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BioShock Infinite: The (Architectural) Uncanny

BattleshipBay

After playing about 3 hours into BioShock Infinite, my mind was only able to formulate one solitary question, a query that even Shakespeare couldn’t have phrased more eloquently. A question that is, in fact, worthy of its own quote block:

“What. The. ****. Just. Happened.”

What did I just see? How did so much content manage to be crammed into such a small amount of time? Why am I so sweaty? These questions, and a million more, ran through my mind as I attempted to wade through the architectural masterpiece that is BioShock Infinite. Now, I know this game had been suggested to me by fellow writer Luke Schultz at Monolith, to which I had replied: “Infinite is nothing special, really. It’s pretty much just historical.” (In terms of architecture, I meant) Well, turns out I was sort of wrong on that one. To be fair, I hadn’t played it before I wrote that. All I had seen was brief glimpses of row houses and dockyards whilst watching my brother play for about 15 minutes, and that hadn’t really piqued my interest. Only the encouragement of friends and fond memories of the original BioShock drove me to give Infinite a try.

This time around, I’m going to take a look at how architecture helps to tell the story of Infinite, in relation to a few key areas: the main faction in the game, the Founders; your own personal story, and how architecture plays into the player’s experience; and the overarching societal themes that seem to be dominant in the floating city of Columbia, such as racial segregation and patriotism (‘Murica). I’d also like to focus on something that isn’t specifically an architectural concept, but it’s one that has been successfully implemented as such, and lends to the overall feeling of uneasiness, or creepiness, that is always present in Infinite: the uncanny (I’ll explain later, don’t worry).

**SPOILER WARNING** (sort of) This article contains gameplay information from the first few hours of BioShock Infinite, as well as images.

1: The Founders

Section1

One thing that I noticed about Infinite is how you see a setting first, and then its inhabitants. The game is set up to provide the player with allusions to a certain group of people well before they are actually introduced. This happens with the Founders towards the start of the game. Gilded doorways and pillars line the path you walk towards the group of robed figures. Then, you meet the fanatics. From here, you enter an idyllic, Eden-esque garden containing more of these nameless individuals. Who are they? Who built all of this? None of this is very clear until you see the rest of Columbia first hand. You walk past stark white buildings of stone, wholesome brick homes, and great archways. Advertisements make broad proclamations of sovereignty, of truth, of freedom. Now you know who these people must be. Nobody could be this patriotic, this sure of themselves without being a little bit of a zealot. And it’s all confirmed with the #77 baseball throw. All of a sudden it comes back to you: the statues, the patriotism, the robed figures — it’s meant to be a utopia. We all know what that means, don’t we? Somebody is suffering for these people to live the way they do.

So what does this have to do with architecture?

If you paid attention to your surroundings, architecturally, up until the point of your first combat encounter, you should have noticed a number of things. First off, uniformity. There’s only a few materials, a few types of buildings, and a few types of people: the characters are represented in their architecture. This is an impressive feat, mimicking personalities with architecture. The structures built by these individuals allow you to get a sense of what they’re like, and the views they uphold. From their buildings, you can see that they like uniformity, cleanliness, and purity, but that there might be something a little off about them — it’s just too perfect.

This leads me to my second point, which with the Founders’ architecture, is known as phenomenal transparency. The best way to explain this concept is by thinking about something that’s see-through. This is called literal transparency. Simple, right? You can see through it, therefore it is transparent. Now, phenomenal transparency is a bit more abstract. Take that see-through thing you just thought of. Because you can see through it, you can’t actually see it. Something that is phenomenally transparent doesn’t exhibit the literal characteristics of a literally transparent object: it possesses the property of being unreadable, of being hard to figure out. The Founder’s buildings essentially all possess a degree of this phenomenal transparency. They’re solid buildings, with façades that are imposing, proud, and completely mask the interiors of the structure. You can see them for what they are on the outside, but the inside is absolutely impossible to discern from an outward study. You don’t know what’s going on inside these buildings. They could be resistance strongholds, just waiting to rebel against the idyllic world at their doorstep, or a maze of hallways meant to trap individuals who wander inside. All of this right at the center of Columbia, the flying utopia. The Founders themselves are literally identical to their buildings in this respect: impossible to read, you never know what’s going on inside of them, and you can’t tell what secrets they are keeping. Kind of eerie, isn’t it?

Thirdly, the cult of personality created by Father Comstock is achieved partly through the architecture of Columbia. The city is a testament to his holiness, a working example of what following him can lead to. The structures are a representation of him, and the citizens respect him for it. They praise him endlessly, thanking him in the streets and speaking of him in everyday conversation. They love him for what he has given them, and it is shown through the architecture of the city. He has given them pride, a sense of elitism, of being a superior race of people. Elegant structures, devoid of any imperfections, reach into the clouds and float idly amongst one another. All of this, meant to increase Comstock’s public image, his cult of personality. It’s this underlying cultish tone that is the backbone of Infinite’s story, the feeling that things aren’t at all what they look like, and architecture does a fine job of passively reinforcing it throughout.

