Journal

Lamb Of Rapture, Lamb Of Columbia

Call it Bioshock’s most unwilling constant. There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. But there’s also a girl, and not necessarily Elizabeth Comstock. I can attest from personal experience that to even ask Ken Levine about Bioshock 2 is to feel the temperature in the room briefly drop a couple of degrees, but this part of the series has always interested me. Both games find their emotional core in not just a father/daughter relationship, but down surprisingly similar paths. In doing so though, they say more about themselves than you might think.

Call it Bioshock’s most unwilling constant. There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. But there’s also a girl, and not necessarily Elizabeth Comstock. I can attest from personal experience that to even ask Ken Levine about Bioshock 2 is to feel the temperature in the room briefly drop a couple of degrees, but this part of the series has always interested me. Both games find their emotional core in not just a father/daughter relationship, but down surprisingly similar paths. In doing so though, they say more about themselves than you might think.

(Warning: Spoilers for Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite/Burial At Sea within.)

So, does this make her a Lamb on the lam?

I’m simplifying things here, but let’s start with a quick recap. Elizabeth Comstock (née Anna DeWitt) is easily the most famous of the two. She’s the once-kidnapped daughter of Bioshock Infinite’s villain, a religious zealot, who thanks to parallel universe shenanigans is actually an alternate version of her real father, Booker DeWitt, who spent her whole life locked up and being groomed to one day bring her father’s religious philosophy to the world on the business end of his followers and the amazing technology that made Columbia possible. For this reason, she’s deified by the city and given the name “The Lamb Of Columbia”. In the end, she escapes, rebels against him with the help of her real father, helps destroy the city, kills her evil father, and leaves as a god-like force.

So then, absolutely nothing at all like the story of Eleanor Lamb of Bioshock 2. Eleanor is a former Little Sister in Rapture who was bonded to a Big Daddy called Subject Delta, only to be kidnapped by her real mother Sofia, a religious leader who promptly has her daughter deified by her religious cult in the ruins of Rapture, with the goal of grooming her to bring her ‘altruistic’ philosophy to the world using the scientific knowledge and power that made its wonders possible. In the end, she escapes, rebels against her with the help of her chosen father figure, helps destroy the city, (maybe) kills her evil mother, and leaves as a god-like force.

Constants and variables indeed. The two even share the first syllable of their names, not to mention a few extra elements like both being captured and suppressed by their parent at the start of the final act.

Elizabeth was due to be mute. Definitely a good change.

This is of course not to say that the two are identical, because they aren’t. There are many differences, in their powers, in the mechanics of their presence in the game, in their personalities, back-stories and more, all of which tie into their specific stories and the game journeys - especially after Burial At Sea, Episode 2… the DLC I ultimately expect to see known by its working title “Good Luck Making Another Bioshock Game Now, Ya Jerks”.

What makes both Eleanor and Elizabeth so fascinating to compare though is that they’re not simply the human face of their respective games (in the way that, say, Alyx Vance is for Half-Life 2) but their design and writing philosophies incarnate. Of the two, it’s no real surprise that Elizabeth is the most beloved. First off, Bioshock 2 never got the love it deserved. It looked like a cynical cash-in, its premise was a return trip to a city that most figured had been used up already, and its opening bits were pretty crap. Actually, very crap.

Once given a chance though, it soon folded out into one of the smartest sequels ever - a full thematic inversion of the first game, and more importantly, a far more human one. Bioshock was ultimately about a city. Bioshock 2 was about its people. It moved the focus from the elites of Rapture and their power-battles over control and philosophy, down to a grimier world of the poor and subjugated without the luxury for that. That was where its villain drew her power - not with promises of electrical fingers, but a shoulder to cry on… one that unfortunately proved to be connected to a sociopath’s head. The stories found it in the same place, most notably in the tale of poor singer Grace Holloway, whose life of misery had nothing to do with splicing and objectivism and everything to do with racism and poverty and old-school politics. These were the stories of Rapture as a place where people would go and be disappointed, not the Rapture actively designed as a monument to Andrew Ryan’s hypocrisy and naivety.

