By Guest Contributor Denis Farr, cross-posted from Border House
BioShock 2 started off at a slow, plodding pace that made me wonder if I would regret my decision to purchase the game. As many reviews note, it is a game that picks up steam and finishes strongly, in opposition to its predecessor. For myself that moment happened in Pauper’s Drop when I started to encounter Grace Holloway.
At first I was slightly concerned. You go to Pauper’s Drop and are instructed to obtain a key from one Grace Holloway, so as to progress along the Atlantic Express trains. It slowly dawned on me that my target was a jazz singer, with very obvious roots in African American history. Her first messages to you are antagonistic, and given the game’s still primary function of shoot and kill to progress, I thought I would be given little choice as to my actions. However, as you explore the level, you are given a view of Rapture that was not wholly afforded in the first game. While the common worker seemed a motif raised by Atlas in the first game, it never seemed fully fleshed out, instead seeming like a power struggle between two figureheads with citizens caught in between, with little word from those persons directly; in Pauper’s Drop you are given the story of a part of the city that was not built into the original design, but constructed by those who were unfortunate enough to not be able to afford the luxuries the rest of Rapture had to offer. This is where Grace Holloway finds herself.
Grace is a woman who fled to Rapture to escape the slums and economic Depression she’d seen elsewhere, being an African American with ties to the U.S. Midwest region. Instead, she found a class structure even more rigid, as she notes how Andrew Ryan holds nothing but a false dream. She champions for the downtrodden of Rapture, singing their woes and griefs in her songs, eventually becoming a political enemy of his. At one point she even speaks directly to you and states:
Andrew Ryan told me that in Rapture it didn’t matter where you came from. Bunk! Times got hard and all our old bigotries bubbled right back up. But Dr. Lamb showed us that down under the skin, down under the money, down under our very name we are family.
Grace had come to Rapture as a singer, and her character is admitted to be a loose interpretation of Bessie Smith. Loose is somewhat appropriate, as at no point does Grace display any hint of bisexuality as the famous blues singer did, instead being focused on having a family of her own. When she finds out she is barren, she is rather distraught, having yet another of her goals shattered. At this point many things come to surface, and among them the question of family, as Grace’s quotation indicates. Dr. Lamb is an entry unto herself, but her own magnanimity to the poorer citizens included free counseling sessions, which is where she met Grace, and how they became friends.
Friends who grew to trust each other enough that when Lamb was arrested, she asked Grace to take care of her daughter Eleanor, whom Grace took to treating as her own daughter. We are family. This will lead to how she sets herself against the character you play.
Beyond just her depiction is the choice one can make when encountering Grace. You are to retrieve the key, and you, as an original Big Daddy, have a past with her, that included you protecting Eleanor after she became one of the Little Sisters. Grace had somewhat lost faith in herself after Eleanor suddenly disappeared, unknowingly to her being put in the Little Sister Project. Despite her harrowed appearance when she next saw her, she tried to grab and hold her, acting as a true parent. You, as Subject Delta ended up pushing Grace away forcibly when she came near, an action that complies with how Big Daddies in the game tend to act. She views you as a monster, much as we viewed them in the first game. Killing her only confirms such a suspicion. You become an unthinking monster by her accusations, and fall down the ‘evil’ path.
In contrast, you can stay your weapons, at which point you can pick the key up anyway. Grace will then offer you assistance to get out of the hotel in which you find her, where enemies are coming to take you down, as well as later drop off some items for you to use. As you leave she also comments that she may have been wrong–no monster would have left her alive both after how she treated you and in reference to being just a goal-oriented killing machine, as Big Daddies have been depicted to this point. She comments on your game decisions, as much as the moral decision Subject Delta follows.
Of course, one could simply save her because it offers the better in-game rewards, in which case the designers have set up a scenario where they wish to encourage you to not kill this woman who has already survived heady amounts of racism both above ground and below in Rapture. Through audio diaries scattered about the game, she is fleshed out as a character who is realized as a human. After she sings songs critical of Ryan, her lover James is taken from her, and in fear of her own life she actually sings pro-Ryan propaganda to escape similar treatment. Her character is an homage to those jazz and blues singers of the past: ones who felt the lash of the State and struck a chord with a group of people who felt shut out of society.
As I read it, Grace becomes a symbol for the desire not to see African Americans succeed and create their own lives, families, and spread as do others. Despite her barrenness, despite her lover being taken from her forcibly, she is given hope, however. It is not hard to see why she would warm to Dr. Lamb, a white woman who believes in the greater good, regardless of race or class. Even though Lamb ends up the antagonist, she is still seen as human despite her hatred towards you. She is not a ‘great evil.’ She and Grace are humans, with concerns, lives, and stories of their own. They also become symbols of their plight, and ideology in the case of Lamb, through their lives.
When you do finally encounter Grace in the game, deciding to spare or take her life, she does not cow. Rather than lose her dignity, she throws the key on the table at which she sits, stands up with aid of her cane, and tells you she will not have you root about her corpse for the key, before she dares you to finish the job you started in knocking her about when she tried to embrace Eleanor. She stands for strength, but not through arms, not through physical violence. She stands for a strength of character.
In Grace Holloway, the design team crafted a character based on history. They did not deny her African American heritage. They did not ignore the political climate of the times through which she lived. The game’s setting places it in 1968, though she would have arrived before 1959. The political climate she was escaping was one that would culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In many ways, her placement here highlights that even a secluded, objectivist society like Rapture fell to the same squabbles, and a ‘blank slate’ does not erase years of racist and classist upbringing.