Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and the Appeal of Music Rhythm Games.

There is, and arguably always will be, a space in my heart for music rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band.  They are compulsive and addictive, ideas that are alluded to in South Park numerous times in relation to Guitar Hero itself, as well as their fictional “Heroin Hero” episodes. 

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“Stan Hits Rock Bottom”

Much like the nature of play, music rhythm games occupy a liminal space,  somewhere between “real” music (“the real life”) and “real” gaming (“just fantasy”). Though perhaps this is an unnecessary distinction to make considering that games and real instruments are both “played”.

Let us take a moment to reflect upon the nature of music rhythm games .  Generally, in social situations (or mine at least) someone takes the initiative of choosing some music to play in the background while people are busy socialising.  Pretty standard stuff in terms of social interactions, but what these types of games do is allow the social gathering to be a part of the music that is played, and for it to have a hand in creating it.

But are we actually creating the music while playing? In the wider contextual sense: No.  These songs have been written, released and performed long before we have picked up our plastic guitars or our wooden drumsticks.   But in the players’ immediate context, if you don’t in the literal sense “play” your part  – be it drum, guitar, bass or voice – the song isn’t heard in the “proper” way that we are familiar with .  If in Rock Band you fluff the guitar part at *that* point in Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, by god you know about it.  The fact that it is a game however does mean you don’t have to be perfect at playing it, an affordance that real musicians are not accorded when they perform.

Playing music rhythm games is made implicit by the mechanics themselves, as well as how the controllers align with what they represent in real life.    As an example, if you’re singing with the mic in the game, this is the same action you would take as when you sing with a real mic.  You sing or speak into it as you would a real mic, which in fact it is.   That it is connected to a game and can affect it it is actually irrelevant to how you use the tool,  or how you use tool to engage with the music (you would presumably sing exactly the same in karaoke, for example).

Similarly so with the drums.  The affordances of both the “play” drums and real drums align, making the game fairly transferrable (in both perceptions and actions) of what it is to play the real drums.  This is true to a much lesser extent with the guitar controller, as instead of strings  you hold down buttons, placed in areas that represent the frets of a real guitar, and strum with your opposite hand in line with the song’s rhythm.   I don’t actually play the real guitar so I’m not sure how much like playing a real guitar it actually is (I would assume not that much), or whether it helps or hinders with playing a real guitar. But @woodlandstar once told me that playing the rock band guitar made his fingers more dextrous, making his playing of an actual guitar a bit easier.  

When you are playing a “real” instrument, you’re reading notes on a page (or chords, or tabs etc.) and not coloured buttons from a moving graph with segmented bar lines.  Perhaps this just a transplantation of what it is to read music in actuality, though on paper it’s horizontal whereas in its digital form it’s vertical.  Though, in both methods there is a definitive coding scheme that tells you what you should play and when.  As long as these symbols, these coding schemes, are understood by their respective players, is any disparagement towards this more popular form of music making as not “real” music, or any cultural elevation of one of the other merely cultural elitism at at most blatant?  

Nah.  It takes years to become an expert musician, but music rhythm games can be picked up and played fairly proficiently in a heartbeat: some of their appeal is because of their accessibility.  Of course “real” musicians should be elevated over rock band players, and rightly so.  

But for us mere mortals that are neither virtuosos or rock gods, what these types of games allow is for us to simulate some of what it is like to be a virtuoso or rock god, and also promote a feeling of virtuosity and proficiency at an instrument .  And this simulation, or mimicry, is one of the four classifications of play that Caillois mentions, as outlined in the last blog. The playing of games generally is a performance in itself – as is playing a musical instrument.  By incorporating rock music into a game system, the performative and simulatory aspects become beautifully aligned.

It is this mimicry, the ability to simulate and relive the music that we love, that is the real appeal of these types of games.  Though it is not merely being able to relive the music itself, but also the cultural impact that the music has had elsewhere.  I challenge anyone who plays Bohemian Rhapsody on Rock Band 4 (hell, or even anyone of a certain age who listens to the song) to not mentally reenact this iconic scene from Wayne’s World. 

