Major spoilers for Bioshock Infinite. Didn’t watch/play? DON’T READ! Disclaimer: I am basing this off what is in the game/DLC – nothing more. If the Infinite developers have come forth with more concrete information, please let me know in the comments!
Bioshock Infinite… I mean, where do you begin? I’m not going to lie: I love this game. Love it. But it also makes my head hurt.
Infinite has one of those plots where if you don’t think too hard about it, it all makes sense. Once you start really thinking about the world-construction, your head spins in circles. This post is about the ‘rules’ of Infinite’s multiple worlds. I’ll outline the facts, suggest theories and pose some questions.
When it comes to the semantics of time and space in Infinite, one thing is clear: this is not multiple-worlds theory. For all ye uninformed: in a vastly reductive, sparknotes-version, multiple worlds theory is the idea that every decision every person ever makes spawns another universe where you choose the other choice(s). As a physics theory, it’s obviously way more complicated than that, but for our purposes, it’s a sufficient explanation. (If you want, check out the interesting/disturbing thought experiment that the theory produced.)
Back to the topic: so Bioshock Infinite is not about multiple worlds theory as we know it. There are several universes within the game, all of which have ‘different outcomes’ (Chen Lin is alive, Chen Lin is dead; Booker is alive, Booker is dead) but: “There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city.”
This means that there are fixtures in every, single universe – constants that never change. The Infinite world is some form of limited multiple worlds theory, which is smart when you think about it from a plot/narrative perspective. The ability to warp time has presented all sorts of plot-holes for even the best of authors (Rowling’s Prisoner of Azkaban, anyone?).
Booker, Row the Damn Boat!
So how do the multiple universes work within the Bioshock Infinite world? Clearly there are constants or ‘fixtures’ in each universe.
The player is first presented with these ‘fixtures’ during the boat ride to the lighthouse:
Woman: Perhaps you should ask him, I believe he has a greater interest in getting there than I do.
Man: I suppose he does, but there is no point in asking.
Woman: Why not?
Man: Because he doesn’t row.
Woman: He doesn’t row?
Man: No, he DOESN’T row.
Woman: Ah. I see what you mean.
It’s not a matter of if Booker DeWitt can row but either:
a) In this universe Booker does not row.
b) Booker never rows.
Given the Luteces’ love for thought experiments, it’s not unreasonable to wager that they have noted what each Booker does. If Robert has noted that no Booker offers to row, and if we assume there are ‘fixed’ points in every universe, Robert might conclude that it is a fixed fact that Booker DOESN’T row.
But when you look closer, option a) is also viable: there could be some universes where Booker does row (which would account for Rosalind’s surprise.) Robert could see a pattern in the Bookers’ choices. In other words: there is a pattern to what each Booker does, a pattern that allows the Luteces to predict what each will do.
Looking at this from a plot-perspective, I’m going to guess that the developers are implying b).
Of course, it could also be that the Luteces have watched this Booker and themselves travelling by boat and Robert noted that this specific Booker doesn’t row. And then they went on to save a hippogriff. But that’s just a crackpot theory.
Heads or Tails: the Luteces
Here is another example of fixtures/variables in Infinite worlds. The player comes across the Luteces yet again as Booker wanders through Columbia. This time they ask him to pick: heads or tails. In all copies of the game, Booker picks tails and the coin lands on heads – as it has done for the past 122 times.
This thought experiment hearkens back to the ‘Quantum Suicide’ experiment that I linked to in the opening paragraphs. There is a world where the coin lands on heads, another where it lands on tails.
This world that Booker currently inhabits could be a world where the coin always lands on heads (so far as we know.)
What is more likely, given the goals of the game, is that every coin toss the Luteces have with every Booker in every universe always lands as heads. Here’s our fixture (although an arbitrary one). It would also mean that the Luteces have tried to save Elizabeth 122 times. It would have been really great if the number would increase every time you play the game.
The scene also shows a form of fixed-ness for gameplay: while the experiment demonstrates the multitude of possible outcomes, it never gives the player a choice. Booker always picks tails. The coin always shows heads. It alludes to a larger Bioshock theme: that your choices, as a gamer, are completely meaningless. But that’s another post.
No, My Nose is Bleeding Because My Brain Hurts
It’s never easy talking about multiple worlds and loopy timelines, so let’s orient ourselves before we start on the multiple worlds in Infinite and their consequences.
Time is relative and, if we could see time as it really is, “what reason would grammar professors have to get out of bed?” (Thank you, Rosalind.) But for the purposes of sanity, grammar and plot, there is a narrative timeline. It doesn’t necessarily adhere to time, but it is what each character perceives. It’s their narrative, from start to finish. From paying the debt, to drowning Comstock. The character might jump through time and space, but there is still a before and an after in their own timeline. (Elizabeth before she knows Booker is her terrible father, Elizabeth after she knows.) Booker meets 1984 Elizabeth after 1912 Elizabeth is attached to the syphon, but in his timeline, this is before he tries to rescue her from the procedure.
