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Ken Levine and the search for meaning in BioShock Infinite

By Rob Crossley on Wednesday 26th Jun 2013 at 10:20 AM UTC

"So before I say this, I should warn it's a spoiler."

Ken Levine committed five years of his career to the creation of BioShock Infinite, a game set within a breathtaking city suspended in the sky, held together by religion and propaganda, made possible through science and slavery. He doesn't want to ruin it for you.

Blanketed across the floating city of Columbia are Voxophones; audio diary entries which on one occasion will reveal a door lock code and on another shed light on the deeper mysteries of Infinite's false utopia. But, in keeping with the principles of interactive entertainment, Levine wants you to find these secrets for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

When I first asked Levine to discuss the underpinning stories and themes of BioShock Infinite, he was initially unsure. And during the interviews we had in the weeks that followed, each time he offered a new insight he would always insist on prefixing it with the same warning.

"So, spoiler alert, okay? There's an audio log in Infinite where Comstock implies that people suspected he was Native American. Comstock was a man who wanted to demonstrate that he didn't have Native American blood when, frankly, he did."

Zachary Comstock, the game's chief antagonist, reigns over Columbia with a ruthless paranoia worthy of Stalin and dazzling white beard borrowed from Darwin. In Voxophone 061, entitled The True Color of my Skin, he breaks silence on that guarded past:

"In front of all the men, the sergeant looked at me and said, 'your family tree shelters a teepee or two, doesn't it, son?' This lie followed me all my life. It was only when I burnt the teepees with the squaws inside, did the take me as one of their own. Only blood can redeem blood."

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Ken Levine

Levine explains: "It was that self-loathing of his past, that loathing of what was within him, that drove his actions."

Comstock's true character is buried under myth the same way Columbia is plastered with propaganda. He is infertile, yet claims to have produced a child in a single week. He mutilates religion by preaching self-serving decrees from his private gospel ("no animal is born free, except the white man").

One night, when his wife revealed she could no longer live his lie, he murdered her and accused his black maid, Daisy Fitzroy, of the crime. This is a man whose ethical foundations have ossified from years of delusion and pretence, abuse and control. He even looks like a lie: a frail figure masks his wiry and political-savvy mind. A pale skin betrays some Sioux ancestor.

"We see a lot of Comstock's denial and self-loathing in history," Levine says.

"In the '40s there was a senator in America called Strom Thurmond who ran a presidential campaign on a segregationist platform. But secretly, behind closed doors, he had a child with a black woman, the natural result of a personal loving relationship. A child which he financially supported.

"And then there's the evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, who spent years campaigning against gay marriage and attacking homosexuality in the Church, before admitting that he himself was bisexual. It was that self-loathing about being gay, a self-loathing that I find incomprehensible, that actually fuelled his campaign against it.

"Then of course there's Adolf Hitler. Whether he had Jewish blood or not is a matter for debate, but we know for a fact that he suspected he did. Who knows what that led him to?"

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Studying the past

It's a testament to Levine's conviction that he can wrestle Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies and emerge with a salient point intact: Comstock is a collection of deceitful figures from history, living their lies so we may learn from them.

But BioShock Infinite's apparent fixation on history, and indeed Levine's own fascination with America's past, creates friction between what the game says and what the author intended.

Levine claims that the core messages in BioShock Infinite are neither personal nor political. They are, he insists, historical. But play the game for yourself and you navigate a world that is laced with undertone and meaning; this is a story about a floating city as much as Animal Farm is a story about a farm.

"It was that self-loathing of his past, that loathing of what was within him, that drove Comstock's actions"

From the game's reception, it is clear that people see a wider picture than the narrow scope of American history, regardless of what Levine or the team at Irrational Games intended.

"When people play BioShock Infinite and they see references to, for example, the Tea Party, I totally understand why they would," Levine says.

"But I hope people view things in the game with a greater understanding of the arc of history. History is rich with all the things you see in BioShock Infinite. People talk about racism in the game, and discuss Columbia as a particularly racist society, and think we were trying to make a point about that. In reality that's more a factor of the time."

Cover image: DeviantArt

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