It seems like every holiday season there is the one game that I never expected to care about, or buy or love. One hidden gem among the big-budget blockbusters and cavalcade of bombast that permeates the Septembers, Octobers and Novembers of our gamer lives. Every year, I look forward to that inevitable game, because it is like a secret surprise. It’s like finding hidden love in a seedy singles’ bar or a forgotten twenty in your coat pocket. It’s the kind of thing that restores your faith in an orderly, functioning universe.
This year, that game for me is Rocksmith. This was a game that I didn’t care at all about even a week and a half ago, and which now seems like something I’ve been looking for ever since I picked up my first Guitar Hero plastic controller some six years ago. Even as everyone pretty much agrees that the music genre is dead or dying, this is a breath of fresh air in a dusty crypt, a refreshing lemonade stand in the middle of Death Valley.
It’s not game of the year. Heck, I’m not even totally sure it’s a game. It is a niche item within a niche genre, and it suffers too often from a lack of fully polished features, but it builds from a solid platform of phenomenal functionality and accessibility. Beyond all else, it feels like the product of people who genuinely care about teaching people to use and get value out of their guitars. It is refreshingly authentic, and that earnestness helps it rise above its shortcomings.
I admit that my language before the bump there sounds suspiciously like, “Rocksmith is just kind of an OK game, but darn it if they didn’t try really hard. Let’s give ‘em a round of applause.” Let me distance myself now from that kind of perception. Rocksmith is, in fact, very good at accomplishing most of the goals it sets out for itself. The problem is that most of those goals are not in the vein of a traditional game.
Rocksmith if looked at from a distance looks like any other rhythm game, except that instead of using a uniquely crafted controller, you use your own electric guitar. Fundamentally, you still do things in time with music, cued by a graphical interface that tells you what buttons (where in this case buttons means frets) to press. If you’ve played a Guitar Hero or Rock Band game in the past, you will immediately understand how to play Rocksmith. The actual “note highway” is reasonably different from Rock Band, but in many ways more intuitive because it creates a better visual representation of your guitar neck and hand shape. The result is that you are playing real notes on a real guitar in unison with a song or exercise.
When talking about Rocksmith, I find myself describing game elements, but trying to differentiate those from the fact that ultimately this is a piece of teaching software. The mission of the game is not to see how many points you can score on STP’s Vasoline. It’s not even exactly the mission of the game to teach you how to play that song. (Here’s a hint: 1st and 3rd fret on the E string. Repeat.) The mission is to teach you the basic fundamentals involved in playing a song like that. Where, in a game like Rock Band the goal is to get some arbitrary number of stars through pattern recognition and dexterity, in Rocksmith the goal is to get better at your instrument.
There is no overdrive. There is no whammy bar to fill up points faster. There are no stars. There are no difficulty settings. There is no singing or playing drums. The only lingering remnants of those trappings are some points and leaderboards that, frankly, seem more like what I imagine a vestigial tail would feel like, though they have some purpose in giving you an approximation of how well you've learned the song. In Rock Band I have countless times chased aggressively after person X’s score or those elusive 5 Golden Stars. In Rocksmith I haven’t once cared about my score on a song unless it unlocked some new distortion pedal for me to goof around with.
What I care about is whether what I played sounded right. And no score, no stars, no new venue, no well timed overdrive comes anywhere near being as rewarding as hearing yourself play a cool guitar lick just right.
Maybe the right way to describe Rocksmith is as an educational toy. This is like those despicable noise-making toddler toys — the ones covered in letters, numbers and shapes, the ones that now-disavowed members of the family have given my kids in the past — except this is for grown-ups. This is a grown-up’s noisy learning toy, a thing of joy for the one using it and a thing that makes it impossible to think for everyone else in the room. This also probably explains why I cry when my wife takes the guitar out of my hands and tells me it’s time to come to dinner.
That’s not to say this is a toy for everyone. In fact, to someone with a healthy knowledge of how to play guitar, this probably will seem a lot like a child’s toy, and a woefully inadequate tutor. Again, sort of in the same way that if you know how to read, you don't need something that wastes time electronically telling you that C makes the Kuh sound. Yes, Rocksmith teaches you about fingering, anchoring, bending, slides, hammer-ons/offs, alternative tunings, scales, chords and other beginning concepts, but it doesn’t teach you at all about … well, I don’t know because I’m completely a beginner.
And that’s the whole point. I’m the perfect candidate for this game, the rare target market that is just the right niche within a niche. I’ve a long record of joy with rhythm games. I’ve an interest in learning to play casually. I’ve got a decent Telecaster ready to go, and I barely know how to play it. I have some disposable income to spend. I’m interested in spending the time to learn. I have reasonable expectations of what that learning looks like. I’m not looking for all the bells and whistles, and I can deal happily enough with the occasional imperfections of Rocksmith. The fewer of those things that describe you, the less likely you are to have anything like the experience I’ve had.
Let it not be said that I’m Pollyanna about this game/tool/toy, though, because there are some problems with it. It suffers from an all-too-familiar problem of video lag. You are likely to get audio delay unless you pipe your audio direct from the console to an analog output. Most of the 50 songs included probably aren’t all that familiar, and it’s clear that Rocksmith doesn’t have the same cachet to get the same kind of popular music as Harmonix. The game is not exactly feature rich, and you’ll never break Rocksmith out at a party to play with your friends.
But, what it does right is far more interesting to me than the relatively minor misses that, as a player, I’ve gotten completely over. Not enough can be said about how beautifully the game detects what you are doing with nothing more than a relatively unassuming cord. It’s nothing like the occasionally sketchy performance and detection of Rock Band’s Squire. It just works, and it does it so much better than I’d have any right to ask for.
The visual representation of the note chart makes more sense by mirroring hand positioning on the neck across the horizontal, so that the information looks like the shape you need to make with your hand. The dynamic difficulty, which matches the song difficulty to how well you’re playing, is basically genius. There is no penalty, no failing a song, and if you want to do your own thing between notes — add your own flavor to the songs — then by all means, go for it. And, if you want to just play around with distortion pedals — even getting down to the level of adjusting the settings on the distortion effects just like you would on the pedals — then you can just about turn your Xbox and TV into an amp. The mandate of Rocksmith above all else seems to be do what you want to do with your instrument.
That’s a rare philosophy in the modern sphere of gaming, and it is exactly the kind of innovation and fresh idea that this genre needs to survive.