The original BioShock really did have an incredible cast of characters didn’t it? The likes of Andrew Ryan and Atlas stick out the most, but the more one thinks about the game, the more characters pop back into the ol’ memory. There’s Brigid Tenenbaum, the repentant scientist; Yi Suchong, the one whose reach exceeded his grasp; J.S. Steinman the mad surgeon; and then there’s Sander Cohen the regretful artist. Sander Cohen is unique in this group though, as his motivations are somewhat unclear and the game leaves it to the player to decide what his agenda is. For a long time, I thought he was simply another madman. Madness is rather common in Rapture, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to find that it had taken an already eccentric creative and sent him over the edge. However, that opinion changed once I took a closer look at his character theme: “Dancers on a String”.
(clip via YouTube channel: firefeure)
Ah, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. In order to talk about what the song tells us about Sander Cohen, we need to take a quick look at his life in Rapture before its fall. Cohen initially came to Rapture in order to escape those he referred to as “the doubters”, who were most likely just critics of his work. He found a great deal of success in Rapture’s art scene for a time, eventually becoming one of, if not the most, influential and important figures in said scene. He wrote, he acted, he composed, and he painted. He did a bit of everything, and most of his work received a great deal of praise. However he, like so many others in Rapture, had more than a few skeletons in his closet. Among many other things, Cohen dabbled in human trafficking and functioned as the supplier of Little Sister subjects for Ryan Industries. It was only after Rapture’s fall that circumstances turned bad for Sander Cohen. With everything in ruin and just about all the survivors lost to madness, no one remained to appreciate his work. Ironically, it was Sander’s own actions to enrich and raise himself up in the public eye that enabled Rapture’s fall to occur in the first place; an irony I’m sure was not lost on him. He went mad and eventually put all the blame upon Ryan and the “doubters”, having stated that he regretted ever coming to Rapture because of them and vowed to get his revenge.
This brings us to the present shown in the original BioShock and this theme that plays upon Cohen’s introduction. Jack’s “conversations” with the man make Cohen’s delusional madness apparent enough, but I think that it’s this song that provides a window into his true emotional state. It’s a very slow and heavy tune, carrying the combined weight of loss and regret. The Cohen Jack meets is a shadow of his former self, and somewhere deep down Cohen knows it. He knows his glory days are behind him and that any future he could have had as an artist on the surface was destroyed the moment he decided to move to Rapture. What was supposed to be a stage for his brilliance had become a sealed tomb, forever robbing him of the chance to make a lasting impact on the artistic world. In short, he could have been something, but now he’ll never get to be anything.
“Dancers on a String” reveals Cohen as a broken man. His true self is that of man all but consumed with deep feelings of loss and regret, but still resigned to continue on nonetheless. What Jack encounters is nothing more than an elaborate facade. It’s just Cohen playing a twisted character of his old self rather than having to face the horrible reality of his current circumstance. Without this song we would still learn about his prior circumstance and how he came to be a mad artist. With it however, we’re given a glimpse of the man behind the madness and why that madness is allowed to continue. Minor character or not, there’s more to Sander Cohen than meets the eye.
What was you impression of Cohen when you first encountered him? Are there any songs that you think give extra depth to a video game character?