I remember the first time I heard about Guitar Hero. It sounded stupid.
On the week that Guitar Hero came onto the scene back in November of 2005, our Game of the Week was Gun, but what we were really excited about was the release of Kameo: Elements of Power. No one in our forums was even talking about this odd and expensive game full of cover bands and fairly simplistic gameplay. On the cusp of a cultural phenomenon, no one saw it coming.
It’s a ridiculous proposition when you think about it critically. Pretending to be something that you are not is one thing in the realm of gaming, but actually standing there, holding tiny plastic instruments in your living room or worse public -- that's something altogether different. In some ways guitar games get to the heart of both what it is to be a gamer and what we fear having exposed, the almost childlike innocence of living out the unreachable dream.
As adults we might as well walk around pretending to be Transformers for half the day.
And yet, it is a rare thing to put that guitar controller into someone’s hand and not see them light up from the inside. You can watch a game like Guitar Hero just click with someone, usually within seconds. They hit that Bon Jovi power chord or a classic rock lick, and the self-consciousness washes away like a veneer of maturity ripped clean from a hidden child.
Over the past four years, there may be no single genre that has been more important to video games than rhythm gaming. I don’t simply mean they have been financially lucrative — I mean to say that they have been integral in breaking down walls and facilitating a speedy transition from social exile to the mainstream-cool.
As daring a statement as it may be to make, Beatles: Rock Band may in the long run prove to be one of the seminal releases that cements a social phenomenon into the permanent zeitgeist. Even as the stage lights begin to fade on an overexposed genre, this could be a important nail into the coffin of gaming as the alien realm of the strange and infantile.
That’s not to say that every ex-hippie is going to put flowers in their hair, pop submarine shaped pills and trip out to Abbey Road dreamscapes, but that it becomes a lot harder to condemn an art form that is so publicly embraced by generational icons. It is easy now to diminish what The Beatles meant to children of the early 60s, but doing so is a grave error. It is the ultimate ace up the sleeve for a sancitmonious closed-mindedness that has historcially stonewalled gamers out of the really popular reindeer games.
This isn't some random sixties group looking to cash in on former glory. For forty years there were The Beatles and then there was everyone else. This is gaming's moon shot.
It is important to recognize how vigorously the legacy of the band has been jealously protected for decades by legal and cultural guardians with little patience for anything that might sully the Fab Four image. This isn’t a band you hear tossed into car commercials or who perform overpriced reunion tours for starry-eyed executives with too much disposable income. The Beatles image has been carefully crafted even as half the band passes on into that great drug trip in the sky.
Turning over this icon to guys who make video games with plastic toys for adults would have seemed in 2005 about as likely as the United States electing a minority to the Presidency, the kind of nonsense that pie-in-the-sky idealists ramble on about over fondue and wine from a box. Culturally speaking, gaming was simply not at that level. It was, like comic books, rock and roll and television before it, a persistently annoying but ultimately transitory phase. We would all grow out of it soon enough.
Sir Paul now includes Rock Band images in his public performances. In my minds eye I imagine borderline geriatrics staring up at this images in grudging acceptance. Perhaps I am overstating it, but there is a changing of the guard and our cultural exile is slowly coming to an end. Tell me you can’t feel it.
The reality is that rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band played and continue to play a key role. Yes, these games are experiencing a roughly 40% drop in revenue this year, this versus a 20% overall drop in gaming revenue. Yes, Activision has greedily made a hash of the genre. Yes, there’s not a lot of room for moving forward, and The Beatles: Rock Band may simultaneously be the most important and the last meaningful rhythm game for a while.
None of that diminishes what has been accomplished. Along with the Wii, the iPhone and the rise of casual gaming, rhythm gaming is perhaps the big toe on the foot in the door. Unabashed Rock Band fanboy though I may be, it gives me hope for gaming in the future to know that a hidden gem that nobody is talking about this week might define gaming for years to come.
That’s the sort of thought that gets me up in the morning.