Friday, January 22, 2010

A Day in the Life

A couple months ago, I made my first foray into the land of note-highways and plastic instruments. Like everyone else, I played Rock Band and Guitar Hero at numerous parties and enjoyed the experience. However, I decided to put off actually owning the game and its gear until I could play songs off of either Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Led Zeppelin IV, or the The Chronic.

Like many others, I was thrilled when The Beatles: Rock Band was announced and I am in no way surprised that I like it. What did surprise me was the game's capacity to provoke strong feelings of escapism. By combining a very narrow dynamic gameplay zone with The Beatles' iconic artistic legacy, the Beatles: Rock Band is more about letting yourself inhabit another person in another time.

While games can serve as methods to indulge in escapist fantasies, I rarely find it easy to lose myself in a game world. Part of this is the interface: As cheesy as the plastic instruments are, they simulate the onscreen action more directly than most traditional controller or mouse and keyboard setups. The Xbox 360 control is a far cry from MarcusFenix's chainsaw gun, but the generic Rock Band guitar actually resembles the object that could create the on-screen action.

This action centers around an extremely strict interpretation of The Beatles' music. Rhythm games as a genre are already some of the least forgiving in terms of accommodating player exploration. The only way to play Rock Band is do exactly what the game says: The gameplay path exists on a narrow line between a song's beginning and end. By removing the optional drum fills and guitar solos found in standard Rock Band games, The Beatles: Rock Band further constricts the player's freedom. This game is not about the player discovering their own unique talents, it is about trying to emulate and role play The Beatles' talent. The game is essentially aBeatle simulator.

The game's real accomplishment is tricking you into believing the simulation. Aping the motions of playing an instrument and following the directions on the screen is linked to music whose beauty overwhelms the absurdity of the concept. Although the game is basically a glitzy version of "Simon says," the carefully crafted note paths move my hands in a way that somehow feels authentic. For a moment, I feel like I could actually be Paul McCartney. Maybe if I just practiced a bit more, I could even write a song...

Of course, from a musical perspective, catching up to Paul is effectively impossible. By the time he was my age, Sgt. Pepper had been released, and while I am proud of Experience Points, I'm not ready to put it in quite the same category.

Even if I were complete the Malcolm Gladwell-approved 10,000 hours of training required to master a skill, I would fall victim to the cruel realities of space and time. I am neither in Liverpool nor the 1960s, and no amount of practice or talent could replicate the magic The Beatles had. Listening to The Beatles, one hears things that would both upend popular music and lead to its ultimate fragmentation. Playing The Beatles: Rock Band is about escaping to a time in which a band's "Sgt. Pepper's" album was actually Sgt. Pepper's. The Beatles could only exist because there had been no Beatles before them.

Today, Paul and Ringo exist separately from the legends birthed in the 1960s. In terms of continued influence and relevance, they cannot compete with the echoes of themselves, and so join the rest of the mortal world. No one, not even Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, can be "Paul" and "Ringo" as the world knew them; those people don't exist anymore. To hearken back to those days is to assume an imposture: the world has changed and that reality exists only as a legend that can be emulated, not recreated. We must rely on simulations to do so.

The Beatles: Rock Band allows us to escape our reality and take part in the re-telling of these legends. The game lets us taste the grand, idealized, beautiful splendor of a cultural myth. When playing the game, I am flooded by the memories of "discovering" the band as teenager and getting goosebumps as I realized that human beings could create such things.

The Beatles: Rock Band is not a game about the individual player's creativity; the strict adherence to the official versions of songs and the strongly defined artwork leave little room for spontaneity. Instead, the game offers a wondrous form of escapism. While playing, I experience my own history with the music while simultaneously assuming the mythic roles associated with the surrounding legends. For a fleeting moment, it is "my" guitar that gently weeps.


  1. You raise a great point in your article. I have a lot of musically experienced friends and family of differing levels of skill, and they all find something within Beatles: RB that they do not experience in other music games such as Guitar Hero, or rhythm titles like Elite Beat Agents or Rhythm Heaven (for obvious reasons concerning the latter). Often musicians complain that 'these plastic guitar games' are devoid of any of the real musical experience found in live practice or performance. However, TB:RB does indeed serve as an accurate form of escapism, evoking an emotional level which musicians would normally feel themselves. It is because of this that I keep coming back to this game.

  2. So, is the escapism enhanced by the stricter game mechanics? Also, how much of the escape is nostalgia? In other words, can those be principles extended to other games, or do they just work on the back of the Beatles IP?

    Don't get me wrong, I like it, too; it's the only Rock Band game I'll play. I've never been a huge fan of the Beatles, though (I was born in '76), they are merely OK in my musical book. As such, I have fun with the game, especially with Ringo's songs (I'm only competent with the drums), but it's not as much of an escape for me as for others. I get more out of a Kingdom Hearts game, for example, because it resonates better with me.

  3. Hi Justin

    Thanks for stopping by. Have you ever played the game with any of the musically inclined folks you spoke of? I'm not much of a musician, but I've heard people who actually know music say complementary things about Beatles:RB in particular.

    I guess if you want to get really meta, you could still call Rock Band a "live performance," as there are actual public skills on display. Of course, in my case, I use the term "skills" quite loosely. ;-)

    Hi Tesh,

    You're right, it does seem weird to make that argument. Basically, I would argue that the game is so strict that you are given two basic choices: escapism or disengagement. The game is forcibly escapist, and if the player both desires and accepts the fact that this is basically a Beatles role playing game, they will have a good time. However, I can see this being very frustrating, because if you try to stray from the path, you run into obstacles almost immediately. Essentially, the game's tendency towards escapism is powerful, but tenuous.

    I'm glad you brought up the nostalgia angle, as I'm going to write something in that vein later this week. In short: this game is especially great for people who love the the mythic Beatles. There is a big difference between what we see, what we choose to remember, and what actually happened.

  4. I once played Beatles: RB with a professional jazz musician and a few other of my amateur musician friends. The person in question has had experience with Guitar Hero, and enjoys it purely for its demand in skill and dexterity. He once said that "Well, Expert's easy. It's just like playing piano." Intially he was skeptical of slaughtering his beloved Beatles songs with a form of Guitar Hero gameplay, for he both loves the Beatles and hates video games. Regardless, he played the Beatles on the hardest difficulty for all songs and also sung without any hesitation or lack of enthusiasm.

    Whilst he approached GH as a skill-tester of sorts, he most definitely saw Beatles: RB as a musical performance in itself. And as you've probably noticed, Beatles: RB encourages far more performer participation rather than the concentrated fervour that GH often requires, perhaps just a result of the nostalgia Beatles invokes.

  5. "The Beatles: Rock Band allows us to escape our reality and take part in the re-telling of these legends."

    I liked this part of the article the most as it touches on the possibility of games growing as a means by which our culture retells it's own legends and how we construct different parts of our global history. We have seen other accounts in videogames such as the interpretations of warfare seen in both fps and strategy genres but I think that Beatles Rock Band provides the first deliberate attempt to do so. Here the ludic elements serve the mythology of the Beatles as much as the genre of game that Beatles: Rock Band fits into.

  6. @Justin

    That's good to hear that he saw it as a performance. Too often, I've heard the "just play a real instrument" argument thrown around when it always seemed like the point was to create a more karaoke-themed experience.


    Thanks for stopping by!

    I also think that the Beatles: Rock Band has more inter-generational appeal than something like Call of Duty, which I think helps more people take part in reshaping the myth.

    It also has taught me that I probably shouldn't make any more "Ringo sux" jokes in light of my drumming ineptitude. ;-)