a review of Rock Band
a videogame developed by Harmonix
and published by Electronic Arts
for the microsoft xbox 360, the nintendo wii, the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
Well, the time has finally come. Here I am, reviewing Harmonix and EA’s Rock Band in an effort to make May “reader wish-fulfillment month” here at Action Button Dot Net (that’s “ABDN” on the NASDAQ), and I’m giving it two stars. Before you accuse me of having never played the game, I will accuse myself: I had never played Rock Band or its older, club-footed cousin Guitar Hero prior to just two weeks ago. Now, after the lovable peons (hey, I said “lovable”) in my office have spent the entirety of two months’ worth of lunch breaks increasing their band’s “popularity” meta-numbers, and after joining them on drums for two songs and practicing the guitar part of Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade” in Guitar Hero III by myself at the local air force base BX, while a fat man stood by sipping a two-liter of red Mountain Dew, marveling that I was able to sing all the words while playing on “Hard” and actually not losing, I consider myself one hundred percent fully permitted to write a review of this game.
First, a summary of the times: here we are, escapists and refugees from reality. If you care enough about videogames to read the entire first paragraph of this writing, you no doubt find something lacking in your Actual Life. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. People who are satisfied are usually chided for being happy, and eventually become the victims of hate crimes. Videogames are a nice enough cure-all for boredom of the real-life variety; if nothing else, accusing an invisible Halo opponent of being black and/or gay feels exponentially better to the typical hillbilly than, say, being stuck in traffic for six hours.
It used to be that we didn’t have much to do outside of existing in reality and sleeping; toward the middle of the twentieth century, as the mass media became a toy for everyone — not just scientists — to enjoy, typically bored people started to get the idea in their heads to become “famous”. Human beings are irrational creatures; in the context of life as a cycle of genetic proliferation, homosexuality, for example, is no weirder than watching television, or wearing clothes. The people who saw Chuck Berry performing “Johnny B Goode” on television and decided that they, too, would someday wield guitars and flog the demons of tedium live, in front of thousands of gaping-mouthed spectators, might have, hundreds of generations past, been the strongest warriors, the fastest runners, the wearers of the best and finest genes. Too many truths abound over the years: the “strongest” warrior might not have just described the one most capable of prying a sabertooth tiger’s jaws open, shattering the poor beast’s skull — it might have described the warrior shrewd enough to lie in wait in shadows on a hillside, and roll boulders down at his prey. In this light, the heaviest, most meatheaded metal music becomes a platinum-coated object of respect: buff dudes tapping out exquisite, precise, thoughtful solos amidst aloof grimaces.
Did rock and roll die? Some will shout “rock and roll will never die” at the drop of a hat. Others with sigh and point to the fact that entering “Rock Band” after the “/wiki/” in “en.wikipedia.org/wiki” takes you immediately to a page describing the origin and sales history of the Rock Band videogame, instead of simply stating that “a ‘Rock Band’ is what you call it when you find a guitar, your friend steals a bass, and you persuade your neighbor to buy a snare drum and let you use his garage, and/or get famous doing so”. Others still will shudder, strung-out on coffee and cigarettes, and link you to Youtube video clip of the Ellen Degeneres show, in which a twelve-year-old kid plays through DragonForce’s “song” “Through the Fire and the Flames” on the hardest difficulty. The point you’re supposed to be watching for, here, is the amazed reaction of the audience when they realize that this child is only twelve years old, and he’s so good at Guitar Hero. Which is, yes, a videogame simulating playing the guitar. In other words, the tides of time have turned, and suddenly people are impressed that a child possesses the ability to pretend. Holy stuff! Even the doomsayers, who foretold that the cheap availability of simulations that let you pretend to play music would eventually usurp the real-life desire to play real music, are no doubt surprised by how quickly even the mainstream — those who neither play music nor pretend to play music — have taken to considering fake music, when played perfectly, a thing of applause-worthy spectacle. It used to be that awesome dudes like Steve Albini warned us that digital recording was the devil, and that analog was life, that life was analog; now, here’s Guitar Hero, and Rock Band; society’s head is so far up digital make-believe’s ass that the only people who notice exist so far outside the standard deviation (they pay upwards of $100 a month to be shouted at in sick-black basements by the sound of screaming fax machines), and care so little about “real” rock and roll that whatever they’re saying can’t be right, as far as the conservatives are concerned.