Still one of my favourite bits of environmental detail.

Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite have a very similar kind of split. As a writer, Ken Levine is what I’d call quite ‘cold’ - but don’t get wrong, I don’t mean that as a criticism. “Nolanesque” would work just as well, and I’d actually group Levine and Christopher Nolan together quite closely in many ways. In particular, his game stories at least tend to be mechanical constructs and puzzles first, with emotion the grease that makes those wheels turn rather than the driving force. Even in Bioshock Infinite, the truth behind DeWitt and Comstock is there as a plot twist, with everything up to that kept deliberately vague and not much time afterwards to explore it.

In Elizabeth’s case specifically though, what we get is a character very carefully engineered to be likeable before she even opens her mouth. She’s a fairytale princess in a tower, openly so. She has huge eyes for emoting/sympathy. Her moral compass is so strong that even in the Bad Future where she destroys New York, torture and betrayals roll right off so she can save the day. And on a more base level, it hasn’t exactly hurt that she’s both well endowed and thinks a corset is the same as a shirt. Cough.

This works well. She’s a stormingly popular character, and she’s a fun sidekick throughout most of Bioshock Infinite. The scene on the beach especially is wonderful for how genuine her happiness is after years of being cooped up, and I’d very much like for her to have finally gotten to Paris… even if the dream Paris with its ridiculously friendly Parisiens is about as creepy for anyone who’s actually been there as the horror later on.

The catch is that it doesn’t take much prodding to see the problems, and that most of her traits aren’t actually in service of the story. There is no handwaving that can get past her having learned to pick locks. Nor does the fact that, at on the edge of her 20s, Comstock has made absolutely no attempt to indoctrinate her in the philosophies he intends to have her bring to the world after his death. As a character, Elizabeth should really have been more like - at best - Ashley in Mass Effect, with at least a few racist beliefs and religious fervour that could have been whittled away during the story. She couldn’t though, because anything like that would make her less loveable.

Even when she does break out of those restrictions, first late in Infinite and then skipping trope to the femme fatale role that she has in Burial At Sea, it’s in service to a very obvious machine - pieces clicking into pieces clicking into more pieces, with her strings no less visible for the fact that she’s nominally the one pulling them. The result is that the end of Burial At Sea is at best split 50/50 between the emotional core that it’s meant to have, and the clicking of a pen being put down after ticking several boxes. It’s the difference between a character reaching the end of their story and them fulfilling their purpose and being switched off - that purpose here being far more about connecting up Bioshock and Infinite than on finishing Elizabeth’s tale. That happens, but it’s a bonus.

And this is as close as Bioshock got to a battle-bikini.

By comparison, Bioshock 2 was a ‘warm’ game, and all the more surprisingly so for the fact that its protagonist need be seen as nothing more than a walking drill. Eleanor takes the main prize here, but it extends further - to Grace, yes, but perhaps most surprisingly to a man called Augustus Sinclair. Sinclair is introduced as an expy for Frank Fontaine, the con-artist big villain of the first game, being open about his plans to tear out Rapture’s goodies and make a fortune. We find out over the course of the game that he’s not simply as bad as most of Rapture’s elites, but bad to the point that even Andrew Ryan thinks he plays dirty. In the end though, he turns out to be one of the few people in the series smart enough to know when to put the philosophy textbooks down and be a man, accepting his death on the grounds that at least it means that Delta will be able to “let Eleanor see the sun.”

Eleanor herself is worth most of the praise though. Compared to the nigh-omnipresent Elizabeth, she gets almost no screen-time at all, and none of the fancy technology and mo-cap and other advantages of Infinite’s budget and technology. I’d argue though that she does far more, relatively speaking, with the little she has. Her backstory as told by audio-logs fleshes her out as a real person - a child who got into fights, was disobedient, could be snobbish, and whose mental imprisonment as a Little Sister came as a result of ill-advised bravery. When she becomes an adult, things really get interesting. Her powers are largely (though not entirely) irrelevant to Bioshock 2’s main story, which is one of fatherhood. Eleanor is smart enough to know the score about Subject Delta being mentally conditioned to protect her (on pain of death) and that her own feelings towards him come from the same place, but in rejecting her mother, she’s decided to embrace that and treat him as a father figure.

