By Alec Meer on February 13th, 2013 at 4:00 pm.
Matters are rather different for the third BioShock game than they were for the first. While Irrational’s original had to grab attention from a machinegun-crazed mass audience, their next one comes with built-in renown, potentially affording the studio more opportunity and freedom to indulge themselves in other aspects of the game. Where BioShock’s undersea city of Rapture was, in hindsight, much more of a concept than a functioning place, BioShock Infinite’s floating metropolis Columbia seems to be striving harder to have an explicable and finely-sketched society.
Reflecting this is newly-released ebook novella Mind In Revolt, by Irrational’s Joe Fielder with assistance from Ken Levine, which could technically be described as a prequel but seems more designed to flesh out the social pressures bubbling under Columbia’s utopian surface in the way that the rollercoaster ride of an action videogame might not.
Approximately 30 pages long and requiring 20 minutes to read, it’s appropriately if perhaps slightly excessively-priced at a couple of quid – but is it useful and/or rewarding? Or is it hype-fluff with unnecessarily grand aspirations?
Bit of both, I’d say. The most impressive aspect of Joe Fielder’s short story is that it is relatively self-contained and could function as a standalone tale. There’s no science fiction or anything fantastical in there, aside from an alteration of historical events. Columbia’s sky-borne nature isn’t even mentioned, if I recall correctly. Mind in Revolt does require a small amount of familiarity with BioShock: Infinite’s concept, but that can be summarised as ‘a city seceded from the United States of America at the start of the 20th Century, and its people both are ruled by and worship a man who preaches religion, purity and racial intolerance.’ That this might evoke certain parts and mindsets of present-day America is unlikely to be an accident.
The book could be said to concern the battle between science and religion, with diversions into fanaticism, American slavery and the darker aspects of psychology. It also serves to set the scene for the civil war which grips Columbia, between the authoritarian forces of outwardly benevolent ruler/’prophet’ Father Comstock and ‘anarchist’ rebel faction the Vox Populi.
As I understand it, both these groups intermittently act as enemies to the player in the game proper, but Mind in Revolt affords greater understanding of why they’re at war: the brainwashed singlemindedness of the former and the vengeful, distorted social justice of the latter. By the end of the slim tone, it’s hard to call either side heroes, with the book consciously playing to Liberal predispositions only to later subvert them for dramatic effect.
It’s also a engrossing cold war of conversation, as central character and Comstock loyalist Dr Pinchot attempts to interrogate captured Vox Populi leader Daisy Fitzroy. Pinchot calls himself a scientist, but is blinded by religion, devotion and deep-set prejudice (an intelligence test of his own devising presupposes that only white males can score above a certain threshold). His weak-mindness and tendency towards supplication means “small-framed negro” Fitzroy, despite being under threat of torture and lobotomy, proves to be the one truly in control of their battle of wills and beliefs. (Incidentally, for the spoiler averse, the outcome of their slow encounter is openly revealed within the first two paragraphs of the novella – it’s document of how a man’s beliefs were taken apart rather than if they would be).
The book stumbles slightly in that a major event, of sorts, happens somewhat off-camera, requiring something of leap of faith on the reader’s part, plus there’s that niggling sense of simply reading an extended version one of the game’s audio-diaries and thus why need it be a standalone book? But it whet my appetite, it gave me greater understanding of the game’s primary factions and it caused a certain chill as it put me in mind of modern horrors such as the Westboro Baptist Church, Scientology and cult-of-personality regimes such as Syria and North Korea.
Mind In Revolt is fascinating, morally gruesome stuff, written from the perspective of an ignorant, prideful man who makes utterances such as “even as every man knows innately how to pray to God – even one born with a bone though his nose – it is sad truth that we all know how to sin, as well.” If the book’s central purpose is to establish that Columbia is so much more than a cool place to shoot dudes in, it absolutely succeeds. Written in character, with no visible author and with careful observance of the distorted language of a society governed by an extreme, fabricated morality, it’s a smart and compelling read, over all too soon.