Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On Guitar Hero

Three or four days ago, I got to play Guitar Hero for the first time, at a friend's party. Then tonight I got to see and play Rock Band, which is fundamentally similar - a game that tests your sense of rhythm by sequencing certain actions to famous rock songs. First, let's get the pro forma out of the way:

As a musician, Guitar Hero offends my sensibilities.

As much as it bears a huge whiff of self-importance, I feel like it's the kind of thing I want to put in scare quote so I can hide its fundamental honesty. The game has a weird, not entirely obvious relation to actual musicianship, and it's supremely frustrating not to be good at something modeled on a real-life activity you're pretty good at. Someone tonight mentioned a video of the band Journey playing along to their own songs and failing miserably, apparently making a more direct form of that point - i.e. don't confuse this for the real thing, fatty.

But why is this important for musicians to protect? Well, because of the rewards of musicianship. Obviously, no groupies are going to glom onto the best of the best Guitar Hero players the way they (used to) do real guitar heroes, but there is a much more indefinable and slightly more fleeting set of emotional rewards that actual play reveals, a kind of climatic experience of accomplishment. And it's not incidental that a crowd is built in both to reward and punish.

But I'm not in Journey, and I don't play that much real guitar - it would probably take me a month to learn, to any level of competency, most of the songs featured on Guitar Hero, and to be frank, I don't really want to. The music that I play is generally way less virtuosic and more focused on a) getting some ideas out and b) having fun making noise. That's thanks to the final reason I'm offended by guitar hero - it's not just musicianship at stake, it's creativity. Despite my understanding of the principles of the cultural commons, it still simply feels a little less creative, to me, to play someone else's song, making Guitar Hero doubly fake.

Allright, so, got that judgment out of the way. Now on to actual thought. What's most confounding about the experience of playing Guitar Hero is the nonintuitive relationship between the source music and the requirements placed on the player. First, it's not as if there's anything like a "G" on the Guitar Hero controller - there are only five buttons and a little fin-like thing you strike to play. So, from the start, there's no such thing as a "note" - all you have is a color. Second, especially at the easy difficulty settings, you don't actually play all (or even most) of the notes, instead doing something drastically simpler and getting a whole slew of sound as a reward. What really sucks about this for anyone who is either a musician or just generally has good audio rhythm is that, obviously, there's no way to tell which of these many notes you're supposed to pretend to "play," so depending on the audio becomes a lost cause. Ultimately, while the song is crucial in a lot of ways, Guitar Hero is a visual rhythm game - you watch the little dots come down the screen and then hit the little buttons at the right time. It's a whole different language than music, one that happens to fit within one aspect of music's regime.

All that said, though, I must admit it's hella fun - weirdly, in some ways it's way more fun than playing an actual show, which is most often a stressful situation in which you kind of lose track of everything going on around you. By simplifying the whole process, Guitar Hero actually lets you enjoy it more, even with a fake audience. And maybe that's what's most upsetting of all - not that Guitar Hero is a matter of lowly mortals stealing fire from the musical Gods, but that it might keep some people who would otherwise be jumping over those initial hurdles from doing so. Lord knows, if it weren't for Fallout 3, I would be doing a lot more exploration of the rotting hulk of Washington, D. . . oh, wait.


Gonzo said...

Let me preface this by saying that I recently purchased Rock Band 2 for the Wii.

Nevertheless, I generally agree with you on pretty much all counts here.

There is a HUGE disconnect between the Guitar Hero/Rock Band and the actual instrument. That's pretty obvious to anyone that's spent any amount of time with a guitar. This is frustrating, but I don't really think musicianship and creativity are "at stake." I'm willing to bet that the majority of folks who pick up these games are not musicians. A lot are, sure. But I don't think anybody (except totally out of touch parents) are buying these games under the assumption that it will "teach" their child an instrument. It could have the reverse effect - get kids interested in actually taking up an instrument. [Of course it gets sticky when they're guitar hero masters, only to pick up a guitar and have no idea what to do with it.]

I've only been messing around with Rock Band for a week or so. I will say that the drum component is actually very similar to actually playing drums. And I speak as a former drummer. It's not 100% accurate if - like me - you have the very basic setup, where your cymbals are mixed in with your toms, to open the hi-hat you actually hit another pad, etc. But at a basic level, it's very similar to the real thing. Which explains why I can rock many songs on HARD on the drums, but am completely lost when it comes to 'guitar.'

At the end of the day, it's a game, nothing more.

But it's also a good excuse to stay home and drink cheaply instead of going to karaoke.

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