‘He Doesn’t Row’: How BioShock Infinite Isn’t Booker’s Story

Storytime is a recurring series in which we analyze the storytelling found in video games by looking at the elements that form those stories, the messages they deliver, and the people who create them.

Warning! We’re embarking on a path filled with BioShock Infinite spoilers. If you haven’t finished the game, do that first, then come back here. SERIOUSLY. DON’T EVEN LOOK AT THE IMAGES. DEFINITELY DON’T GO TO PAGE 2. This is your final warning.

In the first few moments of BioShock Infinite, Booker DeWitt sits in the back of a rowboat as two people — we’ll later come to know them as Robert and Rosalind Lutece — argue about rowing.

Rosalind suggests Booker, who’s mostly oblivious, should help out. Robert points out that the other man doesn’t row. “He doesn’t row?” Rosalind returns, befuddled. Who, after all, is adverse to rowing?

Robert clarifies: “No, he doesn’t row.”

Booker doesn’t row. Booker never flips tails. Booker never turns down the deal to sell Anna.

Booker never saves Elizabeth.

The very nature of the story of BioShock Infinite is one of repeated failure. As we discover by the end, the story as we know it — in which Booker DeWitt heads to Columbia to rescue Elizabeth from Zachary Comstock — is actually one that has played out repeatedly before, in more than 100 different worlds. Every time, Booker fails in some way, either killed in the process by any of the random folks he encounters, or (more specifically) blocked by the Songbird. In those 100-plus worlds, we’re told, Elizabeth goes on to become the Lamb and really does “drown in flames the mountains of men.”

When Robert says “he doesn’t row,” he means that in every other version of this universe, Booker never rows the boat. Having ostensibly seen the future, Robert’s able to predict it. He does it again at the coin flip, Rosalind does it with the note advising Booker not to pick the No. 77 raffle ball, and even Comstock does it by putting up signs about the coming of the False Shepherd. All these instances of prescience are based on glimpses of other worlds, in which this stuff happened.

But then, if it has all happened before and, as Elizabeth says, if the Songbird always stops Booker — what changes in the game as we play?

In fiction, the protagonist is defined as being the person who “owns” the story: that is, they are the person through whose actions the conflict is brought to a resolution. The idea of “Deus ex machina” refers to the situation when the major conflict of a story is solved by someone other than the main character, and usually leads to a dissatisfying story. In video games, this is doubly true, as players expect to be not only the protagonists of game stories, but the major driver of the resolution of the conflict. After all, who wants to play a story in which the villain is dispatched by some other hero?

But in fact, it’s Elizabeth who alters the story, not Booker. As a player, yours is a supporting role, and your input isn’t necessary to the conclusion of the story, outside of the fact that you must survive to see it.

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21 Comments on ‘He Doesn’t Row’: How BioShock Infinite Isn’t Booker’s Story


On April 8, 2013 at 12:08 pm

We get it, you don’t like the game.

Can you move on with your life now and write about something else?

Phil Hornshaw

On April 8, 2013 at 12:31 pm


I do like the game, that’s why I like thinking and talking about it.


On April 8, 2013 at 12:46 pm


I’m not sure this was written entirely with the idea that Phil doesn’t like the game. Also, why should he, or anyone, “get over it?” Is it just because you say so? That’s the same thing that was said about ME3, and I applaud Game Front for having contributors that don’t simply move on to the next thing because doing so makes it far too easy for companies to keep getting away with things that people don’t like. EA and BioWare clearly wanted people to just “get over it” so they could keep on making money and not have to deal with legitimate complaints.


On April 8, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Not sure I agree, seems like most of the major choices were made by Booker not Elizabeth. For example the decision to destroy the siphon was Booker’s; Elizabeth ( and the Lutece ‘twins’) came up with the means to accomplish the task but it was Booker’s Idea to destroy the tower, and it was Booker playing the flute that commanded the Songbird to destroy the tower. We the players are not making choices but Booker most certainly is. I think that all the choices that we the player are given are choices that Booker could have easily gone either way on. When asked by Elizabeth to chose between the bird and the cage, Booker does not seem to care. It is when presented with decisions that Booker truly cares about that we the players have no choice.Perhaps we the players are supposed to represent the randomness of reality, or the ‘variables’, and Booker is the ‘constant’. Maybe Booker could not have chosen to do anything but destroy the siphon, but dose that it any less a choice? I think Bioshock Infinite is trying to examine the choices we make, why we make them, how we make them, and the nature of choice itself.

