Sin, Apocalypse, Cash: The Beginner’s Guide - part 4

Bridging Worlds is artist Eron Rauch’s ongoing series of in-depth articles on the curious places of connection between video games, contemporary art, and culture. This is the final part of a four-part essay on The Beginner's Guide - the previous parts can be found here

“It’s hard to create a narrative of success when you’re the dark matter against which the stars shine, but I find that it’s important for artists to be able to articulate what is valuable about art beyond prices and the market.” -William Powhida

Continuing last week’s discussion of the The Beginner’s Guide as an attempt to trigger an apocalypse to wipe clean the slate of video games, it is useful to note that in Japanese creation circles, there is a genre of animation and comics called sekaikei (literally: “world type”). This genre places a single character, almost always male and young, as the center agent in the future apocalypse. This character’s psyche alone gets to remake the world, but only as it burns to ashes. The interior becomes the all-consuming exterior. While perhaps the capstone of this genre, Neon Genesis Evangelion is unique that that it leverages the dark logic of fandom to subvert its perfect apocalypse and decry the passivity and literalism that threatened to stifle the future of anime fandom.

The Beginner’s Guide, if read as apocalyptic in intent, could also be part of this genre. But it portrays a vision of the future world that comes from deep privilege and is unmoored from history. Evangelion was grounded in a disturbing vision of the future glimpsed perhaps most painfully through the terrible AUM fan-cult nerve gas attacks that killed twelve people in the Tokyo subway. This cult was inspired by anime, and Evangelion followed nerd-logic to it’s painful end to try to disjunct fans out of a similarly hapless tragic destiny. Such a future must reconnected to society will then of course be painful and awkward, but Evangelion tried to show that it is also better future than the alternative. The Beginner’s Guide also tries to harness flaws in nerd logic to kindle the pyre of apocalypse with the art and criticism community as kindling, but its aim seems to be to try to placate fans from the pain and disappointment that inevitably comes with art, life, community, and the uncertain future.

Of all the criticism leveled against the sekaikei genre in the decades that followed its heyday, it is that by hyper-focusing on the singular, antisocial, interior perspective of the young male leads, it imagines a world, as scholar Motoko Tanaka observed in her article “Apocalyptic Imagination”, “Without meaningful inter-subjective relationships and confrontations [so] there can be no substantial communities and societies sustained.”

While it might sound boring to say that art should foster “substantial communities and societies,” phrased another way, it is really hard to give any credence to an art object that doesn’t seem to be aware of multiplicity, potential, growth, change, failure, or the other. So even if we take the view that The Beginner’s Guide is a sekaikei, or some other form of apocalypse, to put the redemption of the self, let alone the whole social order of the world, on the shoulders of art is to imagine that each artwork must save the world. Which is once again to succumb to a deeply conservative theology that divides the world into two sides and places them at war.

The Beginner’s Guide is trying to foremost demonstrate its power through negation - by denying community, history, and critical thinking.

Though perhaps dispiriting at first glance, that is precisely why we should listen to Anselm Kiefer, the great German artist whose works have often broached the incredibly traumatic Nazi past his country, who intoned, “You could be seduced to think that art can redeem the world; It cannot.”

Here in The Beginner’s Guide, we have a game which is trying to foremost demonstrate its power through negation. But by denying community, history, and critical thinking, it places itself in a double-bind since it has no way to calibrate or judge the efficacy of that power or even to envision a role for art in the world. The goal is not to save the world, or even make the world, but it is to be part of the world, which is messy and troubling and filled with uncertain outcomes.

In her essay titled “On Ghosts, or why I never want to be anybody’s muse,” Cara Ellison has observed that what art gets made is deeply tied to the social preconceptions of who is supposed to have a voice in art. Specifically, that young white males with money have far and away the most agency and expectations to publicly make art, so their stories tend to dominate at the expense of other voices. Here again, we have a young, wealthy, male lead, standing up to martyr themselves for our education; to show us how to delineate the binary parameters of creation; to defend themselves against the outrageous slings and arrows of the messy social world; and if necessary to call down the apocalypse itself.

Continuing in the apocalyptic vein, Kris Ligman has famously called The Beginner’s Guide a, “neurotoxin for critics,” and whether that toxin was the intentional weapon or a byproduct of the game’s defensive mindset, its inevitable use is quite telling not just about the results of the The Beginner’s Guide, but about why the whole class of meta-ironic art objects are so problematically self-serving. The game seems to be defense mechanisms all the way down, but because critics (and dedicated fans) are some of the first responders to any art-minded video games, this means they are first social group that the game will have to neutralize so it can reach its martyrdom uncorrupted.

The Beginner’s Guide serves to reinforce and entrench the self-segregation of video games from art; from culture; from the rest of the world’s societies.

