Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
Four decades ago, Marina Abramović stood before an audience in a Naples art gallery and said, “I am the object.” 72 items were laid out on a table, and the crowd could use any of these materials on her as they wished. The items ranged from a harmless feather and a rose to more dangerous objects, such as a pistol with one bullet and a razor blade. Starting off tame, a rose was placed in her fingers and an innocent kiss was planted on her cheek. As the night went on, Abramović was cut, bruised and threatened—one participant held a gun to her head, another pierced her throat and drank her blood. She was ready to die.
This controversial ‘70s performance art, titled Rhythm 0, was frighteningly invasive, starkly brave and above all immensely provocative. Abramović blurred the boundaries between creator and audience, tested the waters of interactivity by bringing the audience’s morals into play and provoked them to react. Today, there is a video game that arguably has similar motives; one that is undeniably a piece of interactive, provocative artwork, though granted on a less extreme level.
The Beginner’s Guide is a video game that rests on an unsettling premise: that the game is allegedly stolen property. Narrated by its creator, Davey Wreden, the game guides you through several unfinished, brief video games allegedly created in the span of four years by someone named Coda. Wreden’s continuous commentary offers his own interpretations of each relatively strange game to the player, as if he were a curator leading us through an exhibit. The game presents itself in an intimate and seemingly genuine way. Wreden’s audible mixture of guilt, wonder and desperation ring true. As we progress through the game, Wreden confesses that this collection of short games was shared and sold to us without Coda’s permission.
Controversy erupted online, with players and critics alike debating whether the game is fiction or nonfiction. Did Wreden steal these creations? Is Coda a real game developer? Could we comfortably believe our money had been spent morally? Journalists reached out to Wreden, but he refused to clarify on the record. Was it possible he didn’t want us to know, or was he just fanning the flames?
By not clearing up the controversy, Wreden let these reactions play out, asking us to contemplate the true nature of the game without any additional guidance. It allowed for a highly reactive response with a range of emotions—some players felt confused or exploited, while others felt they were undesirably liable for invading Coda’s privacy.
Just like with Rhythm 0, we become active participants in this art because it toys not just with our emotions, but with our moral compasses too.
CREATOR AS VILLAIN
With Wreden inserting himself into the piece as a villainous character, The Beginner’s Guide creates this strange limbo between reality and fantasy. The audience of Rhythm 0 underwent a similar illusion when Abramović reduced herself from a human being to an object. There’s a sense that we, not just as players but as people, are participating in the creator’s world. In The Beginner’s Guide, we’re told that we’re peering into a story that didn’t want to be told. It’s voyeuristic—it feels invasive if you fall for what I believe is a convincing but fabricated story. By keeping the truth ambiguous, Wreden is pioneering a new artistic direction rarely seen in video games: provocative art.
It’s possible that Wreden wanted us to react, just as Abramović wanted to provoke her audience. Maybe riling us up was part of his goal—a motive that is behind many previous provocative artworks in history.
From bold female nudity in 19th century paintings such as Francisco Goya’s The Nude Maja and Manet’s Olympia to more modern examples like Andres Serrano’s anti-Christian Piss Christ, which placed an image of Jesus Christ in a jar of urine, provocative art has challenged history’s many stigmas, cultures and religions. The Beginner’s Guide is challenging video game conventions and helping to shape a new sub-genre of provocative art in a digital, interactive form.
Even with the uncertain authenticity of his words, Wreden’s suggestion that he stole and modified another person’s work sticks in players’ minds. In-game, Wreden states he modified Coda’s projects to make them more playable for the player, such as quickening our walking speed when we were reduced to a crawl, and overcoming a near-unsolvable maze with a newly added bridge. This in and of itself is provocative, and can be comparable to a famous controversial drawing, Erased De Kooning.
In the 20th century, art movements such as dadaism largely evoked a fad of artistic anarchy, and the term anti-art was coined. A neo-dadaist drawing from 1953, titled Erased De Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg, was created through modifying another artist’s original work. Rauschenberg knocked on the door of abstract expressionist artist Willem De Kooning’s home and requested one of his artworks, then spent the next month hard at work erasing De Kooning’s art piece until only a light pencil outline of the multi-layered drawing remained. Erased De Kooning was born, and it raised controversy over the question of artist ownership. The concept, whether fictionalized or not in The Beginner’s Guide, is thematically fascinating and controversial. It bears similarities to this real-life provocative artwork, among others.
Appropriation is a postmodernist term that means reusing another artist’s images or framing pre-existing objects in a different context to be interpreted in a new light. Dadaism saw the rise of this approach with Marcel Duchamp’s work, such as his readymades collection, which used ordinary items such as a bicycle wheel as art, and his parody of the Mona Lisa, which depicted the famous portrait with an added moustache and goatee. When it comes to appropriation, where is the line of theft and integrity drawn? If you interpret The Beginner’s Guide as true, did it cross a moral line? If you believe it is fiction like I do, does it still cross that line just by suggesting it committed a crime?
Swedish painter Carl Michael von Hausswolff became notorious for crossing this line, with his alleged use of Holocaust victim ashes in a 2012 painting, Memory Works. He claimed to have stolen the ashes from a Polish concentration camp, then diluted them so they could be used provocatively as paint strokes in his watercolour painting. This alleged criminal activity spurred an investigation by the Polish police but was later dismissed due to the statute of limitations. Hausswolff allegedly desecrated human ashes because he believed his piece symbolized the suffering and tragedy the Holocaust victims endured. Albeit extreme, Memory Works’ claim of theft hasn’t been proven, but the mere suggestion is what makes it so provocative. The Beginner’s Guide falls into that same realm.
The motive behind Wreden’s unreliable and quasi-autobiographical narrative is unknown, and I doubt he’ll ever come clean. Purposely provocative or not, the repercussions speak for themselves: the firestorm of public debate and the game’s thematic content greatly mirrors other provocative artworks.
To me the question is not whether the game is art, since it creatively explores the breaking points of human morality and uses clever narrative tricks that break the fourth wall. Instead, the question is how will a game like this shape our perception of art? The Beginner’s Guide is a necessary, pioneering example that explores not just provocation, but a new form of artistic interactivity between creator and player.
Elise Favis is a freelance video games and pop culture writer from Montreal, Quebec. She has previously interned at Game Informer and has an unhealthy obsession with Adventure Time. Follow her on Twitter @elisefavis.
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