‘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.