At the beginning of BioShock Infinite, shortly after arriving in Columbia, Booker DeWitt comes across a barbershop quartet singing, of all things, “God Only Knows,” the 1966 hit song by the Beach Boys. For the player, hearing the song is uncanny, familiar and foreign at the same time, creating unease and a sinking sensation that a lot more is going on than is advertised on the box. For Booker, however, it’s just a pretty song with some sad lyrics. He has no way to know that in 1912 he’s hearing a song from fifty years in the future. Additionally, he’s probably more freaked out by the fact that he was just shot into the sky from a lighthouse into a city floating in the clouds, an event the player regards as mundane because, well, that is what’s advertised on the box.
A cover song is actually a good description of BioShock Infinite’s relationship to the original BioShock. It’s not a sequel, in the traditional sense. It doesn’t further the story of the same characters or the same setting. It doesn’t even take place in the same world. That is to say, it’s not BioShock 3. Instead, BioShock Infinite takes the gameplay, themes, and character tropes from the first game, puts them into a new setting, tweaks the plot a bit, and creates something that is uncannily both old and new. BioShock Infinite is an adaptation of BioShock, as West Side Story is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and, well, BioShock is an adaptation of System Shock 2.
BioShock Infinite is also like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in that it wants the audience to know it’s an adaptation of the original. It foregrounds the parallels so that anyone who’s played the first game cannot help but compare them. Here’s the alternate history science fiction city, but instead of Rapture under the sea, it is Columbia in the sky. Here’s the messianic leader who has imprinted his personal philosophy on the city, but instead of the capitalist Andrew Ryan, who believes in free will above all, it’s the prophet Zachary Comstock, who has faith in destiny. Here’re Rosalind and Robert Lutece, the scientists responsible for the technology that powers the city (and the plot), now helping you undo the damage they caused, in the role of Brigid Tenenbaum. And Jeremiah Fink has taken Frank Fontaine’s place as the amoral man who don’t believe in either the philosophy or the science of the city, but is happy to exploit both to further his own ends.
The biggest difference between the games, and the part of BioShock Infinite that is groundbreakingly new, is Elizabeth, the young woman you have to rescue to win the game. Elizabeth replaces the Little Sisters, the group of creepy girls you could rescue (or harvest) for super powers. But the Little Sisters are collectors items whereas Elizabeth is a real, three dimensional character with conflicting hopes and desires. That Booker DeWitt actually has someone to talk to for most of the game also changes the tone from isolation horror in the original to buddy adventure in the new game.
Being an adaptation of BioShock plays into BioShock Infinite’s larger themes of parallel worlds and determinism. Like hearing “God Only Knows” fifty years too soon, Booker has no way to know he’s following the same path Jack follows (followed? Will follow?) in BioShock, but the player does. The player knows Booker is doomed to use guns and magic to kill his way across this fantasy city as it crumbles around him. The player knows that all of this has happened before and will happen again.
That’s the point of BioShock Infinite, that it is a retread. The most common complaint I’ve heard about the game is that the magic system is not well justified. In BioShock, “plasmids,” the potions that let you shoot fire or lightning from your hand, are not just a core game mechanic, they are also tied intimately into the plot. Plasmids were Rapture’s downfall, as everyone became addicted to them then fought a bloody civil over who controlled the supply. In BioShock Infinite, plasmids, now called “vigors,” are just there. The existence of superpowers in a bottle doesn’t affect the plot much at all. Columbia seems to have vigors simply because Rapture had plasmids.
But that turns out to be literally true. The in-game explanation is that Jeremiah Fink looked through a tear in space and time, spied on the doctor who creates plasmids, and thought “that looks like a good idea.” (I guess he didn’t watch to the end of that movie.) It’s the same explanation for why Songbird, the giant monster that guards Elizabeth, looks and acts like a Big Daddy from Bioshock. And it’s the same explanation for how covers of “God Only Knows,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Tainted Love,” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” end up on the radio in 1912, because Jeremiah Fink’s brother Albert looked through a rift in time too, and instead of stealing technology, stole art. Again, BioShock Infinite is foregrounding its existence as a cover version of BioShock.
The game mechanic that is tied into the plot, that in fact is the plot, is Elizabeth. She finds ammo, money, and health for you in the middle of fights, and her lockpicking skills get you through doors and into safes. And then she starts using her superpower to do the same thing on a bigger scale, pulling in turrets, weapons, and occasionally machine gun-toting robots from other worlds, and opening doors to other timelines.
Like a lot of covers, BioShock Infinite is technically the superior performance of the piece. It’s the better game. Besides six years of technical advances in graphics, BioShock Infinite also refines and expands on the original game play in fun ways. It removes a lot of the annoying fiddly bits (no more “hacking” mini-games, only one system of currency, you don’t have to manually reload your health). It takes advantage of the open air setting to create expansive battlefields and a sky rail system that has you flinging yourself over rooftops and leaping from airship to airship. There are more and more varied enemy types, who require different strategies for defeating them. And the story, which takes place during the game rather than mostly in flashback, is more complicated and emotionally compelling.
That said, BioShock Infinite will never be considered as groundbreaking as BioShock because, ironically, it’s limited. The upside of a cover is that you know exactly what you’re going to get. The downside is that you know exactly what you’re going to get. As great a game as it is, (and it is! I highly recommend it!) and despite its plot twists BioShock Infinite does not and cannot surprise as much as the first game does, and can never be a revelatory gaming experience, because in the end it is BioShock, Again, But Better This Time, and BioShock already exists.