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Calling Mister Oswald, calling anyone at the scene

Your Humble Blogger recently played Rock Band for the first time. Well, not all that recently. Listen, who’s telling this story?

OK, it’s not actually a story, just an observation. First of all, I enjoyed playing the game, which is clearly extremely well-designed and executed. I was particularly impressed by the MFQ of it, in that people of widely varying expertise can play together without conflict or having the slowest player ruin it for everyone. I had never been in a room with the thing before, another player had probably half-a-dozen goes, and the game’s owner was hard-core, and we all had a good time. That’s kinda awesome. I was also impressed by the level of expertise required by a really good player—the game clearly rewards insane quantities of practice. And I wasn’t really expecting that. I didn’t know much about the game (essentially that people pretend to be playing plastic button instruments), and hadn’t been expecting that sophistication in MFQ.

But after a couple of months, when I find myself thinking about the thing, I don’t really remember the enjoyable game-playing experience I actually had, I remember the frustrating musical experience that I didn’t actually have at the time. Because, of course, we weren’t making music, we were playing a game.

Your Humble Blogger is not terribly musical, as these things go. I love music—I love music, I am passionate about it, I rely on it, I think about music when I can’t actually have any. But I don’t play music. For the game, I watched a couple of songs, played keyboards on one, and sang two. Of course, by keyboards, I mean the keyboard-shaped game controller, and since I was playing at the most introductory level, I was just using two keys. I still had trouble with it until I stopped thinking about it as playing keyboard accompaniment and started thinking about it as zapping the aliens with my lasers while somebody had Duran Duran playing in the other room. I can’t tell you my score, but I made it to the finish line without blowing up. After that, it turned out that I did not, after all, remember the bridge to that Blondie song, although I certainly remember the verses and chorus; I certainly embarrassed myself, but in a good-natured, unembarrassing kind of way. And then I ventured the vocals on “Pump it Up”.

So, an observation. The visual cues of the game are that of a rock concert. At least in the version I was playing (I know there are plenty of others), there were (I vaguely remember) images of the Rock Band arriving at the venue, there were virtual crowds virtually screaming and probably raising virtual lighters and demanding we play “Free Bird”. You know, a gig. But the play of the game does not work with that metaphor; the play of the game is much more like studio sidemen. Well, and really it’s like that thing where the one-hit wonders are re-recording their one hit for the Anthology of Original Hits by the Original Artists, because the licensing is too expensive to get the real recording, and the Original Artists can take the day off work at the insurance office for a couple of grand that is all they can collect since they sold off the rights. But I understand that the more accurate analogy isn’t going to sell a lot of units.

Still, what you are notionally attempting is to recreate the studio recording. I say notionally because of course the players aren’t recording or even playing music, just as the players of other games aren’t actually flying a warplane or settling an island or trading real estate properties. It’s easier to keep up the pretense, of course, and presumably gets easier and easier as a player gets better and better at the game, and the physical actions more nearly resemble the physical actions of actual musicians. But still, it’s a game: the guitar doesn’t have strings, and you don’t have to tune the drums. That’s not a complaint—or, more accurately, it’s not my complaint, as a lot of people have complained about that. I have also seen complaints that the game stifles creativity, because you are simply aping the recordings. If you try to solo, I mean really solo, then you lose points; your job is to play the solo that the original guitarist recorded, not have your spirit moved to do your own thing. That seems to me to be both fair and unfair: viewed as a game, it’s unfair to complain that the rules aren’t the rules to a different game altogether. Viewed as a cultural phenomenon, the sense of disappointment is more obvious, particularly from the point of view is that of a musician who is leaving it all on stage at the club every other Thursday while most his prospective audience is at home pressing buttons and imagining themselves stars. On the other hand, I am not such a musician, and I was choosing between playing this game or playing Settlers or Boggle or Word-O-Rama for a few minutes, not choosing between staying in and going out, or between playing this and honing my own nonexistent chops. No, I didn’t mind, at the time, that it was a game and not a jam session.

No, I think I feel disoriented, all these weeks later, by (notionally) recreating the studio version of the song, while the visual cues indicate you are (notionally) on stage in front of an audience. Because being notionally live would mean that before the last verse of “Pump it Up”, the band should go in to a verse of an old and obscure Motown song before doing a few solo bars each as I introduce them by name.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


As a musician, I have no objection to Rock Band, Guitar Hero, or any other similar game that may exist outside of my knowledge. The games are fun to play but very unlike the actual experience of playing live music. That's a good thing; I worked as a roadie for a while. It's probably also a good thing that my current video game obsession is unlike what it purports to simulate. I will be all too satisfied if post-apocalyptic, black-comedy-tinged, nightmare worlds of violence, addiction, madness, and disfiguring mutation stay in the realm of the fictional.

Also, it takes years of practice to learn to play "Freebird" well. I'm delighted that some urges in that direction will be satisfied by some less-time-absorbing activity.


Back when these things were new, I remember going to an arcade and seeing a Dance Dance Revolution machine there, and a guy playing it, who wasn't going stomp stomp stompity stomp stomp on the pads, like everyone else I've ever seen play it -- he was dancing on it, like spinning and jumping and bobbing up and down and using his hands and who all knows what else. I don't know if he was so coordinated that he could improvise like that, or so rich in quarters that he'd played a billion times and this was a set performance he had memorized, but it was awesome to see.

(TSOR on Youtube turns up a bunch of videos of what are clearly choreographed performances, often with two dancers, so my guess is in fact that this guy was in fact just performing; which is too bad, I've always enjoyed the idea that he was good enough improv real dancing within the constraints of the game.)

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