On my shoulder, whispering
February 17, 2010
You will alway be with me now, father. Your memories, your drives. And when I need you, you'll be there on my shoulder, whispering. --Eleanor Lamb, Bioshock 2
In 30 years of gaming, I've played endless variations of the same character: the brave hero who, against all odds, must save the world. Our fascination with this story is at least as old as Homer's Iliad, and it's unlikely we'll grow tired of it any time soon.
Games rely on heroism as a sturdy foundation for interactive storytelling, but unlike the Iliad, they rarely explore what it means. They seldom contemplate the human consequences or the personal cost. No game I've played has approached the moment in the Iliad when Priam falls to his knees and begs Achilles for his slain son's body. This grieving father moves Achilles to tears, and the two lament their losses in the war.
For Homer, the Trojan War is a bloody backdrop for exploring honor, vengeance, morality, and fate. His characters are fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and these familial connections underpin everything that happens in the Iliad and the Odyssey. At stake is family, and if we strip away all the obstacles and complications, Odysseus' 10-year journey is about one thing: returning home to his wife and son.
No game I've played has come close to conveying what it means to be a father. Fighting to avenge the death of a wife or child can provide a handy context for gameplay bad-assery, but nurturing and responsibility don't translate so well. Lots of games have made me feel like a fighter, but no game has ever made me feel the responsibility of fatherhood. No game has touched me in a way that feels familiar and real to me as a father.
No game, that is, until Bioshock 2.
I'll get this out of the way now so I can spend the rest of my time explaining. This game had a profoundly moving effect on me. The ending - my ending, the one that reflected my values - resonated deeply. As the father of a 2-year-old daughter, my journey through Rapture touched on my fears and aspirations for her in ways I never expected from a game. That experience lingers, and I'm grateful for it.
Bioshock 2 is a dialectic hyper-yin to Bioshock's hyper-yang. Andrew Ryan's distorted utopia exalts the individual, while Sofia Lamb's "Rapture Family" exalts the collective. The player can track this philosophical collision by exploring Rapture's ruins, and much of the appeal of both games comes from the drama that unfolds via audio diaries. For what it's worth, these games owe much to radio dramas of the 30s and 40s, once a staple of American popular culture.
Ryan's "Great Chain" produced an intellectual backdrop for Bioshock, but the player's choices and actions were mostly disconnected from those ideas. The player uncovers facts about his relationship to Ryan and others, but those reveals occur in a sender-receiver format. Ryan's warnings and exhortations colored my journey, but they never added meaning or provoked personal reflection.
"Love is just a chemical, no matter the origin. We give it meaning by choice." --Eleanor Lamb
Eleanor Lamb changes everything. She elevates Bioshock 2 by offering a warm familial relationship to the player's avatar, a Big Daddy called Subject Delta. Eleanor raises the stakes. Suddenly, I'm not in this for myself, but for her. She's watching me, helping me, and learning from me. I am bound to her as a father to a daughter, and her pain is my pain. My existence has no meaning if I cannot help her become the hopeful, self-reliant woman she is meant to be. As long as she is imprisoned, I can never be free.
Suddenly these little girls with glowing eyes are more than ADAM vessels to be rescued or harvested. They're the child Eleanor once was, before the madness. They're my charges, relying on me for protection and deliverance. They are, truly, Eleanor's 'little sisters,' and I am, in a way I never expected to discover, their 'Big Daddy.'
I should note that my affection and paternal feelings for Eleanor grew primarily out of her own maturation and blossoming sense of herself as a woman who refuses to buy into something she can't believe; who sacrifices nearly everything to win her own freedom; and who reaches out to save me too. Eleanor is nobody's damsel. In many ways, for significant portions of the game, I'm her damsel and she's my protector/savior. Rapture's Big Sisters are far more crafty and powerful than its Big Daddies.
This game makes me feel the weight of compassion and responsibility. I won't soon forget confronting the rat-like Stanley Poole in the train station, every bit of me itching to kill him and make it painful. He stood there cowering, defenseless, bent at the waist, gripping his head. I watched him for a moment, savoring his suffering. And then I realized that she was watching too. Eleanor was there with me, just as she was 10 years before, when her mother faced a similar opportunity to kill a man. I turned and walked out the door. Near the end of the game, some 15 hours later, I discovered I was right. She was watching; and she learned.
So much of Bioshock 2 suggests it was built by smart people with loving hands. The name 'Eleanor' is derived from two Greek words: 'elios' meaning 'compassion' and 'Helen' meaning 'ray of sun.' Both are especially apt sources for Eleanor Lamb ... or at least the Eleanor Lamb that appeared in my Bioshock 2. Her behavior at the end of the game can change drastically depending on choices made by the player.
Near the end of the original Bioshock, the player gets to feel what it's like to be a Big Daddy, but it's really just a novelty act. Aside from a change in visual perspective, the game doesn't do anything with it. But in the sequel, Eleanor saves your life after nearly losing hers, and then she injects you into the body of a Little Sister.
It's a brilliant transition because now the player sees the world as the Little Sisters see it. Soft and lovely, with elegant ladies and gentlemen, only briefly punctuated by sharp flashes of ugly, bloody decay. It's the first and only time we see the conjured lie of Rapture - or in Sofia Lamb's mind, the promise of Rapture - with our own eyes.
Eleanor is that rarest of women in games: a gifted, intelligent, brave, determined, nurturing, compassionate, self-reliant, kick-ass sister. She loves her father enough to die for him. She loves her mother enough to forgive her. That's my Eleanor Lamb. That's my daughter on my shoulder, whispering.