Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why Guitar Hero Sucks

Somehow amidst all the hoopla of guitar-shaped controllers and the bastard stepchildren of electronic drum kits, I have managed to keep from playing Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and/or any similar game. Admittedly, at first it was because I was being a total snob/asshole and didn’t want to be associated with the unwashed masses who could now, as CNN.com phrased it, “play as if they have talent.” But as time has gone on I have come to completely loathe the games, and for reasons much subtler and sinister than any hipster trend: they actually attempt to demystify the art and beauty of music. By reducing songs to their intrinsic physical values – notes of a certain pitch played at certain intervals in the company of, and in relation to, other instruments and/or singers – the games remove the mystery of music, for musicians and listeners alike. Additionally, they promote the theory that music is only “good” if it is played “correctly” – bringing back nightmares of overbearing music teachers to many ex-students. Screw it up and you get the grating guitar-flub sound; too many, and you lose the round. (I don’t even want to get into the fact that it completely ignores the realms of dynamic and intensity – a tap on the button is the same as mashing it.)
One way or another, the games advocate the idea that when someone writes a song they are merely lining up colored buttons on a timeline, and that songs can just as equally be reduced to their components. I'm sure some will favorably compare the timeline found in Guitar Hero to sheet music, but the games, by their nature, remove the human element. Sheet music provides (often very strict) guidelines, but they are still only guidelines - each performance of the same music can vary in tempo, dynamic, and even pitch, affected by a player's skill, memory, and even mood at the time of performance. Not so in Guitar Hero - you learn, not to play music, but to play a monkey while the console grinds its organ.
Any artist will tell you that art is the truest application of the idea of “synergy”: though ultimately a song is just a series of notes played in succession to a particular rhythm, and a painting is just a collection of paint strokes with different colors and styles of paints, and literature is just a collection of ink marks on pages, they are made more than that by the artistic processes which place them in the contexts they eventually exist within. They cannot be reduced again to their original elements – but they can be destroyed, if you so wish.
(I realize I may be over analyzing what is, after all, a game, but as more makers and users of the games promote their “instructional” benefits, I begin to balk at the comparisons to real instruments and practice.)

16 comments:

josh said...

Well said. I still enjoy the games as games, but I think your point is well made and something I want to keep in mind.

Rick said...

I know this isn't my idea, and if I remembered where I heard it it, I'd reference it, but here it is: The saddest thing about Guitar Hero is that masses of kids are playing it instead of actually picking up a guitar. They're being "monkeys," as you put it, instead of getting some of their buddies together and forming a real band. I reminds me of the book "Where have all the leaders gone?" except it's "Where have all the rock stars gone?"

We now live in a virtual culture. People can be virtual rock stars, have virtual pets, be virtual friends, and even have virtual lives (Second Life.) It'll be interesting to see how this all pans off we of the virtual culture start to take control of this country.

Wow, do I sound fuddy duddy or what?!? And I'm only 25!!!

Lewis said...

I am reminded of what Matt Nathanson said while covering "Romeo and Juliet" on his live album: "If I f*ck it up, no problem, that is art." The same can't be said for if you mess up a song on Guitar Hero.

Also, I am pleased to say I have never played GH or RB.

jpirizarry said...

I think most of the GH and RB haters give to much credit to the game. Is only a arcade game and most people that I know are well aware of that. Nobody said that this games are a substitute for the real thing. Apart from that is not right to asume that the people who play Rock Band are kids, I play it with my friends that are mostly in their 30s.

Im a Rock Band fan and trust me I don't have any pretisions about it. I fully recognize that is only a game and I completly understand the subtleties of real music and artists. I can tell the difference between Pablo Casals emotionally performing the Bach cello suites, and a hack just playing the notes.

I do agree with the idea that is way better to buy your kids a real guitar as an introduction to music than just buying the game. But for us the grown ups, playing Rock Band with a bunch of friends on a sunday afternoon while drinking beer and eating BBQ chiken can be a blast.

jpirizarry said...

I think most of the GH and RB haters give to much credit to the game. Is only a arcade game and most people that I know are well aware of that. Nobody said that this games are a substitute for the real thing. Apart from that is not right to asume that the people who play Rock Band are kids, I play it with my friends that are mostly in their 30s.

Im a Rock Band fan and trust me I don't have any pretisions about it. I fully recognize that is only a game and I completly understand the subtleties of real music and artists. I can tell the difference between Pablo Casals emotionally performing the Bach cello suites, and a hack just playing the notes.

I do agree with the idea that is way better to buy your kids a real guitar as an introduction to music than just buying the game. But for us the grown ups, playing Rock Band with a bunch of friends on a sunday afternoon while drinking beer and eating BBQ chiken can be a blast.

lalalalallalala said...

You make a valid point in that the game makes you a "monkey" but from a game standpoint it's a decent game. As long as this doesn't get a whole bunch of people thinking "dude drums are so easy! all I do it hit anything and it makes this awesome beat" (beginner level of GHWT) I think the game is perfectly fine

xxJoesusxx said...

It's just a video game, are you going to start saying people who like Halo should join the real military ?

Quit being an elitist snob, you complain that GH/RB players act like they have skill, I play drums, guitar, bass, mandolin, and piano, and I still have enough common sense to know that GH/RB is a difficult game on expert. It's not musical talent, but it is a hell of a lot of coordination skill.

