Missing Rock Band

I turn up the volume on my computer speakers. Spotify is playing "The Singer Addresses His Audience" by The Decemberists -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fh8L.... The song opens on a big major chord with just a hint of melancholy, a chord that’s keeping a stiff upper lip and a positive outlook on life even though it’s got some problems and is behind on its car payment. My brain lights up, and a communique comes in on the wire from the arty left side of the brain.

“That’s just an open E chord,” comes the report.

Until that moment, I was being a productive member of society. But this hot E-chord news has taken priority over everything, and moments later I’ve got my Martin 12-string in hand and I’ve rewound to the beginning of the song. By God, yes. It is indeed an E chord. The next chord though – not so easy.

Well, actually it’s quite easy if you can rattle off the chords that articulate the familiar tones of the Key of E. I can’t, so I quickly get stuck figuring out that the song just goes from the root (E) to the v (B). If you’re not into music theory, that sentence probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. Don’t sweat it. It’s not important.

But the fact that I’ve spent the past few years learning sentences like that one is why I didn’t buy Rock Band 4.

It feels strange, actually. There are both a new Rock Band and a new Guitar Hero game out on store shelves right now, and not only don’t I own either, I don’t have any plans to do so.

Yet, I hold both of these series in hallowed, precious places in my mind. These are the games that took my latent interest and even passion in music – occasional questionable music choices notwithstanding – and turned it into a desire to create and learn the instrument. They implicitly, or at times explicitly, convince you that you should learn how to do this thing, and it will be rewarding in a way you can’t expect. And, for me at least, they’re right.

The problem is that eventually once you’ve learned how to make something marginally good with the actual instrument, the artifice of slapping at a piece of plastic with cheerful buttons moves to second best. When I play Rock Band, I inevitably now just want to go pick up my real guitar and bang my head against actual chords and notes. If I’m going to spend my time learning the dexterity to execute complicated solo maneuvers, it’s going to be through the medium of a marriage of flesh, metal wire, faux-pearl and wood.

There’s also something about these games that seemed wrapped in a moment in time, a place the world was in but isn’t anymore. Going back to Rock Band or Guitar Hero feels a bit like trying to force a re-do of that one perfect night with your best friends. We’ll still have fun, sure, but we’ll be cast under the shadow of what was.

When I think of Rock Band, I think of a sweaty brow and happily aching calf muscle as I flail my way through pretend-drums on "Tom Sawyer," while Lara sings and Cory hurries to the kitchen, to fetch me a fresh Corona. (This was a day when my kingly-reign was over the domain of watery Mexican beer rather than all of Gamedom.) It’s a night recklessly scratched into my brain, like a homemade tattoo of poor decisions wrapped inside glorious times with the most bestest friends.

There’s no getting back to that same feeling, though. Part of what makes it such a cherished memory is its uniqueness, its qualities that can be imitated but never replicated, and I feel sort of the same way about the games themselves. They were wonderful and moved me to action in a way very few games ever do, but they’ve served their purpose and there’s really no going back.

Which all makes me a lot like our Decemberists E chord, overall pretty happy but with just the whisper of melodrama.

In a weird way I feel a little guilty for not supporting the music-game genre, which surely finds itself lurching desperately back toward the limelight in its last-chance gasp to stay alive. These games, and by natural extension these game makers, brought so much happiness into my life, and inspired me to take up guitar and actually learn how to make good sounds with it. I want to see them succeed to fuel someone else’s musical bent, but am I really going to shell out a hundred bucks or more just to add to the cacophony of plastic that already has fully appropriated at least one closet, just for nostalgia’s sake?

I guess part of it is that I just don’t want to find myself not caring. I don’t want to buy a new Rock Band or Guitar Hero and feel nothing. I don’t want to be standing there in my living room smacking at plastic with a stick and think to myself, “What am I doing?”

I don’t want to be playing a song on my Rock Band guitar, hear a familiar chord and think, “Wait, I think that was an A,” because when that happens I’ll drop the plastic on the floor and go grab the real thing. That would be an ignoble end for games that deserve better.

Comments

I have the opposite reaction to Rock Band, I think because I'm coming from two opposite places. The first is that I could already play guitar so I don't expect rhythm games to deliver that particular feeling. But they deliver a feeling, which isn't artificial. Honing the reaction and timing to nail 85% (I'm being optimistic) of the gems on "Green Grass and High Tides" on expert isn't a substitute for actually playing the song—but it's still an amazing feeling achieved with practice and intent. For me, it's not a zero-sum game: playing guitar and playing Rock Band, even in 2015, still have their unique rewards. That ties into larger criticisms of games, that you don't actually do things in video games, which is patently bullsh*t—doubly so with physical video games.

The second is that I'm just as happy to play RB by myself as with others, and by "others" I mean most likely one other (Mrs. Gravey). It's a skill challenge, like a single-player racing game, not a party. I don't like parties. I do like single-player racing games. So nothing's changed there. Of course I'm not buying RB4, because I don't have a console, but I'm glad it's back for new players to experience.

I've actually felt myself getting back into Rock Band because my kids are re-discovering it. They started out small just singing, but as they've gotten older they're moving up to the harder instruments. My 6-year-old son has glommed onto the drum kit, and watching him try to get through the rhythm of "Crazy Train" is hilarious and heartwarming. We played for a few hours last weekend, and when we got to Bohemian Rhapsody I cranked up the volume and sang it in the most ridiculous operatic falsetto I could muster, and they were cracking up so hard he fell off the drum stool. Experiences like that continue to make it a pretty good time.

