On Xbox 360.
It is a real testament to how insanely fun and addictive Rock Band is that I forgive it the shoddy hardware and shooting pains I get up my right arm when I play the “guitar” for too long. The strum bar on our guitar controller gave out after a couple of weeks, and my cousin’s broke in less than twenty-four hours, but as soon as we received our replacements (and to be fair, we received new, sturdier controllers at no cost within a matter of days), all anger was forgotten: we happily returned to faux rocking and all the carpal tunnel problems that go along with it.
I loved the Guitar Hero franchise, but Rock Band is an enormous step past it. The new game doubles the number of people who can play, it introduces new instruments (drums and voice), it features customizable avatars and wonderful animation, and the transcriptions, so to speak, feel more naturalistic, the licks falling neatly under the hands in a way that makes musical sense. Playing the guitar controller is immediately familiar to Guitar Hero veterans, but the drum controller has a steeper learning curve (negotiating between the four drum pads and the foot pedal is tricky at first), and following the melodic line of the voice part can be difficult if you don’t already know the song. I wish the game offered the option of showing notes on a staff rather than a glowing line tracing relative pitch, but this is a minor quibble. You don’t have to sing loud or even sing the correct words—the game only registers pitch and rhythm—but if you’re with people you trust, it’s more fun to indulge rock-god fantasies and really belt.
It’s all just a simulation, of course, but it’s a seductive one, especially when you’re playing in a group. Playing solo is possible, but that can’t compare to the fun of creating a “band” with friends and goofing off, cheering when your favorite song makes it into a set and rotating casually from guitar to bass to drums to the mike. The game allows people of wildly different skill levels to play together (each player selects his own difficulty level), and it rewards collaboration: you can “save” bandmates who hit a tough run. But beyond that, Rock Band presents a lot of great music and invites everyone to share it together, and it’s that shared experience, however illusory, that makes it a party.
My youngest cousin got Rock Band for Christmas, and in the days that followed, various members of my large extended family would gather at his house to play. Our band Hyperpole* toured the world, and even the “non-musicians” sitting on the couch got into the fun, singing along with the vocalist and applauding enthusiastically when someone nailed a particularly difficult solo. The party included teenagers and parents in their fifties, Guitar Hero veterans and complete newbies, the unapologetically geeky and the confidently cool, and everyone was having a great time. Everyone was singing along with Nirvana and the Pixies and Garbage and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which, OK, was kind of weird at first but still a hoot. Thinking back on it now, it still makes me happy.
As much fun as I had, though, the whole thing made me terribly reminiscent for my days as a musician—not a rock musician but an organist and accompanist. Performing music truly is a unique experience, but Rock Band hints at it just enough to stir that memory.
At my parents’ house, I pulled out a few of my old books—Mozart and Debussy, Chopin and Bach—and read through some of the pieces I once knew by heart. Primed by that silly game, my fingers surprised me by running through some of the runs with forgotten agility, and I began to reconsider my assumption that Sean and I couldn’t afford a piano or fit one into our cozy little apartment.
Back in New York, Sean and I started surfing the Internet for advice on piano-buying (as intimidating as buying a car!) and visiting the many piano showrooms around Carnegie Hall, and today—thanks in large part to generous early birthday presents from my family, particularly Mom and Dad—we actually did it! We bought a piano! More next weekend, after it arrives, but until then … Thank you, Mom and Dad, et al! Thank you, Hyperpole! And thank you, Rock Band: you’re a good enough facsimile to make me long for the real thing.
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*The name is a family joke that Aunt Mary Sue would kill me for revealing here. Suffice it to say that Hyperpole is without a doubt the single greatest thing in the history of the universe.