Writing Columbia: Ken Levine on storytelling in Bioshock Infinite

Columbia is a lot like Rapture, yet even the differences between the city under the sea and the fortress in the sky seem calculated. When Bioshock Infinite’s setting isn’t purposefully evoking memories of the briny utopia that launched the series, it’s deliberately contrasting itself against it. Where Rapture had an objectivist, Liberatarian ethos, Columbia is a temple of American Imperialism wrapped up in evangelical faith; where Rapture had bathyspheres transporting its citizens between its residential districts and amusements, Columbia has its vertigo-inducing skyrail system; and where Rapture had capitalist king Andrew Ryan as its unofficial overlord, Columbia’s populace is under the sway of its fire-and-brimstone-preaching leader, Father Comstock.

But for all the odd parallels and obvious contrasts, these twinned cities were conceived by the same mind. And just as Comstock and Ryan shaped their utopia to strict, unyielding principles so, it seems, does Ken Levine. Both Rapture and Columbia are cities entirely of their eras – built no more than a few years before each game begins. Both are closed-off, isolationist enclaves: Columbia by necessity, Rapture by design. Both have philosophical and political principles at their heart. What is about these cut-off, self-sustaining cities that interests Levine?

“Well, they’re monocultures”, he tells us. “Even architecturally, they’re monocultures. When you look around in London, or LA, or wherever, you’ll see hundreds or even more years of development. You don’t see all the buildings architecturally aligned, you see lots of different architectural or political movements from history. You could create a hundreds of years old city from scratch but it’s hard for it to say something in particular.

“The nice thing about a monoculture is that you can really go in depth,” he continues. “A lot of games have about 17 different factions and they’re all fighting. It’s hard to express those factions clearly because cultures take a long time to get across, and the more nuanced they are, the more time they take. So I like these sort of Skinner boxes that we can put our characters in. There’s [countercultural] undercurrents in Columbia, and Rapture, obviously, not everyone in those cities agrees with the main culture, but they’re defined by an opposition to a very particular thing. This allows us to establish, very clearly, what you’re dealing with. ”

So whereas Rapture’s dissidents were the disenfranchised poor of Ryan’s stateless utopia, here the so-called Vox Populi can count among their number many of the black labourers and servants mistreated by Comstock’s regime, a warts-and-all reflection of American racial attitudes at the turn of the 20th century. As a player, you’re first confronted with the reality of the situation when protagonist Booker DeWitt is forced to choose between blowing his cover or participating in the cruel treatment of an interracial couple. It’s a shocking moment, confronting players with the reality behind Columbia’s star-spangled, gleaming facade. What it isn’t, however, is a moral choice akin to the first game’s Little Sister dilemma. The outcomes of choices made in Infinite won’t ripple in inescapable ways throughout Booker’s journey. Like The Walking Dead, then, this is a game more interested in the choice itself than the consequence.

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