February 6, 2009

Seen Your Video

[The following piece, except for the endnote, originally appeared on GameSetWatch yesterday. First, however, a brief conversation with Mitch Krpata of Insult Swordfighting, the Boston Phoenix and Paste magazine.

Duncan Fyfe: What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of writing about games for a mainstream publication like the Boston Phoenix over the gaming enthusiast press?

Mitch Krpata: "Mainstream" may not be the right word, since the Phoenix is part of the proud tradition of alternative newsweeklies, whose mission in life has historically been to stick a thumb in the eye of the corporate media. But I get your point. It's a much different outlet than the traditional games press, with benefits and drawbacks all its own.

They're two sides of the same coin. A paper like the Phoenix doesn't rely on game publishers for advertising, or even for a significant portion of its coverage, so we have complete editorial independence. There's no conflict, real or perceived, between sales and editorial. I can be as honest and as unsparing as I'd like, and I'm free to explore the review space a little bit more than I imagine the [enthusiast press] can.

On the other hand, that also means that we sometimes have trouble getting any access at all. We hardly ever cover games in as timely a fashion we'd like, often running a review weeks or even as much as a month after a game's release -- which is a lifetime in this industry. Some publishers still don't even seem to realize we exist. (The New York Times probably doesn't have this problem.) That's the downside, but it's a trade-off I'll gladly make. In the long run, I think readers are better served by what we're doing than by outlets that trade high scores for exclusives.]

I Will Dare

The last time I played Rock Band, I was in someone's living room and the game was running on a PlayStation 3 hooked up to a HDTV and 5.1 surround sound system. Playing bass along with Blitzkreig Bop, a basic enough track that my mind has time to wander, I start thinking about the Ramones at the time they made this recording.

The original line-up were alarmingly dressed in leather uniforms and hammering out no more than three chords in New York dive bars with horrible acoustics. Their act was an aggressive endorsement of simplicity in an age of overcomplicated prog rock, delivered to a bemused audience. After the set Dee Dee, the real bassist, would get stabbed in the ass by a prostitute.

Here I am, 30 years later, button-mashing in time to the flashing lights with a look of grim determination. The biggest concern I have in the world is whether my cellphone is fully charged. My problem with Rock Band is that I overthink it. This is as close as I get in my life to rocking out, and that's a depressing notion.

Not that it should matter, since Rock Band isn't a rock band. It's a video game, and one I like. The mechanics are enjoyable in the same way that Tetris is enjoyable, aside from whatever fictional veneer is pasted over them.

I haven't committed to the game fully, however: I get into it exclusively as a casual party game and social experience. I don't own a copy, mostly because if I dragged a drum kit into my small apartment it would have to double as at least one additional piece of furniture. Keeping up with the franchise's additional instruments, accessories and iterations seems totally irrelevant to my appreciation of the game.

I like rock more than Rock Band and as much as I do video games. I tend to gravitate towards a lot of relatively unsuccessful indie or punk bands who spent a lot of their careers slightly above the poverty line, sleeping on urine-soaked floors during tours, or pulling multiple day jobs so they could afford to be in a band that they loved.

Either that, or they suffered from all kinds of internal conflicts, creative frustrations, ill-fated vacations on major labels and alcohol or drug problems, because they wanted to make music, which a majority of the population found to be inaccessible. Their music is why I like them in the first place, of course, but those circumstances, which I find so instantly endearing and relatable, are why I continue to think about them.

These same bands, despite their devotion, weren't technically expert, didn't have classically trained voices and gave shambolic, noisy performances. It's a bit ridiculous that the music I like colours my feelings about a video game that I otherwise should, but there's something a little too inauthentic about the role the Rock Band player is supposed to assume.

Rock, to me, is about chaos and Rock Band is tightly controlled, with defined victory and failure states. I still enjoy the act of play, and perfectly understand those who can embrace it without reservation, but for a fantasy fulfillment game, Rock Band captures none of the idealism I have about rock music.

When the Replacements, a bunch of mean and heartfelt drunks, were propelled to a major label and an appearance on Saturday Night Live, they got trashed, destroyed their dressing room, threw their performance and said "fuck" on the air.[1] When forced to make a music video for one of their songs, they filmed a three minute-long close-up of a stereo speaker.

That contrarian attitude was a big reason why people liked the Replacements at all, even as it detonated the band's chances at commercial success. A Replacements track appearing on Rock Band 2 without irony is like they performed at the Academy Awards with complete solemnity and reverence for Hollywood. It's almost subversive, but the Rock Band fan is on the wrong side of the subversion.

Rock Band songs are adorned in shiny colours, lip-synched to by animated hipsters and contained in the trappings of a franchise that so quickly became synonymous with completely crass commercialisation and exploitation. It's a series that in seeming earnest produces official Rock Band smoke machines, disco balls and eventually, probably, Rock Band-branded red cellophane that you tape over your ceiling lights, and a footstool that gives the illusion of being on a stage.

It's not exactly in the DIY spirit. That kind of glitz is antithetical to actual rock bands that gave everything they had with utmost conviction and then fell apart. It's the fantasy of four-star hotels and one thousand brown M&Ms; rock that's overindulgent but safe in its excess.

I feel self-conscious pretending to emulate that raucousness in front of a TV screen and by jamming on plastic instruments, and concerned about looking stupid. It's a little pathetic, I'll admit, compared to the stage fright these actual bands felt getting up in front of anonymous and unreceptive crowds, possibly including Black Flag fans who would try and burn all the band members with lit cigarettes.

Bands like the Replacements and Guided by Voices would get over that fear by drinking a lot, and over the years that would become an intractable part of their image. First, they drank to ease performance anxiety, then drank simply because they were performing, and then drank to get drunk.

I play Rock Band as a party game in a social setting, which means I'm usually drinking too. Generally, I don't have to be drunk to play video games. I'm not slamming vodka to get psychologically geared up for Age of Empires, but then I don't have any hang-ups about Age of Empires.

Getting past the hesitation of sobriety, I realise that a Rock Band performance is going to look embarrassing and artificial to a certain kind of person -- including myself most of the time -- but I don't care. I'll do it anyway. In that state of mind, I decide that rock is not caring about what rock is.

This is how I came to insist, after a night of weak Police songs, on ditching the bass so I can sing on the New Pornographers' Electric Version. I can't sing, and in any event I'm thoroughly outclassed by the high pitched vocals, but I launch into it regardless with arrogant and obnoxious self-confidence, not thinking even a little about things like indie rock or ludonarrative dissonance.

Two minutes in, I'm slurring the words. The chorus is this line, repeated: "streaming out of the magnets" and so I yell an absurd lyric in an absurd setting with dead sincerity. Then the amp blows out and the song abruptly collapses into an awkward vacuum. That was the best time I had playing games all year.

I'm drinking, I'm saddled with unresolved contradictions, I look like an idiot and I don't care. Is this rock? It's close enough.

[1] This is not immediately verifiable, at least not on the internet. The Replacements did both Bastards of Young and Kiss Me on the Bus that night, and only the former is viewable online. That's actually a great performance, and apparently it was the second song that they came out totally trashed and were dropping their guitars. I think the curse may have been in Bastards of Young though -- there's an abrupt edit at about 1:47 into that video. If you know more, please tell me!


Anonymous said...

During Bastards, Paul turned to Bob Stinson right before Bob's solo and called him "fucker". He didn't say it into the mic, but the camera caught it.

Duncan said...

Okay, yeah, that makes sense. Thanks for filling me in, I appreciate it.