For this audio-visual essay, I have chosen the official box art for the game Bioshock Infinite as my media piece for analysis. Bioshock Infinite is the third title in the Bioshock series, released on March 26th 2013 by Irrational Games [Bioshock Wiki].
As a game design student and active gamer, the box art reveals major clues of the game’s genre and what it will be about. The box art conveys clues to the themes and story of the game through its chosen imagery and design. Through semiotic analysis of color and symbolism, I will discuss the hidden meanings and how it relates to the themes of freedom and religion.
Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols. It involves anything that represents or has meaning in which the viewer decodes, whether it is signs in everyday speech, shape, sound, image or color [Chandler, 2006, pg. 1]. In semiotics, signs can be represented in three different ways which is also known as a signifier. These three forms are denotations, connotations and myths. Denotation is defined as the literal meaning of a sign, connotation is the expressive values attached to the sign and finally, myth reflects the culturally-variable concepts linked to a specific worldview [Chandler, 2006, pg. 2].
Color in semiotics is classified as a sign as it has multiple meanings attached to them depending on the culture. For the color analysis, I will be using Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2002) methodology. In their model, it is acknowledged that color can have meaning in two ways: psychological (culture and past associations) and the present from advertising and brands [Almalech, 2014]. For this essay, I will be using what the color means psychologically, rather than the meanings generated from advertising and marketing. Color psychology plays a major role in advertising and marketing however. They use the denotative and connotative meanings of color to their advantage. If used poorly, it can send the wrong message to the audience. When used effectively, color can create a powerful impact on the audience by creating an emotional response while clearly delivering the message.
The Bioshock franchise is well-known for its heavy symbolism and themes (e.g. philosophies, religion, etc.) even if how they chose to portray it within the game stirs up controversy. Some of the symbolism is subtle yet has a powerful impact on the story or message the game is trying to convey. In Bioshock Infinite box art, there are signs that can be analyzed for their hidden meanings, which in turn hints the game’s storyline. Bioshock Infinite was confirmed to be set in America during 1912 [Doke, 2012]. A turbulent and changing time period for America, which includes the rise of religion and sense of nationalism [Stephk, 2015].
Looking at the box for the first time, there is a male at the forefront holding what appears to be a shotgun. He is wearing period clothing indicative of the 1900s, hinting the time period the game is set in. We can see there is heavy emphasis on fire as the flag is burning, and fire sparks going across the bottom half of the poster. The background is predominantly blue with white clouds and the presence of an airship in the upper left corner, this gives an idea that the game’s setting is somewhere high up in the clouds. The imagery reveals who the main character is, with hints to the game’s setting and major plot point.
The male with the shotgun is the main character, as he is in the front and the largest image. It reveals that the game will be full of action in the form of intense combat that can be close quarters. As the shotgun is a weapon traditionally used as close quarter combat weapon or as a defensive weapon at close range. The shoulder holster that the character wears further supports this as holsters can carry either dual pistols, or a pistol and knife combination. Looking at the main character, we can see he has sustained an injury to his right hand as it is wrapped in bandages, and there is a large bullet hole on the left side of his jacket. This hints to the audience that he will sustain an injury to his hand and be shot, at some point during the game. As I stated previously, the airship and background heavily indicates the game will be set somewhere up in the sky, possibly on an airship or accessible only by airship. The imagery of the male armed with a powerful firearm and surrounded by fire with a burning flag behind him, feels almost as if he is leading a revolution or battle.
The image of the flag burning, especially if it is the flag of the United States of America, has a very powerful and symbolic meaning. For many Americans, the flag is the national symbol of freedom, and symbolically represents their values. To them, burning the flag is sacrilege and attacks what it represents. Historically flag desecration is done as a form of protest and often as “the expression of a minority viewpoint that is being symbolized” [Cline, 2016]. In the United States, flag burning is protected by the first amendment as according to the Supreme Court: “burning a flag is an act of expression and “symbolic speech” [Kopan, 2016]. In this context, the flag burning represents freedom no longer exists in this fictional world and as a sign of protest, the symbol of revolution against those who are in power.
Fire has many denotative and connotative meanings. Its meaning changes based on how the viewer chooses to interpret it. The Chinese, Hebrews, Egyptians and Christians saw fire as a symbol of divinity. Christians also associated fire as being symbolic of religious zeal and martyrdom. In some cultures, it was seen as a force of purification [Cooper, 1978]. Similarly to the Phoenix, fire can be interpreted as representing new life or rebirth [Parker, 2013]. In a more literal sense, fire can represent many things: warmth, illumination, passion and even death for example. In modern context, it can represent destruction, forest fires is a prime example of fire being destructive [University of Michigan, n.d].
