Sunday, 21 April 2013

Fellow Travellers

This post is going to discuss some plot points in BioShock Infinite. There will be spoilers, and while I will try to avoid major plot reveals, you should bear in mind that there may be some; if you can't abide 'em, then now's the time to stop reading.

On with the show!

One of the main political groups Booker discovers in Columbia is the Vox Populi, a rag-tag bunch of rebels in desperate need of guns. He agrees to help them, in exchange for a favor, an act that causes his companion Elizabeth some concern. Is helping the Vox Populi the right thing to do? Will they be just like the heroes of Les Miserables - a rather melancholy end for them, of course, but death in a good cause can only be heroic - and make things better for the people?

Which goes to show that French literature, no matter how masterful, can't be trusted when it comes to describing revolutions. As a general rule, successful revolts tend to go something like this:

A: These many, then, shall die; their names are prick'd.
O: Your brother, too, must die; consent you, Lepidus?
L: I do consent ...
O: Prick him down, Antony.
L: Upon condition Publius shall not live,
     Who is your sister's son, Mark Antony.
A: He shall not live; look, with a spot I damn him.
     But, Lepidus, go you to Caesar's house; 
     Fetch the will hither, and we shall determine
    How to cut off some charge in legacies.
L: What, shall I find you here?
O: Or in the Capitol.
exit L
A: This is a slight, unmeritable man,
     Meet to be sent on errands; is it fit,
     The three-fold world divided, he should stand,
     One of the three to share it?

This is what a successful revolt looks like, and has looked like ever since man first started building cities. An unsuccessful revolt looks something like this:

D: Shall no man else be touched, but only Caesar?
C: Decius, well urged: I think it is not meet,
     Mark Antony, so well beloved of Caesar,
     Should outlive Caesar: we shall find of him 
     A shrewd contriver; and, you know, his means,
     If he improve them, may well stretch so far
    As to annoy us all; which to prevent,
    Let Antony and Caesar fall together.
B: Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius, 
     To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
     Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;
     For Antony is but a limb of Caesar:
     Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.

It is a pattern that repeats itself, time and again. When Richard of Gloucester finally has the throne of England in his grasp, after hard and bloody campaigning, his first act is to silence his brother's Woodeville relations, who are accused - whether accurately or not is impossible to say - of plotting against Richard's life. Shortly afterward, Richard's brother's children go conveniently missing, and the fate of the princes in the Tower has never been conclusively proved. Not long after that, Richard himself ends up dead at Bosworth field, only to have his bones excavated under a car park, of all things. The socialists who followed Marx and Lenin, and overthrew the Tsar, did so out of the highest motives; "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" is a noble sentiment, but soon snuffed out. Come the mid-1920s, many of those who follow Marxist ideals are under suspicion, in exile, or dead; when Stalin consolidates his power, the age of assassination and condemnation begins. "The French give a man rum before they lead him out to the guillotine," said Mikhail Koltsov, Stalin's man in Spain during the Civil War, "In these days we give him champagne." Koltsov was a man with few illusions; he too died, a victim of Stalin's bloodlust.

A rebellion that succeeds does so because it consolidates power quickly and decisively. Time and again, that has meant killing off your political enemies as quickly as possible. Even the United States, much more fortunate in this regard, has its Whiskey Rebellion, and victory for Washington and the rebels meant disaster for the Loyalists, tens of thousands of whom emigrated. But that is a rare example of a revolution that consolidates itself without excess bloodshed. Regrettably many rebel leaders more closely resemble Pol Pot than Washington and, as the CIA has sometimes learned to its cost, the rebels you support today may be your enemy tomorrow.

Even so, it is rare, in a modern fictional context, for rebels to be portrayed in a bad light. Instead it is almost axiomatic that the rebels are the good guys, and - particularly in a video game - if you join the rebels, you must be fighting on the side of the angels. It is very, very uncommon for that not to be the case, and even on the occasions when the rebels turn out to have feet of clay, they still get something like a noble exit. After all, the rebellion isn't to be blamed for the actions of a few bad apples, and if you can only kill the right people at the right time, justice will assuredly prevail. In BioShock context, the Vox Populi soon reveal themselves as being less heroic than the protagonists of Les Miserables, which is altogether a more realistic view of revolutions than video games normally give.

In an RPG context, particularly as relates to Trail of Cthulhu, what does this mean?

To begin with, the protagonists in your campaign may well believe - as Elizabeth initially believes, and as many intellectuals of the 1930s rationalize it - that revolution is the necessary first step that will lead to a utopia. There are any number of political revolts kicking off, or threatening to kick off, in the decade, many of them inspired by events in Russia. Spain's Civil War is the classic, the one that inspired Orwell first to fight, and later to create his seminal work of revolutionary fiction. Across Europe there are groups dedicated to the cause of working class revolution. Central and Southern America are still smouldering after a tumultuous nineteenth century, Ghandi is fasting and avoiding assassination in India, nationalism is bubbling away in Africa, while in America Roosevelt is dealing with unprecedented poverty by making an unprecedented move to the political Left. Everyone believes revolution is coming, and that the people they most dislike are "a bunch of mindless jerks who will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes." If you believe that revolution is a bad thing, then clearly you must be a member of the bourgeoisie, and therefore thoroughly deserve what's coming to you.

Next comes disillusion. As Orwell demonstrates, there is nothing more likely to induce a violent dislike of revolution than seeing one close up. There will be the pricking of lists, the poisonous umbrellas, torture, unjust imprisonment, and betrayal both of people and of the revolutionary ideal. Your former comrades quickly become your worst enemies; indeed, they have to, even if they would prefer otherwise, since to defend you means being denounced in turn. Or perhaps they have internalized the party message to such a degree that to think otherwise is beyond them.

"It would be impossible for me," wrote Orwell, "for instance, to debate the rights and wrongs of the Barcelona fighting with a Communist Party member, because no Communist - that is to say, no 'good' Communist - could admit that I have given a truthful account of the facts. If he followed his party line dutifully he would have to declare that I am lying or, at best, that I am hopelessly misled and that anyone who glanced at the Daily Worker headlines a thousand miles from the scene of events knows more of what was happening in Barcelona than I do."         

Fictions work best when they mirror reality. For that reason, the Vox Populi - and the revolt in general - in BioShock Infinite's Columbia will probably have a much greater effect on the video game playing audience than the hundred other rebellions their avatars may have joined in the past. In your RPG campaign, I would recommend you strive for something similar. In Trail, this could be reflected in something as simple as a Drive, Pillar of Sanity or Source of Stability. Perhaps this character genuinely believes in the worker's revolution, or their best friend and mentor is a champion of the downtrodden. Or, if the Keeper wants to go further, perhaps the game could be set in the context of an existing revolution, like Spain. Even in a less tumultuous setting, like Bookhounds of London, there's scope for revolutionary doings; the owner of a bookstore can easily be distributing political propaganda on the side, or attending meetings of a very dubious nature. No doubt the police, or the domestic intelligence services, would like a quiet word.    

The key thing to bear in mind is, in fiction, rebellions give players something to fight for. That's why video games use them so often; they're an excellent context for the ongoing action. But those games ignore the wider context of rebellion at their peril. "You just complicate the narrative," Booker is told, and that ought also to be true of your players. The revolution is by no means an unmixed blessing, and the protagonists may soon discover that what they thought they were fighting for is less substantial than, say, a castle in the clouds.

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