Characters Done Right: BioShock 2’s Grace Holloway

A black and white portrait/headshot of Grace Holloway, a middle-aged African American jazz singer.

A black and white portrait/headshot of Grace Holloway, a middle-aged African American jazz singer.

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 Andrew Ryan. 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.

A poster of Grace Holloway, advertising her performance at the Deep Blue Revue, a portrait of her face in the center of the poster.

A poster of Grace Holloway, advertising her performance at the Deep Blue Revue, a portrait of her face in the center of the poster.

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.

In game depiction of Grace, wearing a yellow dress, scarf, and white hat (the hat she wears in both previous images). She stands up with a cane in her left hand.

In game depiction of Grace, wearing a yellow dress, scarf, and white hat (the hat she wears in both previous images). She stands up with a cane in her left hand.

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.

About Denis Farr

Denis Farr is a white, androgynously gendered, TAB, German-born and U.S.-schooled, male-sexed queer person (with a penchant for other male-sexed queer persons) who started writing about games at Vorpal Bunny Ranch (in other words, he's loquacious). He has continued with this endeavor, expanding his writing to both and here at The Border House. A strong proponent of expanding diversity in games, his focus is often on how characters are depicted in games, and exploring the language we use to explicate games themselves.
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8 Responses to Characters Done Right: BioShock 2’s Grace Holloway

  1. Michael says:

    This actually makes me want to try out Bioshock 2. I thought getting in a new development team to Bioshock 1 would mean the series would lose its soul. Its could to know they can still handle complex philosophy and characters in what is basically a corridor shooter.

  2. Denis Farr says:

    @Michael, I had the exact same concerns, but BioShock 2 continues asking very good questions and pressing both philosophy and good characters (the former is a tad weaker than I’d like, but I found BioShock 1 to be the same in that regard).

  3. Kirk says:

    Pauper’s Drop was definitely the turning point for me in BS2 – up until then, it had felt too familiar, a bit rote. None of the characters I’d met had resonated yet, so when Grace came on the com I finally felt like I was coming face to face with a “Rapture Denizen” to equal one of the characters from the first game.

    And I agree, I, too liked how the game handled her character and story, particularly her backstory-via-audio-log. (I’m becoming increasingly weary of the audio log method of character development, but hey, it’s better than nothing).

    I enjoyed both Bioshock’s artist characters – Sander and Grace each showed a different side of the patronized artist; the performer whose talent lifts her high into the ranks of the powerful but who is manipulated by and never allowed the influence of those around her. Sander went insane; Grace, awesomely, just got stronger.

    It helped that Pauper’s Drop was a really cool, twisty level, and fun to fight my way through. Agg, I really wish I hadn’t sold my copy of BS2 – I mondo want to play Minerva’s Den. Oy. Anyway, great piece!

  4. oddboyout says:

    The gameplay in Bioshock 2 really bored me. I ended up playing through just for the story. :)

  5. Ian says:

    I enjoyed the amount of depth and character that they put into Grace. She brought some much needed sense of humanity into a world that felt otherwise cold and uncaring. It would’ve been hard to truly care about Sophia Lamb’s perspective and her struggle against Ryan had the writers not introduced a compassionate character like Grace for us to relate to.

  6. Lake Desire says:

    Add me to the list of folks who now want to play BS2. I was avoiding the game because I heard it takes on “collectivism” as a subject of critique like it did objectivism in the last game. As an anti-capitalist, I was worried the game would make anyone who believed in some form of socialism into an automaton. (I’m still recovering from my childhood of anti-Soviet propaganda.)

    Anyways will this game offend socialists like the first game offended libertarians?

  7. Denis Farr says:

    @Kirk: As wary as I grow of over-reliance particular methods of delivering information, through this method it made sure we got Grace’s story, and from her own lips. It didn’t feel forced–I’m not sure the story would have been given as much time otherwise, as it would be difficult to ask players to sit through it.

    Amusingly enough, the other character I want to profile in the coming weeks is Sander Cohen. BioShock has not been afraid to show different sides of the artist, and it’s inspiring to see them run the full range there.

    @oddboyout, It took me a while to acclimate to the new controls, and it wasn’t the best of ports (I played on PC). Except for the Little Sister Harvesting Bits, the gameplay was very similar to the first for me–but the story kept me pushing on.

    @Ian: Yes! She is a perfect counterpart to so many of the villains and heroes in the story–she’s fully fleshed out because she can change as much as the protagonist. Unlike Lamb or Ryan, she can die still thinking you a monster, or live and change her mind about the entire subject matter. She doesn’t question her loyalty to Lamb, but starts to wonder about you. Lamb helping this woman also made me wonder if I really wanted to stop Lamb.

    @Lake Desire: Does it offend? I’m not sure. The main plot’s political motives fell somewhat flat for me (as did the first). They’re there, to be sure, but they are so poorly realized that it didn’t really strike me one way or the other. What stood out to me where characters in particular, living their lives despite and in spite of others’ ideologies.

    Ultimately, I believe the series does highlight how ideologies can be twisted as soon as placed in humans’ hands, regardless of the ideology (my personal take on it).

  8. Denis Farr says:

    Another thought that occurs to me, and shows I think about posts way too long after I write them is the fact that the game treads a careful line and does not really throw out the word racism. Rather, they take a show, rather than tell, method. They show how hard Grace had it. They show her past. They show the reactions to her.

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