BioShock Infinite: The Columbian Archaeological Society

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BioShock: The Collection dropped from 2K Games in September 2016 and includes all three titles in the series as well as DLC. While I had finished both BioShock 1 and 2 for PC years ago, I had only played the first hour of BioShock Infinite on a friend’s Xbox 360. Wanting to return, I was finally able to make the trip on my PlayStation 4, the PS Store having the collection on sale for a third off retail. How could I resist? Archaeologists are always on a budget.

If you have not yet experienced BioShock Infinite, now is the time to play it. The game is set in the floating city of “Columbia,” which has seceded from the United States in order to pursue an agenda of white nationalism and “racial purity,” led by a charismatic zealot. Your goal is to rescue a young woman, Elizabeth, (who ends up rescuing you much of the time) and to learn the dark secrets of Columbia and its leader. You kill a lot of bigots and fascists along the way, which is wholly satisfying, although the set dressing and messaging throughout the game is singularly creepy, especially in light of the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath.

One of the DLC packs, Clash in the Clouds, contains the “Columbian Archaeological Society.” The player begins in what looks to be a boardwalk building full of amusements and carnival fare from 1912. Signage on the wall hints at what lies beyond the entrance to the Society:

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What good is a museum without a gift shop? As you look around the room, other items come into focus including a life-size, animatronic George Washington:

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“Marvel! History Comes Alive! Motorized Patriot.” Washington-bot stands there until you activate him, lurching to life, repeating patriotic speeches. White nationalists need a hero, and he was it, a slave-owning leader draped in the American flag. In the game, he (and other robots like him) attacks you with a chain gun while spouting dogma. As they say, you should never meet your heroes. The animatronics remind me of what I’ve seen in a lot of real-world museums: kinetic sculpture designed to amuse in an effort to educate. The history in Columbia has been rewritten giving permission to its citizens to be bigots. We have seen this before (and we’re seeing it again now).

The Society is down the hall from the main room. Approaching the door, you get a load-screen hint about what to do in the Society itself: “use your winnings to purchase unique artifacts in the Columbia Archaeological Society hall.”

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This immediately sent my Indy-sense tingling. I was ready to get outraged and ranty, thinking about what might lie within: nationalist paraphernalia? Stolen goods from oppressed people? Blood-soaked relics? It made sense considering the winnings referred to on the screen above are earned by killing waves and waves of enemies in creative and brutal ways. The cash you earn is blood money, which is then converted into artifacts. I don’t know what the Society does with the cash post-sale, but I felt uncomfortable spending it. Yet spend I did. So what did I get?

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The first things you see when you enter the grand, sun-filled open space are the empty frames. Approaching these, you note that you can purchase art to fill the frames with concept art:

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This came as a relief, because I certainly did not want to see paintings of jingoist martyrdom or worse. This also reminded me of the extra content in BioSchock 2, the Museum of Orphaned Concepts, which contained abandoned concept art. Some of the art purchased for the Columbian Archaeological Society was funny (above), and others gorgeous (below):

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Paintings are not the only “artifacts” you can buy. There are sculptures, too, of characters from the game:

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Note that museum visitors are permitted to carry their weapons openly, as befitting a libertarian environment such as this. Fortunately, discharging your weapon in this museum has zero impact on the artifacts. Aside from paintings and sculpture, you have the opportunity to purchase media:

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Significant coin allows for the purchased access of several films viewable on nickelodeons. The films in the museum contain audition videos and other production movies. These devices are also sprinkled throughout the game, and contain intentionally distressed black-and-white newsreels, propaganda, and advertisements. Seeing these put in me in mind of the newsreels from The Man in the High Castle, when the Axis won World War II.

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The last media you can purchase are audio recordings of popular, modern songs recorded in the period style a la Scott Joplin. Pictured above, REM’s “Shiny Happy People” gets a 1912 remake that finally makes the tired single sound fresh. So does CCR’s “Fortunate Son.” Hearing these tunes reminded me of the reworked Radiohead songs in HBO’s Westworld, recast for Old West player piano. Listen to a supercut of Bioshock Infinite‘s songs here. The barbershop version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” gave me chills.

After killing hundreds of opponents in various settings in “Clash in the Clouds,” you, too can have your own, complete museum collection of game-artifacts, as well as the “Museum Curator” achievement.

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I found it interesting that paintings were the easiest to afford, followed by sculpture, then video, then audio, which seems to be the opposite of the real-world market for media and art. The museum’s airy space, sunny interior (it’s a city above the clouds after all), and mixture of art and media artifacts almost makes you forget that you’re in a city founded on hatred of the Other masked by “patriotism.” The museum collection complete, visitors arrive to whisper at the art, perhaps coming to the realization that their world is a construct by the hand of an artist who has drawn them ironically. These people are satirized, but are too enraptured with their current situation to realize that the joke is on them.

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The Columbian Archaeological Society, instead of studying the material culture of the horrors of Columbia’s history, is actually one focused on archaeogaming. The artifacts belong to the history of the game’s creation instead of to the game itself, and its imagined past.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

*All screengrabs were taken by the author on his PS4 and are intended for educational and scholarly purposes only. 2K Games owns all rights to the BioShock universe.

 

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2 thoughts on “BioShock Infinite: The Columbian Archaeological Society

  1. Pingback: Die Intellektuellen von Himmelsrand, VR-Ausgrabungen & zu Besuch im Museum von Columbia | ArchaeoGames

  2. Pingback: The Archaeology of Remastering | Archaeogaming

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