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Jacqueline Blank: The Art of BioShock Infinite: Identity, Race, and Manifest Destiny

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 For works in which world-building occurs, there may be a wealth of details and events
(or mere mentions of them) which do not advance the story but which provide background richness and verisimilitude to the imaginary world. (…) Such additional information can change the audience’s experience, understanding, and immersion in a story, giving a deeper significance to characters, events, and details. Audience members and critical approaches that center on narrative, then, may find such excess material to be extraneous, tangential, and unnecessary, while those that consider the story’s world will find their experience enhanced.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The idea for this article came from talks with other gamers that made me realize how little attention many players pay to the overall design of the gameworlds they explore. However, especially within the medium of video games, world building—the creation of a believable gameworld—is an important tool for immersion. As Mark Wolf points out in Building Imaginary Worlds: “Often when a world is noticed at all, it is only considered as a background for stories set in it, rather than a subject of study itself”(2). In my opinion as well, the overall visual design of a game can be seen as the extension of simple storytelling: think for example of the retrofuturistic design in the Fallout series, or of the design of enemies and weapons when they are well-integrated into the setting and story of the game, such as the insects in Fallout that have mutated due to radiation, or the Splicers in BioShock, who suffer the consequence of Plasmid abuse. Even the placement of simple objects in the gameworld can tell microstories, like the Bibles placed in the smuggler’s hideout in BioShock’s Neptune’s Bounty. This also includes the artwork scattered throughout the gameworld, which will be the focus of this article: my goal here is to identify possible influences on the artwork in BioShock Infinite and also show in which ways these artworks are embedded in the game’s narrative fabric.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 How does narration work within the interactive medium of the video game, and how can narrative information additional to the main story, which is mostly presented though dialogues and cutscenes, be provided? Games must be understood as navigable spaces: while the player travels through this space, he or  she will identify and interpret the narrative elements the game provides. Game designers should therefore not be seen as storytellers but rather as “narrative architects,” since they do not only devise stories but “design worlds and sculpt places” (Jenkins 121). Thus, games can be interpreted by analyzing the narrative elements the player encounters during gameplay as well as the audiovisual presentation the game provides in general. “Stimulated by the game,” as Nitsche says, “the player weaves the connections, creates a narrative context” (43). The player uses the narrative elements presented to him as clustered throughout the game space in order to project meaning onto these objects and events that include them. However, the perception of a game’s content is rather individual, given how much or how little interactivity he or she is granted by the game design. Also, artwork can be ignored by the player, depending on his personal preference of how to explore the gameworld. Though it is the player’s choice to either disregard or pay attention to his surroundings, game designers have different tools at their disposal to direct and guide the player within the gameworld. This starts with the placement of objects and artwork. A painting placed in the center of a room, for example, will surely catch the players attention. In addition, whenever the player is unable to move the camera by himself, as it is the case in many cutscenes, the playable character’s gaze is directed by the game designers and thus the focus of the player is directed as well. Also, sometimes non-playable characters will directly or indirectly comment on objects in the gameworld, providing audio cues to the player on what to look out for. In addition to those methods, there are also elements like objects, posters, and the overall visual design of the game that enhance the general atmosphere of the gameworld in order to create a credible imaginary world, filled with life. If a gameworld feels sterile or empty, it is difficult to achieve an immersive effect on the side of the player. Good game design must therefore focus on the building of such a coherent imaginary world and on ways to guide the player through this world.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The following will give an analysis of some of the artwork presented in BioShock Infinite by identifying possible inspirations from American cultural history. I will show how these works of art are connected to the game’s plot and how they, as narrative elements, offer added value to the players’ experience. I have identified three interrelated topics to classify the artwork of BioShock Infinite: identity, manifest destiny, and race. With the secession from the United States, Columbia needed to form a separate, new ‘national’ identity, and it did so in reference to American beginnings. Comstock created a civil religion that would unify Columbia’s residents by connecting the original myth of the exceptional foundation of the United States with his personal myth as God-chosen prophet and founder of the new nation that is Columbia. The Prophet not only created a personal cult surrounding his own person and family but also fostered the deification of the American founding fathers: once Booker awakes after his baptism in a cutscene at the beginning of the game, he finds himself lying in the ‘Garden of New Eden.’ As he regains consciousness, he looks up at the statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, which are worshiped in the garden.

