‘He Doesn’t Row’: How BioShock Infinite Isn’t Booker’s Story
It’s Elizabeth from an alternate world who actually has the agency here. When Booker and Elizabeth reach Comstock House, Booker is unknowingly transported to 1984, where he meets an older version of Elizabeth who became the Lamb and fulfilled Comstock’s prophecy. She gives Booker a message for his Elizabeth back in 1912, which allows Elizabeth to control the Songbird; that brings about the destruction of the Siphon, and facilitates the end of the game.
So what does Booker do? Well, he carries that note. But it’s Elizabeth who uses it.
Given that the early portion of the game is marked with choices, it’s almost strange how much determinism and fate play a role in the second half of the game. Repeatedly, BioShock Infinite asks you to make binary choices that seem like they might be important (else, why would you make them?). You help Elizabeth choose either bird or cage for her pendent; you decide whether to put Slate out of his misery or leave him alive. But the story of Columbia that unfolds around you, and which you seem to be directly influencing through your actions, is actually a foregone conclusion by the game’s logic. Booker’s choices amount to nothing and their impact on the plot is cursory at best. Though Elizabeth and Booker wonder what effect they might be having on reality as they march through tears, that discussion has no bearing on the final conclusion of the game, and is abandoned not long after it’s brought up.
All the choices in the game are made by Elizabeth, including the final one. Even in the endgame, in which you’re presented with Booker’s memories of selling Anna and refusing the baptism, you and Booker aren’t really given any agency: you’re left in locked rooms with the inability to advance without becoming complicit in Booker’s past failings. These things happen as they happened: Booker doesn’t row.
The original BioShock had players embodying a protagonist who follows orders all the way through, marching from location to location because that’s where the magic arrow on the screen instructs him to go. At the game’s climax, BioShock made this piece of standard video game design into a plot point with the “Would You Kindly” twist, simultaneously unwrapping the motivations of the characters and calling out players’ unquestioning acceptance of their orders in one singular moment of brilliant design. You and the protagonist were one in the same in that perfect moment, because the game managed to weave you together with the character in both plot and interactivity.
Six years have passed since that iconic moment. In BioShock Infinite, we get our marching orders. As Booker, we obey. But even in BioShock, in which we’re made fully aware that our free will is not our own, it is still our influence, our presence and force of will, that brings about the game’s conclusion. The effect we have on Rapture, whether through our deployment of force or our meting out mercy, is key to its progression and its final outcome. We resolve the conflict. But in Columbia, we’re slaves to the constraints of fate, to the idea that “This is what happens.” We don’t uncover the fates of the people of Columbia or set or stop events in motion; we are not the catalyst to the game’s finale. We hold the gun. We play the bodyguard. And we do as we’re told: Elizabeth (quite literally) demands we stay alive until she instructs us to die. In that way, BioShock Infinite is not our story, nor is it Booker DeWitt’s. It is Elizabeth’s story. The conflict is hers, and so is its resolution. The choices rest with her, as does the fate of Columbia. Booker, instead, is the means through which Elizabeth expresses those choices.
Elizabeth is a destroyer of worlds, and the Luteces the makers of them. You, though: you’re just a hand that holds a gun. As Andrew Ryan might say, Booker DeWitt is a slave who obeys. It begs the question: Why are we playing as Booker at all? This is obviously Elizabeth’s story, so why aren’t we playing as her?
It’s a question worth asking, because Booker doesn’t row. And unlike Elizabeth, Booker doesn’t even know he can.