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.