BioShock is celebrating its 10-year anniversary today, March 26, 2023. Below, we take a look at how its DLC, Burial at Sea, attempted imperfectly to find synthesis between its various worlds.
BioShock's Rapture is a place of necessity. The novelty of its underwater setting comes out of a practical concern: Why wouldn't a player character just leave a dangerous place? The game's thematic concerns came out of these gamey considerations. Give Big Daddies Little Sisters so that players are incentivized to attack difficult enemies to get resources. A world without regulation means that players can buy ammo from vending machines and shoot lightning out of their hands with "plasmids."
Even the game's preoccupation with objectivism comes from these kinds of practical considerations. In director Ken Levine's own words, "we wanted a very believable reason why they would be there." Rapture's founder Andrew Ryan (a thinly veiled stand-in for writer Ayn Rand) cannot imagine a place where he can build his ideal, objectivist world on land, so it must be done in the sea. Though BioShock's narrative ultimately, tepidly, condemns him, it also finds some nobility in his mission, in the purity of his vision. Maybe that's because his goals were similar to the designers'. They too built Rapture out of necessity, a world constructed out of gameplay constraints, that could only exist digitally.
BioShock Infinite is similarly artificial, but it is also far less clockwork in construction. Unlike the prior game, there is no marriage of convenience between practical and narrative concerns. For example, Rapture's Plasmids return, here renamed Vigors. While Plasmids get several audio logs exploring how and why they came to be, Vigors get tertiary consideration. They are part of the carnival which opens the game, but how and from what they are made is unexplained. Unlike in BioShock, their presence does not feed back into the narrative. In one of modern gaming's most frequently observed plot holes, protagonists Booker and Elizabeth are tasked with arming a revolution in a world where you can throw fireballs with your bare hands if you buy the right bottle from a vending machine.
Pointing out such inconsistencies can be beside the point, but in this case it shows a fundamental difference between the two games' design. BioShock is obsessed with its setting. Rapture is the primary means through which most of the characters are channeled, and the game's systemic preoccupations are about space. Some abilities center around hacking cameras or turrets to create safe zones. The game encourages you to know where vending machines and health dispensers are. Playing a level means getting to know the ins and outs of a specific part of Rapture.
In contrast, Infinite is far more focused on a propulsive, blockbuster logic. In a certain sense, you move less from location to location and more from set piece to set piece. There is far less backtracking and less ability to engage with the systems of any given location. Infinite has a variety of levels, but how you engage with and what you do in each level is basically identical. The place-based systems of the original are almost entirely gone.
BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea attempts to reconcile the franchise's two worlds, bringing Elizabeth and Booker into Rapture itself. But this Rapture feels completely different. In the DLC's first part, you play as Booker. The game plays identically to Infinite, with no real changes based on the new setting. True, you fight a Big Daddy, but otherwise the weapons, enemies, and pacing are filled with Infinite's sensibilities. The original's claustrophobic hallways are traded for Infinite's vistas. Part of this is because Burial at Sea takes place just before and during Rapture's collapse, when it is dystopian but not in shambles (much like how Infinite sees Columbia in the midst of collapse rather than after it). But the flat exchange of design shows how different the two worlds were in the first place.
However, only Part 1 is an exact replica of Infinite. Elizabeth is the player character in Part 2, and with that shift comes a variety of new systems: non-lethal weapons and a greater emphasis on stealth. Those changes bring flexibility and choices, which feel more akin with the original game. Burial At Sea Part 2 frames BioShock Infinite as a character portrait. Being in Rapture, and by extension Columbia, is different for Elizabeth than for Booker. The depiction of both settings in prior games, and Booker's bloodthirsty approach, are not wholly objective, but tinged with human perspective. In other words, Rapture is like Columbia to Booker because his violent heart treats all places this way.
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However, even in Part 2, Rapture and Columbia are relentlessly made equivalent. Elizabeth returns to Columbia to find that she can interact with it in more or less the same way she could Rapture. In the first place, many of Infinite's systems and narrative beats are present because they were in the original BioShock. The game's meta multiverse fills that fact with profound, metaphysical significance. The DLC doubles down. In the imagination of Burial at Sea, systems are not tied to place or circumstance, but are almost eternal. Elizabeth wonders if all people are trapped in what she calls "a wheel of blood." The revolutions that hit both cities are drawn in parallel. The way that Elizabeth and Booker solve problems is almost solely determined by their own methods and their bodies. The systems which make up Columbia and Rapture are functionally the same.
The game makes this point narratively, too, tying up loose ends and explaining plot holes with the inter-dimensional connection between Rapture and Columbia. Burial at Sea turns the BioShock games--except 2, which is in no way mentioned or alluded to--into one big story. It reframes BioShock's player character as the one who can break the cycles which entrap Booker, Elizabeth, and the rest of the games' cast. What Burial at Sea forgets is that not everything can be reconciled or retconned. Obviously both historical and practical lines can be traced from BioShock to its sequel. But Infinite's ambition reaches for the sky even as it plunges into the ocean. BioShock had the courage to just be a place. Imperfectly rendered, sometimes trite or silly, but a place nevertheless.
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