A Rhythm Too Far

As a gamer, I’m not normally the type to look down upon the gaming habits of others.  Sure, I’ll make the odd quip about “freestyle” DDR players now and then, but generally I don’t give my fellow gamers too much grief for doing whatever it is they choose to do.

This stance has lead me to defend Guitar Hero / Rock Band, games which I have played very minimally, whenever someone brings up the “you should just learn a real instrument” argument.  I’ve even argued this point with my dad, who is an actual musician (he plays bass guitar).  I had an epiphany at a GameStop which changed my views on this slightly, and which makes me wonder about how far the rhythm games can go before they’ve gone too far.  It also makes me wonder if I’m the only person who’s ever had an epiphany at GameStop.

While I was at GameStop, they had a Guitar Hero III display set up.  Instead of the usual speakers, the display was outfitted with headphones so interested players could try the game out without disturbing other shoppers too much.  I was waiting in line to order a game.  A kid who was obviously familiar with Guitar Hero walked up to it and – headphones on, guitar in hand – got set to play.  The people in line in front of me were going back and forth with an employee about trading in games, so I curiously looked on as the kid began to run through a jam session.

Click-click-click.  Click-click-click.

Click-click-click.  Click-click-click.

I heard the game in a way I’d never heard it before.  Without the music to accompany the rhythmic input, the mechanical monotony of the whole thing was instantly exposed.  And while I know that many games, some of my favorites probably, could be broken down into a series of infinitely repeatable hand motions, the illusion of Guitar Hero, nay all rhythm games, had been broken from this moment forth.

Enter Rock Band.

Guitar Hero got me used to seeing people rocking out holding small, plastic guitars with buttons instead of strings, but I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to accept the ridiculous menagerie that is the full band ensemble of Rock Band.  Not only does this setup look completely ridiculous standing before the TV in anyone’s living room, but it costs a small fortune, and so starts to encroach on the grounds of “you might as well just learn to play a real instrument.”  Feast your eyes on this piece of work:

All this for a video game?  Really?  Do I even need to say anything else…?

If you’re going to put all the effort into buying, building, and learning to play these ridiculous game controllers, why not just put in a little extra effort and learn the real thing?  It’ll likely be more personally satisfying, and could even land you a career you’d always dreamed about, but never really considered.

Don’t get me wrong though – I still don’t wholly agree with the naysayers; I don’t really think anyone is trying to substitute real musical talent with a game of Guitar Hero or Rock Band.  There is definitely a place in the world for our beloved rhythm games.  I personally think it’s awesome that an entire family can rock out to tunes in Rock Band, with each member on a different instrument.  I like that Guitar Hero is doing its part to revive interest in classic rock.  And hey, even those DDR freaks dancers have impressed me from time to time.  I just feel like these things have gone a bit too far (the drum kit above being a prime example), and if there’s a possibility for some non-electronic achievements now and then, why not take them?  I think that with the advent of more advanced (and expensive) “instruments” that argument is becoming more valid.

Alright, I’m done preaching.  Public service time is over.  Pick up the plastic guitar, and rock on.

Images courtesy of Technabob, Joystiq


  1. xygthop3 - Over a year ago

    Great read Fred.

    I have been playing guitar for about 9 years and I once tried my friends GH3 on the Wii and I played a song that I know how to play on a real guitar and to be honest I couldn’t play the damn thing!!!. Sure it may be “cool” to say to your friends “look I can play this song the whole way though with 100% on GH3”, but when I bring out my guitar and turn the amp up, people stand there with their jaw dropped.

    Now I’m not saying I’m a great guitar player (far from it) but the feeling you and spectators get from a real guitar is far more impressive than a plastic toy.

  2. NakedPaulToast - Over a year ago

    I picked up Guitar Hero last Christmas, for the Wii. I instantly recognised it for what it really was. A button pressing game.

    If one were to design an input device with five left handed buttons, and a single right handed button, the object being to match the patterns on the screen the game would be intolerable. But, morph the plastic into a guitar. Play recognisable music in the background, a few scoops of adrenaline and motivation and you have game of the year and a few million dollars.

    It’s funny that Guitar Hero draws the constant comparison to playing the real instrument. The same comparisons and critiques don’t come with the same frequency with other game types. I have yet to hear Mario Andretti comment that Mario Cart players should spend their time learning to drive a real car, Chuck Yeager comment that Aces High fliers spend time in a real aircraft, or the NRA redirecting Duck Hunters to a semi-automatic Remington.

  3. xot - Over a year ago

    I have had depressing realizations about certain games over the years. They were always games I played “very minimally” or not at all. Guitar Hero is a good example because I thought it was a brilliant idea, but the clicking drives me nuts. I’ve never even seen the game in person. It’s all the YouTube Heroes flailing away with clackety abandon that make the cheesy interface so painfully obvious.

    But getting back to game deconstruction to the point of displeasure, I had a similar reaction to fighting games when Mortal Kombat was popular. I suck at games like that, and the visual aesthetic of the photo-sprite fighters from those days offends my eyes. Because I couldn’t get into those games, I dismissed them as nothing more than Simon-style stick/button pattern memorization. I’ve softened my position on fighters since then, thanks to the imminently mash-friendly Soul Calibur for my trusty Dreamcast.

