Looking back at Fort Frolic

A splicer mask rises above Rapture Metro

Andrew Ryan is in your sights. All you have to do is make your way across Fort Frolic to the Rapture metro station, hop in the bathosphere and take a ride to the hideout of Rapture’s patriarch. Things begin to go off script as you enter to fort, though. Your radio fizzles out and you lose contact with Atlas, your only ally up to this point. As you approach the Bathosphere, it suddenly locks in front of you and sinks into the water. Then, rising from the waves comes a gigantic splicer mask, and the voice of Atlas is replaced by the voice of the tortured artist Sander Cohen as he welcomes you to the greatest video game level ever made.

Fort Frolic is the eighth stage of Bioshock, the 2007 first person shooter by Irrational Games. It is the exact midway point in the 15 chapter story, and while this level technically does not contribute to the overall plot at all, it is a masterpiece in storytelling and game design.

After you are locked out of the bathosphere, Cohen begins to talk to you and explain to you where you have arrived. You are in his world now, and he wants you to join his twisted art project. You are welcomed to a theatre to watch a pianist perform. Everything feels…off, though. The pianist is crying, the theatre is empty and he is very clearly distressed. After making a mistake, Cohen punishes the pianist by blowing him up and killing him.

There are not many better character establishing scenes than this in media. You become instantly aware of Cohen’s psychotic love of the arts, and his desire for perfection mixed with outright sadism. It all feels unnerving and confusing to the player, as you are never truly sure what to make of what you are watching.

Cohen introduces himself to you and asks you to on a quest for him. Murder three of his estranged artists and take pictures of their dead bodies to be displayed in the main hall. He opens up the shopping mall for you to explore on your mission, and send you on your way.

The layout of the level is perfect, especially for someone like me who often manages to get lost in first person games. Just like a real life mall, there is a central hub, then individual stores surround you to explore as you go on your mission. You are allowed to track down the three artists in any order and each of them give you a different fight. One freezes you with his tonic and taunts you, one cowardly runs away and another gives you a standard firefight.

While finding these three enemies is the key to the level, this level is surprisingly empty compared to others in the game. There are not as many splicers in Fort Frolic as there are in other places in Rapture. This makes things even creepier than usual.

You will be walked across a hallway or upstairs, and suddenly hear the sound of falling tiles or something breaking. Suddenly, a plaster covered splicers will jump on you, and fight you in total silence. Enemies that usually reveal themselves by hurling insults at you suddenly get muzzled, and it makes the experience of fighting them unnerving. Even the regular splicers seem less confident and gung-ho. Many seem incredibly distressed, and you can hear them crying out in pain before you see them even. This makes Fort Frolic uncomfortable for the player as you really do not what is going on here, just that it is not very good.

Eventually, you collect all three photographs and place them in the main hall. Cohen then proceeds to send a small army of splicers after you. The enemies are low health though, and combined with ballet music in the background, it is clear that Cohen is more interested in the dance you are performing by fighting rather than the combat itself.

Cohen then reveals himself to you and allows you to leave. Your task is finished, and you performed for him. What else could he ask of you? Unlike other enemies throughout the game, he holds his end of the bargain and allows you to proceed to Ryan’s office. He respects your art and assumes you respect his, and that is all he needs to allow you passage to the next stage of the game.

Fort Frolic is a magical experience in what is an amazing game. Atmosphere and environment are key to the Bioshock experience, and this level has the best atmosphere of any level in the entire series. In just a short period of time you truly begin to understand, Cohen his personality and his motivations. While this stage of the game does not entirely tie into the overall purpose of the story, it may give you more a look into the city of Rapture than anywhere else.

In pretty much every part of this city, even within the arts, the libertarian allure of Rapture attracted absolute sociopaths who did not care much for others. They believed that the lives of others were expendable and were willing to use other human beings as puppets for their own pleasure. Cohen is an absolute psychopath, and it is the mindset he had that probably made him rise to the top of the Rapture art scene.

Freelance writer. Bylines in American Magazine, SB Nation and Mondoweiss. Culture and Sports.

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