*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.*
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.
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.
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.
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.