Tossed on top of this heap of Americana is a host of recent controversies, like the thing about Gibson, long-time supporters and spiritual godfathers of the Guitar Hero franchise (they put their name on the guitar controllers) throwing down a trump-card copyright infringement suit, saying that Guitar Hero had been violating a copyright they’d held for over a decade now. They went so far as to request that retailers stop selling the game — though, of course, only after it had sold millions and millions of copies. Sigh, that Gibson, innovators of electric guitars for decades, with used sales of their original relics eclipsing sales of their new guitars, which are all being eclipsed by the sale of flimsy plastic guitar-simulating tools, is reduced to stepping out of the shadows of lone-wolf rock-and-roll solitude to take potshots at technology. Marvel at how Gibson’s original copyright, for a guitar-performance simulator with numerical rankings for the players’ skill, skimmed very close to describing Konami’s Guitar Freaks games, in development in Japan since 1996. Fast-forward, and then rewind a bit, to the fact that Guitar Hero had only ever been its creators’ idea to jam their proverbial feet in the door, to warm the public up to music-simulation software and Expensive Plastic Controllers, before selling out to EA and revealing the real game they’d wanted to make — Rock Band, now with co-op play and even more Expensive Plastic Controllers. There’s some genuine marketing genius in there, somewhere — introducing people to plastic, and in a few short years convincing them that they needed that plastic like they needed oxygen; likewise, compare and contrast the consumer’s behavior with the behavior of Gibson, who no doubt was a tiny bit wrong if they assumed the Guitar Hero was stealing potential real-guitar sales (the thing about “expanding markets”, as it were, is that it leads every party involved to believe that they deserve everyone else’s money). Either way, about ninety-percent of me can’t help feeling that “genuine marketing genius” is about as anti-rock as you can get.
I have hesitated to review Rock Band or Guitar Hero, as videogames, for a long time, because I possess something that might be described by a lawyer as a “conflict of interest”: I like rock and roll music quite a great deal — enough to feel cheap using the word “love” — and it would be so very hard for me not to immediately dismiss the game without playing it, and say “you should just buy a real guitar”. That would get me thousands upon thousands of hate mails, I’m sure, and some of them would be so precious that I’d print them out, write “B+” in green crayon on them, and magnet them to my refrigerator. The longer I hesitated to write this review, the more I came to understand, quite poignantly, that not everyone wants to be a rock star in real life. Hell, not everyone even wants to touch a real guitar. The shocking fact of the matter, I found, is that not nearly everyone even likes any of the music they’re playing in Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Once again, I recall the parable of Gundam: Gundam is a multi-media-spanning project involving television shows, movies, videogames, action figures, plush toys, and plastic models, where any one of these representations is a cordial invitation to purchase and enjoy everything else related to Gundam. A single touch of the plastic of a well-molded, high-quality action figure might be enough to hook a three-year-old boy for life. Likewise, Guitar Hero and Rock Band‘s controllers are made of the cutest, crispiest plastic, and everyone touching that plastic seems to be objectively enjoying his or her self. The uninitiated observer will immediately assume any one of many things: these people enjoy guitars, these people enjoy rock and roll music, these people enjoy one another’s company, these people enjoy videogames, these people enjoy being shown a numerical representation of their efficiency in a particular activity, these people enjoy the posery images of flailing rockers on the television screen, these people enjoy pressing buttons. When a casual glance turns into a three- or four-second stare, it might eventually become apparent that not all of these things are true; however, everyone gathered around the television is so intently involved that no one can deny that something is happening. Anything so carefully positioned to look fun while at the same time inducing such states of fevered concentration can’t, objectively, be bad for you. If you have no real-life, burning desire to play a bitching guitar solo in front of thousands, maybe with your show being simulcast to movie theaters in shopping malls all over the American Midwest, maybe Guitar Hero, as an exercise in pressing buttons and watching Numbers Go Up, is all you really, spiritually need.
