Archive for the 'Music Games' Category

Everyday Shooter

Everyday Shooter is a title I’d heard before, but didn’t know much about: I knew it was abstract, and it had received some attention around the same time as Portal, but that’s about all I could tell you. Somehow I had got the idea that it had a great many levels, each with its own rules. That’s half-right — there are only eight levels, each more elaborate than I had been led to believe. And yes, each level does work a different way. The controls stay consistently Robotron-like, but they vary in enemy mechanics, and in particular in how you create the chain reactions that clear the most enemies and potentially net the most points.

I also wasn’t expecting it to turn out to be a member of that severely underpopulated genre, the Music Shooter. Instead of zaps and explosions, your shots produce notes, or even entire riffs, played on an electric guitar. These sounds become part of the music playing though the level, always an unaccompanied guitar piece, as abstract as the shooter itself. The underlying songs are linked to the levels’ structure, and in a way that suggests that the song, rather than the level, is the dominant element. Each level lasts exactly as long as it takes to play the song, and changes in what’s going on in the game are governed by shifts in the music more than by anything the player can do. The game’s creator even refers to it on his website as an “album”. I’d almost say that it turns shooter mechanics into a kind of dance, but really, that’s something that’s always been inherent in the genre — particularly in scrolling shmups, which share Everyday Shooter‘s unstoppably flowing nature. All too often, however, those games interrupt the flow by stopping the music and the action when the player gets hit. Everyday Shooter understands what it’s doing too well to make that mistake.

It’s definitely what I’d call an art game, which is a little ironic, given its origin. According to the author’s notes, it was created to get away from the mistakes of a previous project that he describes as “a ridiculous concoction of self-indulgent, games-are-art-theory-innovation wankery” by getting back to basics. But of course the basics are art. Like those Grecian urns that Keats liked so much, it’s an art born of human requirements. Theory is all very well, but its importance can be overstated.

Guitar Hero: Final Thoughts

After practicing by replaying some of the earlier songs to get higher ratings and more unlocks, I finally beat “Bark at the Moon”. Guitar Hero is officially off the stack. I’ll probably play with it some more and see how far I can get on Hard difficulty, but I doubt I’ll ever finish it at that level.

About “Bark at the Moon” as a boss monster: Looking back at the last set of songs, it strikes me as unfortuante that the hardest of the hardest songs has a title that’s a verb phrase in the imperative rather than a noun. The same set has songs titled “Frankenstein” and “Godzilla”. Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to be able to say “Yeah! I finally beat Godzilla!”? Even “Cowboys from Hell”, also in the same set, is more fitting.

Like those songs, “Bark at the Moon” is about a monster. Is it deliberate that the final set is mainly monster songs? Is it coincidence? Or is it just that the kind of band that does really difficult guitar riffs tends to be the kind of band that writes songs about monsters?

On an unrelated note, in a recent editorial in Newsweek, Stephen Levy says that the Guitar Hero gameplay experience is “no different from other experiences made virtually accessible by the computer, from being a World War II sniper to playing golf like Tiger Woods.” The gaming-as-fantasy fallacy again! But then, judging by the anecdotal evidence Levy presents, perhaps it’s not a fallacy. Maybe I’m just atypical. Perhaps imitating the real experience really is the central thing for the people who play Call of Duty or Tiger Woods PGA Tour, games which don’t appeal to me particularly. And perhaps the people who become really obsessed with Guitar Hero, who aren’t satisfied with finishing it at Medium difficulty like me, are doing it to feel like they can play “Bark at the Moon” like Ozzy does. I’ve said that the rock star fantasy isn’t essential to enjoying the game, but maybe it’s essential to getting the most out of it.

Levy also asks:

“…by bestowing the rewards of virtuosity to those who haven’t spent years to earn it, is it dumbing down musicianship? If a teenager can easily become a make-believe guitar hero, does that mean he won’t ever bother to master the real thing?”

For once, a videogame is being blamed for inspiring teenagers to not imitate it in real life. Leaving aside the question of whether fewer teenage guitarists might not be a bad thing, my contact at Harmonix points out that the game could easily have the opposite effect. Even if the game reduces the proportion of guitarist wannabes who go through with learning to play for real, it may be making up for it by producing more guitarist wannabes. In other words, there have got to be people who assumed that they could never play a guitar until they tried it in the game and realized that the skills were accessible after all. Pure speculation, of course, but so is Levy’s comment. I know I can report a similar experience with a different game: Slime Forest convinced me that I could actually learn to read Japanese. A couple of years later, I’m still learning, but I haven’t given up.

Guitar Hero: Bark at the Moon

The songs in Guitar Hero are divided into six levels of increasing difficulty. The highest level is unavailable on Easy mode, so when I unlocked it on Medium, I didn’t know what to expect. The first four songs turned out to be difficult, but not too difficult — I managed to scrape through them all on the first try, albeit missing a lot of notes in the process. Then came the infamous “Bark at the Moon”.

I had heard about this song. It recently made a list of the top 20 videogame bosses. This seemed humorously incongruous when I read about it, but now I understand. It has that bosslike order-of-magnitude-harder-than-anything-else-you’ve-faced quality. The very first thing it throws at you is a rapid alternation between the lowest and highest notes you can play, which involves muscles I haven’t used in a long time. I assume it’s even worse on higher difficulty levels.