For example: take the crackpot theory that the Luteces are watching themselves row our Booker (and that’s how Robert knows he doesn’t row). In Robert Lutece’s personal timeline he sees Booker not row before he rows him to the lighthouse. (Though these events occur simultaneously in time.)
So now that’s in order, we start travelling across universes. This is where I have a lot of questions myself – and most of them revolve around the nosebleeds and complications characters have as a consequence of these tears.
The Luteces and Elizabeth disturb the timelines of each world they tear into, which causes massive repercussions for the people involved. This is first presented to us when Booker and Elizabeth track down a very dead Chen Lin and the Luteces say:
Robert: “Dead is dead.” [flips coins] “I see heads…”
Rosalind: “And I see tails.”
Robert: “What do you see here from this angle?”
Rosalind: “Dead. And that angle?”
Robert: “The same coin,”
Rosalind: “A different perspective.”
They prompt Elizabeth to tear through to another Columbia where Chen Lin is alive. He still isn’t doing so well.
Mr. Lin sports a nosebleed and rambles about how loud and dangerous his machines are, even though they are all missing. The guards you killed aren’t doing so well either: they’re clutching their heads, bleeding from the nose and unresponsive to the player.
Elizabeth reasons that they must “remember dying.”
As the Luteces say: “Perception without comprehension is a dangerous combination.”
So my question is: why does Chen Lin remember dying? Booker is already dead in another universe and he doesn’t know. Lady Comstock is alive in another universe and for all we know, she’s unaware that she’s dead elsewhere (at this point). Elizabeth is very dead in another universe, and she seems fine here. So why are Chen Lin and Fink’s soldiers aware of their own demise?
The game never directly answers this, and the one variable is Elizabeth and her tears. Perhaps by making a tear into the world she connects them, which has an impact on the people in those worlds. There is some crossover, or residual on each side that triggers memories for the other universe for people – particularly those who have died on the other side. I would propose that this is only for those who are in contact with Elizabeth shortly before the tear, but we have…
The random character you can find in the ruins of Columbia: a woman who is stuck in her shop, sweeping and rambling to herself. You’ll notice she’s got the signature nosebleed. She is not someone involved in the main plotline, so she indicates that the tears affect everyone, not just those who are in contact with Elizabeth.
I Think Therefore I Am Fine?
Booker DeWitt is dead in at least one of the alternate timelines but only sports a nifty nosebleed when he finds out before continuing to go apeshit on everything and anything in his way. Why isn’t he completely incapacitated?
The Luteces come to the rescue for this conundrum. As they say: “Perception without comprehension… is a dangerous combination.”
This would explain why the guards and Chen Lin have troubles, but Booker is able to recover when he realizes Booker2! is dead. Booker knows what Elizabeth is doing, he comprehends (to a degree) that there are multiple universes and multiple versions of himself. He can cope with his ‘death’ because he understands that the death is an alternate path that an alternate version of himself took. (In other words, he knows to dissociate.)
But that leads to another interesting question: Elizabeth was pulled through to another world when she was an infant. An infant cannot comprehend that. How was Elizabeth not incapacitated by the travel? Is it because she didn’t die in either world? Is it because she technically ‘exists’ in both? Perhaps the answer lies in Robert Lutece’s theory on the mind and multi-universe travel:
“The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist…” -Barriers to Trans-Dimensional Travel, R. Lutece, 1889
In other words:
Robert: “He’s starting to put his story together… He’s manufacturing new memories from his old ones.”
Rosalind: “Well, the brain adapts.”
Robert: “I should know. I lived it.”
So the brain reconfigures its memories to adapt with the trauma of multi-universe travel – this of course explains why Booker doesn’t know Elizabeth is Anna for most of the game. This also would suggest that infant Elizabeth would reconfigure what little memories she has, thus leaving her with no memory of Booker or the other world (not that she would have any later on anyway.)
But our other two examples are of people who are aware of what is happening. Robert knows he’s traveling to another universe. Booker travels with the Luteces – while they aren’t much for clear explanations, Booker witnessed them take Elizabeth. He witnessed her pinky finger being severed. While Booker might not know the specifics, he would understand it’s a portal of some sort used to travel to another place. He at least understands the general semantics of what is going on.
So does comprehension matter when you travel between worlds? And, more importantly: why doesn’t Booker ‘reconfigure’ his memories when he jumps through the tears with Elizabeth? Is Elizabeth a magical fairy elf-princess with super-human powers?
I guess one really has to chalk it up to Elizabeth’s ‘magical’ powers… but that doesn’t seem right. How different is she from the Luteces? Is there a fundamental difference between being split between two worlds and being scattered across time and space that it affects what ‘powers’ these beings have? The Luteces can move freely across time and space. They can also pull others through – as evidenced by bring Booker to Comstock’s universe. But they cannot protect Booker from the mind warp of time-space travel. Elizabeth can.
I wonder if it has to do with Elizabeth’s wish-fulfillment theory. Let me know your thoughts!
And now I’ll leave you with this gem, courtesy of the Luteces:
Robert: “Why do you ask what–”
Rosalind: “–when the delicious question is ‘when?’”