On a side note, this is why I love this game! There is so much to interpret, question and discuss.


On April 8, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I agree with Rastagir.We understand that you don’t like the game.It’s called beating a dead horse.I enjoyed the gameplay and felt immersed in it whether the story made complete sense or not.2 things that keep me playing a game….enjoyment of the gameplay and that it lasts longer than a crappy 5hrs.This did both.


On April 8, 2013 at 7:17 pm


Nice job reading. Phil specifically said he DOES like the game. Critical analysis does not equate to dislike.


On April 8, 2013 at 10:48 pm

First of all, I must apologize to Mr Hornshaw. I was under the impression this was the fourth article of Mr Hornshaw on Bioshock Infinite, when, in fact, is the third (I thought that “why Bioshock Infinite doesn’t work as a shooter” was also his).

That said, I don’t think that this “flaw”, that Booker doesn’t has much of a choice, is a flaw at all. I am not sure that, as players, we have much choice at all in the vast majority of games (except in games like Minecraft, where we can do whatever we want). Yes, there are games with more or less freedom (a linear storyline or a storyline with different endings) but things are pretty much laid down for us. For me, it’s the story that counts and the story in Bioshock Infinite was a cut above the rest, at least in my book.

@ r.j. I understand what you say, and I agree with you. However, I find Game Front’s attitude towards the game somewhat forced. It’s not that the arguments used that are not legit (I, myself, agree with some of those arguments) however the way the articles on this game are written gives me the impression that they really don’t like the game and that, in a way, they are telling us that we should also not like it. I don’t know, maybe I am wrong, but this is the first game reviewed here that I get that impression.

Critical analysis, yes, but the underlying impression is that they just didn’t like the game. Which is ok in my book, but I would like them to come out and just say so. They didn’t like the mechanics, they didn’t like the fact that it was a shooter, they find faults with the story, the finale doesn’t work, we don’t really have much control over events, it’s not telling Booker’s story…..but overall they liked the game.

Phil Hornshaw

On April 8, 2013 at 11:09 pm


When I reviewed Infinite, I tried to be as fair to the game as possible, which is why I landed at the score of 80. The game does have a number of flaws — its combat feels mired in the past, as does its enemy AI, and the finale, while very interesting, seems somewhat disparate from the rest of the game. It also has a number of important strengths, which I think were very powerful when I played through. Columbia carries a palpable sense of wonder and dread, it’s beautiful, and the game is well-written and superbly acted.

The reason I’m not writing as much about those positive elements (although I’d like to try to create some features along those lines) is that the tenor around the game has been one of just insane praise. Taking a step back from all they hype, I think there are a number of points that are worth talking about where BioShock Infinite really doesn’t measure up. But more than that, I can say that I think this is an important game for a lot of the things it tries and represents, even if it falls short on a few of them. It carries a much deeper and emotional story than a lot of games. That’s what makes me want to write about it — because the fact that it attempts a lot of these things is worth talking about. The choices that went into the story are important, if you ask me, and that’s what inspired me to write this piece. We can talk a lot about the behind-the-scenes workings of BioShock Infinite if we want, about why it’s about Booker and shooting instead of about Elizabeth and choices. Those are the kinds of discussions that feel important to me when we talk about games as a medium.

So yes, I can see it coming off as negative, but it’s not meant to be negative, just thoughtful. Being a fan of things like this is about thinking them through for me, and I suspect for a lot of other people, and the discussion is just as valuable as the game itself. BioShock Infinite has a lot under the surface, and so I’m attempting to drudge some of that up. I can’t speak so much to the opinion of Phil Owen, but I was drawn into the game all the way through, even if I feel like by the end, it was maybe more flawed than a masterpiece.

