*WARNING! THIS ARTICLE IS NOT INTENDED TO BE VIEWED ON MOBILE DEVICES! FOR FULL EFFECT, A FAST INTERNET CONNECTION AND 1920×1080 RESOLUTION IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! ALL SCREEN SHOTS WERE CAPTURED USING FRAPS ON A PC WITH BIOSHOCK INFINITE’S VISUAL SETTINGS SET TO ULTRA. IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO VIEW EVEN HIGHER RESOLUTION VERSIONS OF ANY OF THE FOLLOWING IMAGES, FEEL FREE TO CLICK ON THEM TO VIEW THE FULL SIZE.*


Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.

-Confucius

here is so much beauty in our world. Despite the atrocities and ugliness that go along with being a human being, I feel humanity constantly strives to create beautiful things. However, I also feel that some of those “beautiful” elements tend to get overlooked. One of them in particular, (at least from a large part of society) are video games. Although thankfully, in recent years, this dated idea seems to be taking a turn. With projects like “Trine 2,” “Child of Light,” “Kentucky Route Zero” and of course, BioShock Infinite (to name but a mere few), it is becoming increasingly more difficult for non believers to ignore the artistic value in what was once a few pixels on a blinking screen. The tired argument of “Are Video Games Art?” is waning, and the maturity of video games themselves is reaching a golden age unlike anything the industry has ever seen.

This idea brings me to the topic of discussion, which is of course, BioShock Infinite, a game with an artistic style quite unlike anything ever conceived before it. The game’s design is a fusion of many different elements, some obvious, some perhaps not. And while most people who have already given their thoughts on this game (and there are many) will generally just give you a “review,” that is not what I am here to do. After all, the game has been out for some time now and much has already been said about it. So what am I here to do then?

Will I be talking about BioShock’s tired and somewhat disappointing FPS gameplay (which differs little from Doom, which was released 20 years before it)? Am I going to talk about the incredibly interesting, but slightly disturbing story? What about the characters or voice acting or any other of a plethora of things I could talk about? In short, no, I am not going to talk much, if at all, about these aspects. What I am here to examine though, are aspects of the game that I am fairly sure no one has touched on in quite the way I plan on presenting it to you here. Mainly, the look, feel and ambiance of this visually splendid, epically beautiful experience. Let’s start with the inspirations behind this visual masterpiece.


 

Picture the world in 1893. The machine age is about to take hold, electricity and motor vehicles are still fresh out of the womb, the world was on the cusp of the very beginnings of the technology that we all take for granted today. It was at this time in history when “World’s Fairs” were huge events. Millions of people from everywhere on the planet would come to these gargantuan events to see the latest and greatest in “modern” industry and technology. One of the most famous of these occasions was the 1893 World’s Fair aka, The World’s Columbian Exposition.

This World’s Fair was held in Chicago, Illinois and was made to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492. No expense was spared on this magnificent celebration which lasted 6 months and took place on a 690 acre plot of land put aside by the city of Chicago. Massive buildings were built, sculptures were erected, even a giant lake was dug to represent the voyage of Columbus across the Atlantic. It was truly like no event the world had ever experienced before.

The Palace of Mechanic Arts, 1893.

Electricity Building, 1893.

The Administration Building, 1893.

The 65 foot high “Statue of the Republic.” Along with the massive lake, they symbolize Columbus’ voyage to the new world, 1893.

View from atop the famous Ferris Wheel, 1893.

 

A look across BioShock Infinite’s decidedly “Columbian” skyline.

It’s no big secret that BioShock Infinite’s art design and particularly, its architecture, is heavily inspired by the aforementioned World’s Columbian Exposition. The creative director of the game himself, Ken Levine, is even on record as saying as much. In fact, the floating city you are traversing through in the game is named “Columbia.” I don’t think there can be a bigger hint than that!

It is also well known and fairly obvious that BioShock Infinite (not to mention previous BioShock games) borrows heavily from the SteamPunk sub-genre of science fiction. Its heavy use of steam-powered machines as well as the fact that the game is set in an alternate history that takes place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, proves this without a doubt. Throw in the “golden-bronze” look that you get in many SteamPunk inspired movies, comic books and TV shows and BioShock Infinite fits into this universe perfectly.

Now, let’s talk architecture. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was heavily influenced by neoclassic design aesthetics. If you are unfamiliar with this type of architecture (although I just showed you quite a bit of it), think Roman and Greek with a tinge of Middle Eastern influence. If you want to take it even further, we can also mention the French, Beaux-Arts principles of design. These principles guide much of the design of neoclassical architecture and focus on the aspects of symmetry, balance and splendor. So in other words, when you look at a neoclassical, Beaux-Arts inspired building, you will instantly see a well rounded, extremely symmetrical structure. This structure will also very commonly be accompanied by sculptures, domes, columns and spires. These in turn act as the “splendor” aspect of the design. These buildings are fascinating to look at and exquisite in their beauty. It’s no wonder BioShock Infinite and the World’s Columbian Exposition were both inspired to use this style of architecture.