You are being a snob, and that's the bottom line, you're acting like them enjoying a GAME is a bad thing, maybe you need to lighten up a bit, in my experience in the several bands I've been in, people like you are what makes Guitar players dicks. People like you, elitist assholes, are why I hate most snobby guitarists.

xxJoesusxx said...

Also, another comment, play rock band drums on expert, minus songs with double bass, those notes are perfectly timed with the actual song. Granted there are only four pads, but everytime that drumstick hits a cymbal, snare, or tom in the real song, there is a button representing it.

People playing on expert drums on rock band could easily learn to play real drums, it takes far more coordination and rhythm than you make it out too. I've had friends who wanted to learn to play drums, but just weren't understanding the timing and things I was teaching them, I gave them rock band for a couple months and when they got to expert, they could jam along to a song on my stereo with my drumkit.

The game was made by musicians, for musicians, and for non-musicians. It's meant to be enjoyed as a game, it's just an alternate way of experiencing music without having to be a snob like yourself, something that turns alot of people away from learning an instrument.

eric said...

Well, this is kinda funny; this post has produced the most comments from people I do not know (which is cool and all, but I began this blog to share with friends, never thinking it would be even remotely interesting to anybody else).

After the latest comment, from xxJoesusxx, I decided to reread this and see if I maybe went overboard. But I think, other than maybe the closing paragraph (which seems to barely reference a completely different aspect of the games), I stand by it all. The idea that it promotes the "theory that music is only 'good' if it is played 'correctly'" still concerns me. xxJoesusxx brought up a good point which I should have included, though - it's probably a completely different experience for a musician to play GH/RB as opposed to a non-musician.

Also, it is true that the drums come closest to recreating the playing of the actual instrument, and I'm positive that they could be used as an instructional tool, as Joe described. This has been apparent since they became a part of the games, but it wasn't really relevant to the point I was trying to make. It is unfortunate that I came across as such a snob (although I did admit to as much at the top), and that I in particular make guitar players come across as "dicks." Let's be honest, though: the CNN.com tagline was too good to not jump on.

As I said, I began this blog with the intent that my friends would be reading it, who can all filter what they read here through what they know about me, and they know I like to rant about things but rarely hold ill will. I'm glad Joe, and lala, and jpirizarry [are you the guy from Dear Ephesus/Tenderfoot? That would be AWESOME], and Josh, etc., enjoy the game, more power to you.

And to all the newcomers, hope you stick around! Maybe we can all learn more about each other and you might not think I'm THAT much of a snob/asshole. Or maybe you will.

xxJoesusxx said...

Well, I appreciate the reply, and you come off a lot more level-headed then your original post had led me to believe.

I do still stand by part of my comment as well, that in my experience as a real musician, talented musicians tend to be very arrogant, and treat outsiders, even those who just listen to music with no intention of playing it, as below them on some sort of heirarchy.

It's a bit sad, and when something like RB or GH comes along that those who love to listen and love to play music can enjoy together, well, it strikes me as no surprise that the people who hate it so relentlessly tend to be more avid real life musicians.

I think more people are inspired to play the real thing by these games then to use them as a substitute. As for me ? This is just my way of jamming with people who aren't musicians, like my girlfriend.

eric said...

Right back at ya, Joe. I will say that musician snobbery, in my experience, often ties into expectations and standards that the musician places on themselves. Artists of any kind tend to have very high expectations of themselves, very high standards that they are attempting to live up to, very lofty goals they are trying to reach. It is easy and common to place those goals on other people that are attempting similar tasks, whether consciously or otherwise. I suppose my stated issue with games like GH and RB is similar to how more talented athletes often dismiss sports games (especially if they're bad at them). Artists can be just as competitive as athletes, but in the artistic realm we have the lack of objectivity obfuscating everything. There's no way to truly score various arts and declare a victor, which I think drives many artists to work even harder to distance themselves from the pack, as it were. Something that seems to trivialize the work they do - something like a video game incarnation - can be attacked pretty harshly, justified or not. Ironically, GH/RB could probably be considered at least pop art at this point; the plastic guitars with the colored buttons are as universally recognized as iPods at this point, blurring the lines between art, music and entertainment even further... hmm...

Jimmy Brownie said...

My biggest problem with Guitar Hero is that it sucks, EVEN AS A GAME. The gameplay is boring and repetitive, the cheap controllers make annoying noises, the graphics are an eyesore, and the concept gets more stale with every new edition. It sucks just as bad as DDR or any other "hit the button when patterns align" game, but at least DDR gives you some sort of workout.

Angelus said...

SOUND like a snob?

My friend that is grade A snobbery in a nutshell.

Come on relax, it's just a game. LOok at how long after the orginal post I made this and people are still making music.

Andrew said...

old music sucks

Acea said...

I am a guitarist with over 10 years of experience and I think this game does suck. let me clarify..."I" think it sucks and I am well within my right to think so. I will not judge people that play this game and not the real thing... Even though they judge me for being terrible at the game even though I am a good guitarist. People that are good at this game will be a snob to people that suck at it just a quick as A guitarist will be to someone who sucks at guitar...that's life... so calling musicians snobby is ridiculous. Gamers are more elitist than musicians. fact.
The main thing I disagree with is the song choices... Quit telling me what to like, guitar hero...

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