Anyway, I’m interested in other people’s opinions like yours, so I hope when we do stuff like this it’ll encourage debate and discussion, and not a feeling like we don’t like the game. Regardless of whether we like the game, the game is worth talking about, especially when lots of people do like it.

Also, not to nitpick too much, but this is only my second Bioshock Infinite criticism piece, unless we’re talking about either my intro of Mitchell Saltzman’s ending video or my preview of the game from months back — both of which I didn’t think were overtly (or even somewhat) negative.


On April 8, 2013 at 11:58 pm

@ Mr Hornshaw,

I see your point. And I apologize if my first comment was abrasive.

However, I want a raise a point here. You say this isn’t Booker’s story and that nothing actually changes in the game as we play, that we are not the ones who bring resolution to the story and, up to a certain degree, I agree with you. But I don’t see this as a negative thing.

Bioshock Infinite is the first game of it’s kind (and correct me if I am wrong) that incorporates in it’s gameplay a fundamental truth: that in most games, we don’t actually have much of a choice but instead, we have the illusion of choice. Yes, we can choose whether or not to marry the princess in Dragon Age or side with the Stormguard in Skyrim, or eliminate Caesar’s troops in Fallout. But these paths are already predetermined, no matter what we do, the ones who built the game are the ones calling the shots. There is more flexibility, but we are still in the confines of the game’s possible story lines.

In Bioshock, this is one of the fundamentals of the story. They tell us that “no matter the ocean we swim, we all end up to the same coast”. And, for once, I am glad that at least, the swimming was worth it. I don’t have to kid myself that I had any impact to the story. And this is why I disagree with R.J. and don’t think that Bioshock “pulled a Mass Effect” on us: They didn’t promised us “a hand tailored experience based on your choice, your decision, your very own Shepard” and reward us with the same-but-with-different-color-finale. No, here we are told, in subtle ways, that this is their story and we should lay back and relax and enjoy it.

I don’t see this as a negative. I see it as a smart and honest way to incorporate a fundamental truth of gaming in Bioshock’s gameplay.


On April 9, 2013 at 12:48 am

My impression of the story was that this was the Luteces story and this is the final chapter that worked. Bookers original story went one of two ways, comstock or giving up anna. The luteces after seeing what harm the technology they have discovered and the child they helped to ubduct have caused they try and fix their mistake without much success. They couldn’t directly change events but they could put the one man who could into play. We see through some of the tears and from Lutece teases that he has repeatedly made the wron choices. By siding with the Vox he fails, by facing songbird he fails, by becoming Comstock he fails, and they try and stear him towards a conclusion that works. They help where they can, #77, giving him a sheild, and by showing he and Elizabeth that they can travel between worlds. We see in the narative what happens when Booker makes his own decisions he becomes a religious zealot or an anarchist martyr. He can’t win and set things right on his own, it takes all the right elements falling into place for things to turn out for the better. It takes the intervention of an older Elizabeth and the propper version of Booker to finaly meek out a victory and even then it is at a price.

My first playthrough I was let down by my lack of concrete moral choices like the first Bioshock. On my second playthrough I was able to look at a version of myself looking at a version of myself so to speak and saw things a little diffetently. In the first Bioshock you were fighting to break your chains and become a man of your own choosing, in Infinite you are a man that is being used for someone else’s purpose and have no real choice in the matter. He is a slave to the coice of becoming Comstock or giving up Anna. With Bioshock we see how a man can overcome his origin and become self made. With Infinite we see what a self made man can become. Booker makes the wrong choice either way, by giving him a rewritten memory they give him a clean slate to hopefully set things right and free himself and others from his wrong choices.

So no, Booker doesn’t row, the Luteces wouldn’t want that and frankly I wouldn’t either. I feel like the story is made more unique by being told in a way we can have this debate about it. It could always be worse, it could have ended with a red, blue, or green lighthouse…….

Phil Hornshaw

On April 9, 2013 at 8:39 am


Nah, you’re good, no offense taken.