I started playing guitar before Guitar Hero and Rock Band came along, and I've largely moved on to Rocksmith and just playing solo for my music/gaming convergence. I get what you're saying Sean - I still feel a little ridiculous picking up a plastic guitar with a real one sitting over in the corner, but they've become separate enough that I don't really view Rock Band as "musical wannabe" anymore, it's just another game.

I'll admit I haven't even looked at Rock Band 4 - I still have my older plastic instruments for 360, and I don't need or want to buy more. Does RB4 even have a 360 version? I have no idea.

Elysium wrote:

I don’t want to be standing there in my living room smacking at plastic with a stick and think to myself, “What am I doing?”

First: If you're playing (real or fake) drums while standing, you're doing it wrong.

Second: So you're saying that, in addition to buying and learning to play guitar, you've bought and learned how to play drums, so playing fake drums has also become something that holds no interest for you?

When I was young, I had a hand-me-down acoustic drum kit that a friend gave me, which is when I taught myself the basics of drumming. These days, 25+ years later, I have an electronic drum kit that I can play whenever I want. At my Halloween party last weekend, a friend brought over his Rock Band 4 setup, and I happily played (expert) drums for a few songs (that I'd never heard before). At no point during that time did I think to myself: "This is lame. I could playing my real drum kit."

That said, I imagine that this article is from the perspective - or idea if you haven't actually bought or played the new RB or GH - of playing by yourself. If so, I agree. The only time I've ever played RB or GH World Tour was with at least one other person.

DP

I always thought the early Guitar Hero and Rock Band games were decent simulations of being a rock star, not so much an actual musician. It was fun, it gave a point to rhythm games (that previously had really bored me) and I loved the music and started picking up on songs I hadn't payed much attention to before.

Oddly, I think the games had some weird momentum that once I stepped away from them made me lose interest. Guitar Hero dipped in quality, but the implosion of the Rock Band devs and the sudden lack of follow-up combined with the almost collective disinterest from anyone I knew kind of took the whole thing from 100mph to a screeching halt.

Now I just don't have the interest. I have a different music discovery method and both kids have gone on to learn real instruments and have no interest in playing with me. Even if they did, I'd almost rather listen to my son play his guitar than simulate it in a game.

It was fun while it lasted though.

MeatMan wrote:
Elysium wrote:

I don’t want to be standing there in my living room smacking at plastic with a stick and think to myself, “What am I doing?”

First: If you're playing (real or fake) drums while standing, you're doing it wrong.

Second: So you're saying that, in addition to buying and learning to play guitar, you've bought and learned how to play drums, so playing fake drums has also become something that holds no interest for you?

When I was young, I had a hand-me-down acoustic drum kit that a friend gave me, which is when I taught myself the basics of drumming. These days, 25+ years later, I have an electronic drum kit that I can play whenever I want. At my Halloween party last weekend, a friend brought over his Rock Band 4 setup, and I happily played (expert) drums for a few songs (that I'd never heard before). At no point during that time did I think to myself: "This is lame. I could playing my real drum kit."

That said, I imagine that this article is from the perspective - or idea if you haven't actually bought or played the new RB or GH - of playing by yourself. If so, I agree. The only time I've ever played RB or GH World Tour was with at least one other person.

Yeah, I think Sean's feelings are probably more common in people who learned to play guitar/bass after playing videogame variants. Singing and drumming are still pretty much singing and drumming.

Crazed Java wrote:

Oddly, I think the games had some weird momentum that once I stepped away from them made me lose interest. Guitar Hero dipped in quality, but the implosion of the Rock Band devs and the sudden lack of follow-up combined with the almost collective disinterest from anyone I knew kind of took the whole thing from 100mph to a screeching halt.

It was fun while it lasted though.

This. I have a TON of incredible memories based on the Rock Band series, and with a friend of mine and I picking up RB4 tonight I'm excitedly anticipating forming new ones. At the same time, I was taken quite aback by the abrupt shift from enthusiasm to almost adamant disinterest by everyone I've ever played with besides the friend I mentioned above sometime during Rock Band 3's lifespan. One guy was never really into it but participated because the rest of us dragged him through it, starting with my brother's all-night bachelor party in 2008. For several others, the fun level varied based on their instrument choices and music tastes but for all the experience was a video game and little more. Playing all night during 40th birthday in 2010 was a blast, but subsequent attempts to get the band back together or play with others were more and more disappointing as it was apparent people were not very enthused or interested anymore... so I stopped trying.

I think the reason the experience these games provide still enchants me is that for me it's less about the physical challenge and video game experience and more about celebrating music with people I care about. I don't think I could really put a price on that.

Edit: Perhaps not ironically, the guitar in this game never interested me, but singing and drumming have always been where it's at.

I always found it difficult to get into these games. I was playing guitar for a good few years before I ever played Guitar Hero, and yes, it just felt like a waste of time to me.

I always thought to myself: "Why would I want to bang on a plastic guitar for hours when I could be working on a genuine craft - making music?"

I understand the attraction. But it was just never for me, personally.

I find it interesting that the biggest fans of music games are either people who don't play instruments at all, or people who actually make their living performing music. The people who make music as a hobby are the ones who don't tend to get as much out of the game experience...

Maybe you don't want to buy the game, but if you want that feeling of being a rock star, you should come to this on Thursday if you live in Chicagoland: Live Rock Band 4 Karaoke.