Bioshock and Bioshock 2 took place in Rapture, a mysterious city under the sea. The games and, more importantly, the franchise and brand, became synonymous with the dystopian underwater world, founded on the principles of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (The name Andrew Ryan is meant as a sort of portmanteau of her name). Moreso than the enemies found within its walls, the history recorded on its tapes, or even the weapons and powers its protagonists wield, Rapture was the star of the Bioshock show. To look out its many windows and see the ocean, and to walk through the tubes, seemingly suspended in the sea, that connected its various districts, sometimes became sublime. Bioshock Infinite will have none of it. It takes place almost 50 years prior in a city in the sky called Columbia. Rapture wasn’t even a glint in Andrew Ryan’s eye.
At first glance, Bioshock Infinite is not what we perceive to be a Bioshock game. It’s not just that it takes place in the sky, diametrically opposed to the sea, but that its world is populated with life. Rapture was the epicenter of a cataclysm; all we, the players saw, were the dregs of its society, twisted beyond recognition due to gene splicing, serving as cannon fodder. Columbia is full of people, and many are not actively trying to kill you at all times.
Columbia was not initially created to be a refuge from those whom its inhabitants deemed unworthy, but it did end up that way. The inhabitants of Columbia declared themselves independent of America and thought themselves superior to those that they left behind. I’m sure that sounds familar for Bioshock fans. Andrew Ryan spoke with contempt for those that remained on the surface, and Comstock of Bioshock Infinite speaks of the Earth below as if it were hell, and they alone were heaven. This is reflected in the description given of Columbia: “What is Columbia if not another Ark… for another time?”
This is another major difference between Bioshock Infinite and its predecessors: the prevalence and theme of religion. Comstock is referred to as a prophet who gets his orders directly from God. Whether or not Comstock takes orders from some kind of God remains to be seen. However, the use of religion is in stark contrast to one of the very first things you see in the original Bioshock: A large bust of Andrew Ryan and nearby, on a banner, the words: “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.”
It seems that so far there has been great pains to separate the world of Columbia from the world of Rapture. Rather than see a formerly idyllic realm in ruin, we see one that is about to be in ruins, as the battle between the ultra-nationalistic Founders clash against the revolting Vox Populi. More overtly, we are in the sky than under the sea. And yet, it seems that Columbia is a mirror image, a reflection of Rapture.
At first, I thought Rapture and Columbia had similarities to be more comforting to the returning Bioshock player, but now I believe the setting of Bioshock Infinite was designed to be intentionally similar to draw more attention to its biggest difference: Characterization. You don’t play a mute and faceless protagonist this time. You are Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent with a debt to pay. This debt leads Booker to Columbia, where he encounters Elizabeth, a mysterious girl with fantastic powers.
The very existence of Elizabeth is the largest departure for Bioshock Infinite. You’re not alone, fighting for yourself; you’re fighting for and with Elizabeth. She will be alongside you during battles, aiding you in combat. Early trailers imply that after some time, Booker isn’t so willing to get Elizabeth out of Columbia just to pay off his debt; he forms an emotional bond with her and needs to protect her. We’ll find out more shortly; Bioshock Infinite launches for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on March 26 and we’ll have a review shortly after.