September 6, 2007 8:05 PM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
The following article contains minor BioShock spoilers – there’s no discussion of the ending or of major plot points, but this week’s column focuses on a character who appears about halfway through the game and on the environment in which you fight him.
Still with me?
Andrew Ryan’s ideal for Rapture was a world in which the creative elite, unconstrained by social obligation, were free to pursue their own ends to any extent that their effort awarded them. Everybody came to Rapture thinking they were going to be “captains of industry” – of course, no one realized that “somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets.”
Sander Cohen, musician, artist and composer, was Rapture’s poster child for that creative elite. With Ryan himself as the prime supporter of his arts, Cohen held court in Fort Frolic, his musical scores the toast of the city, his artwork held up as the standard of genius. In his battered suit, his hair a nest of pomade and his face a white pancake mask, holding court now over none but a grim army of plaster-cast statues – the bodies beneath, still bleeding – a city that should have become his joy became his madness.
His mad taunts to the player vacillate between imperious demand, lavish praise and vengeful rage; perpetually unstable, the single-minded viciousness with which he assembles his masterwork, what he calls a quantych (though it’s technically a “polyptych”, isn’t it?) composed of the photographs of his disciples’ bodies, is one of the more unsettling of BioShock’s many tragedies of the human mind’s descent. It’s both repugnant and infuriating, the way he refers to the player character as a “little moth” – and enlightening, too.
After all, the most alarming thing about Cohen is how he still lives in a delusion of his prior grandeur, fancying himself a radiant light to which all things are drawn. Though all but the most crazed of splicers in Rapture have either been killed or perhaps hidden themselves somewhere safer, far out of sight, Cohen remains, lording over Fort Frolic, hosting performances no one will see and continuing to “create” – and nursing a psychotic desire for revenge against his students for slights that were slight, if not fictional.
BioShock’s strength lies in all of the subtle ways that Rapture has become a sort of time capsule for the world it once was. Though Arcadia’s Farmer’s Market is rotting, swarmed with insects, in the scattered bottles of fine wine and the display cases which sometimes still hold faintly recognizable shapes of meat and cheese, it’s not difficult to imagine how beautiful it once was. The “ghosts” the player sometimes hallucinates, one of the myriad side effects of splicing plasmids, tell a story of people who once loved their world. As menacing as the world is, as much as Rapture itself is our antagonist in a sense, even the most grim of its vistas is less a horror and more a tragedy, when we see the tiny details. A burnt-out home that was once someone’s joy and pride; an Arcadia advertisement for pet adoption where, beneath a picture of puppies that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a school library, it reads, “BEST FRIENDS”.
Though, never is the window into Rapture’s past more illuminating, more poignant– and more tragic -- than it is when we look at the world of Sander Cohen. He’s not immediately crafted for empathy, combining egomania with antagonism, the flighty esoterics of an archetypal artist’s worst qualities, and his uncomfortably proximal, demeaning overtures. But then we see Fort Frolic’s promotional posters, for whimsical romantic comedies and musical plays that look quite like something Cole Porter would have come up with (and indeed, Porter’s “You’re the Top” scores a spot on the BioShock soundtrack). Even the way he titles his grim program, “An Evening With Sander Cohen,” makes it sound like the sort of Broadway cassette tapes my grandmother would have loved in my childhood. And so, we are able to get a glimpse of the man he must once have been.
He would’ve been no saint. When we follow Cohen’s coaxing into Fleet Hall theatre, where he’s rigidly critiquing the piano performance of a soon-to-be-very-unfortunate student, his urgent demands, even the way he attempts to vocalize the way the notes should go, make him not so much a psychopath, but a typical acting teacher. The character designers responsible for Cohen’s personality must have been intimately acquainted with theatre people.
Last week, on the topic of choice in games, I offered the opinion that while games provide the structures for experiences, it is the player’s choice to use those structures. That rather than expecting emotional satisfaction for technical behaviors, it’s up to us to take that next step and find a point of empathy with a game. This isn’t always easy, but that it is so limitlessly possible in BioShock is one of its strengths. We gain the most from our experience when we find ways to make a story personal, and it was Sander Cohen, not the Little Sisters, who provided the first in-road to me.
In 2004, I graduated not as an English major, but from a Madison Avenue, New York City acting conservatory, one of the finest in the country. I spent two years there with some of the most archetypal “theatre people” imaginable – black-cloaked, emotional Method actors, flamingly homosexual dancers, proudly egomaniacal Shakespearians, and hysterical, demanding pianists prone to throwing fits. Sander Cohen’s pitch-perfect rant, “my muse is a fickle bitch with a very short attention span!!” Might have been snatched from one of their mouths.
We, the conservatory students, were all the protégés of such, and it was there that I learned a little bit about the nature of acting, about any kind of creative art in general. When done well, it’s driven by a desire to give. But many times (perhaps more often than not), creative types are hunted to the edge of madness by a desire to please, and to be validated. They create not primarily to contribute, but so that they can be elevated socially for their singular achievements. Consumed deep-down with self-doubt, they instead try to earn love and validation from others through art – at first aiming to please, then to impress, then to control.
It’s a tragedy, really; combine creative talent and a simple, human desire for love and approval, and you have a recipe for madness. Rapture promised Sander Cohen a cocktail more fatal than the Moonshine Absinthe of which he appeared to be fond – a world wherein his creativity was his greatest merit, but also a world that constantly wanted more, more. It’s a simple fact of human psychology that the love and approval of millions is not enough. The splicers, at the edge of the end of the world, needed more and more power to feel safe, or to feel beautiful, until it destroyed them. In the madness of Rapture, the same happened to Cohen and his gifts – and in the vacuum left behind by a decimated population gone mad, he began to cannibalize himself.
Many actors, artists and composers later go on to teach, and it seems Cohen undertook disciples also. In a final, absolute rejection of the act of giving, he turns on his own students.
He’s a brilliant character not only for his spot-on characterization, but for the way his endless wrestling with “the muse” is a perfect metaphor for the consumptive nature of Rapture in general. More is never enough to salve the spectre of self-doubt, and when there’s no more to be had, one will take from one’s own mind until one lives alone in a closed world of delusion – contrast Cohen’s sprightly musical posters with his later works, such as the aptly titled “The Doubters”, a grim plaster cast of an entire family frozen at the dinner table, or the insane “Wild Bunny”, in which his inspirational musical works is replaced simply by a hysterical nonsense refrain: “I hop, and when I hop, I can’t get off the ground. I want to take the ears off, but I can’t.”
Contrast this with the later, optional glimpse into the home of Sander Cohen, where sepia-toned portraits of friends in groups, musicians playing piano, and a solitary figure performing on stage, stand as forgotten homages to a life that was once happy, imbued with the joy of performing and the adoration of colleagues and fans.
When in the game Cohen’s masterpiece is at last, as he says, “accomplished,” and he descends the atrium stairs bathed in spotlight, a rain of confetti and canned cheers, waving lovingly to an audience that only he can see, trapped in a lost life, I confess I shed a tear. And that’s the key to connecting emotionally with games – somewhere in there is a point of empathy just for you.
I’m a writer, not an actress today – you may draw your own conclusions about that.
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer