Best Buy Bodhisattva

"Perfection is realized only in the moment.
The past tugs, the future holds.
In the moment, no resistance"
- Anonymous

Best Buy during the holidays is a special kind of hell. Swarms of soccer moms trailing toddlers, looking for the new game of the year. Overweight dads butt-glued into recliners in front of NASA-style walls of aggressive televisions, commenting on the silent football games arrayed before them. Hordes of middle aged couples making dreadfully misguided computer purchases.

But the best part of the Best Buy holiday extravaganza are the demo kids. And it was one of these kids who showed me something I will never see again.

Guitar Hero 3. "Through the Fire and the Flames." Expert.

This is a good year for Demo kids. At our local (meaning a half-hour drive) Best Buy there are several honey-pots distributed. Each is well placed in order to siphon off parental traffic towards easy-to-purchase, high-margin merchandise. Along one aisle, a big screen TV is set in a small 12 by 12 carpet square, with a 5.1 sound system (the rear speakers on mic stands) and a handful of low-to-the-ground "gaming chairs."

In the cabinet under the TV sits an Xbox 360. In the chairs sit - perpetually - three teenage boys, their eyes intent on game-du-jour. This Sunday, it was Halo 3 splitscreen. Nobody was deluding themselves that this was any kind of demo - these kids were settling a score, and they were there for the duration.

At the main entrance, a much larger setup is dedicated to Rock Band. Tellingly, the guitars are both Guitar Hero 2 era wired Explorers, the workhorse standard in the guitar game universe. The drum kit features duct tape in several places. As I walk by, 4 teenage boys are playing "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a choice not only unlikely due to the song's laconic and decidedly non-hardcore tone, but also due to the fact that one of the boys is actually singing, amplified, and doing it quite well. That Rock Band has brought baggy-trousered boys out of their basements to actually sing in public is a testament to the game's power. That my four year old son Jake is also singing every word with perfect diction and not-half-bad tone is a testament to how many hours I've played it, not any expression of talent on his part.

And then there's the Guitar Hero setup. Let's face it, if there was a battle going on between Rock Band and Guitar Hero 3, GH3 not only lost, it packed up its marbles and went home. An entertaining extension of the franchise to be sure, it is been relegated to a mid-aisle station in the PC gaming ghetto, not even worthy of console-land real estate. The Xbox 360 is perched atop the shelves connected to a paltry 20-something standard-definition screen. One heavily abused wired Gibson guitar hangs by its strap, calling out to me even though I know I have the game at home, can't play anything particularly impressive, and have no time to waste as we press through the herd.

As I stare wistfully down the PC game aisle, the posse approaches. Four teenage boys (it always seems to be boys), not so much walking, but dancing, like poised ballerinas. Their torsos are almost entirely motionless as their legs slide along the floor. Their pants are ridiculous: large enough for two and beltless, each clearly a plumber's apprentice. They wear unmatching zip hoodies. The tallest of the boys is perhaps 6 feet. His skin is pasty white and pimpled, with what might pass for baby-soft stubble. His hair is a mass of center-parted brown grease. I feel a deep sympathy for him.

As one and with purpose, they stop in front of the GH3 shrine. Choreographed in their movements, the smallest of the clan hands the well-used Gibson Les Paul reverently to the leader.

"OK Kyle, here you go."

Kyle takes the guitar from him. Jake is getting antsy.

"Ratatouille! Daddy we haven't even seen Ratatouille!"

I lose my focus on Kyle as I negotiate the non-purchase of Pixar's ratmovie. Uncurling from the bent over toddler-discussion Yoga pose, I see Kyle move through the selection screens, and my heart jumps to my throat.

"Through the Fire and the Flames" on Expert.

The inclusion of Fire and the Flames in Guitar Hero 3 always struck me as something of a cruel joke. Upon beating the game, Fire and the Flames plays as the credits roll. It plays in a kind of practice mode, so that you have the opportunity to flail on the ridiculous note chart. The song itself is classic hair-guitar, and while watching the original guitarist play it is a jaw dropping "holy-Jesus-on-a-popsicle-stick" experience, as music goes it's not the kind of thing I put on my iPod for casual listening. It exists purely as an expression of guitar hubris.

As the stage swirls on the screen, a calm comes over Kyle. His face slackens a bit. He closes his eyes. His lieutenants absorb his tension, shuffling their feet, biting their nails. The highway of the fret board starts rolling, and as the first note falls, Kyle's eyes open.

The entire intro of Fire is hammer-ons. There's no preamble. There's no warm up. It starts hard and it stays hard. Both of Kyle's hands are poised over the fret buttons as he taps out the notes. He is not looking at the screen. He is looking at his fingers. His long neck and arms make the guitar controller look even more diminutive than it is. He is curled over it, completely motionless but for his fingers. I look at the screen as he passes "200 note streak."

The second half of the intro starts at about 30 seconds in and moves from hammer-ons to a rapidfire staccato. I've seen this on YouTube ego-clips, so I'm expecting the sharp jackhammer of the strum bar as he approaches what must be 20 notes per second. But instead of loud and frantic flailing, his face slackens, his lips parting slightly, and he is nearly silent. Instead of slamming the strumbar with mechanical arrogance, he holds it between two fingers as if plucking petals off a rose, each stroke a delicate whisper.

300 note streak.
400 note streak.
500 note streak.

At about one minute in there is a pause, perhaps five seconds where the band's singer mumbles some 1980's era lyrics into a microphone. I've never particularly cared what he had to say. Kyle is absolutely motionless. There's no shaking out of hands, no turning to make knowing glances at his audience or worry about his hair.

He blinks.

The song enters another manic section. Occasionally he shifts his right hand up from the strum bar to tap out a hammer-on section. His face continues to soften. He has lost at least an inch of height as his spine and knees succumb to gravity. A minute and a half into the song, I see him falter, missing a note for the first time and resetting his multiplier to zero. It's not clear that Kyle has noticed. The shortest of his kinsmen, the one who had so reverently handed him the guitar, sends a glance my way, then down towards my knees to the eyes of my 4 year old. I bend over and pick him up.

"Can we go?" Jake asks.

A reasonable question for which there is no reasonable answer. "Just a minute, I need to see this." I point at the screen.

3, 4, 5 minutes into the song. Kyle slips deeper into what is clearly a state of Samadhi; He no longer perceives a space between himself and the game. There is no him. There is no song. There is no guitar.

At 6 minutes in, a small crowd has formed, perhaps 15 of us. His sravaka - his disciples - look nervously at us, absorbing the distractions, protecting him a bubble of calm. There is complete silence. Even my son is staring slackjawed, like he does in church during communion, not understanding the content of the ritual but understanding the tone and sacredness of the space.

At just over 6 minutes, the song becomes even more ludicrous. While actually playing it will ever remain for me an uncrossable gap, I am enough a student of the form to recognize the crux. He is Lance Armstrong approaching the bottom of Alpe D'Huez: Will he attack? Kyle has yet to use the Star Power crutch he has carried throughout his meditation.

He continues to ignore it.

His posse is immobile now: brows furrowed in tension, fingers white and digging into palms. I realize I haven't blinked in too long and force myself. My palms are sweating, my left hand cramped in sympathy. As the song comes to it's unrelenting conclusion, I can only stare at Kyle's face. His eyelids have dropped, half covering his irises.

He hits the last orange note. He lets the guitar fall from his hands onto the floor. It's not an act of disdain or bravado, his hands simply open and then there is no guitar. I look at the screen. "You Rock!" Jake echoes with the screen. 500,000 points. Kyle isn't looking. The small crowd claps for a second, then starts to disperse.

I try to catch his eyes, to make some feeble 40-year-old-dad gesture: maybe a nod, or a humble utterance of "nice." But, his sutra complete, his eyes have gone to his shoes. His companions pat him on the back, not with a juvenile high-five, but with an almost loving touch, they way you'd touch an aging parent on the back when asking if they're pneumonia was getting better. They turn away from us and walk back down the aisle in the direction they had come.

Jake squirms. I put him down and take his hand.

It's warm and soft and surprisingly strong as he squeezes mine. As we walk out of the store, I have the odd sense of being aware of my breathing. For a moment at least, it becomes a conscious act.

Comments

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Amazing.

Hot damn. This is one powerful piece, Rabbit, for you're the true master of the Way.

Cool story. I've always thought that some of those songs must be some sort of meditation, like Tai Chi. Nice to get a confirmation.

I actually hate playing demos in store where I know the game. Playing GH2 makes me feel like a tool showing off, but sometimes you just can't resist.

Good read.

Well done.

Thank you.

I saw an older guy (I'd guess 50s maybe) play the song on expert at a convention not too long ago. Blew my mind. He beat every young'un he played against.

Truly a great story, I only wish i could see someone do that in person.....that song is hard enough on medium.

That was a moving piece of literature there Rabbit. The talent some of these modern children have in melding with a game or a piece of electronic goes beyond interaction and goes into a realm of interfacing. I think of Ghost in the Shell and how bionics and implants let some of those characters type out information with those mechanical twenty finger hands that seemingly come out of what looked to be a normal hand a moment earlier. Data screaming across the screen at some inconceivable speed and their robotic eyes reading every line of code and computing it as effortlessly as we would compute simple arithmetic. I think we are getting closer to that, though not exactly that, and the human species is evolving to acquire a hyper sensitive level of electronic visual comprehension combined with almost super human reflex actuation. This Kyle kid is living proof I think of this higher level of technological interfacing and it's just going to get even faster. Once we get to the point of "jacking in" I don't know if us old farts could even comprehend that state of being.

What a great read. I recently bought GH3 for my Wii, and I notice that sometimes I play notes without actually playing the notes. My hands just move of there own accord striking the right buttons and playing the song. It's probably me getting into The Zone, but it's great nevertheless. This is still on medium mind you, I am not good nor brave enough to try a higher difficulty yet.

kilroy0097 wrote:
That was a moving piece of literature there Rabbit. The talent some of these modern children have in melding with a game or a piece of electronic goes beyond interaction and goes into a realm of interfacing. I think of Ghost in the Shell and how bionics and implants let some of those characters type out information with those mechanical twenty finger hands that seemingly come out of what looked to be a normal hand a moment earlier. Data screaming across the screen at some inconceivable speed and their robotic eyes reading every line of code and computing it as effortlessly as we would compute simple arithmetic. I think we are getting closer to that, though not exactly that, and the human species is evolving to acquire a hyper sensitive level of electronic visual comprehension combined with almost super human reflex actuation. This Kyle kid is living proof I think of this higher level of technological interfacing and it's just going to get even faster. Once we get to the point of "jacking in" I don't know if us old farts could even comprehend that state of being.

While that sounds cool and all. I don't really think that's what this Kyle kid was doing. He probably practiced that song a great deal and when you practice something over and over again you would be surprised at what you can do. Your body just remembers what it needs to do out of shear repetition and you really never have to think about it, in fact if you find you have to think about it you usually end up screwing up. It's what I like to call Body Memory and it's how for example I learn complicated fight sequences when I do stunts. Once you get to the point where your body just reacts it really is like going into that zone or zen state. It can be a real rush.

How very zen. Nice write-up. I'll think of it as I slog through Best Buy this holiday season and thus restrain myself from committing homicide.

That was incredible. Thank you.

Wonderful. You gave me goosebumps, Rabbit.

And as the chance would have it, I am re-reading Roger Zelazny's Lord Of Light right now.

Gorilla.800.lbs wrote:
And as the chance would have it, I am re-reading Roger Zelazny's Lord Of Light right now.

Brilliant, wonderful book.

Gaald wrote:
Once you get to the point where your body just reacts it really is like going into that zone or zen state. It can be a real rush.

I think this is a big part of it - meditation through action. Although the "rush" part I personally disagree with it. In those few moments I've felt it, its more like letting go than racing along.

You write with a certian...

Umm... What's the word?

Give me the word you genious bastard!!!

I was just reading my morning Slashdot and found a link here! Seems we have been getting a lot play on there lately. A compliment to our writers or maybe Rabbit gave out some bribes last time Zonk was on a Conference Call.

I have seen some similar stuff while at Best Buy for Future shop, never so intense though. Usually its just a hard level or a high score. Not impossibly difficult mind bending guitar riffs.

How do you get custom content, such as Dream Theater's 'Take the Time': http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7aL22... (edit2: Intro to solo begins at about 4:20)

I just bought a PS2 for my son - I am a computer gamer, and we trod lightly into console country. Ridicule if you wish, I have never felt so lame and stupid as standing in front of the PS2 games wondering which was the best fighter, racer and rpg on the shelf. I felt somewhat redeemed when my checker stated he was a [-edit: console] gamer, but looked boggled when I asked him which was the best fighter. I had to name the three that I knew of (Soul Caliber, Tekken, and Virtua Fighter serieses-es) Serie? Bah!

You write with a certian...

Umm... What's the word?

Give me the word you genious bastard!!!


This is even funnier if you read it in Inigo Montoya's voice.

Excellent read. I think I feel bad for the kid. Is that how I'm supposed to react?

This is so good. If we get Slashdotted, it's on you.

Gaald wrote:
While that sounds cool and all. I don't really think that's what this Kyle kid was doing. He probably practiced that song a great deal and when you practice something over and over again you would be surprised at what you can do. Your body just remembers what it needs to do out of shear repetition and you really never have to think about it, in fact if you find you have to think about it you usually end up screwing up. It's what I like to call Body Memory and it's how for example I learn complicated fight sequences when I do stunts.

I think most people call it muscle memory.

In my metal band days I frequented a music-oriented message board that occasionally hosted impromptu debates on the well-worn topic of technique vs. "feel." The substance of these debates usually consisted of a bunch of musical rubes insulting each other based on whether or not they liked Yngwie Malmsteen, but buried in the noise was a discussion worth having. In the classical world, where performers are generally interpreters, it is generally accepted that a musician needs to achieve a certain baseline of technical facility before they can expressively interpret a given piece of music. This is where performers become artists: when technique becomes muscle memory, the notes on the page are no longer an obstacle and a musician can dig deep and really say something. In classical music, technique and expressiveness ("feel") are inextricably linked, and, in fact, one cannot really be achieved without the other. This is less true in rock music, where musicians are often improvising or playing music they have written, and that's where the forum debate comes in.

In a sense, games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band are an approximation of musical technique divorced from expressiveness. When a player is really good, like the Best Buy kid, playing the game is all baseline, all muscle memory. It's intriguing to think about how music games could evolve to allow players like that to tap into something more.

The words could be Joie de vivre or could it be a subtle, muted enthusiasm, or a certain Je ne sais quoi or better yet a GH3 on expert Elan.

Very good. However you write as if you've never experienced anything similar to Kyle, which I find a little surprising. As gamers, through repetition and familiarity, we all have those moments when our muscle memory kicks in and we no longer think about what we're doing.

I once, perhaps foolishly, attempted that song on expert truthfully not knowing what to expect, but knowing it was going to be nothing short of insane. I then proceeded to fail the song after 2.5 seconds, this kid must be some sort of incarnation of rock gaming.

Rabbit, you made me feel as if I was standing there watching right beside you.

Well done. That was the best thing I'm going to read today, might as well go home.

Wow rabbit - I can only echo what others here already said. Fantastic writing - you brightened my day. Thank you.

Learning to play like this is very similar to typing on a keyboard. I have no idea where keys on the keyboard are if I think about them visually, however my fingers know exactly where they are. Even without a keyboard I can put my hands infront of me, think of a key and my hand knows exaclty where to go. I am sure most of you know this. It is also similar to playing Violin, especially the really fast stuff like Lord of the Dance and other Irish jigs. When you get to the end, which is usally replaying the same couple of lines over and over faster and faster your hands completely take over and you are not thinking about the notes at all, your fingers are doing all of the work. When I pick up a Violin every once in a while these days I can still play some songes by heart, although badly, because my hands remeber, but my brain does not.

As the stage swirls on the screen, a calm comes over Kyle. His face slackens a bit. He closes his eyes. His lieutenants absorb his tension, shuffling their feet, biting their nails. The highway of the fret board starts rolling, and as the first note falls, Kyle's eyes open.

You totally made that up, didn't you? err, embellished. Whatever, this is inspired writing, riveting even. Ever thought about stringing these pieces into a book? Put me down for a copy if you do.

I had the exact same experience this last weekend watching my friend's band play. I was standing about 3 feet away from a true guitar master, and watching his fingers move was the biggest geek-out I've had in a while.

[mod edit] I need to find better outlets for my rage

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