PlayStation Universe

The real history behind BioShock: Infinite

  • submit to reddit

on 13 April 2013

Please be aware that if you haven't played BioShock:Infinite this article contains major spoilers about the game.

One thing that strikes you as you play BioShock: Infinite is how much actual real-world history the developers have cleverly used to bring the game's world to life. But just how accurate is all this history and why use it anyway ?

In this article, I'm going to have a look at two real-world historical events used in BioShock: Infinite that have a major impact on the story, explain what they were about and why they add so much to the game.

The first piece of history is the battle of Wounded Knee that forms an important part of the back story of Booker DeWitt. Players learn in the game that DeWitt committed numerous atrocities at this battle, which led to him being given the nickname "the White Injun," and later led him to seek out redemption for this through baptism. But what actually happened at Wounded Knee ?

The battle of Wounded Knee, or the massacre as it came to be known, happened in 1890 near Wounded Knee creek; it was the one of the last battles of the American Indian war if it can actually be called such.

On December 29 in 1890 the 7th Cavalry (which in-game was DeWitt's regiment), were sent into an Indian camp to disarm the tribesmen there. What actually happened while they were doing this is subject to debate but something went wrong and shooting broke out. The Indians tried to flee and were pursued by the cavalry, who cut them down whether they were armed or not; when the fight was over, approximately 150 Indians had been killed. Afterwards no cavalry officer was ever formally held to account for this action and twenty troopers were even awarded the medal of honor for their part in the massacre. Even the general public were unmoved with L. Frank Baum author of "The Wizard of Oz " commenting:

"Our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth."

In BioShock: Infinite the city of Columbia with its warped views choose to celebrate the Wounded Knee massacre with jaded patriotism in their Hall of Heroes. Just how different their view of the battle is can be best summed up in this poem the player can hear in the exhibition.

"With hue and cry, with hatchet red,
They danced among our noble dead.
But when our soldiers took the field,
The savage horde could only yield
. "

Unsurprisingly the aftermath of this battle is one of the contributing factors that drove DeWitt to alcoholism and gambling, which in turn starts him down the tragic path to giving up his own daughter to wipe away his debts. What DeWitt did at the battle that affected him so badly is hinted at in his nickname "the White Injun," which can only infer that he defiled the Indian's corpses most likely by taking scalps.

So that's one grim event from history that BioShock Infinite uses to excellent effect and with very little if any alteration as to what actually happened. This is because Wounded Knee is really used to give background to in-game characters and to also allow the player to gain a good idea of the sort of city they are now in.

The next piece of history I feel deserves examination can also be found in Columbia's Hall of Heroes right next to the Wounded Knee exhibition and that is the Boxer Rebellion.

In the game the player learns that Comstock used his aerial gunships to fire on the Chinese during this rebellion, which not only allowed the world to learn of how heavily armed he is but leads to Columbia's secession from the United States.

But what was the Boxer rebellion and why would the USA chose to attack China in the first place? Let's have a look at what happened.

The Boxer rebellion took place between 1899 and 1901 in China. The reason behind the revolt was that some Chinese nationals known as Boxers - due to their love of martial arts - were so unhappy with the spread of evangelism and foreign influence in their country that they decided the only way to end it all was armed revolt. It took an alliance of eight nations, one of which was the USA, to put the rebellion down but not before many foreign nationals including missionaries had been massacred throughout China. Flushed with success the victors behaved as badly as the Boxers they had defeated with looting and massacring occurring across China. Nobody complained at the fate of the rebels; in fact, Kaiser Wilhelm ordered his troops:

"Should you encounter the enemy, he will be defeated! No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken! ... may the name German be affirmed by you in such a way in China that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German."

BioShock Infinite uses the Boxer rebellion in two ways. Firstly, just like Wounded Knee, it allows the player to see exactly what sort of society Columbia is. Secondly it drives the back story of Comstock and is part of what sets him on the path to where the player finds him, deluded by his own power and full of righteous fury against anyone who doesn't agree with his twisted views. If Comstock wasn't an advocate of slavery before the Boxer Rebellion there can be no doubt that he emerges from the affair with the view that all other races are inferior compared to the white man.

Just like Wounded Knee the Boxer Rebellion exhibition has a poem which allows players to see exactly how Columbia viewed the affair.

"With yellow skin and slanted eyes
They did betray us with their lies.
Till they crossed the righteous path
Of our prophet's holy wrath
. "

The Boxer Rebellion sees more alteration to actual history than Wounded Knee with the addition of Comstock and his zeppelins aside from U.S. forces, perhaps the rebellion might even have been ended quicker due to this superior firepower. Despite this tinkering with time the rest of the Boxer rebellion seems to be treated accurately and is another excellent reminder to players of just how twisted a city Columbia is.

The use of these two historic events with only very limited alterations to what actually happened is one of the great strengths of BioShock: Infinite. As the player initially witnesses Comstock and Columbia's golden world and marvels at the wonder of a flying city, these historical events are what first really starts to bring home to the player that blood stains the foundations of Columbia. In addition, it also allows them to see that Comstock is not a deluded man, but that his soul is warped and he is truly evil. Using real-world history also adds more poignancy to DeWitt and Comstock's stories than the use of any sanitized or even totally fictional historical back stories could and so in turn adds more drama to the BioShock: Infinite story line.

It would have been very easy for BioShock: Infinite to play it safe by ignoring these two contentious historical incidents or fictionalizing them to such an extent that the horrors that occurred there were diluted. That it doesn't is a testament to the strength of the game and shows how use of real-world history in such products can only add to the player's experience and add layers to any plot that will increase any gamers enjoyment of the overall story.

Read our review of BioShock: Infinite here.