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Guitar Hero & the Joy of Pretense

February 24, 2006 By Glenn Turner

"I'm a rocker. I rock out."*

Sadly, I am not a rocker. I've spent a good portion of my life avoiding rocking out. From spending my youth years behind a cello to developing an affinity for electronic music that grew into dj'ing and promoting, I've strayed far from anything resembling rocking. Even the few times I picked up a bass guitar in my teens, it wasn't so much to make music with it as to make noise. So no, as a policy I don't rock out.

But rules are meant to be broken, and games are meant to be played. It was with great trepidation and apprehension because of my apathy towards rocking out that I reluctantly picked up a copy of Guitar Hero. I hoping that my fondness towards rhythm games would compensate for my aversion towards wanking guitar solos, whammy bar bravado and classic rock. Lo and behold, several hours later I was rocking out, my legs bent, head held back and my guitar peripheral pointed towards the sky.

To be fair, rocking out is a prerequisite for Guitar Hero, one might say it's a necessary gameplay element. Notes comes streaming at you, as if someone painted a music staff on a moving walkway. Each bar in the staff corresponds to a specific button/fret on your guitar (also, the note is conveniently colored the same as the fret), so you hold down the fret and hit the guitar's strum bar when the note coincides with the end of the staff. Some strings of notes shine brighter than others though, and that's when you're able to get up enough juice to rock out. Hit these notes, without missing a single one, to unleash a torrent of pent-up star power. Once you have your star power, you lurch your guitar upwards to the heavens, preferably striking some pose (but nothing that'll tie you too up in knots). The music swells, the audience claps and cheers, your on-screen avatar starts pulling tricks with their six-string that no mortal in their right mind would attempt, and you feel the heady rush that comes with the love of a crowd. Rocking out to Guitar Hero is inevitable.

Unfortunately, rocking out also frequently causes me to strum slop. The simple motion of bringing the guitar upwards often throws me off my game, causing a missed note which in turn resets my multiplier to zero, partially defeating the purpose of using the score-doubling star power in the first place. However, score is the last facet I'm thinking about while playing Guitar Hero as it's really the song I'm concerned about. If I strum the wrong note, it's not just my score that goes to pot, the song does.

Flubbing a note in Guitar Hero results in a sickly twang and nothing more. Miss several notes in a row and your song starts to sound less like rock 'n roll and more like a three-year-old's attempt at playing a ukulele. Your rock meter dwindles, your esteem drops and then the crowd starts boo'ing you. If I were in the crowd I'd do the same as the end result is an acoustic nightmare that no one should have to endure.

But endure I will, as the only way to learn is to challenge yourself, even if that means fumbling through a few less-than-desirable performances. Luckily my years as a cellist finally pay off and I skip the introductory difficulty stage, choosing to falter slightly through the medium difficulty mode instead. Medium never really feels all that satisfying as the game intentionally neglects the fifth fret. I'm left feeling like there should be more and, oh, there is.

After about a week of Medium I jump up to Hard, the third of the four difficulty tiers, and it really brings on the challenge: my pinky occasionally extends down to the fifth fret, sometimes my index finger stretches back to the first, and, during songs like Bad Religion's Infected, my hand is jumping positions like Frogger. I discover the frenzied action of Helmet's Unsung which has such an incredibly intense ending that it always leaves my arm feeling a bit sore due of the sheer frequency and number of notes.

Another week passes and I can start to feel my favorite tracks becoming a bit too routine to play. Take Me Out begins feeling a bit like a chore and I'm zoning out while fingering through Spanish Castle Magic. Consequently, even though I haven't completed Hard mode yet, I just can't resist breaking into Expert and giving I Wanna Be Sedated my all. I thrill repeatedly to the new patterns in the advanced I Love Rock 'n Roll until I've notched up the maximum five star rating on it, and before I know it, several other Expert songs are complete too. That's it for those tracks - there's no further I can go with them, which leaves me feeling a tad melancholy. Sure, I can try and play through and increase my percentage of notes hit or add additional arbitrary challenges such as refusing to use star power, but those are trivialities that don't do much to change the sound of the song. The stars tell the story: I've started maxing out some of the game, and it's only a matter of time before either the rest of the game follows, or I hit the wall, and can't refine my Guitar Hero skill any more.

And it really is refinement. The game refers to playing through it as practice, and it's best consumed in 45 to one hour long sessions, instead of traditional hours long marathons many games prefer.When I practice, I usually start out with an easy warm-up, the equivalent of a scale perhaps, by going through a hard song on Medium difficulty then work my way through a few of my favorite songs before taking a stab at some new Expert tracks. The session ends with my flavor of the week, my favorite current track (right now that's Unsung's spot). Almost every day of mine since purchasing Guitar Hero has followed this routine and as such the number of untouched tracks are dwindling. I can see the end getting closer.

