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.