2: Architectural Moods and Combat

Now that we’ve established the main mood — the airy, utopian brightness of the Founders — let’s look at how that changes the player’s experience in terms of combat situations. Remember, this might not be directly architectural, but the mood was established through mainly architectural means.

For me, the outdoor, airy combat was, if I could condense it into one word (as I seem to be fond of doing), frenetic. Bullets are whizzing through clouds of smoke, enemies are popping up over balconies of Shakespearian proportions, and all the while the atmosphere perfectly dichotomizes the action. The player’s utopian surroundings seem as though they could get up and walk away from the violence, and maybe ask the combatants (politely, of course) to take their scuffles elsewhere. Everything feels out of place, and my god, is it a beautiful feeling. The streets that you are fighting in literally haven’t changed from when they were populated with normal, happy citizens. Nothing has been blown up, as seems to be the case in most games. Combat always seems to take place in a location that has already seen some hard times, especially in games like CoD or Battlefield. But no, not in BioShock Infinite. You are the reason the buildings are missing most of their façades, you are the reason that there are so many shattered windows, the reason for all the rubble strewn about. It’s a liberating feeling, I think, and the best part is how out of place all of the combat feels: it feels a lot more real. Now, it does take place in somewhat ruined environments from time to time, but you’re still reminded of when the streets were normal. Architecture plays into combat by creating this mood, by setting the stage with perfectly clean, idyllic props, and letting the actors contrast against them. By using this effectively, Infinite can take a moderately intense fight and turn it into something extraordinarily unique.

3: ‘Murica

Murica

Oh, patriotism. Where would we be without you? And, how better to represent our national pride than to build monuments to ourselves, and the things we stand for. If there’s one thing you can glean about the inhabitants of Columbia, it’s that they love themselves. The structures represent a certain societal standard that seems to have emerged within the Founders. Forget all of the transparencies and actual facts about the Founders’ true nature, and just look at why they built the way they did.

If you saw yourself, and your race (white, black, hispanic, you name it) as being completely pure, free from any trace of anything you deemed “lesser”, what would your neighbourhood look like? In the case of the Founders, they wanted it to look just like their bloodline: clean. The shapes, the materials, everything is perfect, and just about as uniform as it gets. The societal norms of Columbia’s culture include things such as racial segregation, elitism, and inequality — the place is a  human rights nightmare. But, there is only one group in charge, and they chose to design and build in their own self image. Their architecture stands as a monument to their own elite status, and after they’re gone it will still remain. A legacy of purity, segregation, and lies.

4: The Uncanny

Why is BioShock Infinite so damn creepy? There is a property of visual/literary matter called the uncanny. This refers to something that is too familiar, or just barely familiar, and results in it being uncomfortable to look at or be around. I believe that the concept of the uncanny applies to the architecture in Infinite. The setting is, for a lot of us, familiar: repetitive suburbs, upper-class row houses in the city, the kind of setting you see in a lot of movies and sitcoms. The thing is, they always looks fairly lived in, or used. Evidence of human activity abounds, alongside the usual signs of physical degradation in the structures themselves. In BioShock Infinite, this just isn’t the case. Nothing in real life actually looks like it does in the game. These row houses are too clean, too well kept. They aren’t degrading, under construction, or in possession of any type of litter. There are no messes, no bricks missing, or stone tiles dirtied from years of walking. The whole place looks like it gets constantly polished.

Now, isn’t that a little too perfect? It’s like walking into your image of something nicer than what you have. You picture a pristine home, and once you’re there it’s a little off-putting. A good way to put it would be that it all seems a bit too good to be true. It feels fake, hollow, rehearsed. The whole place, Founders included, seems like a big charade. An entire city made for mass consumption, to be looked at in terms of nothing but face value. I’d be scared walking around there. It’s like everyone is watching you, like you’re the outsider because you’re a real person. Even in the game, you start to feel a strong connection with Booker because of the disconnect you have with the in-game built environment. You know he’s not from a place like Columbia, and neither are you. He reacts with a bit of fear and a lot of suspicion whenever someone talks to him, and so would you. It’s the natural response of a human when we’re placed in places that make us uncomfortable, especially when we don’t know why they do. In BioShock Infinite, it’s the uncanny that makes us feel that way, the sense of our surroundings being uncomfortably familiar.

That’s all for now, folks. I hope using a few smaller angles was effective, and be sure to leave any critiques in the comments section. I’m working on refining my repertoire of approaches, so that I can have a semi-consistent set of questions that I ask myself when looking at a game’s architecture.

- badfish

I’m currently an undergrad student studying at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture.  I did my first year at University of Toronto before transferring to UW, and am about to start first year there.  I can be reached for anything, from comments to conversation, at aarongcote@gmail.com

5 Comments

  1. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

    Reply
    • badfish

      10 months ago

      Thanks! If you’ve got any suggestions for what I should do next don’t hesitate to leave one in the comments. Insight is always appreciated :)

      Reply
  2. anteny dvb-t

    10 months ago

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    Reply

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