Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Guitar Hero

Well, I finally got a chance to play Guitar Hero. Last year I got my teenage daughter a Nintendo Wii for Christmas. Nobody had them in stock at the time, of course, so while she did get it as a Christmas present we actually only got it sometime this Fall. It’s actually a lot of fun, and definitely different from the PS2 we had previously. The games are much more “body oriented” on the Wii because the controllers are much more physical than a “regular” video game controller. They take your movement into account and not just your finger dexterity. It adds a third physical dimension which other video games lack, bringing the games into the room with you rather than having them confined to the TV screen. It’s an interesting difference.

My daughter had wanted Guitar Hero for quite a while, and has played it often at friends’ houses. I hadn’t really pre-formed an opinion about it, but sort of assumed it was similar to Dance Dance Revolution but with guitars instead of feet. On the surface that’s somewhat true, but I found that the games do have important differences. While the gameplay is similar, DDR is not so much about the music as it is about your movement. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter which song you’re dancing to, but rather the difference is that for Guitar Hero the point is the music whereas in DDR the music is an adjunct. I don’t feel that I’m expressing this well enough to be understood by people who have played neither game, but I hope this will become clearer later on.

Before I talk more about Guitar Hero, let me put a few facts out there. First, I’m a musician. I’ve read that some musicians are very good at Guitar Hero, but also that some great musicians just can’t do it at all. This puzzled me before I had played the game, but it makes sense to me now (but I’ll get to that). Next, I’m not a guitar player. I can play guitar, and in fact many of my songs which have lyrics are written on an Ovation acoustic six-string, but really I’m a keyboard player, and in some ways it might be more accurate to say I’m a synthesist. I also have a Gibson SG, which is probably more in the spirit of Guitar Hero than my Ovation. Lastly, while my daughter can play a number of instruments, mainly flute and piano, she’s not really a musician. Also, she’s much more of a gamer than I am.

OK. I’ve now gotten all that out of the way.

And now we get to the “problem” with Guitar Hero. I said earlier that it’s about the music, but after playing the game a number of times I’ve found that may not be true. As a musician, I rarely play a song the same way twice. (I know this because bandmates have told me so.) It’s definitely recognizable as the same song, though, and while I do play it mostly the same, it’s never exactly the same. In fact, sometimes a song may be radically different when played at different times. As a musician, this is good. It’s called creativity, often with improvisation mixed in. And this is where the problem with Guitar Hero becomes apparent. The goal of the game is to play the songs as “accurately” as possible. While this is not a bad thing in music, it’s actually the entire goal of Guitar Hero. In music, you’re (hopefully) rewarded for improvising, but in Guitar Hero you actually get “punished” for improvising, mainly because the game console notices that you’re not playing exactly the right notes. It doesn’t matter that your notes may be very good ones, very musical ones, it only matters that they’re the correct ones, at least according to the programmer’s idea of the way the song should be played.

Now I have to say that this isn’t bad, but it also isn’t music. Once I had noticed it and figured it out, it made me very aware of the fact that I was playing a game rather than playing music. It didn’t matter if my “extra” notes were better than what I was supposed to be playing, it only mattered that I wasn’t supposed to be playing them.

One of the interesting things about the game is that if you play enough wrong notes in a row, or don’t play notes you should have played, the crowd starts to boo. It’s actually pretty funny, and adds a bit of tension and feedback to the game. I’m not nearly as good as my daughter is at the game, so I tend to experience this more than occasionally, shall we say. But this is one of the main ways I figured out what was wrong with the game. One time I played it, the song we were doing (maybe Eye of the Tiger?) had a long and somewhat boring intro section where you weren’t supposed to be doing anything. As a musician, I “naturally” started strumming the rhythm with what on a guitar would have been muted strings. Imagine my outrage when the crowd started booing! What I had played was perfectly correct and acceptable from a musician’s standpoint, but from the game’s standpoint I was playing illegal notes. I was never able to recover from my quickly accumulated negative rock meter levels, and eventually got booed off the stage. Imagine!

It was actually hilarious, but at that moment it was clear to me that the game had a fatal flaw. There’s nothing wrong with it as a game, but it definitely is not about making music.

1 comment:

Matt Mower said...

I pity the poor programmer who has to implement an algorithm to correctly evaluate and score a musicians improv :)