    Another mega-popular game that I’ve treated even more unfairly through reductionism is Counter-Strike, and by extension all FPS games. I felt that they could be reduced to a 2D click-on-the-dot game, the targets, merely points on the screen, and the gun reticle, a mouse pointer. Of course it is the 3D navigation and tactics that make the game work, and those aspects are a big part of the reason I’ve become a Couter-Strike fan. But I also now realize that what I thought of as a “primitive” a shooting mechanic is in actuality a “simple” one — precise and refined and sublimely simple.

    Simplicity is a powerful design concept. If made simple, precise, and refined, even the most abstract interface can be more immersive and engaging than more literal or realistic “waggle” controls. I think part of it is related to the Uncanny Valley phenomenon. The more complex and realistic controls attempt to be, the more obvious their shortcomings appear. The other, much bigger part is the overall appropriateness of the control scheme. At one end of the rhythm spectrum you have grandpapa of them all, PaRappa the Rappa. Become a freestyle rapper with the press of a button. A bit towards the middle is the hybrid Guitar Hero. The controls appear literal, but they are abstract and highly simplified compared to what they represent. And way, way over on the other end of the spectrum sits Rock Band’s drums. They are so ridiculously literal you can’t tell if it is a game controller or something that fell out of Neil Peart’s truck. Such a demanding controller seems an oddity that would never have been produced without the earlier success of the simplified, abstract guitar controller. Guitar Hero was a success because people wanted a new game experience, not because they wanted to play the guitar. That’s why I prefer to keep things simple and abstract. It’s good that I don’t have to eat twenty times my volume to get past the first level in Pac-Man. I thank the video game gods every night for that as I scrape the Goombas from my boots.

  4. superjoebob - Over a year ago

    I love guitar hero. Its Fun, and thats all that matters. Some people like spending money on crazy junk, and Im one of those people. I also play real guitar and drums, and I still find guitar hero and rock band entertaining.

  5. kc lc - Over a year ago

    “It’s funny that Guitar Hero draws the constant comparison to playing the real instrument. The same comparisons and critiques don’t come with the same frequency with other game types. I have yet to hear Mario Andretti comment that Mario Cart players should spend their time learning to drive a real car, Chuck Yeager comment that Aces High fliers spend time in a real aircraft..”
    — NPT

    That’s because race cars and airplanes aren’t accessible to average people. But guitar and drums are. My first thought seeing Guitar Hero was a vision of a little boy pushing a toy lawn mower around the lawn, or a little girl using a toy oven.

    But I guess that’s not fair. As xot implied, the attraction of Guitar Hero isn’t playing the instruments, but rather the experience of being on stage in a rock band.

    Nevertheless, I’d feel embarrassed to be seen playing it. Maybe that’s because I’m a musician.

  6. desertdweller - Over a year ago

    “Nevertheless, I’d feel embarrassed to be seen playing it. Maybe that’s because I’m a musician.”

    Agreed. It looks almost silly, and definitely not realistic, although that’s probably not the point of playing. I play the guitar, and that’s [obviously] not how the guitar is really played.

  7. MasterOfHisOwnDomain - Over a year ago

    I cringe whenever a friend plays the game. Seriously, its just not the game you pick up and impress people with, because very little is happening; you aren’t making a killer sound, there isn’t some pleasing graphics reward (throwing a player off a ledge (Dead Or Alive) for doing anything. Give me a Beat Em’ Up any day of the week..

  8. CoolGamrSms - Over a year ago

    I half agree, half don’t.

    Playing Guitar Hero 3, it’s only fun once you get the hang of it. There are some really cool things you can do once you get to expert. I myself am not so much of a Guitar Hero series fan, more the Rock Band setup.

    Rock Band (The first one) is a great game. The drumming is fun, and challenging depending on the level you choose. Singing is awesome. The guitar part of it is still fun, and I think Rock Band is an overall great game. The only thing it lacks is better online play.

    Rock Band 2 may be a step down. All those pads and cymbols make me wonder what they’re going to do with the gameplay. Same with Guitar Hero: World Tour. I think there’s a few features that’ll be cool, but overall they may suck. I wish they would just update the old games with the awesome new features, like song creation. Why do game companies have to ruin EVERYTHING?

  9. CoolGamrSms - Over a year ago

    Forgot to say. I’m also trying to learn real guitar. I’m trying to learn tabs.

  10. Drazzke - Over a year ago

    I would far rather play a real instrument than a fake one in front of a TV.

    I have never played a Guitar Hero or Rock band game, and don’t really plan to…

  11. Mattthew_H - Over a year ago

    KC LC basically summed it up for me.
    ‘That’s because race cars and airplanes aren’t accessible to average people. But guitar and drums are.’
    I think that she was being sarcastic, with that ‘guitar and drums are’.

    Because, not everyone could go down the street and buy some drums.
    It is the same with saying that if someone is playing a flying game, and a pilot is saying that they should just learn the real thing. Can everyone afford a jet? I very much doubt it.

    Though I must admit, I am not much of a fan of the game, I really do not see how the developers have made so many games of it, and it have it on practically every console! I think that that is to far, even though they may want everyone to experience it and everything like that. But yes.


  12. NAL - Over a year ago

    After trying someone else’s copy of Guitar Hero, I just downloaded Frets on Fire (for those of you that don’t know, FoF is a freeware Guitar Hero clone in which you hold your keyboard specifically to mimic a guitar). It plays pretty much identically. The keyboard feels no more uncomfortable than the plastic GH guitar. Yet a keyboard can be picked up for, what, £3/$6?

    Guitar Hero is a waste of money. Rock Band is something else (in England, RB costs the equivalent of $380).

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