It’s been two days since I got that far, and I haven’t successfully barked at the moon yet. Partly this is because I can’t try again immediately after a failed attempt. Not because the game won’t let me, but because each attempt is wearing enough on the hands that I need a break. The game in general is tiring, to the point that I wonder if I’m holding the controller wrong, but not to this degree. (I have experimented with alternate postures a little, such as holding the controller in my lap and playing the fret buttons like a piano keyboard, but these always prove to be more awkward than doing it the right way.)

On my last attempt, I got all the way to the final solo, which, due to its unfamiliarity, I played badly enough to bring the audience all the way from the green zone on the rock-meter down to booing me off the stage. The end result: 99% completion. 99%. I think the final note was actually on the screen.

Guitar Hero: Random Observations

I’ve completed Easy mode by now. I always start rhythm games on Easy mode, I know my limitations. I still haven’t even finished Frequency on Medium difficulty. In this game, though, Easy mode is missing enough of the content that I don’t think it counts as really completing the game for Stack purposes.

And now that I’ve made some progress in Medium, I’ve noticed that this game is heavily zone-based. That is, success depends on “getting into the zone” and letting muscle memory take over — moreso even than in other rhythm games, I think, possibly because of the way you need to coordinate both hands. There comes a point where you’re automatically pressing the frets in advance of the note and not noticing that you’re doing it.

Playing this game has been also been filling in gaps in my musical education. For example, until now, I only knew of the band Franz Ferdinand from reading webcomics. And I had no idea how “Smoke on the Water” goes after the first twelve notes.

My one biggest disappointment in the game is the same one as in all rhythm games, and to a certain extent action games of other sorts: that you can’t play the game and actually watch the graphics at the same time. I can catch glimpses, so I know that your on-screen avatar does something tricky and acrobatic with the guitar when you activate “star power”, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what.

Guitar Hero: Fun, Difficult.

Not only is Guitar Hero is enjoyable even if you don’t want to be a rock star, it’s even enjoyable if you don’t particularly like the song you’re playing at any moment. This isn’t too surprising, as the same was true of Frequency and Amplitude, and the gameplay here is very similar to those games. Some of the complexity of those has been removed, as there’s only one instrument and thus no switching from track to track, but the very nature of the interface has extra complexity of its own. Instead of just pressing the right buttons with the right timing, you have the right hand controlling the timing and the left hand choosing the notes. This is difficult and unintuitive! If this is a simplified version of playing a guitar, then playing an actual guitar must be really, really hard.

Guitar Hero

This was the last game purchase I made before starting this blog. I’d been meaning to get it for some time, not just because of the overwhelmingly positive reviews, but because one of the developers is an acquaintance of mine, and if there’s one kind of game you always have to play, it’s games involving people you know, however slightly. But I hesitated. Partly because, with the custom controller, it’s the most expensive game I’ve ever bought (unless you count Katamari Damacy, the game that finally made me buy a PS2). Partly because no one seemed to be able to answer the question: Is this game still fun if you don’t have a fantasy of being a rock star?

This may seem like an odd question. When I first asked it in an online chat, one person replied “Everyone has a fantasy of being a rock star!” Well… no. Not everyone. It’s not that I hate rock, it’s just that it’s never inspired in me the zealous enthusiasm that makes people idolize its practicioners. Think of, say, John Williams. Here’s a musician whose works have had an emotional impact on millions of people: imagine how dry Darth Vader’s initial entrance onto Leia’s ship would have been without the strains of the Imperial March in the background. But John Williams doesn’t have screaming fans. He doesn’t have groupies. He doesn’t have people quitting their jobs to follow him around on tour. Few if any people have commercially-successful movie sountrack composer fantasies.

Given that the question isn’t purely hypothetical, there’s another problem with it: the assumption that gaming is based on a fantasy of being the player character. Sure, it’s a factor, and a game with a really unacceptable protagonist can raise hackles — witness the recent furor over Super Columbine Massacre RPG! But in most cases, I’d say that character identification isn’t as big a deal in games as pro-censorship activists think it is. If you can play Super Mario Brothers without actually wanting to be a plumber in the Mushroom Kingdom, why can’t you play Guitar Hero without wanting to be a rock star?

(To go off on a tangent: I remember when Infocom released Plundered Hearts, a romance-novel-like text adventure with a female hero. All of Infocom’s promotional materials seemed to be geared towards reassuring their predominantly male fanbase that it was okay to play it, that they knew some very macho people who played it without becoming less macho, etc. And I remember thinking at the time: No one would do this for a novel or a movie with a female hero. And it’s not like audience identification with the hero in a novel is weak; in many, you’re actually privy to the hero’s inner thoughts. But they had to respond to the idea that the player of a game is fantasizing about being the protagonist, and therefore, in the case of Plundered Hearts, fantasizing about being a woman. Of course, no one would bother refuting this notion today. Tomb Raider has rendered it laughable.)

Still, there’s some reason to think that the rock star fantasy may be more important than usual in this game. Whenever people describe why it’s so fun, what they talk about is rocking out. This is apparently the main appeal of the game: it gives you an excuse to rock out, and a context out from which to rock. Sure, it’s a simplified and videogamized version of rocking out, but apparently it does a good job of capturing the experience. The thing is, I wouldn’t describe most games in terms like these. If a first-person shooter felt like actually shooting people, I doubt I’d be able to play it. Jumping around is kind of fun, but the fun in playing a platformer is not based on how well it captures the experience of jumping. That’s because a platformer isn’t about replicating a jumping-on-platforms fantasy.

So, is Guitar Hero fun if you don’t have a fantasy of being a rock star? We’ll find out in my next post, after I’ve tried it out.

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