Friday, February 5, 2010


Last week, I called The Beatles: Rock Band an exercise in the "retelling of cultural myths." In the comments, Tesh was right to point out that:
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.
This is a great point, and one that "the dusty science" (as I like to call history) would do well to remember. Even so, while I applaud the game's beautiful version of the legend, I remain ambivalent about its portrayal of the band. Specifically, I am unsure about the game's ability to appeal to people unfamiliar with The Beatles. For devotees, it is the perfect opportunity experience the band in an unprecedented way. But for folks who who come to the experience uninitiated, the game offers little in the way of explaining and contextualizing The Beatles' appeal and success.

The Beatles: Rock Band is one of the few mainstream games about actual historical figures, but it only conveys their history in vague, sparse ways. With a few modifications (some simple, others drastic, and all admittedly "blue sky") The Beatles: Rock Band could teach history in a way far more captivating than the dreaded professorial lecture.

Ironically, The Beatles: Rock Band is prevented from imparting world and music history by its heritage in gaming history. Like so many other titles, The Beatles: Rock Band clings to the old convention of "unlockable" content. As I have argued before, unlockables are a largely vestigial trait in most modern games. In The Beatles: Rock Band, this old practice crosses the line from useless to damaging: There is actually a fair amount of rare and informative Beatles material contained in the game, but it is all hidden behind gameplay challenges and locked menus, some of which actually say "Secret."

Hiding this material does a disservice to everyone, be they new, casual, or devoted fans. Not having the time or the skill to achieve five-star ratings in each song should not prevent someone learning about the band. Furthermore, placing obstacles in front of people who know little about the The Beatles and the history surrounding them does little to pique their interest. Those interested in finger-blistering challenge could be accommodated through achievements and trophies. To truly cultivate the game's identity as a shrine to the band, it needs to appeal to both the faithful and new converts. As organized and presented, the songs cannot convey The Beatles' story on their own, and it would be more fruitful to weave the historical material in throughout the game.

While a "story mode" already exists, I envision a far more audacious one that better suits such a title. Integrating videos and photos in-between songs would be start, but there is the potential for a much more comprehensive educational and entertainment experience. Imagine interstitial scenes between songs that take a form similar to that of the map scenes in the Indiana Jones movies: The Beatles would be represented by Union Jack-colored line superimposed onto a broader historical time line. As the line travels through time, it contextualizes The Beatles within the culture in which they created their music: the line passes through Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream," darts between a photo of shrill teenybopper and a Vietnam soldier, and wades through the Leftist upheavals of 1968.

At the same time, we can see parallel and tangential lines that sometimes intersect or braid themselves around The Beatles. These are the lines of other musicians and can be followed to examine their relationship to The Beatles. Without any grounding in musical or socio-political history, "Back in the U.S.S.R." is little more than a jaunty tune. However, a true "story" mode could broaden the player's understanding.

Imagine that the player diverges from The Beatles to briefly visit Chuck Berry:

After that, the player jumps to another musical line running alongside the main Beatles line, and spends some time with the Beach Boys:

The player flies past stock footage of Soviet Soldiers, arriving at "Back in the U.S.S.R" with a more holistic understanding of the song, both musically and culturally:

The song, one of my personal favorites, is a delicious mix of musical intertextuality and wry cultural humor. As a thought exercise, I tried to think up a modern adaptation of the song: Perhaps one in which Beyonce channels Tina Turner and samples a Garth Brooks song to sing a ballad to her Iranian boyfriend? Or maybe one in which U2 does a gangster-rap inspired tribute to Venezuela? While such meditations are absurd, they are also predicated on an understanding of the song's contemporaneous subtexts. Without historical grounding, it's only rock 'n roll.

Few bands have spawned the kind of mythos that surrounds The Beatles, and the the game is dedicated to recreating and offering up the legend for our enjoyment. It is focused so tightly on that legend that I fear it trades primarily on a sense of nostalgia that many players lack. Without an understanding of The Beatles and the world in which they created music, the game begins to resemble more traditional rhythm games, like Rock Band 2 or Guitar Hero, in which the player jumps from song to song, unaware of the circumstances in which the songs were birthed.

The Beatles: Rock Band hints at the promise of a new way to present history, one that combines the best aspects of literature, documentaries, and video games. In an scholarly sense, I look forward to using games in an academic milieu outside of a purely "games studies" context. We have reached the point where we can start viewing games not only as objects to analyze, but as tools to examine the culture in which they exist.

Most importantly, I know that an interactive, musical journey through history would be far more engaging than any Power Point-lecture I could cobble together.


  1. I don't know whether you've read it already or not, but David Carlton wrote a while back about The Beatles: Rock Band and how it might be read as a "non-fiction" videogame.

  2. Oops, probably better to actually provide a link for that while I'm at it.

  3. Perhaps it could be called a JRPG. (John, Ringo, Paul, George)

    ...yes, I don't have much better to say except that I agree with your assessment. ;) I'd especially appreciate the background and historic data as options, not unlockables. Maybe that's just because I'm still no good with anything but the drums. *shrug*

  4. @Tesh

    We need a hall of fame for comments, because that was legendary. Now I'll never look at "JRPG" the same way again!