If you desire real rock, if you have the lion of rock awake and prowling in the jungle of your heart, so to speak, Rock Band will probably not do it for you. You will find the “video” elements of this game disgusting — big-haired, ugly-ass tattooed rockers flailing with scientific-calculator anti-precision on stage, giant, colorful, candy-like buttons and score numbers streaming by, a visual representation of the very “press buttons, be patronized” fetish we call “videogames”. In a way, Nintendo’s Ouendan / Elite Beat Agents series of games is a thousand times more inspirational to the would-be real-life rocker. Beware — I say this as a person who hates the Ouendan games, who once went on record in front of a federal jury as saying that he would rather “rhythmically beat an issue of Shonen Jump with disposable chopsticks while listening to J-pop on my iPod on the bus” than play Ouendan. Still, it deserves a small, paper-cake-plate of props, for having the balls to take the things I and many other man-children like me see in my head while listening to great pop-music (I imagine myself singing the song, on a bicycle, riding down a wide, empty street, with dozens of Japanese schoolgirls high-speed ballroom-dancing with one another, keeping pace with my bike, et cetera) and turn them into an actual videogame. Remember that C&C Music Factory: Make The Video game for the Sega CD, or whatever it was called — Ouendan is to that as Super Mario Bros. is to Pong.
And Rock Band is just pornography for people who like to know when they’re doing something right. I had a geography teacher in ninth grade, name Mr. Gulde, who actually quit his entire teaching career, one day, when a student, responding to Mr. Gulde’s question of “Are there any questions?” raised his hand, was called on, and asked, “Mr. Gulde, are you gay?” Mr. Gulde had something he called “The Gulde Method” for memorizing the names of countries in continents. It went like this: point at a country on a blank map with numbers on each country, say its name. If you know the name of the country is correct, point at the next country, and say its name. If you reach a point where you know you don’t know the name of a country, look at the numbered list on the other side of the paper. Then, start over from #1. This is basically how Rock Band teaches you to “play” a “song”.
In my first game of Guitar Hero, which was played on “Hard” difficulty, I messed up the first two notes of a song — I’d never so much as held the controller before — and the performance immediately ended. There was no “you lose” or “you suck” — just a freeze and a quick fade to black. I suppose that was kind of nice, though it sure as hell hadn’t taught me anything about how to do it correctly. With Rock Band, I had endured the sound of sticks clicking on plastic, that sound of a distant homeless man doing his “laundry”, for half a lunch break before I gravitated toward the break room and was asked if I wanted to play the drums. A co-worker assured me that the drums are “almost like playing real drums”. Yet there was such a sharp, gross penalty for missing a single beat. In no time, the drums were “retired” from the song, leaving the performance a husk. Everything went south after that — bands need drummers just like tigers need beating hearts.
I’ve heard tell of people’s Desire to Rock being awakened by Rock Band or Guitar Hero — people who didn’t know that they loved rock and roll until they were half-drunk and had a piece of plastic shoved into their hands at a frat party. Many of these people go on to purchase real guitars, or real drums, or real bass guitars, and start real bands. In this light, Gibson — or anyone else — is foolish to consider Rock Band or Guitar Hero a cannibal feeding on the heart-meat of would-be real musicians. To me, these games are an above-excellent litmus test: if you play them, and feel something, and realize there’s something missing inside you, and all at once damn the games to hell and search for a real instrument, then you are indeed a rock and roller. Those ensnared by the sweet visage of Numbers Going Up, by the transient joy of watching the number of “fans” at your Rock Band “show” stay steady, and then, miraculously, grow, don’t need to be real rock and rollers, and rock and roll doesn’t need those people to survive, in full health, for as long as there are soundproofed basements deep beneath the metropolises of this world. These people would never touch real guitars, and no real-guitar-player I feel comfortable saying I “know” would give up his real instrument for a life of Guitar Hero‘s sweet palliative.
In the end, the only “change” these games are affecting on gamers is a little bit of rhythm training, and an increased awareness in the Awesomeness of Rock. I saw a thing recently about some band releasing a song directly as a downloadable for Rock Band; some lifelong rock-rebels booed and hissed; I say, in this world where everyone’s sound system is hooked up to their HDTV, what’s the heckin’ difference? If you’ve got rock, put it out there. These games are as good a sheer cliff face as any for the wind-battered lichen of rock to exist on until eternity. I’d give it four stars out of ice-cold courtesy, for sheer social impact, if I’d ever been able to play it in a place where the TV volume is high enough to hear the vocals — and not hear the sound of the drumsticks repeatedly raping drum-plastic.