 

As the singer (and maybe with the other parts to varying degrees), one adopts a persona or a character, or a role in Linderoth’s terminology, drawing from Goffman’s ideas of the roles we take on in social situations.  Let us use the late David Bowie’s Space Oddity as an example, that one of our players chose to sing on rock band.  The player HAD to sing it in Bowie’s unique style, adopting his persona, and even differentiating and changing roles between Major Tom and Ground Control.  So not only can we mimic the roles of “a” music performer, we also adopt the roles and personas of specific artists, of “the” performer.

I will unashamedly state that it was I who was Bowie-Ziggy for those 3 and a half minutes, and I’m not sorry that I was.  

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At our games night, we played Rock Band 4.  One of the newer mechanics that I noticed (having previously played only the original rock band) was what I like to call the “sacred solo”.  At certain points in certain songs, the lead guitarist in the game doesn’t have to physically play the notes that correspond to the solo that is being heard, but only needs to strum.  I put this down to the fact that there are some solos that are so sacrosanct, or just so f**king awesome, that the player can’t be trusted to deliver it in its full glory.  Or maybe it’s just so the player can have a nice rest.  They have a comparably easy role in relation of the rest of the game, as the game itself pretty much takes over.  But despite this removal of some agency in these solos, the player still feels like they’re doing really well, as what you hear sounds great.  Though I can imagine some people nonetheless would rather play these solos, as because of their “sacred” status, these are precisely the bits that people would actually want to play.  

Rock Band 4 also allows you to purchase individual songs for the game of the artists that you like, and in previous versions released expansions or full game versions for particular artists or groups.  Beatles Rock Band, the ACDC expansion for Rock Band, or Guitar Hero Metallica are those that spring to mind, and being able to add to your music (rhythm) collection and tailor it to your own preferences has infinite appeal.

So far I’ve only really discussed Rock Band 4 in detail, and Guitar Hero’s newest addition – Guitar Hero Live – also deserves some consideration.  In the game your band plays before actual  crowds (in the sense that they are real people who have been filmed specifically for the game), who cheer or boo in relation to how well you play the music.  Your digital bandmates (also “real” people) also engage with you, giving you questioning looks if you miss too many notes. This adds a new element to the simulation aspect, in that it gives extra realism in playing that previous versions of GH as well as Rock Band, with their cartoon-y representations of the band and the crowd, never quite achieved. 

However, unlike Rock Band and previous iterations of GH, the new live version has introduced what they term “the party pass”.  There is in-game currency, coins that you accrue by generally playing the game, that you can then “spend” to play specific songs on demand.  So far so good, and pretty standard in games across the board.  However, to accrue these coins, often you have to play through one of their “radio” channels, which more often than not are made up mostly songs that are utter, utter tripe.  And this is all fairly mercenary, as if you don’t want to play through these endless filler songs of varying and questionable quality, you can buy a “party pass” for £4.99, allowing you 24 hours of unlimited selections of the songs you actually want to play.  

Seeing as you have already purchased the game, one would expect that you would already have unlimited access to the songs in that game, at the very least after “unlocking” them by progressing through it or even by purchasing the song itself, as with Rock Band and previous iterations of GH.  The whole idea of the party pass just comes across as corporate greed, in that the developers introduced this mechanic as the one-off payment for the game itself is no longer enough, so they must continually charge you for wanting to play the songs that you enjoy.  I’m sure the developer’s argument for this would be that they are trying to promote these less popular bands.  But quite frankly, if the bands wanted me to play their music on GH, they should have written better songs.  The party pass feels very much like Activision exploiting Guitar Hero players, and I have no doubts that they are similarly financially exploiting the bands that consent to have their music transposed into the game form .  After all, you don’t become a multi-billion dollar conglomerate like Activision by looking after the little guy.  

Being able to play the songs that you like, when you like, is crucial to the enjoyment of the game, something that Guitar Hero Live appears to have lost sight of in their lust for greater commercial gains.

Shame

Many of us have said, in relation to music rhythm games, that if we had devoted the amount of hours and time spent playing them to actually learning to play a real instrument, we would probably be half-decent at it.  But that is too much like “work”, and these games are “play”. The distinction is important, though sometimes playing them does feel very much like work.  Plus, I already play an instrument, and it doesn’t matter how hard and long I practice my clarinet (DEVIL HORNS), I’m never going to be able to smash out a rendition of Sabbath’s War Pigs on that in the same way I do by playing Rock Band.  It would however, make for quite an interesting cover version.

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