This example highlights the Roman and Greek influences well. Columns, sculptures, domes and symmetry abound!

In this image we have what I would consider a “colonial” neoclassical style. Reminiscent of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It goes well with BioShock Infinite’s pseudo patriotic theme.

BioShock’s SteamPunk influence is on full display here, notice the clock, gold/bronze exterior and even the steam rising from the left.

In what is perhaps another somewhat neoclassical style, we have Comstock the Prohpet’s Castle, complete with a statuesque angel atop a domed tower. The building’s symmetry speaks volumes for the inspiration of it’s design.

Lastly, we have what could be considered a fusion of design elements. Both fictional in its SteamPunk infused extravagance but grounded by its elegant and somewhat simple neoclassical design, this structure is a work of symmetric perfection.

 

So, how accurate is BioShock Infinite’s style and architecture anyway? Were the amazing team of artists that worked on this game able to truly capture the look and feel of the World’s Columbian Exposition? Did Ken Levine’s vision of an alternate history with a neoclassical styled city in the clouds truly live up to the reality of the 1893 World’s Fair? We’re talking over a hundred years ago! That fact alone made me immensely curious. So, let’s dig deeper shall we:

 

 

The tower in the shot on the right, you will find at the top of the Electricity Building at the 1893 World’s Fair. As you can see, it is eerily similar to BioShock Infinite’s own version. While the BioShock version is perhaps a bit more “colonial” in its look, the resemblance in style is undeniable. From the arches, to the flags, to the dome atop the tower, this is neoclassical design, which quite possibly could have been influenced directly from this 120 year old picture.

 

 

Next, we have another shot of the World’s Fair Electricity Building. But this time, we are comparing the main entrance of the building with the main entrance to Comstock the Prophet’s palace, again, amazingly similar in style and structure. Arching gateways, statues, Roman columns, a triangular roof top ledge and nearly flawless symmetry, which all point to classic Beaux-Arts design elements.

 

 

Next, we have the Westinghouse Exhibit, which we are comparing to the Boardwalk Arcade in BioShock Infinite. This comparison is less about architecture and more about simple similarities in style. Note the banners, hanging flags, tunnel-shaped ceilings and emphasis on large electric lights. There is also a striking similarity in the fact that there is a portrait on the back wall in the same position, in both images. BioShock’s is of George Washington whereas in the Westinghouse, it’s Christopher Columbus. Not the same person, but George Washington’s image is featured liberally throughout BioShock Infinite’s landscape. So comparing the two isn’t much of a stretch. I’d say it’s pretty easy to imagine that Westinghouse was an influence on the design of BioShock Infinite’s Arcade and Boardwalk.

 

 

Now we have angels atop spires; Specifically, the top of the Palace of Mechanic Arts at the World’s Fair and the extreme top of Comstock the Prophet’s Castle. BioShock Infinite is littered with angel sculptures throughout the entirety of the game. These angels symbolize the “Angel Columbia” who serves as the guardian and protector of the city. In Neoclassical architecture they are exactly what they would appear to be: symbols of religion and specifically, Christianity. In either case, they are used as a symbol of comfort, stability and spirituality.

 

 

In this shot we have an aspect that runs rampant throughout not only neoclassical architecture, but both BioShock Infinite and The World’s Columbian Exposition as well. That aspect is domes, and these particular domes sit atop the Emporia and Administration Building respectively. Nothing earth-shattering here, but a nice example of similarities in design.

 

 

Consider the magnificent Ferris Wheel: nothing to do with classic architecture, but none the less a huge part of the 1893 World’s Fair. In fact, it kept the fair afloat with revenue when attendance was sagging (Fun Fact: Buffalo Bill set up shop right next door to the Exposition and drew many potential fair attendees away). No small feat for a mere revolving wheel! The creators of BioShock Infinite made sure to include it in their game as you can see above.

 

 

Last, we have Comstock the Prophet of Columbia and the Republic Statue of the World’s Fair 1893. Both symbolize the gateway’s to their respective “events” and also bare fairly remarkable similarities. Granted, one of them is a fictional character with a flowing cape and the other resembles Julius Caesar, but the similarities are no coincidence to be sure.

 

Now that we know the origins of the ideas and designs behind BioShock Infinite, let’s examine the beauty of the experience itself. After all, the genesis of this idea came to me because I felt the art design in this incredible game was worthy of being showcased in its own art exhibit! The look and feel of the game truly is that magnificent. But to examine the “style” of BioShock Infinite, you must also understand the themes the game is presenting to you, themes that are not always completely black and white.

