last bullet has been expended, and the last lie has been told; when no power remains to make you exceptional to the rules you’ve helped establish for other people? What happens when your nation’s hoop lies broken and scattered; when your people’s dream is dead? Which spirits will you call upon to resurrect you? What will you say when they don’t arrive? The ghosts of Bioshock remind us that empires both begin and end in violence. In the final moment, and only in that moment, may everyone join Spotted Elk in the smoke; clutching our memories to our chests, dismayed at the world before us, we’ll all look up to wonder at the sky.