Don't Fear the Rock Band
I was a Guitar Hero & Rock Band hater. Well, that’s too strong a word – how about skeptic.
Fear and Doubt
For one thing, after playing Guitar Hero a handful of times, the games seemed harder for actual musicians than those with untrained ears, as we are aware of the discrepancies between notes in our ears and things our fingers were supposed to do. A music game that’s harder for musicians? What’s up with that.
Rock Band has the same problems, of course, plus the added concern that when you play in a group, the game’s reliance on visuals means you all wind up zoning out staring at your fretboard on the screen, not interacting with your fellow musicians at all.
Zoning out to Rock Band. (source)
And beyond that, the games’ core concepts are something to fret and skeptify about. They celebrate performance over composition, hero over musician, cover band over creators. They offer only simplistic imitation, not the glory of creation.
Others are skeptical for different reasons, fearing that fans may have less reason to go and see actual live shows when they can noodle and fantasize in their dens. Now magazine recently worried that guitar hero might be “exploiting real musicians”. (ah, good ol’ worrywart Now Magazine.)
Nonetheless, having resolved to give ‘er a shot, I bought Rock Band, and enjoyed the group sessions, but started to worry that I had spent almost $200 on a party game that might get used a handful of times.
Well, this might be the rationalization talking, but consider me a convert. There’s nothing like actually playing a game to blow all the doubts away.
Initially I liked a lot of things. The interface and design are great, the tracklist seemed good, the humour spot-on, and dressing up my rocker – named Hardd, and given to ludicrous glam outfits – was alarmingly entertaining.
But the thing that has really convinced me is not Hardd but ‘hard’ mode. Medium was much better than easy, in terms of how the inputs correspond to the music. Hard is even better. I had heard this before, that once I got to hard I’d like it more, and that’s absolutely true.
Once you’re on hard everything starts coming together. You have to actually practice, just like with real music. So you practice, you get to know the songs, and eventually you can play them without looking at the screen – if this was the case for your entire band, you’d do away with one concern about Rock Band right there. Anyway, in practice mode, you can select the section(s) of the song you wish to go over, handy for those nasty, nasty solos (more on that in a second). A side effect of that routine is you start learning the actual structure of songs, which is certainly a musical endeavour in and of itself.
It has been said that playing drums on expert is roughly equivalent to playing the actual drum part. So, you could teach yourself to play drums through this game. If that’s not of musical value, I don’t know what is.
Bottom line is, once you’ve learned a song on hard, you’ve got a greater knowledge and appreciation of that song than you would typically get by simply listening to it. It’s something that approaches what you’d get by actually learning the song on real guitar, drums, what have you.
More Fears Allayed
And let me confess that one of my doubts isn’t valid at all. Musical performance shouldn’t be categorically considered inferior to composition. This is a rockist assumption perhaps; since the Beatles pioneered the reliance on original compositions, we’ve been considering musicians who don’t write their own material to be inferior. But no one judges Yo-Yo Ma that way, and we still celebrate Sinatra, etc. etc. Just because Rock Band and Guitar Hero don’t allow composition, that doesn’t mean they’re not musical. There is plenty of musicality in learning and performing music.
And the games’ potential impact upon the music industry? Well, you have two trends. One is people going out to Rock Band and Guitar Hero nights at bars. It certainly gets rid of the ‘parents’ basement’ category of concern. I suppose you could still worry that such nights sap audiences from actual music performance, if you’re the worrying type, but that seems petty and misguided given the thrust of the second trend, namely, people actually spending money on downloadable songs for Guitar Hero and Rock Band. At $2 a song, i.e. more than the going rate for MP3 downloads, people are perfectly willing to pay for music in this context, which is no small feat considering current music industry market conditions. Bands like Motley Crue are releasing new singles in Rock Band, and smaller bands are gaining exposure and fame via their inclusion even in the download section. And with full album releases now upon us, shit is just getting hecticker.
The upshot is that these games represent a significant new trend, not just in gaming (we knew that already) but within the music industry at large, an industry starving for significant new trends that don’t involve lawsuits and plummeting sales.
Solos and Composition
Let me just make one small complaint, though, about how these games handle solos. Even the least imaginative cover band doesn’t ape a song’s guitar solo note for note, yet these games expect you to do just that. Given that both drum and vocal parts in Rock Band periodically encourage you to improvise, surely the same policy could be applied to guitar solos. I know things don’t work the same way with guitars, and this would take some new code, but it certainly would add a new aspect to the gameplay that would be in keeping with rock tradition.
And that said, it’s only a couple of leaps from there to full-on composition through these interfaces. Again, the drums and vocals are already there; it’s the guitar and bass that are constrained by their limited number of ‘frets’. But even mapping common chords to the guitar buttons could allow for some basic Ramones-style songwriting. If you let players choose the button mapping and key beforehand, you could have an incredible tool for idea sketching, improvisation and musical collaboration. I know that games more devoted to that exist and more are on their way, but still.
To sum up: Rock Band & Guitar Hero: good. Past me: wrong. Present me: awesome. I actually enjoy changing opinions on things, especially from the negative to the positive, as it’s far more illuminating than just sticking to your guns. So I’m thrilled to have been wrong.
Plus, it means I get to enjoy my newly-downloaded Sabbath pack. Despite the near-impossible solos.