Bioshock: Infinite is the much acclaimed sequel to Bioshock. The game puts the player in the role of Booker DeWitt, sent to the floating city of Columbia to rescue Elizabeth. This young woman has the ability to open tears in both reality and time, allowing Columbia access to anachronistic technology (and music).
This makes it a suitable source of inspiration for a TimeWatch game, both in its handling of how a timeline can be altered by future knowledge and an exploration of alternative realties.
MAJOR SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN!
THE TIME TRAVEL & ALTERNATIVE DIMENSIONS
Everything that occurs in Bioshock: Infinite is the result of work of Rosalind Lutece. A physicist she developed a way to suspend an atom in a quantum state. With the backing of Zachary Comstock she was able to suspend a whole city, Columbia, in the air.
Her experimentation allowed her to contact her double, Robert, at first communicating in morse code via quantum entangled particles. Excited at the possibility of other realities Zachary encouraged Rosalind to open a tear and bring across her ‘brother’.
All of this was achieved through machinery that produced a ‘Lutece field’. Similar results were achieved through Elizabeth, the daughter of Zachary Comstock. Using these tears they were able to steal technology and insight into the future.
This was due to the fact that Elizabeth originated from another reality, but unlike Robert, part of her remained behind in her home dimension. Presumably this meant she was neither fully in one dimension or the other, allowing her to part the barrier between different dimensions.
Elizabeth naturally generated her own Lutece field. At full power she could open tears to where ever she wanted and even move herself and others backwards or forwards in time. This energy could be siphoned away, leaving her only to open tears at weak points (usually where there was dramatic difference).
In a TimeWatch game this could allow PCs to be their own time machine or allow them to open portals to other dimensions at will. Doing so drains them of energy, possibly linked to their Health or Athletics. Eventually they’ll need to rest before they can open another tear.
Later it is explained that each universe has constants (things they share in common) and variables (things that make them different). In this specific case there is always a lighthouse, always a man and always a city. This is a good way to approach alternative dimensions, especially if they are a major focus in your campaign.
The idea of Constants allow for multiple universes with multiple Booker’s ascending to Columbia but the Variables also allow a man to descend to the city of Rapture. It can be a challenge for PCs to discover what particular Constants and Variables they are working with when they travel to alternative realities.
The game and this form of time travel allows exploration of the idea of choice. In some cases choice has a major impact, so much so that it can make a person two distinctly different individuals. In others it makes no difference, such as choosing whether Elizabeth’s locket will be of a bird or a cage.
There are numerous examples of the timeline of Columbia being corrupted by the influence of alternative dimensions or the future yet there are no paradoxes. Any change either always occurred in this particular timeline or the alteration will only manifest in an alternative dimension.
Booker witnesses Columbia raining death down on New York in 1983, both in a vision early on and in the waking world later. He is sent back in time to prevent this from occurring. While successful the many world theory holds that this still occurred somewhere.
In effect alternative dimensions in combination with time travel although PCs to witness all the options and take action to ensure that their choice manifests in their primary timeline. They are in a rare position in knowing what all the alternatives are and choosing between them.
TIME TRAVEL AND ALTERNATIVE DIMENSION TRICKS
For the most part the story is linear, with the real time travel occurring only in the last few sections. Primarily Booker and Elizabeth will attempt to reach their goal, often finding that their progress is stopped by an obstacle they can’t overcome.
In order to proceed Elizabeth will open a tear, allowing them to travel to an alternative Columbia where they can still achieve their goal. If someone they need has been killed they can travel to a time line where they are still alive. If they need something that has been destroyed they go where it still exists.
PCs should beware as there are often reasons why those variables exist and they will have to deal with other consequences. It could be that a person only lives because in the alternative timeline they were a traitor and have betrayed the PCs or the thing they need could have survived because it is being heavily guarded. This can be fun, allowing the PCs to work out what else is different in this particular timeline.
Time travel and alternative realities are used to give the main characters second chances. Indeed Booker’s main quest is to save the girl to wipe away his debt. Furthermore throughout the game when Booker is about to die Elizabeth brings him back from the brink, possibly using her powers. This illustrates why failure isn’t necessary the end for PCs. They can try again, whether it be in another timeline or by changing the events they remember.
A key game play mechanic is that Elizabeth can shift individual sections into their current reality. This might be a friendly robot to fight alongside Booker, a support beam that he can hook on to or even barrels of ammunition. If the PCs have this ability each location can have variables that they can alter. Even without this gift time travels can spend Stitches to alter the immediate past to have something useful to hand.
Rosalind and Robert Lutece are examples of why you can never totally kill a time traveller or someone who can move through alternative universes. Although considered dead in the ‘present’ of the game, they continue to appear. Unmoored from reality they can appear and disappear seemly at will. There are several indications that they are shifting through the alternative dimensions looking for a Booker that will achieve they goal they have set.