And I think you’re right, there’s merit in games telling their own stories and not necessarily letting us tell “our” stories. BioShock Infinite never really promised that, although it was a bit ambivalent about it even during part of the game shipped. In previews, we saw the potential to make choices and it seemed like there’d at least be some influence on the narrative, maybe similar to what BioShock incorporated with Little Sisters. Seems like that was eventually abandoned in the development, and from what Ken Levine has said, the game went through a lot of different iterations and versions before they finally got to the final product.

So yeah, it’s not necessarily negative that Booker’s choices are mostly made for him, but for me it leads to a some questions. The biggest for me is, why play as Booker at all? I think there’s an answer there that’s kind of cynical, possibly — because Booker is a male protagonist who looks like other male protagonists, and maybe it was easier to sell him. Levine said Irrational was trying to expand its audience with BioShock Infinite when he was talking about the cover art that eventually was used for the game — so it seems possible that the decision to go with gun-toting Booker as the lead instead of the more thoughtful (and less violent) Elizabeth went along the same lines. Or maybe Irrational was just stuck on making a shooter and as the story fell in around that, it ended up sidelining Booker as a driver of the plot. It’s interesting to me that the guy with what feels like the least influence on the story is the guy we spend the game controlling. Then again, maybe that’s deliberate, like in BioShock, but in BioShock it was obvious that that was the point.

So anyway, especially since we’ve been hearing that female protagonists don’t sell games, I think this idea is an interesting one. Maybe this is deeper than I’m even giving credit for, and Irrational created an elaborate game in order to get Elizabeth in the lead role — she is, after all, among the best AI companions ever in a lot of respects — while getting around all the perceived problems with female protagonists. This way, they have their cake and eat it too, potentially. I dunno, but I do like talking about it.


I’ve been thinking about the Luteces along those lines as well, and actually an earlier draft of this story (or a version in another world) talked more about their role in the story, which is definitely a dubious one. For one, yes, they are obviously taking steps to guide Booker and help him succeed, and Infinite suggests that they’re changing their plan up (somewhat) in order to help him get through. But they’re also really bad at it. The “Don’t pick 77″ note is basically useless to Booker, for example, and they stop him at numerous points and provide almost zero information — at the coin flip, at the bird/cage choice, at the piano after the airship crash. Their choices on what they say and do, and what they reveal, are really interesting.

What’s more, it seems like the Luteces could take a bigger, more impactful role than they do, and yet choose not to. We know that while they’re seemingly stuck between worlds or in all worlds or whatever, they can influence any of them, as well as interact in all of them. So why not actually show up and be useful? Why pop up, say riddles, and then bail? It’s interesting to me that the pair seem really interested on fixing their own mistakes and repenting for their own sins, but not QUITE so much as to get their hands dirty. But in many ways, yes, Infinite is the story of the Luteces, although we get a lot of it much later.


On April 9, 2013 at 10:45 pm

@ Mr Hornshaw,

I don’t know whether Booker’s character was sidelined as the main driver of the plot on purpose or accidentally (as part of an ongoing process) but, retrospectively, this doesn’t bother me. For once, it is refreshing NOT being “The One”: The Dovakhin, or the Last Grey Warden, or The Guy with the Nanosuit, or the poor sap who has to save the world and drives the plot. I do not mind that Booker hasn’t got choices. But the story, I think, does revolve around him. It’s Booker the Luteces want to redeem, it’s Booker Elizabeth helps and drives and helps. The game revolves around Booker even if he (and, by extension, us) has no real impact to his story. So, I guess, yes, Elizabeth and the Luteces are more active than Booker (and more interesting, if you ask me) but, still, I like being in Booker’s shoes.

To tell you the truth, I don’t see how Elizabeth could be the main character or, rather, how this would work. But I think I rather like to see Elizabeth than being Elizabeth and not because of any “I am uncomfortable playing a girl” reservations but because she is so well crafted.

But I agree with you on the “role of the female protagonists”. This I felt more during Dead Space 3: I don’t get why they had to cram down our throats that Carver guy when they could introduce Ellie as the co-op character. And instead of having two military guys you could have one action oriented character (Isaac) and one survival oriented character (Ellie) with two different solo gaming story lines and co-op where each of them is assigned different roles. But, no. Ellie must be the damsel in distress because co-op gamers would feel weird if they had to play a girl and one who had to be Isaac’s girlfriend instead of having her own personality.