Speaking of black and white, one of the truly remarkable things about this game is the huge risk that was taken in order to preserve its artistic integrity (granted, in my opinion the gameplay was a bit of a cop-out, but you have to make sacrifices somewhere to create a game of this magnitude). Being as the game is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, racism is rampant throughout the city of Columbia. Comstock the Prophet, a Civil War hero and a mythical (but very real) figure in the game, rules the city of Columbia like Adolph Hitler ruled Nazi Germany. Meaning, his logic is deeply flawed. Purity of the white race is a recurring theme throughout the city while Comstock brainwashes the masses by elevating himself to literal angelic heights. Using extreme propaganda, a faux philosophy involving Christianity and images of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Comstock was able to create a false utopia in the sky.

In BioShock Infinite, this “City in the Sky” or Columbia, is in fact, the World’s Columbian Exposition. Although in this alternate version of United States history, not only can the city float, but all sorts of “atom manipulating” technology exist in order to enable it to do so. Suffice it to say that this is where BioShock Infinite’s SteamPunk influence comes into play; things that should be digital, working in an analog world. Oh, but what an amazingly detailed world it is!

There is much, much more to the story of BioShock Infinite but alas, for anyone who potentially hasn’t played this incredible game, I didn’t want to spoil too many of the surprises. Hopefully, if you aren’t familiar with the game, I gave you enough information to help you understand the significance of what I am about to show you now. And if you are familiar with it, well, then you should enjoy this too. So, in the tradition of BioShock Infinite’s grand scale, epic style and remarkable visuals, I present to you, BioShock’s Infinite Beauty.

 

Comstock’s Vengeance! A sight that greets you upon entering the propaganda infused museum entitled: “The Hall of Heroes.” It depicts Comstock saving Columbia from Daisy Fitzroy, leader of a revolutionary group known as the Vox Populi. Look past the propaganda though and you have a desperate, militant group fighting a totalitarian dictator for their right to be equal citizens of Columbia. The pure, epic beauty of this shot, complete with it’s neoclassical look, still floors me every time I lay eyes on it.

 

A simple, more elegant shot. As you traverse through BioShock Infinite, you will frequently find Elizabeth, your constant companion, sitting back and gazing at the scenery. Perhaps she is just happy watching the fire crackle and burn. Beauty is sometimes found in unlikely places.

 

An elegant shot in the bowls of the Fink Manufacturing Company. Perhaps the “FoxCon” of Columbia, Fink employs everyone and compensates them with slave wages. This shot captures the workers uniforms drying in the warm sunlight. A rare moment of solace in an industrialized world of continuous grind.

 

A rather ironic scene. Iconic banners featuring the leaders of the Vox Populi resistance, cast aside to be disposed of by Comstock’s drones. A sad but compellingly poignant image.

 

In the depths below Fink Manufacturing lies the dregs of society. Cast out from the upper class of Columbia, these transients suffer and live on the streets in complete and utter poverty. In this image, a man speaks his mind to a small audience while the ever present Fink logo glows bright with ironic electricity in the backdrop. A sore reminder of the life of luxury at the summit of the city that is denied from these poor, unenlightened citizens.

 

BioShock Infinite is riddled with grandiose views like this one. In this particular instance, Comstock’s Palace sits in the background while Elizabeth looks on into prosperity plaza. An ironically named park in this alternate, conflict riddled universe.

 

A magnificent sunset in an infinite universe of possibilities. We are well beyond Columbia here.

 

Sometimes the simplest of scenes are the most eloquent. What is the story of this room? Papers blowing out a broken window, a ruined Columbia, burning in the distance, a group of wine bottles soaking up the moonlight, what happened here? We will never know…

 

Columbia! The “New Eden” of the world. At its best, an extravagant but hospitable place. Helped by the ever-observing Angel of Columbia. Everywhere you go on this floating expanse, she is watching.

 

In the twisted world of Comstock the Prophet, Abraham Lincoln is vilified and John Wilkes Booth is a hero. As this painting within a painting clearly shows, Lincoln is a devil to be dealt with. Even though this type of imagery is disturbing, it makes me wonder. Would the United States of America have turned into a racist, militant state if the Confederates had won the Civil War? It’s an interesting and troubling question to ponder…

 

Native Americans have a strong presence in the world of BioShock Infinite, although not in the sense you might think. While the real life Battle of Wounded Knee is referenced throughout Columbia, no actual, living Native Americans appear in the game. Instead, they appear in images on projectors, sculptures in the Hall of Heroes, or the butt of jokes at a fairground shooting gallery. In the land of Columbia, they are unwanted ghosts, relics of a bygone era, equally as vilified as people of color. Their only solace is that they aren’t forced to suffer here as many unfortunate Columbians have. Here, only the fortunate were born into the “pure,” white race.

