BioShock Infinite is very much a BioShock game. That’s obvious from the title, of course. But the two games are more intrinsically linked than that. Characters, mechanics, and settings are all shimmering reflections off the same pool of water: the final image is slightly different, but both come from the same root picture. BioShock and BioShock Infinite are in a quantum entanglement, stemming from the same strand of DNA. As a result, they share many ideas.
We’ve seen how the characters are similar, and how the mechanics equate, but now, in the third and final article, Lachlan Williams explores the worlds of BioShock and BioShock Infinite, examining how Rapture and Columbia are imitations of each other – the two sides of the same coin.
Finally, this article contains SPOILERS for BioShock and BioShock Infinite. But you knew that already, didn’t you?
Part 3 – The Scroll – setting
“There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man, there’s always a city.”
Rapture and Columbia are two sides of the same coin. Rapture is the tails, sunk beneath the surface, dark in its depths. Columbia is the heads, floating up above the clouds, burning with the fire of prophecy. They are both cities built on the promise of a new life, transcending those led by the world above/below. And their downfalls can be plotted on the same chart.
Rapture is the creation of Andrew Ryan – the visionary free-marketeer conceptualising a place for the individual. Its chosen location is underneath the ocean, completely self-sufficient and separate from the wider world above. The geographical separation is a deliberate one – it physically removes the people of Rapture from external influences that may impact on their ideals, and symbolises the belief that their ideals are different and can be self-sustaining. Of course, as Jack and we discover upon arrival, the ideological foundations Rapture is built on are fragile, and that the separatist mindset that Rapture residents value is in actuality the fundaments of the perfect prison.
Columbia is the creation of Zachary Hale Comstock – the visionary prophet conceptualising a place for the pure. Its chosen location is above the clouds, completely self-sufficient and separate from the wider world below. The geographical separation is a deliberate one – it physically removes the people of Columbia from external influences that may impact their beliefs, and symbolises the idea that their beliefs are correct and can sustain a society. As Booker and we discover on arrival, the city has no physical foundations, however the society seems to be working just perfectly. As time progresses and we experience more of Columbia, we discover that the ideological foundations Columbia is built on are fragile, and cruel, and the purist mindset that Columbia’s residents value is in actuality the fundaments of the perfect prison.
While the cities are essentially the same in their conception – the isolated haven for the ideologically alike – we encounter the cities during different stages of life. Columbia is very much a living city – full of vibrant life and, for all intents and purposes, normal citizens. Rapture is in its violent death throes – decayed and destroyed.
Rapture is in an advanced state of putrefaction. The downfall has come and gone, and only the dregs of the decimated citizenry remain. We are almost immediately introduced to the horrors of the city – a splicer tears apart a helpless man in front of our eyes, before we even set foot on (relatively) dry floor. We quickly discover that Rapture is drowning. Leaks have sprung, doors have burst, cracks have appeared. The physical city is falling to pieces. Just like its occupants. We encounter the violent, insane remnants of a once-proud people – the most vicious, powerful, selfish of the residents of Rapture. There has been civil war – the forces of Fontaine versus the supporters of Ryan versus the general populace. The war has ended, and all that is left are those who fight for their lives for guns and ADAM. Warlords have carved out niches – J. S. Steinman, Sander Cohen, Frank Fontaine, Andrew Ryan, even Brigid Tenenbaum – but splicers have little allegiance and minimal loyalty. Instead, they follow the strongest when it benefits them to do so, and they fight amongst each other for favour – the ADAM. The city of Rapture was past its prime some time ago, and is well on its way to ultimate oblivion when we and Jack enter it.
Columbia, however, is thriving. A jubilant display of patriotism and a respectful reverence for the wonderful life lead by the free people greets us upon arrival. For those for whom Columbia is intended to be sanctuary, all is perfect. The white, Christian residents are at peace in the clouds, living in their literal heaven above Earth. Booker DeWitt’s arrival disturbs the peace. We realise very quickly that the happiness and success of one group of people is paid for with the servitude and oppression of another, and that mindset has led to a split in society. The underclasses are on the brink of open revolt, and DeWitt is the catalyst. We see how quickly the well-polished façade is shattered – what happens when the rope under tension is snapped. We observe a world where the oppressors repel the revolt, a world where the fighting is on even-footing, a world where the once-oppressed are successful. We watch various versions of the one city decay via time lapse – snapshots of constants subjected to slightly different variables. We clearly observe a rebellion turn into an uprising into a revolution into a civil war into chaos. We see the effects of Daisy Fitzroy’s retaliation against Comstock, and the complete devastation of society that causes. Columbia is a living city, and we watch it die.
How did they get to their final states of destruction? Ideology. Each city is forged in the fires of ideology. Each city is founded on a core ideology, and those ideologies drive those cities towards their doom. Not just balanced ideology, but concentrated doctrine. It’s a concept taken to its extreme, to the exclusion of all others. It’s the fine point of the very thin wedge, sustained by one simple force – belief.
