After spending many hours playing BioShock Infinite, exploring the air-city of Columbia was the highlight for me. It reminded me of Steampunk fiction, with the air-ships and the idea of a technological revolution at the beginning of the 20th century. I’m also very interested in how Columbia’s environment reflects its ideals, and how it has been inspired by events in real American history to support the game’s narrative.
The in-game Columbia has been inspired by the World’s Columbian Exposition which was “a World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492.” It was designed to make Chicago look like the ‘ideal’ city. The idea of the perfect city is not new to to the BioShock series, as seen in the city of Rapture, but Columbia pushes this notion even further by alluding to the World’s Columbian Exposition architecturally and ideologically.
Columbia was built by America’s government and was heavily promoted and celebrated as an American utopia. Columbia’s neo-classical architecture, for example, is symbolic of the harmony, order and power of the ruling government. This is reminiscent of Chicago being known as the “White City” due to the classical buildings being clad in stucco, the exceptional amount of street lighting and the moral ideals that the World’s Fair tried to portray.
Another likeness to Columbia and the World’s Fair at Chicago is the focus on amusement parks. Chicago was the first World’s Fair to have a carnival and sideshow area, with it’s key ride being the ferris wheel. The ferris wheel can be seen to dominate the panorama of Columbia. The Worlds Fair’s heavy use of electricity to power the amusements and exhibits was considered a marvel, as industrial companies displayed their latest inventions that would help improve society.
The statuary in Columbia, of Columbia herself (the female personification of America) and also of the many powerful figures in the game, are also in the classical style akin to the original “Statue of the Republic” (see image below, source). They not only act as reminders of Columbia’s purpose as a city, but also act as propaganda and a ‘moralising’ watchful eye.
The purpose of the statuary and architecture is very similar to the artworks displayed around the walls of the buildings. All of them are propaganda for the city, motivating its inhabitants into believing Columbia’s purpose.
On the exterior, Columbia is seen as a utopian city full of celebration and promoting the ideas of exceptionalism (liberty, democracy) as it floats around the globe like a travelling World’s Fair. Though like Rapture, Columbia soon emerges as a dystopia where rivalling factions erupt alongside a corrupt dictatorship and chaos is imminent. Without spoiling the game for those who haven’t played it, it does turn out that the purpose of Columbia was not entirely as a city but as something else… This is the scary element of the game, as beneath the happy, bright outlook and patriotic propaganda there is an unnerving sense of war and corruption.
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