So, the conclusion of this review is that Rock Band is not detrimental to society. Though it may be ugly in the graphic design, heavy in the box, and have ridiculous characters that promote unfair stereotypes of rock and rollers or would-be rock and rollers, it’s not killing anyone, nor is it even food-poisoning anyone. In fact, I believe I have concluded that, in the right doses, these games are better party starters than Wii Sports, for example, because, for starters, it lets a medium-sized group of people know for certain when they are doing something, however unnecessary that something is, as well as it can be done, whereas Wii Sports only brings you farther from being able to play actual golf — and doesn’t involve Nirvana in any way.
That’s me rating this game in terms of its effects on society; what of its effects on me? Well, to be blunt, it made me feel like stuff. I’ve been playing the guitar for about a year and a half now, and every once in a while, I’ll sit down and try to play some old three-chord folk / punk / pop / rock song, singing along to the simple sound, and I’ll always get bored. I’ve sat in parks on days off with cans of Coca-Cola Zero, and I’ll riff on classic rock songs, and sing a few words, and a few girls will ask me my name, and a few guys will ask me if I’m in a band. Yet I’ve never played a song with “structure”, to “completion”. I just riff and vocalize. Me and my friend Andrew Bush will go into a studio sometimes and just blast the hell out of some instruments. I’ve thought, for the longest time, that I wanted my own “band” to lean more toward the cleaner side of noise rock; I switched from vocals (to drums to vocals) to guitar -vocal so that I could have more control over the shape of the songs we’re performing, though this was a double-edged blade, what because I had never played the guitar, and my “singing” “ability” suffers tremendously when I have this guitar in my hand and am raking it like a glue-sniffer. I’d felt comfortable, for a long time, exploiting the underground practice studios scattered around my megalopolis of choice like drunken salary men might exploit karaoke parlors: it’s something to do, in the private, in the dark.
Witnessing a group of perhaps-rock-ignorant individuals earn a perfect score on a “difficult” song in Rock Band deflated me partially — here are people, working together toward a goal of precision, and nailing it. Why can’t I have that precision? Why can’t I find someone else who wants it? In the interest of full disclosure, here is a video of what happened the last time I entered a basement practice studio with another human being with a “complete” “song” in mind, and tried to perform it to the end. We played the song maybe four more times after that video was filmed, and I kind of threw up water all over the sidewalk outside afterward, for no good reason. I avoided looking at the video for the longest time, and now that it’s on YouTube, I listen to it every once in a while, fancy the tune of the snare, and feel this bizarrely perhaps-unhealthy feeling of “accomplishment”. In the further interest of full “disclosure”, this is what happened the first time I decided to take my months of at-home guitar-practicing into a studio and jam with a drummer (and no microphone). I listen to that, and I feel pretty good, though I also feel like I need a lot more work. I’m almost twenty-nine years old, for god’s sake. Jimi and Kurt had been dead for two years at this point. There’s a moment in that recording, right there, I think it’s about two and a half minutes in, where I heard a voice in my head, saying “scream, and then play a guitar solo”, and I did as the voice insisted, and though I might have made hella mistakes up until that point, everything felt amazing for thirty seconds, as the drummer caught on to what was happening and started pounding the cymbals harder and harder.
In Rock Band, when you mess a song up, it becomes a chaotic, objective mess: instruments fade in and out of audibility, muting and unmuting and slowing down all over the place. Whether or not they possess knowledge of music theory that enables them to identify the cacophony as “Absolutely Not Music”, it is increasingly apparent to the players that they are Not Doing It Right, so they aim to do better next time. If nothing else, the song I linked above is an example of two guys, one with a real guitar, one with a real drum kit, Not Doing It Right, and feeling good anyway. (I pause to mention that the song linked above is not a “real” song, nor is it meant to resemble a “real” song; I will not link one of my “real” songs in a videogame review because that would entail me putting all my balls on the table, saying, “This is all I got.”) Here I face a fork in the road: I can either scorn Rock Band for not letting the people of the world experience the beautiful bounty of Enjoying One’s Mistakes, or I can scorn Real Life, for never letting me know, with absolute legible precision, when and how much I suck. It’s a coin toss, the outcome fluctuating from moment to moment: sometimes, we just want rock, and we don’t care what the world says, and sometimes, we want that stuff to be beautiful. More than most of the time, I find myself somewhere in between.