Phil Hornshaw

On April 9, 2013 at 11:24 pm


You know, you raise a good point, and it’s something that has bothered me before too — the sort of Messiah complex of gaming. There’s definitely value in not being The One every once in a while, and some games can handle making you an important person without making you The Important Person. So yeah, I think you’re right that there’s some merit in that. And I’ve also thought, as you suggested, about how Elizabeth would actually work as a protagonist. It would certainly be a tougher game to make (as well as to play), and require something of a different characterization for Elizabeth over the course of the game. I could see some interesting stuff developing out of it, but it would be a stretch even for the ballsiest of high-profile developers to make. Still, I wonder what BioShock Infinite might be like if we had the reins on Elizabeth’s powers and the ability to shift the world as we saw fit. Might make for another interesting game sometime.

As for Dead Space 3 — I think you’re right on. I mean, I can see from a narrative standpoint what they were going for: the idea was probably that players already liked Ellie, so she provided good motivation to go get murdered by monsters again. But the game doesn’t really NEED to send you after her, since, after all, it basically starts with a necromorph apocalypse. It’s not like “run and hide” was a viable scenario for Isaac anymore, and your suggestion of splitting the two characters along play style lines could have been very cool.


On April 9, 2013 at 11:28 pm


You still have to save the day in Bioshock as DeWitt, only you are the solution and the problem. In contrast to Phil’s opinion, One could argue that booker did indeed “solve” the story. Bioshock even followed the tradition role of FPS in that life had to be taken in order for progression to occur. DeWitt let’s elizabeth kill him and the story to conclude. Even though throughout the story DeWitt seems to resent killing, the game seems so rigged in a fashion that DeWitt must kill. If anything annoyed me it was that. Irrational offers no choice but to kill, it make the game seem like booker is just a tool to be used, even though he is the driving force behind everything that occurs throughout the game.

I also do not think that elizabeth would have made a good player character. Not only would infinite rifts be a mechanical nightmare for game dev., but it takes a large portion of mystery from the game. It’s like playing a game of D&D and knowing all the possible outcomes. DeWitt was a good main character because he was simple, someone every guy could understand. On the other hand, how many people could relate to elizabeth? Not many, that’s for sure.


On April 10, 2013 at 12:15 am


To tell you the truth, I kind of agree with Phil. I think that Booker just “went through the ropes” to get himself to the final baptism scene in order for Elizabeth to drown him (and this was Elizabeth’s decision, we were not given a choice to accept that or fail, once more). But I find that refreshing and that it served the story Irrational wanted to tell: about a guy with no actual choice who didn’t found redemption himself but others had to “guide him” and make his choices for him. I guess that where I disagree with Phil is that this didn’t left me wanting: For once, I had to relinquish my Messiah Complex, had to accept that my choices through the game didn’t really matter (and, no, that’s NOT the same thing as in Mass Effect 3). And after finishing the game I was content. I am not thinking of “what would be like to play as Elizabeth, having all these amazing powers and choices” because I HAVE all these amazing powers and choices in other games, where I use dragon shouts and nanotech and my angel-and-hell weapons.

Considering the violence and the fact that Booker had to kill, I also find that it served the story. In my head, Booker is cornered, is a former Pinkerton agent who has killed before and killing comes natural to him, even if he resents it. Yes, he hates killing but I don’t see how you could make a similar game as Dishonored here: you have to “protect and guide” Elizabeth, you can’t get away with stealth. And Booker killing came to me more natural than, say, Tomb Raider, where we had Lara throwing up during her first kill and one hour later shooting a guy in the face while saying “go to hell”. In Tomb Raider, a stealth element would have been welcome and could serve the story. I don’t see how this could be done in Bioshock Infinite.


On April 10, 2013 at 1:47 am


I kind of agree with Phil that the player as Booker does not have any real impact to the story but, instead, we are “going through the ropes” and “tag along for the ride”. We are not given any real choices, instead we are given “variables”; the “constants” are determined by the Luteces and Elizabeth. We guide Booker through the game to get him to his baptism where it’s Elizabeth’s choice to drown Booker, we are not given the choice to accept her actions or reject them (failing once again).