Given how Bioshock Infinite portrayed religion as one of its major themes and plot devices, it is using the alternative Christian meaning of fire: religious zeal and martyrdom. However, it may also represent destruction in a literal sense (e.g. fire from the battle) or symbolically where the flag no longer represents freedom and values held by the people.
As I mentioned earlier on, colors have multiple meanings attached to them. The most dominant colors we see on the poster is blue and orange. Orange in some Asian cultures represents positive and being spiritually enlightened. In the US it represents road hazards, traffic delays and fast-food restaurants [De Bortoli & Maroto, 2001, pg. 4]. Blue is sometimes associated with freedom [Almalech, 2014], new beginnings, protection or heaven [Living Arts Original, n.d]. In the US, blue signifies philosophy and trustworthiness. In Asia, blue typically symbolizes water or sky [De Bortoli & Maroto, 2001, pg. 15, 23]. Interestingly enough, blue was also the symbol of depression in America [Morton, n.d]. There is some flashes of white on the art piece as well, from the sun’s glare in the background, the flag, the character’s clothing and few of the fire sparks are close to being white with slight hues of orange. In the Bible, white represented the color of light and emblem of the divine. However it can also symbolize fresh beginnings, purification of thoughts or actions. White is the traditional color worn by bribes in western culture, including Japan. In China and parts of Africa, it is the color of morning. White does correspond to the five elements, directions and four seasons in China; representing the element of metal, the west and season of autumn [Smith, 2017].
In regards to Bioshock Infinite, these colors have religious undertones and relate to the concept of freedom and new beginnings. These colors visually communicate that the game will focus heavily on these concepts throughout its storyline. Combined with the symbolism, the flag burning and fire in particular, it heavily suggests there will be a battle with the main character leading the charge, bringing chaos or destruction to the established hierarchy/power structure. The color semiotics implies he will need to make a choice that may lead to death or freedom. Death may even be a metaphor in the game leading back to the idea of new beginning and rebirth.
The game title is set near the top at the center of the box but behind the main character. It is set on what appears to be metal plating with colors of the American flag, with the stars underneath it. Once again, this establishes where the game will take place. The metal plating gives hint of the setting being very industrialized. The text uses the same typeface, although the name of the franchise is larger and appears to have been bolded with gold outlining. The red coloring causes it to blend in with the image, but the gold outline helps draw the viewer’s attention to the name of the franchise, before directing their attention to the subtitle.
In conclusion, the Bioshock Infinite box art effectively uses signs and symbolism, particularly color in its design. Analyzing the symbolism and signs in relation to semiotics revealed recurring themes that is synonymous with Bioshock. Themes such as freedom, religion and renewal or rebirth was communicated through the box art via color and hidden symbolism. These worked together to subtly convey to the viewer what the game’s story and themes will be about, as well clearly warning them that there will be a fight ahead of them.
Almalech, M. (2014). Semiotics of Color. Retrieved from http://www.iass-ais.org/proceedings2014/view_lesson.php?id=69
Chandler, D. (2006). Semiotics: the basics (Vol. 2). London: Routledge. Retrieved from
Cline, A. (2016, May 5). The American Flag as Symbol: But a Symbol of What? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-american-flag-as-symbol-249987
De Bortoli, M., & Maroto, J. (2001). Colors across Cultures. Retrieved from http://globalpropaganda.com/articles/TranslatingColours.pdf
Doke, S. (2012, December 03). Box art, more information on BioShock Infinite revealed. Retrieved from http://www.firstpost.com/tech/news-analysis/box-art-more-information-on-bioshock-infinite-revealed-3614831.html
Kopan, T. (2016, November 29). What the Supreme Court has said about flag burning. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/29/politics/flag-burning-constitutional-donald-trump/index.html
Living Arts Original. (n.d.). Blue symbolism & everything about blue color meaning. Retrieved from http://www.livingartsoriginals.com/infobluesymbolism.htm Could not find name of author anywhere on the site
Morton, J. (n.d.). Blue: The Meanings of Blue. Retrieved from https://www.colormatters.com/the-meanings-of-colors/blue
Parker, L. (2013, February 20). 7 common symbols in Literature. Retrieved from https://clutchink.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/7-common-symbols-in-literature/
Smith, K. (2017). Color White; Psychology, Symbolism, Meaning. Retrieved from http://www.sensationalcolor.com/color-meaning/color-meaning-symbolism-psychology/all-about-the-color-white-4369#.WW4CIoh95hE
Stephk. (2015, January 29). A Man Chooses; Bioshock Parallels. Retrieved from http://gamecult.umwblogs.org/2015/01/29/a-man-chooses/
University of Michigan. (n.d.). Fire. Retrieved from http://umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/F/fire.html Referenced Cooper, 1978 but was unable to find the actual article itself