I can’t deny, at this point, that I will at least want to be a rock and roll star until the day I die; the point is to not wonder why I haven’t become one yet, or what happens when I do. We’d probably get kicked out of the Budokan for that performance right there, and possibly arrested, though I can sit here at my computer in my corporate office, convinced that somewhere on earth, there’s a basement where the (most likely ignorant) kids would stare saucer-eyed and find that guitar solo right there a thing of awesome beauty. I think for a second that that makes me a better person than, say, a man-mongrel begging for change outside a donut shop, with an empty beer bottle in a paper bag, I mean, throw that beer bottle away already, it’s empty, though I hesitate to say it makes me better at living This Human Life than the self-satisfied number-pushers in the office Rock Band circle. Might the feeling they feel, when seeing words like “PERFECT” flash on the screen, be just about equal to the feeling I feel wherein I imagine a fairy-tale basement where the Kids Don’t Hate Me? And would it be possible, someday, for me to be lulled away from my idiotic dream to Rock Before Others, to Be Satisfied with considering myself a rock-star, like Wesley Willis did, only without having to be laughed at by drunk frat boys — that is, thanks to a simulation I can enjoy at home, privately? Can a simulation ever make me feel good enough? Some people — usually the hideous ones — they’ve got Love Cancer, and pornography is good enough for the rest of their lives; they jerk off before they get out bed the same way some people drink coffee, and you know what? They’re not terrible human beings. They function, and they even, eventually, become happy, and not just when they’re six feet underground. If game designers can ever make my near-bulletproof embryonic rock ego feel good enough with one of these games, if they can make me feel dead in a good way — it would start with letting me noodle the god damn notes in the empty spaces (just program it so that the game remembers the most recent chord or note attached to a certain button press — I mean, the very first rhythm game ever, Parappa the Rapper, required you to improvise by slamming the button rhythmically! let’s not forget that!) — then I would give that game four stars, and I would give up.
As-is, these games are still light-years away from that. It’s one thing to tell me I hit 98% of the notes; it’s another thing to tell me that my playing was so good that 17,388 people materialized out of nowhere and entered the already-packed arena. It’s jarring and weird and depressing, and it’s harder to swallow than the voice of a gunmetal-colored robot monotoning “YOU DID WELL. NINETY-FIVE PERCENT.” It kind of makes me vaguely scared that there’s someone literally outside my house, waiting for me to fall asleep, so they can suck the breath out of my mouth with a vacuum cleaner, until I suffocate, until I am no more. Quite frankly, it’s scarier than a serial killer that everyone I know who plays these games hardly keeps the television volume above a whisper while doing so. And that’s putting it politely.
I believe the question was, “Could a simulation ever make me give up the real thing?” That’s the central question of this particular review, and it has a somewhat frightened answer: “I hope not.”
For me, if you consider the “goal” of having a “real” band “to be satisfied with one’s self”, then I would say that, as a “game”, Rock Band is “probably easier” than having an actual band, because it shows you numbers, and you can take them or leave them; you can care about them, or you can choose not to give a stuff. As a life experience, for me, it’s just too much harder than having a real band, because I just don’t feel right trying to be perfect, much as I’d love to be perfect, much as I’d gladly put perfection in my pocket if I found it lying in the street one day.
(*That said, I would buy Guitar Hero III if it was less than $60 and The Stone Roses’ “Breaking Into Heaven” was at least available via download.)
(*The first electric guitar amplifier manufacturer to make an amp with a little LCD-equipped electronic selector to choose what song you want to play along to, and feature the ability to remove the original guitar track from said song with a single press of a button will be a millionaire overnight. Sure, plugging your iPod into the auxiliary input jack is always an option, though man, being able to do it karaoke style would be amazing. Man, they should make an amp with “Breaking Into Heaven” built in, and if you play the lead guitar note for note, the amp explodes at 5:46.Or not. Call it the “Guitar Hero Amp”, if you want. Put the logo on there and everything. Marshall should jump on that stuff.)
(*Actually, maybe someone could make a whole game out of “Breaking Into Heaven”. Make it just one stage, and exceedingly difficult. It’d be kind of like Ouendan — one fantasy-like music video based very roughly on the song’s lyrics, only maybe it would play like an action game, with hundreds of dudes assaulting you at once, with tweaking the analog stick translating to rotating your dude / chugging the bass and each punch being a note on the lead guitar.)