However, unlike Phil, this leaves me content. I liked the story, I liked not having to be the Messiah, and I agree with you that Elizabeth wouldn’t work as a great lead. The game didn’t left me wanting something else. Phil’s argument (if I understand him correctly) is “imagine how better the game would be if we had Elizabeth’s powers and her viewpoint”. But we HAVE Elizabeth’s powers in other games: We are the ones with the dragon shouts, the ones with the nano suits, the ones with the angel-and-hell weapons. It wouldn’t be something different, it would have been the same gimmick, only in a different form. And we have her viewpoint: Columbia for us is something new, as it is for Elizabeth.

Considering the combat and the killing, I believe that it works in the context of the game. Booker has been a killer and, even if he doesn’t like killing, it comes natural to him when he is cornered in Columbia and has no other option. I can’t see how Bioshock Infinite could insert a “stealth” mechanic similar to the one in Dishonoured where violence is an option rather than a necessity, since you have Elizabeth with you and you don’t have the option of stealth but instead you are one moving target. Something like this could be incorporated in Tomb Raider: I can’t buy for a second Lara’s transformation where from an innocent gal who throws up after her first kill is transformed (in about an hour) to someone who shoots a wounded guy in the face while saying “go to hell” just because “she is cornered”. A stealth option there would make sense and would serve the story much better.

(I submitted this post before, but haven’t seen in appear on the page. If double post, please delete).


On April 11, 2013 at 9:13 am

That was a great article! Love your ending. Good points, I never truly thought about who the protagonist was, and you did a great job pointing that out. Thanks!


On April 30, 2013 at 10:13 pm

I had the same thoughts as I was playing the game! I desperately wanted to play as Elizabeth because she moves the story forward. I felt more like her bodyguard than the protagonist.


On May 5, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Multiverse Theory. Read about it, then understand the game.
The game beign in first person makes it the story of Booker. It doesn’t matter who does what , it’s his point of view. He doesn’t fail in every universe, and in the one that succeeds, he doesn’t row. If he rows, he fails. Multiverse theory.

Phil Hornshaw

On May 6, 2013 at 9:29 am


I’m not really following your point. I feel like I have a pretty solid handle on the multiverse theory and the way that the game implements it, and what you’re saying doesn’t really follow. Or at least, I’m not sure what it is you’re trying to say.

In storytelling, who the point of view character is and why you follow their point of view matters. Often the narrator character of a story is not its main character, but the trouble in video games is that making the player synonymous with a narrator but NOT with a protagonist muddies the waters some (although it’s not impossible to do, and do well).

As for rowing making Booker fail — I’m not sure that follows from the text of the game. All we know is that he *doesn’t* row, but you can’t extrapolate why. And if your point is that he doesn’t row because he can’t row because in the game he doesn’t row, and therefore that’s the universe in which he’s successful — well, I’d argue that there are lots of universes in which he’s successful for a number of reasons, and that the game doesn’t and can’t represent the only universe in which that happens. So I’m not sure I’m following what you’re getting at.


On May 30, 2013 at 8:29 am

I’m surprised that people are reading this article as a criticism rather than an analysis. I had already concluded that the fact that Booker doesn’t row is the key to understanding the narrative, and I think you are correct. Where I think that people are reading this as a criticism is in the assumption that this wasn’t a deliberate and well constructed part of the narrative.

A big part of the Bioshock series involves deconstruction. We’re used to the games being used to deconstruct the idea of utopias, and that seems to be what’s going on with Columbia during the first half of the game, but the ambitions of the game are even higher. Infinite is a deconstruction of the entire idea of narratives and telling stories (particularly telling them through games). And a big part of that is having you play (as you say) the character who is supporting the real protagonist of the game. As others have bluntly put it: you are Elizabeth’s escort mission, not the other way around.

That’s what makes the game brilliant and that’s why issues like somewhat antiquated combat really aren’t that important, to me. The game is a work of art and it demands that you think.