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7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Each ‘deity’ carries his respective religious symbol, which signifies their role in the creation of the American nation: Washington holds the Sword as a symbol for justice and power, which can be seen as a reference to his military career. Jefferson is associated with the Scroll representing law and order, pointing to his role in history as the author of the Declaration of Independence. And Franklin’s symbol is the Key to knowledge, referring to his reputation as a man of many professions and as a talented inventor. With the inclusion of these mythical founding fathers into his own religious and political system, Comstock clearly hoped to both transfer ideals and virtues associated with these men onto himself and to link Columbia to earlier American history in order to stress the continuation of the American mission, which in Comstock’s opinion the US has failed to do since the end of the Civil War. In addition, all attributes assigned to the three Founding Fathers also have their analogy in biblical symbolism and are connected to the Apocalypse: the Sword, wielded by Christ on Judgement Day (Revelation 1:16), the Book of Life stating the names of the Saints (Revelation 5:1-14), and the Key (Matthew 16:19) opening the Pearly Gates (Revelation 21:21).

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 There are numerous other examples of this deployment and reinterpretation of American symbolism and ideals in Columbia. Next to being called the Prophet, Comstock is also referred to as the Founder, for example. In one of the paintings presenting Columbia’s history that are passing by in a parade during the Raffle and Fair, Comstock is presented as a humble farmer who is visited by the Arch Angel that revealed to him his destiny as leader of the floating city. The scene is reminiscent of typical representations of biblical annunciations by angels in Christian art. In addition, the portrayal clearly refers to Jefferson’s accentuation of the American farmer as the archetypical American, as “the appropriate social foundation for a virtuous United States” (Stephanson 15). Jefferson praised farmers as “the chosen people of God” (Jefferson 160).

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10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Some of the artwork in BioShock Infinite is also inspired by the paintings of manifest destiny, the ideological justification for the extensive westward migration based on the notion that Americans were destined by divine providence to claim the land. The essence of this ideology is probably best illustrated and summarized by John Gast’s famous painting American Progress (1872):

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Figure 3: John Gast. American Progress. 1872.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The picture shows an allegorical figure, the “Star of Empire,” as it moves westward, casting out the dark by its shining example of progress and civilization, symbolized by the book and the telegraph wire she holds. In the dark west, the Native ‘savages’ flee from her approach; in the bright east, settlers, stagecoaches, and railroads move steadily westward to replace them. The term manifest destiny itself was coined by John L. O’Sullivan, who stated in 1845 that

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [the American claim] is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to posses the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative self government entrusted to us. (…) It is in our future far more than in our past (…) that our True Title is to be found (…). (397-98)

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Columbia can be understood as a new West that will continue the American mission and ideals after the US had betrayed them (as Comstock believes), reinvigorating the idea of manifest destiny after the closure of the continental frontier had been announced by Frederick Jackson Turner. Some artworks from BioShock Infinite are thus heavily influenced by works representing westwards expansion such as American Progress. The game’s designers here aesthetically draw on the fact that “American landscapes have been characterized as more didactic, nationalistic, and religious and less purely art for art’s sake than Old World pictures” (Aikin 85). This characterization is evident in other famous examples such as Emanuel Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1862) and Albert Bierstadt’s The Oregon Trail (1869).

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Figure 4: Emanuel Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. 1862.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Figure 5: Albert Bierstadt, Emigrants Crossing the Plains, or The Oregon Trail. 1869.

