Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Seriously, Guitar Hero is Useless

You know how in movies about time travel, people from the past come and look at what we are doing in the present (the future to them) and make some comment like "Now why would you need to go and do that?" The backwards person from the past fails to see the significance of some awesome new invention we have now. Like when people kept asking Alex P. Keaton why he was wearing a life preserver. If time travel was real, and a man came from the 80's and saw us doing what we do today, I think that he would surely be most confused by the popularity of games such as Guitar Hero and their ilk. Even as a person from the present, I find games like Guitar Hero to be completely useless, and not just in the way that video games in general are useless, but useless in a much deeper, hilarious kind of way.

First off, I must fully disclose that I am a guitar player. I play real guitars, the kinds with strings on them. Any guitar player who has tried to play Guitar Hero knows that actually knowing how to play guitar puts you at a disadvantage, because there is no logical correspondence with the pitch of a note and the position of the key on the "neck" you are supposed to press. David Fair's eloquent, hilariously simple rules of guitar playing do not apply. And that is fine. The fact that I suck at this game is not what makes me hate it. I hate it because people mistake it for being something cool when it is actually one of the most pathetic things imaginable. The title of the game Guitar Hero is pure comedy, because when you are playing it, you are about as far away from being an actual guitar hero as possible.

First off, let's make no mistake, this game is essentially Dance Dance Revolution for people who don't like to exercise. DDR is by nature a much more interesting game than Guitar Hero will ever be, simply because people have to move their bodies. Sure, both require a certain amount of coordination and the basic concept of both games is the same: hit the button at the right time. But Guitar Hero sucks because there isn't even that element of physical challenge that DDR had. With Guitar Hero, you are sitting on your ass, pretending to be a rock star while actually being the furthest thing from it.

Second, becoming good at the game is a pathetically obvious outcome. All you have to do is keep playing. Sure, this applies to all video games, but I really think that the word "pathetic" applies to Guitar Hero because becoming good at the game means being able to anticipate when to press the right buttons at the right time and nothing more. It's a little too Pavlovian. In other games you at least have to experiment, make guesses, and take risks. Not with Guitar Hero. If you press the right button at the right time, you are deemed a rocker. Being "good" at Guitar Hero only means that you have spent a lot of time playing it, becoming familiar with the patterns in the songs. Considering oneself to be good at Guitar Hero is like the punchline of a cruel cosmic joke, it's like saying "I'm good at obeying traffic lights" and "I have a lot of time to waste" at the same time. As a video game, Guitar Hero is pretty much conceptually void.

Third, the game masquerades as being about guitar playing, and people seem to take it seriously. Sure, the fact that it's finger-DDR with a rock soundtrack is what makes it seem so cool, but there seems to be something going on with Guitar Hero that I haven't really seen happen with other video games. Nobody played Olympic Summer Games Atlanta for SNES and thought they had what it takes to be a pole vaulter. In most games in which you are participating in the emulation of some real-life talent there is a healthy suspension of disbelief. But what annoys me/worries me is that I hear people talking about Guitar Hero songs as if they were real-life challenges. A song will come up on the radio, or in conversation, and someone will say something like "Oh yeah. I love that song. I can beat that song on hard on Guitar Hero." As if anyone cares. That is what's interesting, is that being good at Guitar Hero has been elevated to the status of being something noteworthy, something anyone would be interested in hearing. People naturally assume that I don't care about how they are doing in their other video game pursuits, but for some reason, if people know that I am a guitar player, they feel the need to tell me about how their progress is going on Guitar Hero, in a kind of half-joking/half-serious sort of way. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say "Well, I can't play real guitar at all, but hand me one of those Guitar Hero guitars, and whoa..." It's most annoying joke of the past three years. The only other video game that inspires a similar crossover from actually-cool to virtually-pathetic is Tony Hawk Pro Skater, and although the game is also based on arbitrary button-mashing to equal "actual" skate moves, I would argue that even that game is quite a bit less mind-numbing and paint-by-numbers than G.H. Although I doubt that anybody really thinks that they are an actual guitar hero by being good at Guitar Hero, this game invites a little too much of that irony-blurred-with-reality blend we've been seeing a lot of lately. What do I mean? Look no further than the popular Rock Band Stage Kit. Point being, people seem to think that this stuff actually has something to do with music and/or being "cool," and that's kind of creepy.