But even when I'm not practicing Guitar Hero, its plastic ax is on still my mind. While walking down the street with my portable audio device of choice, I can't help but hear the music as if it were filtered through those five multicolored frets. Each song containing even a hint of guitar brings me back to my living room, places me in front of my television, peripheral in hand and lands me strumming along with the song. This is quite a change compared to my pre-Guitar Hero days when my ears treated guitar contributions as a small contribution to the collective sound. Now the guitar is singled out, it rises out of the song to the forefront of my mind. This may just be a temporary side effect of the game but there's no question in my mind that Guitar Hero has brought me a greater understanding and respect for the guitar.

While waiting for a song to load, Guitar Hero serves up insightful pieces of advice for aspiring rockers, slivers of advice like "Don't let the drummer handle the money." and "They don't really want you to play Freebird. They're just heckling you." A recent play session served up the message "At some point you should really think about getting a real guitar." and I couldn't help but laugh. Guitar Hero in and of itself is enough of a real guitar for me. Is it a toy instead of a real instrument? Sure it is. The simple fact that (at least without modding it) there's no way to use the guitar peripheral to create your own compositions proves that. However, it's enough of a simulacrum to satisfy my urges. I have no pressing need to become a real guitar hero, to create lengthy guitar solos or even perform on a real stage in front of a real audience. Guitar Hero is so empowering and engrossing that I can't help but think that picking up a real guitar would be nothing but an extreme disappointment, even if I have plenty of stringed instrument experience under my belt.

That's not to take away from the experience Guitar Hero provides, but it does underscore that sometimes, fantasy is better than reality, that your guitar antics that may or may not include headbanging, snarling, one-legged jumping or other chicanery are probably best left in the living room and not on a stage. That's fine by me, the stage doesn't want me anyway. However, that doesn't change the fact that playing Guitar Hero still comes across as an instrumental experience. We get the best of both worlds: the controller is nuanced enough to require skill to effectively wield, the game is hard enough to make us work for our talent and stardom, the feedback is strong enough to make the player's input feel rewarding, all of which cause the resulting in-game adulation to feel merited. In other words, I can rock out without being a rocker, and that's enough for me.

* Apologies to rstevens

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#1 TrueTallus Feb 27, 2006 11:20am

Nice writeup!

Have you ever tried Freqency or Amplitude (rythm games by the same developer)? They might suit your fancy even more, particulary since you enjoy electronic music.

#2 Glenn Turner Feb 27, 2006 12:24pm

TrueTallus wrote:
Nice writeup!

Have you ever tried Freqency or Amplitude (rythm games by the same developer)? They might suit your fancy even more, particulary since you enjoy electronic music.

Thanks! I've played Amplitude pretty extensively and had a fantastic time with it because of the game's use of 'soundtrack construction'. I haven't gotten around to playing Frequency yet, but it's on my list of must-buy-soon games.

#3 Jake_The_Robot Mar 28, 2006 01:37pm

i enjoyed reading the article, as usual.

i was skeptical of Guitar Hero at first, and held for a long time. as a rule i dislike "beat" games, for instance, i hated amplitude and think DDR is really REALLY stupid (unless your dancing to The Specials "Little Bitch" on DDR Extreme). but, a few weeks ago a friend of mine brought over his copy to show me once and for all, that Guitar Hero "PWN'Z".

now i am sad. because Guitar Hero can not be rented, or gotten from GameFly and i am too poor to afford my own copy, and its killing me because i'm addicted to playing that freaking game!


#4 chopperdave Apr 8, 2006 12:25pm

Pssh i haven't played this, but nothing compares to Rez.

#5 jt-3d Apr 8, 2006 04:45pm

The kids have this. There's some decent tunes on it and they aren't truncated like the ones they use in the stupid commercials. Am I the only one who is tired of having the music they grew up on ripped off to try to sell me some crap I don't need? Anyway, I prefer that they play DDR or that genre so they get some excercise but oh well.

#6 Soup Apr 8, 2006 06:13pm

I'm just glad that they're being exposed to geniune classic rock (they may be covers, but they stay very true to the originals). DDR is a cesspool of J-pop and gets old within days.

#7 Cypher Apr 10, 2006 12:16am


I got this game for my girlfriend's birthday and she absolutely adores it.

I'm just was sad with the absense of "Juke Box Hero"

#8 Max Walrus Apr 10, 2006 12:19am

Man, having a girlfriend who is also a nerd probably sucks.