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26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 In both these paintings, the lighting is reversed compared to American Progress: the West is glowing as it promises a new beginning. These compositional arrangements stress the idea that “[t]he west is the compass point that still stands metaphorically for national destiny as well as for good prospects, freedom, and personal rebirth” (Aikin 87). Especially one of the artworks in BioShock Infinite exhibits features of these expansion paintings, most notably a strong right-to-left compositional movement, which is central to the aesthetics of the genre, as Aikin explains: “it is difficult to find any depiction of American westward expansion, or ‘progress,’ in high art or popular illustration that does not feature strong right-to-left, or ‘westward,’ movement” (80). This painting of Comstock’s ‘exodus’ to Columbia can be seen twice in the game: at the very beginning when Booker leaves the elevator and enters Columbia for the first time. Players first encounter it as a large glass painting, with light illuminating the scene and shining through the glass from behind. The writing above reads: “And the Prophet shall lead the people to the New Eden.” The glass painting undoubtedly offers a memorable first impression of Columbia for the player and already hints at what to expect from this strange city: a utopia defined by religious zealotry.

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37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 The second time we encounter this scene, it is displayed as a painting during the parade at the Raffle and Fair (alongside the portrayal of Comstock as a humble farmer mentioned above). The painting features the same compositional movement as artworks of Manifest Destiny: Comstock points westward to the city in the sky, which is bathed in glistening sunlight, representing a heavenly place that strongly contrasts with the meager and barren earth of the “Sodom Below.”[1] Comstock’s pose, the surge from right to left, and the beckoning light in the west all parallel the features of the paintings mentioned above. Columbia is thus constructed as continuing the American need for movement and expansion with its journey to promote American ideals (the city’s original purpose at the Chicago World’s Fair), as well as the country’s exceptionalist position in the world and in history. With these paintings, Comstock stresses Columbia’s duty to re-manifest the American identity he saw corrupted in the US.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 For Comstock, however, this identity and the American exceptionalist position are solely products of the superiority of the White Anglo-Saxon race. In this respect, Comstock’s ideals correspond to the beliefs of Reverend Josiah Strong, expressed in his book Our Country, which was first published in 1885, and which is certainly representative of a more widespread racist ideology in nineteenth-century America. As Stephanson explains, the book “introduced a religious version of manifest destiny that was also imperialist at a moment when the old continentalist imagination was beginning to dry up” (79). In his book, Strong claims that the Anglo-Saxon race is the representative of “two great ideas, which are closely related” (33), civil liberty and “a pure spiritual Christianity,” which originated among the “Teutonic race” and is synonymous with Protestantism (34). Strong argues that this spiritual Christianity is mostly found among the Anglo-Saxons, “for this is the great missionary race” (35), and he also believes that it has been schooled by God for the “final competition of races” (49).  He states that “this race of unequaled energy, with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it—the representative, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization—having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind, will spread itself over the earth” (49). The American people, however, play a special role in God’s plan, because “[t]here can be no reasonable doubt that North America is to be the great home of the Anglo-Saxon, the principal seat of his power, the center of his life and influence” (40). Unsurprisingly, Strong also believes the Anglo-Saxon race “is destined to dispossess many weaker races, assimilate others, and mold the remainder” (53). Comstock and the Columbian people hold similar views on the inequality of the races. As players soon find out, Columbia is pervaded by segregation as well as racist propaganda. White Anglo-Saxon Columbians isolate the inferior ‘other’ by marking it in terms of ‘lesser’ races. The presence of these others in Columbia is explained by Jeremiah Fink in the voxophone “Solution to Your Problems,” which can be found between the two cages in which the interracial couple was held prisoner:

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 “I told you, Comstock—you sell ‘em paradise, and the customers expect cherubs for every chore! No menials in God’s kingdom! Well, I’ve a man in Georgia who’ll lease us as many Negro convicts as you can board! Why, you can say they’re simple souls, in penance for rising above their station. Whatever eases your conscience, I suppose.”

