Friday, January 29, 2010

I'm Looking Through You

In addition to a game, The Beatles: Rock Band aspires to be a shrine to the fab four and a role-playing exercise for people wishing to participate in the retelling of cultural myths. The game's story is a stylized presentation of the band's career. From the Cavern Club in 1963 to the psychedelic strawberry fields of the late 60s to the final rooftop concert at 3 Savile Row in 1969, the game enables to player to participate in the retelling of a cultural legend.

But what kind of legend is this? As I play the game, I grow continually more interested in the narrative and its relationship to historical events. More than once, I found myself thinking of one of my favorite films, which also deals with the line between truth and myth: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a Western that explores the utility of cultural myths and the morality of a noble lie. Ransom Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, is an idealistic Eastern tenderfoot who comes to a town terrorized by a bandit named Liberty Valance. Tom Doniphon , played by John Wayne, is the only one who can stand up to Valance and repeatedly tries to prove to Stoddard that justice is better upheld by guns than by laws.

Stoddard eventually gives in to this logic and confronts Valance. Miraculously, he out-shoots Valance, becoming an instant hero.

Stoddard's feat propels him into a career as a politician and he uses this support to transform his life and improve the lives of others through public policy. He transforms the bleak Western wilderness into a garden.

However, this reputation was built on a lie:

The Beatles: Rock Band possesses a similar ethos to that of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. While the game is less about lies than it is about omitting certain facts, the final product is devoted to the legend of The Beatles, rather than The Beatles themselves.

The Rock Band version of The Beatles exist in a strange universe that is divorced from both historical and personal context. The four Beatles journey across a temporal dream-scape, creating music as they go, existing as a unit of pure imaginative energy. There are no digital versions of people like Yoko Ono, Brian Epstein, and Phil Spector. Their contributions, both positive and negative, are edited out of the game and the legend it helps us create.

The band's personal and musical transformation reflects the turbulence of the 1960s, but The Rock Band Beatles exist outside of history and its events. Playing the game is to venture into a world without Vietnam, a world in which "Helter Skelter" is scrubbed of its murderous associations, and where psychedelic art and creative experimentation are never aided by drugs. We can find "Day Tripper," in the game, but we cannot find the faintest whiff of pot or the tiniest tab of acid. Perhaps real-world Paul is bogarting it all?

In many ways, The Beatles: Rock Band evokes the squeaky-clean "kid-friendly" incarnation of the band that shows up in so many kids' albums. The digital Beatles we play are always a happy, smiling family, unencumbered by legal and creative differences. As the digital Beatles play "Come Together" we can recreate a scene of band unity that never happened: by the time the real Beatles sang "Come Together," they were already miles apart.

The game's story offers no hints at either the bloodshed or the bad blood that would plague the former band-mates after their breakup. Even after John Lennon's murder in 1980, the surviving members had not resolved their differences. In 1988, The Beatles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. Paul declined to make an appearance, stating:

"After 20 years, the Beatles still have some business differences which I had hoped would have been settled by now. Unfortunately, they haven’t been, so I would feel like a complete hypocrite waving and smiling with them at a fake reunion."

At the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stoddard tells the truth about the duel with Liberty to a newspaper editor, knowing full well that his confession undermines his all of his life's achievements. The editor recognizes this as well, and burns the notes that his young reporter was taking. Stoddard expresses his surprise, confusion, and amusement that they are not going to run with the story. The editor replies that "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

In making The Beatles: Rock Band, I imagine Harmonix felt a bit like that newspaper editor. Of course, the task of obtaining permission from the various owners and estates of The Beatles is Herculean by itself. It is understandable that both the surviving members, their families, and the record companies are invested in recreating the Beatles in the most flattering (and profitable) way possible. But on top of that, there is the legend's sanctity to consider: How does one go about tearing down myths that define a culture?

Harmonix, like the newspaper editor, simply chooses not to. The ending cinematic is a perfect metaphor for the game: it is a testament to the reverent isolationism we impose on legends:

The very world around them is transformed into a wonderful fantasy, disconnected from the flow of time, and beyond human blemishes. It is a world where their creativity overpowers the dreariness of our world, a world that exists to inspire us with its ideals, rather than its veracity. It is a world in which Ransom Stoddard shot Liberty Valance, a world whose artificially constructed existence helps improve our own.


  1. Myths have a long and storied history in human culture. If they were mere recitations of facts and dates, they would be as dry as that lame high school history class.

    There is a place for objective and absolute truth. Likewise, there is a place for myth and fiction. The trouble is confusing one for the other. *shrug*

  2. You're mixing things up. Badly.
    It's a Beatles game. A musical Beatles game. It's not a history class to teach us what they meant, what was happening in the world at their time, why were they successfull and how did they managed to be so important.

    It's a musical game where you play music and have fun. That's it!

    To expect anything else from this game and it's so called 'storyline' is useless!

    Watch The Beatles Anthology instead...