Like many of you, I recently played Burial at Sea, the first episode of BioShock Infinite’s two-part DLC set in the submerged city of Rapture. While I enjoyed exploring Andrew Ryan’s city on the eve of its decline, something wasn’t right. All the key elements were there: art deco architecture, moody jazz, a sunken landscape populated by Little Sisters and Big Daddies. Sure, it looked and sounded a lot like Rapture, but it didn’t feel like Rapture.
It’s hard to describe. On one hand, Rapture has never looked so beautiful, yet there’s little in Burial at Sea that actually feels like the original BioShock games. Not even the plasmids are the same. It plays like an underwater BioShock Infinite, which is fine, just not the nostalgic return to Rapture I was hoping for.
But I guess that’s the nature of nostalgia. It’s a yearning for things past, a longing for something you wish you could experience again. The feeling is bittersweet, fond memories tinged with the sadness of knowing they can’t be relived. No matter how hard you try, you can never go back.
For instance, I’ll never be able to experience the opening of BioShock—the plane crash, the lighthouse, the bathysphere—for the first time again. I know the plane is going to crash, I know exactly when “Beyond the Sea” starts playing in the lighthouse, and I know, riding the bathysphere down, that all good things of the Earth do not flow into the city of Rapture. I wanted so badly for Burial at Sea to take me back there, to somehow allow me to explore Rapture for the first time again. But that was just wishful thinking.
I felt the same way about Dragonborn, the Skyrim DLC set on the island of Solstheim in the provence of Morrowind. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is my favorite in the series, so you can imagine how excited I was to go back there, to revisit Morrowind in the much-prettier Skyrim engine. But it just wasn’t the same.
Yes, it looked better, but it didn’t look like Morrowind. It looked like Skyrim. Gone was the weirdness: only a handful of the strange flora and fauna native to Morrowind appeared in Dragonborn. But more importantly, it doesn’t play like Morrowind at all. You can take the Dragonborn out of Skyrim, but you can’t take Skyrim out of the Dragonborn. It was so upsetting that I recently started a new character in Morrowind and have yet to look back.
I think I understand why DLC like Dragonborn and Burial at Sea exist. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just about fan service. These are genuine attempts at recapturing the magic of those first moments. The hope is that by revisiting places so fondly remembered we can experience the wonder we felt the first time around. They capitalize on our nostalgia, perhaps even that of the developers. If only we could go back and relive those games! But there’s no going back.