Through framing the critical community of people who talk and write about games, with their attempt (albeit imperfect) at plurality and context, as the primary location of “the video game problem,” The Beginner’s Guide only serves to reinforce and entrench the self-segregation of video games from art; video games from culture; of video games from the rest of the world’s societies. “The first rule of video games is don’t talk about video games.”

By front loading a pre-refusal of all criticism, like the cat in the video knocking every object placed near it off the table, The Beginner’s Guide is choosing to bat away dialog, community, and anything that is part of the human social sphere. That is, it is pre-refusing anything small enough to fit on the table. You can buy The Beginner’s Guide, and have your interaction outside of it, just like your non-interaction with your Ikea shelf called “Lack.” The perfect hyper-capitalist spectacle.

In the end, these sorts of over-clever, self-congratulating, self-negating works of art seem radical at first. But similar things have been around for years. Admittedly, they were a particularly wonderful way to escape the deeply entrenched classism and nationalism that defined art in the 1800s. But now, in an era of hyper-capitalism, the commitment to defensiveness only serves to shore up market position as the primary source of legitimacy. By denying any sort of model of art that is inclusive to the vast field of conversation and community, the art work is by default embracing the abstraction of the market.

Simply put, the market gives no fucks about whether or not you want to talk with it, and the market is far too big to knock off a table (in fact it probably sold you the table). It only cares how it can use the object-idea to further extract resources. Then the market is happy to show off how valuable these non-objects are as a beacon for the world to stand in awe of, and mutely emulate. They are the yin and yang of global capitalism. So in the end, these sorts of hyper-clever defensive works of art (think Jeff Koons) merely serve to shore up the market as the primary source of legitimacy, comprehension, and valuation.

While young nerds can see it as a rebellious virtue that The Beginner’s Guide can absorb and withstand any criticism thrown at it, these amorphous, ironic objects are in actuality the perfect expression of art as a commercial pursuit. Because nothing critical or social can affect them, they are a one-way-path that can ultimately do nothing but take, absorb. They are completely compatible and complicit with the most egregious excesses of globalized wealth. In fact, as Andrea Fraser has pointed out in “L’1%, c’est Moi”, a huge percentage of the top art collectors in America are actually hyper conservatives who seem to, for instance, have no problem buying a giant Christmas tree butt plug from Paul McCarthy while working to remove gay rights and replace artist studios with million dollar lofts.

Wreden was already a part of that global financial elite before he made The Beginner’s Guide, becoming a millionaire off of The Stanley Parable (as the New Yorker has pointed out). But here, the relationship between creator and fan-consumer may even be more insidious. Unlike the monied elites of the art world, the people who spend $15 on the game are probably way less rich than Wreden. Which makes hyper-defensive works even more problematic since if no reaction to art can be effective the resulting world is far from a jolting revolutionary blast, and instead a vision of the world held forever in an icy status.

While the game certainly deserves some respect for broaching some of these issues of shifting narrative identity, artistic negation, and apocalyptic imagination, it is hardly a model to emulate. Indeed, it seems to begrudge and belittle the audience at every turn, and turn reticent and petulant when it is engaged in any sort of critical dialog.

The world of The Beginner’s Guide assuredly has a few rich veins of artistic thought that could be selectively mined to great effect in future works, especially through foregrounding discussion and criticism as viable topic for making art. But any audience, especially the young male artists it has positioned as a core audience either through intention or accident, would do well to try to understand how many of effects the game’s selfish and defensive propositions lead to stunted and restrictively negative vision of the social and artistic world.

The Beginner’s Guide settles into the natural state of hyper-defensive artworks: as abstract systems which gather more resources for their creator and investors.

After the initial pleasant tingles of danger, bluster, confusion, vainglory, and apocalypse, The Beginner’s Guide settles into the natural state of hyper-defensive artworks: as abstract systems which gather more resources for their creator and investors. These projects then consume a portion of that capital, monetary, social, and artistic, to produce more artworks which are inevitably designed to ever-better defend themselves and to negate everything else in society and community that interfaces with it, no matter the cost.

With these sorts of conservatively dualistic and combative art-systems taken as core values, video games like The Beginner’s Guide construct a toxic vision for the creative world. A world fixed in place like the pre-Copernican heavens, with art-nobility re-entrenched by their inscrutable, monumental, infinitely defensible artworks. A universe of sweet angelic puppets built in the image of their gilded creator-god, fixed all around the celestial sphere, with nothing to do feel sing their sweet nothings forever more. Amen.

The complete long-form essay can be found here. All English features on VGT can be found here

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Hook, line and sinker. Thank for this deep look under the surface of the dead water that is TBG. I am conflicted now.

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