How the franchise’s return has got its outlook completely wrong.
In a past life – a time before Canada and babies – I was playing the last notes of my last song in a gig at a concert location that was basically a Welsh community hall after all the important people had gone home. My band, at that time, was caught in the hazy balance between deep, meaningful rock churners and wanting desperately to sound like The Pixies. I was the singer (I sang, so default label) and guitarist (same) and my on-stage gymnastics were part pre-firing Bernard Butler, part Marty McFly playing Johnny B Goode in 1955. Music carried me away – it still does – and the final moments of a gig are often the most heightened. So, of course, the final punched chord was followed by me slinging my beloved blue Stratocaster (copy) across the stage, where she (of course, she) landed across a metal step, leaving a deep gouge of blue paint and wood in her side. War wound, and a perfect tattoo of a great night.
Except, we’d been crap. We had loads of potential (which would eventually be realised – just before we broke up) but, at that time, it wasn’t a mix that was working particularly well. It didn’t matter, though – the audience was made up purely of the 19-year-old valley students I’d been teaching at that time, so we could have burped into a timpani for an hour and still have had rapturous applause. That’s the thing – we’d played like we were good, and the faces of sweaty teenagers really getting into every note we struck ignited our passion even further. I think if we’d had just one single night where we’d been booed, or even slightly jeered, then that would have instantly been the end of our rock dream.
And that’s where this story becomes about Guitar Hero. The one-time monolothic franchise is staging its return to glory this year, at exactly the same time as Rock Band because no-one’s going to let one side have the whole pie. Except, a few things have changed. Firstly, there’s a new guitar peripheral to spot in future thrift stores, this one now sporting two stacked rows of black-and-white buttons instead of the multicoloured selection from before. Secondly, there is no backwards compatibility with any of the mountains of DLC from previous games. Compare this with the new Rock Band, where all past songs and old peripherals are compatible, and it’s hard to view the new Guitar Hero as anything but cynically stingy.
However, the biggest change comes in how the action is presented. In the old games, you designed your stylised rock persona and watched them rock out against a backdrop of pyrotechnics and neon signs. The new approach is to not only dive head-long into graphical realism, but to flip the camera and provide a first-person view of the crowd. This crowd is basically meant to be a writhing heath bar – cheering and clapping when you hit the right notes, but booing and scowling as you fluster from one mistake to the next.
This is a huge mistake. Being in an up-and-coming band has nothing to so with accurate audience feedback. And, aside from the losing the cool stylised look, the loops of audience reaction are bound to get old very quickly. There’ll be individual members of that pre-programmed crowd that you’ll want to throw out of the window before long. There were disappointed boos in the last versions of the game, sure, but a wall of disapproving faces is not what Guitar Hero is about. It’s an opportunity to feed that tiny inner rock star with an artificial spoonful of seeming talent and effectiveness; how many new players are going to stick at it, learn the tricky solos and chord sequences, if the game itself openly derides them for daring to make mistakes?
I wouldn’t have. Gaming has to be fun, and there’s the very real danger here that Guitar Hero‘s new insistence on awkward hipster feedback could dissuade interested rookies from committing. Playing guitar in a band isn’t always about technical skill; sometimes it’s about your entire body hitting the perfect downward chord, leaving blood on the strings, before launching your guitar in a glorious climactic arc. The notes won’t always be right, but that just doesn’t matter. It’s the energy of the audience that makes you want to be better next time, and a line of disappointed faces keeping a binary score of your performance could not be further from how music should be played. Let’s hope the new Rock Band has a better understanding of the experience both rival titles are trying to capture.