Rapture is famous for its ties to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. If you want the entire version of the ideology, I thoroughly recommend you read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. If you’d rather not put yourself through that ordeal, I’ll summarise. Objectivism, at its core, is the belief that the individual’s only moral purpose is to fulfil their own desires. It’s self-interested and egocentric, and profoundly focused on the acquisition of enjoyment. There are no restrictions – all that achieves these goals is good. It’s clearly displayed by Andrew Ryan and the splicers of Rapture. A man chooses his actions, a slave obeys the actions of others. The single-minded pursuit of human perfection – hang the consequences – through ADAM and genetic manipulation runs the city. Individuals work to achieve their goals. Laissez-faire capitalism is rampant, with those ruling through strength and acquisition. It’s a society’s view on the free market taken to the extreme of complete lack of regulation, and it ultimately fails morally and practically.
The ideology is not a result of the society, however. Rather, it’s already internalised into the individual before the society of Rapture is established. Rapture’s Objectivisim is a product of its people, gathering in a place for the like-minded. Being isolated from any moderating forces allows the intense selfishness to propagate and reinforce the ideals of the splicers, however the belief system is so ingrained within the individuals that even the destruction of their society is unable to free them of their beliefs.
Columbia’s ideology is equally powerful and single-minded – purity.
It begins with religion. Where Rapture was entirely atheistic in its beliefs, Columbia is founded on religion. From the imagery of the floating city above the clouds, to the white paths, flowing fountains, and trumpeting heralders, Columbia is designed to emulate heaven. And Comstock is the prophet. While his manipulation of science and the Tears allow him to foretell the future, his redemption at the hands of a baptismal preacher informs his knowledge of sin. For Comstock, sin is real – he knows because he has lived it. So he offers people a place where they can be free from their sins. A new beginning, marked by a baptism at the gates. It’s a drive for personal, spiritual purity that unites the people of Columbia, and fuels their beliefs.
More insidious, however is Comstock’s equating of spiritual purity to that of racial purity. Comstock rallies the white people of Columbia into a force for racial purification, excluding the racial other. Enslavement and servitude are the results visible to the white population, filth and starvation is the reality for those living in oppression. Racial appearance is a very visual demarcation – simple to define and easy to identify. From the symbolic stoning of the mixed-race couple, we see the very real concept of racism manifesting within a society lead by a charismatic leader.
The common thread for these belief systems is superiority. Exceptionalism. Supremacy. Be it Rapture’s ideas on the unlimited freedom of personal acquisition and expression, or Columbia’s racial and religious purity, both ideologies are founded on the idea that some people are just better. Deserve better. And this unifies the people of the sunken and floating cities.
It’s the same strength of belief that emerges in these worlds, even if the specifics of the belief in particular are different. It is that driving force – that tempered ideology – that steers every action in the cities.
Likewise, the path of descent manifests itself differently for each city. Both Rapture and Columbia are destroyed by anger, hate, and fear, but the method differs slightly.
Rapture’s hate is unorganised. The splicers are a product of covetousness. Their selfish desire for self-improvement drives their every impulse. Their rage is directed towards themselves and their neighbours. And it is driven by Andrew Ryan’s philosophy. Ryan’s objectivism is self-preservation for the masses. Each individual believes they deserve the best, or they are the best. The logical extension to that line of thought is that everyone else is inferior, and do not deserve what they have. So we end up with the blind lashing out that we have in Rapture, pre-Jack. Splicers fighting each other to the death, destroying society and the city mindlessly. An untamed, un-aimed swarm consisting of individuals with the destructive force of genetically enhanced super-soldiers, completely lacking discipline.
Comstock gives the people of Columbia a target for their hate. Comstock is an accomplished battlefield tactician, and knows the pragmatics of leading an army. He knows what one group of people, given the right excuse and right mark, are capable of doing. Comstock was at the massacre of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion, and knows the value of the other. He creates this sense of othering in the white population of Columbia and exploits their desire for superiority for his own ends. When it comes to controlling the populace, however, the racial othering is just an excuse. It’s the management of a cohesive society that is willing to have their anger aimed, through the creation of an easily identifiable target. Indeed, when the two groups interact with each other, their conflict is rarely racialised. Most of the racial violence is undertaken by group leaders, manipulating the masses and directing their actions. The Founders fight the Vox because they are the enemy, and the Vox fight the Founders because they likewise are foes – both sides are pawns for Comstock and Fitzroy.
Rapture is torn apart through anarchic descent, and Columbia is ruined by directed rage. Both methods reflect their respective societies’ ideologies, and both have the same result – a city shattered.
Rapture and Columbia are the same, and different. They fulfil the same role in their respective universes. We see them, and explore them, and recognise their similarities. And we see that they are what we could be, taken down the wrong route. They are us, turned up to eleven, taken to the extreme. Our flaws identified, isolated, amplified. We can learn from what they do wrong.
There is always a lighthouse, and always a man, and always a city. Ryan, Rapture. Comstock, Columbia. As above, so below. They exist because they always existed. They have to exist. They are the soul of BioShock – without them, there’s nothing.
The lighthouse as the Key, the man as the Sword, the city as the Scroll – all floating in an infinite sea of doors.
Heads or tails?