June 30, 2009

Move Over Once

It should be to nobody's surprise that the Beatles are still extremely capable of making people very excited. At least, the concept of the Beatles. For instance, personally speaking, the cinematic trailer for The Beatles: Rock Band revealed at E3 last month was immediately more interesting and exciting than pretty much any other game displayed at the show.

The animated trailer, less than three minutes long, doesn't say anything new, but is so completely charming and evocative of the entire legacy of the Beatles. The source material that it draws upon is incredibly strong.

It immediately puts into perspective the Beatles' extraordinary cultural relevance and creative power, and Rock Band, wielding these, shames every other action game with a convoluted plot about Russian warlords. It's not really fair. It's almost like cheating outright. A video game about the music of the Beatles versus a sequel where you still mostly shoot people, but this time it has a "very dark story." How can the Beatles still not automatically trump everything else, unless you are a huge fan of cover systems or anime backflips?

The Beatles: Rock Band, because of, presumably, a multi-million dollar deal, is able to draw on a massive and important cultural cachet. Unlike every other game at E3 which seemed to reiterate upon the comparatively narrow history and inventions of video games.

This is all exciting, then, but also, for a couple of reasons, sad.

First of all, none of the above enthusiasm for The Beatles: Rock Band really has anything to do with the game in question. It's entirely in the presentation, and compared to the new Modern Warfare, Uncharted, Splinter Cell, whatever, The Beatles: Rock Band is going to be the less mechanically interesting of them all. The fictional layer is fascinating, but it's the same game that you have been playing for four years and buying five times a year.

The inverse credit arrangement -- first, 'The Beatles'; second, 'Rock Band' -- is probably a contractual stipulation, and historical precedent for loser acts like Green Day to argue for top billing when they get their own Guitar Hero game in 2015. (Steve McQueen dropped out of starring in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because he couldn't get credited first on the poster. Welcome to the future of video games.) But the positions are also accurate: the notion of a Rock Band game isn't as attractive as it used to be, and the Beatles are going to carry this game's weight.

And it's sad because all of this music is at least forty years old, and so to a certain extent the excitement is based on nostalgia. Which means either that the video game industry has yet to come up with anything on the same level as the Beatles -- probably true -- or that nothing in your own life is currently as exciting to you as the music that your parents listened to.

The E3 situation reminds me of the Beatles' last live appearance in 1969, the spontaneous rooftop concert in London, because the Beatles were so obviously cooler than anything else that was going on that day. They brought everything to a halt.

Except there was that one guy, the very proper British gentleman who says that, "this type of music is alright in its place, and it's quite enjoyable." That part is a completely transparent lie. "But I think it's a bit of an imposition to actually disrupt all of the business in this area." Then he either calls the police or is glad when they break up the party. And, you know, is the last live appearance of the Beatles worth less historically than whatever typing he had to do that day?

I can appreciate his point: deadlines don't go away just because someone is playing rock music pretty loud. The man's problem is stodginess rather than outright anhedonia, but if you can't get excited about the Beatles playing on a roof after not appearing live in years, what can you get excited about?

Imagine how much the sophisticated young sixties radicals on the street hated that guy. Also imagine him transplanted 40 years into the future onto the E3 show floor and besieged by game journalists who sneer at his conservatism and tell him go play M.U.L.E.

The Beatles' music is now the same age as that guy, but instead of being relegated to the past, it's part of the future. Rock Band is the future of how we experience music, haven't you heard? Or maybe it's not, and that's a hyperbolic dot-com era kind of claim unsubstantiated by the fact that not very much has really happened since Rock Band and Guitar Hero were invented.

If Rock Band is the future of music, what would that mean for the future? That kids' first exposure to rock music will be in the form of a Rock Band challenge, rather than on the Ed Sullivan show or in English dance halls or whatever? They're never going to experience an album as a complete entity, they're not going to be buying anything in a store, and they're not going to be able have songs stuck in their head without 3D guitar charts also scrolling down across their minds.

The cool mod kids who loved the Beatles in 1969 have become the old man who thinks that "this type of music is quite enjoyable in its place", and don't understand what a video game is, and resent how their grandchildren think of music. But regardless of whether Rock Band exists or not, teenagers still aren't going to be buying vinyl en masse -- or whatever a 40 year old's romantic conception of how music should be experienced it is. Everything will change anyway.

It might be too bad if kids who are capable of producing great music but no more than three chords get dissatisfied with actual guitar playing and give up. If Rock Band and Guitar Hero ever get to be satisfaction enough for would-be musicians, and they never produce any recorded material, that isn't a turn for the better. Of course, there's no evidence of that yet, and I guess we've got to wait at least another generation.

