Saturday, April 6, 2013

Rock Band - The Day the Music Died

After 5 years, 3 main games (plus band-specific and spin-off games), 281 consecutive weeks of new downloadable content, and 1,799 official DLC song releases (plus even more Rock Band Network stuff), Harmonix has drawn the curtain on its Rock Band series, closing last week with Don McLean's "American Pie."  They didn't (and wouldn't) say that this is definitely the end, but the announcement was framed with a reverential finality that seems to preclude there being another game in the series as we've known it. If Harmonix were to release another sequel, it would most likely mark a new beginning, and there's no telling what form it would take. It's hard to imagine, though, that there would ever be another $169.99+ bundle with multiple plastic instruments. I think Harmonix and Activision, over the course of two generations of Rock Band and Guitar Hero games, pretty well burned through what consumers are willing to spend on toy guitars.

In some ways, it's really too bad. I got quite a lot of enjoyment out of the series, but there was also always the sense that it was never as good as it could have and should have been. The people who worked on the games have discussed some of the many hurdles that prevented them from getting all the songs and artists that fans might have wanted, and you can't blame them for what tracks didn't make it into the catalog, however disappointing it may be that we couldn't play more Rolling Stones classics in Rock Band.

Song selection aside, there was always something slightly frustrating about the Rock Band experience, and, as it became more and more apparent that the genre's popularity (and, thus, viability) had peaked somewhere around (or even slightly before) the first Rock Band, I couldn't help feeling that Harmonix's continued mishandling of the series was not only spelling Rock Band's own gradual demise but was also dashing the chances for more original music games to emerge that might actually have been better games, as opposed to virtual rock band dress-up packages. Perhaps Activision, with its well-earned reputation for relentlessly milking franchises, deserves a larger share of the blame for oversaturating the market with Guitar Hero games, but Harmonix and MTV Games, for their part, did release 6 retail 360/PS3 Rock Band titles in 4 years, which, it must be said, is quite a lot.

I was actually a fan of Harmonix's pre-Guitar Hero work. In Amplitude, piecing together the electronica and hip hop tracks element-by-element—percussion, synth, bass, vocals—was a rewarding and even revelatory experience. It opened my eyes (or ears, rather) to how layered and intricate a song's production could be, and it trained me on how to hear each different component of a song, that I might then better appreciate the whole. Rock Band offered, conceptually, a similar experience with its different instrument lanes, but its selection of mostly recognizable rock songs simply was not designed to accentuate the "separate elements coming together" feel that Amplitude pulled off so well with its synthy club soundtrack. Instead, it carried on the dress-up experience of pretend-playing an instrument in Guitar Hero and added, on top of that, an attempt to simulate the experience of playing as a touring band.

On the surface, Rock Band offered a much more compelling narrative, tracing the rise of a band from local gigs for petty cash to the endorsement deals and private planes of international superstardom. In practice, the campaign mode, random and repetitive, was a lot less fun to play than the simpler stage-based structure of Guitar Hero. The half-ass execution of Rock Band's campaign—no real story or characters, no conflict, never anything at stake, just a lot of doing the same thing over and over again until you scored enough to unlock the next venue, which wouldn't really offer anything new anyway—stood in the way of it ever becoming immersive or enjoyable as a simulation. As a game, Rock Band further suffered because, in my opinion, not every role in the band actually made for a fun play. Bass was incredibly boring, the keyboard was spottily represented even in the game it debuted with as the major new feature, and the drums were, for me personally, more frustrating than fun.

Once the fantasy aspects of fake band and fake instrument-playing began to peel away, what remained, in both Rock Band and Guitar Hero, were the songs. More than the plastic guitar, I think what truly made Guitar Hero so appealing originally was that, unlike previous music games, it included actual famous songs that resonated with American gamers. Try as you like to break down a song into its bare notes and rhythms to mathematically illustrate how its technical composition translates to mechanically gratifying gameplay, at the end of the day, most people will tell you that it's just more fun playing a song they know and love. Once singing was added, these games became, for me, karaoke games first and foremost, which merely happened to allow three other players to back me up as I belted out my favorite rock classics. This was now a very different experience from Amplitude—almost not even a game anymore, so much as a snazzy karaoke device with a very limited and easily fooled grading system—but fun in a different, maybe less innovative but more universal way. Admittedly, when getting to sing my favorite songs became the hook, it did become much more of a bummer that Rock Band's catalog was not as comprehensive or diverse as I would have liked, whereas song selection was never so much an issue with Amplitude, since I enjoyed it for the overall gameplay experience and not just specific songs. Still, whatever deficiencies in its gameplay and design, where Rock Band outshone any other music game was as a platform, where you could have potentially thousands of songs available for play in Rock Band 3. Allowing you to keep expanding your library without continually buying a new game (and without having to lose the songs from your old games) was absolutely the right way to go.

But what becomes of Rock Band and of all those songs I've amassed now? Well, the music game genre isn't entirely dead. Ubisoft's Rocksmith is still adding recognizable songs on a regular basis to its own DLC catalog (although that game seems to be much more of a hardcore gateway to real instrument-playing, rather than a fun game for ordinary consumers). And dance games are, right now, one of the hottest genres around. When you consider that the last time they were a fad was before Guitar Hero ever came out, it's not so unthinkable that Guitar Hero (and Rock Band) itself could come back around to being huge in cyclical fashion. My dream, of course, is that Harmonix or somebody will engineer a magical algorithm that can integrate with your own music library or subscription service and be able to dynamically process any song for play in either Rock Band or Amplitude modes. I don't know how feasible that would be for the foreseeable future, either from a technological or legal standpoint. I would guess "not very," but, hey, that's the dream. In the meantime, I think I'll take a day and finally get that "Day Tripper" achievement (play through the entire story mode within 24 hours) in The Beatles: Rock Band.

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