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Those deemed inferior had thus been brought to Columbia for their cheap labor so that the founders and the upper classes of this ‘great’ city would not be forced to perform menial work. As a consequence of racial and social segregation in poor living conditions—many were forced to work in the factories of Fink’s industrial empire and lived in the so-called Shantytown visited later in the game—a Civil War breaks out in Columbia between the so-called Vox Populi and the Founders of Columbia.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 These views on racial superiority of the Columbian (Anglo-Saxon) people in particular are best represented in-game by the so-called Fraternal Order of the Raven, a Columbian reinterpretation of the Ku Klux Klan. The Order’s halls are visited rather early in the game, and this is where players encounter a number of symbolic artworks. A statue of Comstock as he, according to the engraving in the base, “fights the serpent of nations” adorns the Fraternity’s courtyard, representing the Prophet as a protector of racial purity and Anglo-Saxon superiority and referring to his role in the Boxer Rebellion (this historical event is also featured at the second display in the Hall of Heroes next to the display of Wounded Knee). In addition, an emblem states the Order’s duty: “Protecting Our Race.” Once the player enters the Order’s halls, he sees a statue of John Wilkes Booth,  who is worshiped by the Fraternity for eliminating the “Great Apostate” Abraham Lincoln. Throughout its halls, Lincoln is portrayed as a devilish figure, as Comstock believed America had strayed from its original mission after the Civil War. In comparison, Washington is represented as a Saint. He is portrayed wearing a tunic and adorned by a halo, like apostles or saints in Christian art. Facing west, he commands righteous troops, leading them into battle. His floating figure is bathed in light. In contrast, the background in the painting of Lincoln is covered in black shadows, floating around his body. The troops below him carry torches, resembling an angry mob in contrast to the flag-wielding soldiers in the painting of Washington. The portrait of Lincoln is reminiscent of illustrations of hell, whereas the lighting in the juxtaposed painting evokes scenes from paradise.

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62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 In the great hall, a huge painting called “For God and Country” displays Washington, holding the Liberty Bell in one hand and the Ten Commandments in the other. An allegorical Columbia baths Washington in the light of liberty, while stereotypical representatives of different races and nationalities (Irish, Mexican, Native American, Arabic, and Asian) look up at his figure or avert their gaze from the emanating light.

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64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 Again, Washington is portrayed as a saintly figure and the painting reminds of Christian pictorial traditions and Christian iconography. The painting summarizes Columbia’s racist ideology and is probably the best known artwork of the game. Washington, at the center of the painting, is reminiscent of traditional portrayals of Jesus Christ on Judgment Day, only that instead of the Book of Revelations, Washington carries the Ten Commandments. In the right hand, he holds the Liberty Bell as a symbol for American independence, instead of the imperial orb often carried by Christ in Christian art, symbolizing his reign on earth. Behind him, an allegorical personification of Columbia is emanating light, illuminating the scene and especially the figure of Washington. She raises a banner stating “For God and Country.” A ring of stars is framing Washington, serving as an aureole to indicate his sainthood. The whole arrangement of the figures and emblems in the painting resembles traditional Christian portrayals of the Last Judgment, in which often angels with banners are arranged around Christ, but also portrayals of the Trinity in art, in which instead of Columbia, God stands behind Christ and the holy Spirit (as a dove) is flying above. In the painting of Washington, the dove can be found in the top right corner, representing “Purity.” Below that, a garland of corn stands for “Prosperity,” the emblems on the left read “Faith,” represented by the cross, and “Defense,” symbolized by arrows. These symbols also allude to Christ’s suffering. Below Washington, the stereotypical portrayal of the minorities resemble similar stereotypical representations in depictions of the Last Judgment, or more precisely the portrayal of the procession of damned souls. To conclude, Washington here is presented Christ-like, in the tradition of Salvator Mundi, as the savior who brings order to the world.