Things change. The primary relevance of the Beatles changed all the time. They've gone from being a teenage girl's wet dream to acid-tripping weirdos to a litigation factory and now to video game business leaders.

There are generational shifts in progress all the time, and only when we notice them does it make us uncomfortable. There were people for whom early, early, I Want To Hold Your Hand-era Beatles was something dangerous, and they wouldn't have wanted to surrender their experiential or moral ground, even though, in retrospect, it seems like the easiest thing in the world to let happen.

A generational shift makes your experiences obsolete and little more than a novelty to your children. I can't tell whether Rock Band is an important change or a change at all. But do you just go with it because you as a person in the 21st century would have told that British gentleman in 1969 the same thing? Because you would have told him not to call the police, and just live with it even if he isn't excited about it, since it's so obviously the right thing to do?

Who knows. That's what makes it so exciting, though, right? Or does it?


Alex Denham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex Denham said...

(Sorry - Deleted previous due to typos!)

I've never really subscribed to the idea that Guitar Hero / Rockband is discouraging kids from playing a real instrument. While the games are immediately accessible I think they show their limitation as 'instruments' pretty early on (apart from the drums which I think are actually a fantastic learning tool - one that should probably be embraced by music teachers rather than shunned).

At the end of the day - Most people who pick up an instrument get put off and give up in the first few months, it doesn't matter what comparable experience they have. However, there will always be the ones who understand the reward and payoff from continued practice, and persevere. If these games are getting more people to even pick up and try, then nfor my money it's increasing the number who will potentially stick at it and become the next
groundbreaking act.

But only time will tell I guess?

Unknown said...

When you listen to music, it's a very holistic experience; I can hear and enjoy the music without engaging with it on a low or technical level.

However, playing Rock Band, I gain a much deeper understanding of the mechanics behind the song: the rhythms here, the vocal acrobatics there. I feel viscerally the changes in intensity. Rock Band encourages a closer engagement with the music, and thanks to the repetition required to get good at a song, a player is more likely to remember the details of a piece than if they just listened to it on CD.

qrter said...

I have to say, I love The Beatles but I couldn't care less about "The Beatles: Rock Band", it just seems to be the next obvious route for the game to take.

It also seems completely in line with all the horrible merchandising the band has been doing the last couple of decades, like that excruciating film Across the Universe..

Oh god I am that man who says this type of music is alright in its place.

Sophia said...

I have mixed feeling, based on the fact that there are really three generations here -- my parents, mine (I'm 27), and the kids who are 15 or 20 years younger than me who are growing up on these games. The Beatles were my first musical obsession, at age 13 (thanks, Beatles Anthology!), and while I generally listen to music on iTunes in shuffle, I can only listen to the Beatles as individual albums, because they put so much work into making each one a unique whole. I thought Guitar Hero looked stupid, until I borrowed a friend's game and controllers and got totally hooked, and now I love it when a song from one of the games comes on the radio because I really do have a better sense of how it's put together musically.

So as far as I'm concerned, a Beatles Rock Band is the best thing to ever happen, but I can see why people wouldn't want that generation behind me getting introduced to music only as a series of videogame challenges, both from the listener and the musician sides. Pushing buttons isn't the same thing as playing the guitar, and will traveling through the various epochs of the Beatles mean anything to kids who don't have a sense of the vast cultural and musical difference between Help! and Magical Mystery Tour?

Basically, I think this points up once again that modern videogames really are best aimed at people who did grow up playing them in the '80s and '90s, so they have context and skills, but who didn't step right into a world of 3D shooters and Xbox Live and GTA. I have much younger brothers who are 12 and 13, and I do wonder how different things are for them.

Duncan said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone, I appreciate it as always.

To be honest, I don't really have a firm "position" on Guitar Hero/Rock Band, which is why, upon reflection, the above blog post seems to vacillate so much. All your points are well-taken and and I'll try and respond in detail once I think a bit more about it.

Sorry! But qrter I did like that you called Across the Universe excruciating. I only saw the trailer and it looked horrifying.

qrter said...

Ha, yes, Across the Universe..

You know when a song you really, really love on a personal level gets used in, say, a slick car commercial, or something involving footwear? How annoying and sort of misplaced that can feel?

Now imagine feeling that for two (2) hours straight, the horribleness building on itself, becoming completely overwhelming..

Filipe Salgado said...

qrter beat me to it, but Across the Universe made me feel exactly the same way. The story and structure of the film are paper-thin, it just piggy-backed on the emotions the music elicited. The worst offense was the climax which used "Hey, Jude." The song so naturally builds up and climaxes, that for a second I was fooled into thinking the movie did the same.