Jonathan Dobres

beating the game

I’ve often asked myself, “Self, do you think Harmonix was nervous as they built the original Guitar Hero? Was there some trepidation about the song list, the feel of the controller, and whether it would all fly with consumers? Or did it just hit them like a bolt of lightning? Did they just know, after some critical point in development, that this game was going to be one of the best things to ever happen?”

I’d really love to know the answer to this question, but the answer won’t be coming from Rob Walker. He’s written a little piece on Guitar Hero for the New York Times. Walker’s unsurprising conclusion is that people love Guitar Hero in part because it allows them to pretend that they are, at least for a moment, rock stars. The article’s title—“The Pretenders”—is a bit of a giveaway on that point.

Walker says that playing Guitar Hero is nothing like playing a real guitar, a statement that always bothers me when it is made. Incidentally, Doom doesn’t train you to be a Marine and Pacman isn’t actually eating anything. Still, Walker extrapolates this idea to an interesting place. If Guitar Hero isn’t real guitar, then it’s the game’s “aspirational” elements that make it so attractive to such a wide community of players. Everybody has had the rock star fantasy. Everybody wishes they could play “Freebird,” or “Black Magic Woman,” or “More Than A Feeling”. Are they willing to strap on a little plastic guitar with brightly colored buttons to make their fantasies come true? Of course they are, videogame stigma be damned.

The power of this fantasy should not be underestimated, and the makers of Guitar Hero certainly cater to it. The selectable guitars, the character models, the choosing of a band name, the silly in-jokes, and the increasingly dramatic tutorials all serve the fantasy. I would argue, however, that Guitar Hero succeeds because it is a fundamentally great game, and the fantasy is secondary to that. Like all great games, its play mechanic is simple at the start, made even simpler by the literal guitar controller which replaces the standard gamepad, and yet it scales upwards towards near merciless difficulty as the player masters the basic skills. Guitar Hero’s great achievement is that it tricks novices, by way of fantasy fulfillment, into thinking they’re not playing a videogame.

Yet a videogame it still is. The heavy metal trappings may lure in the novice player, but the ornaments vanish when you’re actually playing. Quite literally, all you can see are the notes, and all that carefully rendered rock-god animation is irrelevant. It’s hard to showboat without getting booed off the stage. Most players eventually make that critical mental transition from playing a song to beating a song. Yes, it’s fun to score 99% on Medium, but isn’t it even better to do it on Hard, to prove that I can push myself that much further? Stepping up to Hard puts me negligibly closer to “real” guitar, but tremendously alters my level of play (in both senses of the word). This is the game, not the fantasy. Like any great videogame, Guitar Hero has its psychotic adherents, and between these people and the casual players there lies a wide spectrum of commitment levels. I’d be thrilled to master Hard, but I have no desire to torture myself on Expert. The Tall One, on the other hand, won’t be satisfied until he’s conquered “Through the Fire and the Flames” on Expert with his eyes closed. By the way, all of Dragonforce’s songs sound like that.

The need to solve a puzzle. The desire to defeat an opponent. These are universals, and “videogame players” have been tapping into them digitally for decades now. It takes a game like Guitar Hero to open that door to the wide swathe of humanity that thinks the wrong things about videogames, that feels the need to put “videogame player” in quotes. So yes, Mr. Walker, we all want to be rock stars, and we’re all willing to settle for playing pretend, but that’s secondary at best. More importantly, we all want to beat the game.