In my Bioshock 3, Rapture is rediscovered… by Disney.

The big reveal of Bioshock 2 is that most of the game is spent calibrating her moral compass by your actions. You as Subject Delta never get to leave Rapture - or at least, not its lighthouse. Eleanor does. The key question is which Eleanor leaves with the collected power of the place - a kind-hearted leader, a brutal, grasping pragmatist, or something in the middle. It’s a set of endings marked with interesting subtleties and bitter-sweet writing that perfectly rounds off a game that ultimately doesn’t give a damn about the philosophies and hubris that lead to destruction so much as the impact of it, and the little bits of humanity that make all the difference.

(Lest we forget, both Bioshock and Infinite are strikingly cynical games. Both are full of actively awful people, with cartoonishly evil villains, very dodgy moral equivalency regarding groups like the Vox Populi, and a tendency to take the worst view of things - not least Bioshock assuming that a player who harvested Little Sisters was doing so out of a greed for power, rather than, say, figuring that the needs of the many were more important. They’re also extremely specific about characters that we’re meant to care about. Little Sisters? Absolutely. The equally victimised Big Daddies? Wrench fodder. Bioshock 2 shares that cynicism in the set-up, obviously, but comes at it from another angle. Even professional cynic Sinclair - who has no reason to really care - takes a moment out to point out that Grace has reason to be angry before you approach her and praises you for being better than him if you spare her. These details matter, and add tremendously to the texture and verisimilitude of the world. Bioshock/Infinite meanwhile are so worried about losing the point they’re making that subtlety is kicked right out of the nearest window. Just look at the Ryan The Lion school section of Burial At Sea, or ‘man of the people’ Atlas not even trying to hide his evil side around Elizabeth. They’re solid scenes, yes, but not believable ones.)

None of this is to say that either character is, specifically, ‘better’. They’re simply products of different writing styles and attitudes, and the nature of Bioshock as a universe means that there certainly isn’t a Boolean split here. Eleanor is every bit as designed as Elizabeth is, just in different directions, and much as I criticise some details of Elizabeth’s implementation, I have a few for her too. In particular, her gimmick, of being ‘Utopia’, is confused and largely gibberish and she’d have worked better without needing A Big Thing to add drama and raise the stakes. Up in the clouds, my quibblings don’t mean Elizabeth wasn’t successful. If she was, she wouldn’t have struck the chord that she did with players, or been the face and corset that launched a thousand cosplays. You can probably guess which of the two I connected best with, but they’re both fine examples of what they were shooting for.

Instead, what got me thinking about this is that in a way, what separates them is also what defines Bioshock 2’s place in the series’ closed loop. Its events may have been pushed as far out of the way as modern science can manufacture bargepoles, to the extent that having played it adds a rather unfortunate element to Burial At Sea’s conclusion. Even so, it stands as a great example of Infinite’s final twist - a chance to look behind another of those endless doors full of endless possibilities to a Bioshock ruled by the heart rather than the head, and presided over by a character who personifies that, in the same way that Elizabeth does for things like quantum mechanics.

After having felt sorry for Bioshock 2 since release for being a sequel that never got a fair shake, finally it feels like it’s found a place - a vivid demonstration of exactly what Infinite’s ending wanted to convey, freed of the DeWitts and Comstocks and other specifics that Burial At Sea doubled-down on. Even if we strike it from canon in the way Levine would clearly prefer, that gives it a reason to exist, and keeps it relevant even if we never speak of Eleanor Lamb ever again. To me, that wraps up the whole series pretty well, not just the creator approved bits. It’s the kind of closure nobody could possibly have intended, but which still somehow feels right.

...

Though damn, if I wouldn’t still love to peek through the door where Bioshock is a full noir detective game…

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Hello, I'm Richard! I'm a freelance writer, journalist, narrative designer and veteran producer of many other exciting things with words. Interested in hiring me to write things for you, or just saying hello? Drop me a line here.