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.