 

Comstock and the Angel of Columbia. Displayed as if in a vision from Heaven. Another breathtaking scene from an utterly gorgeous game.

 

Depicted in this picture, and in the images below, is Columbia’s “propagandized” version of the Boxer Rebellion, a real-life uprising in China against foreigners and Chinese Christians which took place between 1899-1901. While in reality, the rebellion was quashed by the Chinese government and the ones responsible put to death, in Columbia, the Chinese are portrayed in an extremely racist fashion. From yellow skin to exaggerated squinty eyes, there is only one side to this story in the racist state of Comstock the Prohpet.

 

BioShock Infinite does have it’s creepy moments. And in what is perhaps, the creepiest moment in all of Columbia, we have a room full of heads. Specifically, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and of course, Comstock the Prophet. The spotlight mixed with a subtle American flag draped over a table, add to the complete eeriness of the scene. Looking at it just makes my skin crawl. And of course, to make matters worse, every Comstock Head you come across has vile, glowing yellow eyes. Peering, piercing eyes, staring out at you from the darkness. Nightmares are made from this.

 

In one of the brighter moments of BioShock Infinite, we have a lovely, stylized beach boardwalk. Complete with an arcade, and massive shark heads with cannons protruding like antlers from their noggins. It’s quite a breathtaking scene and shows the lengths these incredibly talented artists went through to give you something thoroughly unlike anything seen in a video game before.

 

Finally, we have the incredibly powerful image of the entrance to Comstock’s Palace. Complete with our founding fathers armed to the teeth. The scene is breathtaking and magnificent. Truly like no other in a video game that I have ever experienced. So much can be said from such a terrifyingly beautiful scene. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and then some.

 

 

There are many beautiful things about BioShock Infinite. Even in its ugly depiction of humanity at its worst, the game still manages to be beautiful in its style and design. A feat such as that is envious in itself, but put it into a AAA game package meant to appeal to the widest audience possible, and you have a risky proposition. Even though Irrational Studios is now disbanded and Ken Levine has moved on to other projects, BioShock Infinite will live on as a testament to what AAA games should be. It proved that even a game with rudimentary and quite frankly, dated game mechanics can still be groundbreaking in other ways. Anything that mixes real history with an already compelling story is enough to spark my interest. It’s something that video games outside of perhaps the 4X strategy genre, don’t do all that often. People can argue all day that gameplay is all that matters in a game, but in the case of BioShock Infinite, the gameplay was the least of my concerns. The beauty made the experience. Art imitates life, and life is beautiful.

 

 

 


  • http://www.youtube.com/jimmyhapa Jimmy Hapa

    More like “The Beauty of Aggro’s Articles!” XD

    Fantastic work here! I was fully immersed in the world of Bioshock Infinite and explored everywhere I could at my own pace so I could appreciate all the details of the game world (much like Bioshock, and to a lesser extent Bioshock 2)…but I never gave it THIS much thought! There’s so much to analyze in the game regarding the story themes, character motivations, social commentary, and of course THAT ENDING, but I really took the World’s Fair influence for granted in the art direction.

    Really, really well done here sir, and this was truly an interesting read…I feel like picking up that Bioshock Infinite art book now…

    Perhaps you could turn this into a short video to give your editing skills some practice? Might be fun!

  • https://www.youtube.com/user/retrointactivegamer retro-inactive

    Finally got to read (most of) of this article and holy moly! I skipped a few small sections and later images since I haven’t played this yet and am looking forward to trying it without too much previously revealed.

    Excellent work. The design of your article supports your words. It’s heavy and a little busy, but is in line with the grandiose designs from both the game and the real life structures that served as inspiration for it.

    The writing itself was through, concise, eloquent and compelling. I wasn’t a fan of Bioshock 1 for the lackluster gameplay, but Infinite caught my eye for the visual design and story, which to me is just as important in a AAA title as gameplay.

    You’ve made me push this game to the top of my buy/play list just so I can walk through this world.

    Superb job Aggro!

  • https://www.youtube.com/user/retrointactivegamer retro-inactive

    I wholeheartedly agree with Jimmy. This would would make an excellent video piece.

  • http://www.gamingrebellion.com Arkonviox

    Wait, there’s a comment section here, holy crap.

  • http://www.gamingrebellion.com Aggro Sky

    Thanks guys! I appreciate the feedback. And if you know me, you know that I am known for my “busy” design layouts :).

  • rozaldvane

    This article is so beautiful with all the visuals and the descriptions of the game’s backgrounds. Great Work, Aggro!

  • http://www.gamingrebellion.com Aggro Sky

    Thanks so much rozaldvane! It really was a labor of love creating it! So glad you enjoyed it! :)