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 To conclude, the artwork embedded in BioShock Infinite is part of the narrative fabric of the game and draws heavily on actual historical artworks from the nineteenth century and their respective cultural context. In the world of BioShock Infinite, Columbia was built as an attraction at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago at the end of the century in 1893. The goal was to represent American exceptionalism and to spread American ideals, surpassing previous world fairs by far. It thus makes sense that the game’s designers would chose artwork of the nineteenth century that celebrates American exceptionalism, such as the paintings of manifest destiny, as inspiration for their imaginary world. On the one hand, these paintings promised a new beginning in the West—as it was Columbia’s mission to offer a new beginning in the sky; on the other hand, the paintings of this time marginalized or excluded all those who supposedly barred the way of progress (think of Native Americans fleeing from the Star of Empire in American Progress). In this regard, the historical sources for the art in BioShock Infinite also feed into the racist views commented on in the game.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 The artwork enriches the game’s imaginary world by providing additional information to the player and helps enhance the immersion into said world. However, these types of narrative elements are open to interpretation and can easily be overlooked. It is the player’s own choice to notice or disregard them. In my opinion, however, gameworlds should be explored more thoroughly, because these imaginary worlds often reveal more than meets the eye at first glance. In addition, the game designers continuously try to direct our attention to such narrative elements while providing context: though racist propaganda is featured in the game, it does not stand for itself but is part of the world-building that gives meaning to the characters’ actions. The playable characters, Booker and Elizabeth, constantly comment on the injustices they encounter. When Elizabeth notices the signs on the segregated bathrooms in in the Arcade of Battleship Bay, for example, she cannot help but note that the whole affair seems “like an unnecessary complication.” Her captivity apparently spared her from most of the racist propaganda preached in Columbia, and it is through her and Booker’s eyes we as players see this imaginary world.

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 Theories on world-building, such as that proffered in Wolf’s Building Imaginary Worlds, provide a new angle for the analysis of video games, as they consider narrative elements such as the artwork as essential components for the creation of the imaginary world in which the action of the game is set. In addition, these narrative elements enrich the gameworld by making the world seem more authentic, as I hope to have shown in my analysis of how Comstock’s ideology is mirrored in the artwork placed throughout Columbia.


68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 Works Cited

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 Aikin, Roger Cushing. “Manifest Destiny: Mapping the Nation.” American Art vol.14, no.3, Fall 2000, pp. 78-89. JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3109364. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 Bierstadt, Albert. Emigrants Crossing the Plains, or The Oregon Trail. 1869. The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH. https://butlerart.com/permanent-collection. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 BioShock Infinite. Irrational Games. 2K Games, 2013.

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 Gast, John. American Progress. 1873. Museum of the American West, Los Angeles. Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.09855. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. 1832. Library of Congress.  http:www.loc.gov/resource/lhbcb.04902. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 Jenkins, Henry. “Art Form for the Digital Age.” MIT Technology Review. September/October 2000. http://www.technologyreview.com/article/400805/art-from-the-digital-age. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 ———. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, MIT Press, 2004, pp. 118-30. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 Leutze, Emanuel. Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. 1862. US Capitol, Washington D.C. Architect of the Capitol. https://www.aoc.gov/art/other-paintings-and-murals/westward-course-empire-takes-its-way. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 Nitsche, Michael. Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds. MIT Press, 2008.

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right. Hill and Wang, 2000.

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 Strong, Josiah. “The United States and the Future of the Anglo-Saxon Race.” 1889. Selections from Our Country, edited by Micheal George Mulhall. Adam Matthew Digital, 2007.  http://www.empire.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=72333. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 Wolf, Mark J. P. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. Routledge, 2012.


81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 [1] The term “the Sodom Below” can be encountered numerous times in the game. It refers to everything below the floating city of Columbia. The rest of the world is consequently considered a sinful place, as the biblical reference to Sodom suggests. While the displays of Columbias ‘history’ at the Raffle and Fair float by, an announcer states: “And so our Prophet led the people away from the Sodom Below—up, up into the city, where he created an even more perfect union.” Again, religious terms and references to the foundation of the United States (in this case to the preamble of the Constitution) are combined to emphasize Comstock’s ideology.

Source: https://opr.degruyter.com/playing-the-field-video-games-and-american-studies/jacqueline-blank-the-art-of-bioshock-infinite-identity-race-and-manifest-destiny/