If a PC has died they could continue to appear in a similar fashion. This could be past or potential future versions of them or doubles from an alternative timeline in which they didn’t die. These appearances are fleeting and the GM may wish to restrict their presence so that the player is only allowed to communicate with others. Alternatively they could be provided with Stitches, that must be spent whenever they wish to directly affect the action.
The end of the game provides an excellent, if brutal, way of preventing a timeline diverging. Elizabeth has come to understand that eliminating the evil Comstock isn’t enough. For every world where he is killed there will be one in which he lives. Her solution is to eliminate at the point of his creation, figuratively smothering him in the crib. Without him all alternative timelines that contain him are erased (and their respective Elizabeth’s with them).
PCs dealing with alternative worlds must similarly learn that they can’t just deal with the current situation the divergence has created. They must find the source and prevent it from coming into being. Similar tactics must be used for those who seek to eliminate whole strands of alternative timelines.
THE DANGERS OF TIME TRAVEL AND ALTERNATIVE DIMENSIONS
The game provides a several examples of the equivalent of chronal instability.
A minor issue (relatively) is that the human mind will attempt to create new memories to allow them to accept their current situation. This will make the subject believe that they are native to their current reality, with any memories that would contradict that supressed.
It is possible that those memories can be recalled, but only by placing strain on the body. This results in nose bleeds as the truth is revealed. This condition is more serious in those who died in the former reality, which can render them comatose.
Perhaps the greatest danger when dealing with alternative timelines is other versions of yourself. Each time you made the right choice there is a version of you that didn’t. Every good man has an evil counterpart and if they have access to a dimensional tear they can come for you and ruin your life.
This is an opportunity to make a version of the PCs the main villains of an adventure or campaign. During the course of a campaign, each choice they’ve made during play or in their backstory can come back to haunt them, as they encounter a version of themselves that went the other way.
In Bioshock: Infinite Booker’s alternative self took something very important to him. This gives him the motivation to pursue him to an alternative dimension. This can be used within your own game, sending the PCs on a quest to recover what was taken.
When characters travel forward in time they run the risk of arriving in a future that never felt their presence. When this occurs to Booker he meets an older Elizabeth whose hope was crushed when he didn’t come to save her. This can be a way for PCs to see the consequences of their actions and make them less quick to skip ahead when there are still problems in the present to deal with.
At the end of the game the songbird learns the danger of travelling into an alternative timeline with a hostile environment. In his case Elizabeth has ensured that he appears at the bottom of the ocean where his suit is crushed by the pressure and drowns. While this can be a hazard for PCs they may wish to make use of similar tactics to deal with enemies.
BIOSHOCK: INFINITE AS A CAMPAIGN MODEL
There are several ways to approach a campaign inspired by Bioshock: Infinite.
You could centre it on Columbia itself, prior to the events of the game. PCs could be part of a group who travel through tears created by Elizabeth (or her siphoned energy) to plunder useful technology, knowledge or pop culture to enrich Columbia.
Such a campaign can split the action between the PCs expedition and their time on Columbia between missions. This can allow them to see the direct consequence of their actions and how what they bring back is affecting the lives of their fellow citizens. Their expeditions could also expose them to philosophies that might persuade them what they are doing is wrong.
PCs could be placed in a similar position to Booker, sent to an alternative timeline to recover something important to them. They would be otherwise ordinary people, thrown into a new world and asked to make sense of it. This can be even more powerful if the variable is linked to their own past.
The multiple lighthouses that Elizabeth uses to illustrate the idea of multiple universes could act as a ‘hub’ for a campaign. PCs could be able to travel here at will or have stumbled through a doorway to this place. Now they can use the light houses to find out what lies on the other side.
More generally a Bioshock: Infinite game can explore the idea of choices, either the PCs or others. While the decisions made by major historical figures are often used to explain why history has differed this game shows how any individual can set their life on a completely different path.
A reoccurring theme is the idea of forgiveness and redemption. As time travellers PCs are able to undo any past mistake but does that mean their slate is wiped clean? Does attempting to remove guilt make them better or worse people?
It is also important to remember the constants as well as the variables. In Bioshock: Infinite there is always oppression and violence, no matter who is in charge. Order or rebellion, there will always be blood. This can make moral issues far less black and white.
Whatever approach you take one of the great strengths of the game is its setting. From the moment that Booker arrives in Columbia you get a feel of what life is like there. The discovery of recordings and text further fleshes out its history, not to mention the museum sections that Booker passes through.
This can be useful when creating alternative timelines and make them feel just as real as the original timeline. This can add more weight to the PCs decision whether to change things back or not. If they do they are wiping out a fully developed world. They must decide for themselves which is more deserving of existence.