This brings me to my fourth and final point. One thing that I actually really like about Guitar Hero is the songs on it. The soundtrack is for the most part a tasteful cross-section of guitar rock from the past 30 years, although the majority of the songs are covers, probably re-recorded by a silk-shirted musical chameleon session band somewhere in Florida. Every time I see the song list for the new version of this game, I actually kind of think to myself "Oh, cool, some rock and metal songs from back when I was first learning to play guitar." People are at least getting turned on to cool older songs, and I've read that these featured artists are getting new popularity (and royalties) as a result of their songs being licensed. But here's where things get lame again: Inevitably, you will realize that you were introduced to the song "John the Fisherman" by Primus via a mixtape that a friend made you back in high school, while everyone else seems to know the song from Guitar Hero. And they can probably beat it. On hard. So this is my final point: The music is introduced to people, not for their enjoyment, but for their conquest. And most of the times it's not even the real songs, it's weird, silk-shirted karaoke versions. And for the majority of people, these versions are the versions of the songs they will carry in their heads for the rest of their lives. They might hear the real version on the radio (I keep talking about the radio, but does anyone even listen to the radio anymore?) and think "Man, that song sounds weird compared to the Guitar Hero version." I now know what it must have felt like for my parents when as a kid I said "Wow, the Beatles sound a lot like the Monkees."

On another note, I often hear people say "If people spent the same amount of time learning to play a real guitar as they do getting good at Guitar Hero, they could actually be good at playing the guitar." Yes, this is probably true, if you applied the same zeal to learning to play the real guitar, you could probably learn to play a few cover songs on the guitar, although I would argue that playing the real guitar is in a lot of ways more complicated, because it's not compartmentalized to those 5 or 6 buttons, however many it is. With a real guitar, you have to tune the darn thing, put down a bunch of fingers at the same time to make a chord, bend the string the right way during a solo, etc. But I'm going to go ahead and be a jerk here and invite people to not start playing guitar. Not if making a more productive use of your Guitar Hero hours is your impetus, anyway. There are already enough guys like that hanging out down at Guitar Center right this very moment. The world does not need more cover bands. Trust me. The issue at hand here is not that people are playing fake guitars instead of real ones, but rather that people are interested in getting good at tasks with an obvious, static outcome instead of engaging in divergent, productive thinking.

So, the Man From The Past who was brought in a time machine from 1983, he walks into a living room and sees people totally having fun playing Guitar Hero. At first he thinks it's strange, that these guitars have buttons on them and no strings, then he realizes that they are just fake things shaped like guitars and that they are trying to press the right color button at the right time as it falls down the screen. It's just a button game, wrapped up in the guise of being about rock music. But the participants are enjoying it. What's strange is that they are not anywhere close to rocking out. Everyone is fixated on the screen, heads are not bobbing, hands are not clapping. That is taken care of by the fake audience on the screen. Next time you see people playing Guitar Hero, really look at the people who are playing. It's like some sci-fi comedy, it's like a scene from Idiocracy. How strange it really is.

I don't doubt that it is a fun game. I have had fun playing it. But, I have also had fun watching "Parental Control" while eating Cheetos. Having spent most of my life making music and doing all sorts of social things related to making music, it's not a stretch to say that Guitar Hero is completely unmusical and almost completely antisocial. In the most recent issue of Wired magazine, a writer for the Mr. Know-It-All column answers the question of whether or not it's ok for a man's wife to object to him breaking out Guitar Hero III at their next party because she thinks that videogames are antisocial. This writer states that "there's no question that Guitar Hero can boost a gathering's fun quotient - much like that tried-and-true party classic karaoke." Um, I really don't think so. I would have to argue that karaoke is much different than guitar hero, because in karaoke, what makes it interesting is the way that each person interprets the way that a song is sung, and there is no quantifiable rating of who has done the best job. In fact, in karaoke, it's almost good to be bad, that is what makes karaoke fun. I suppose it all depends on what kinds of people you expect at your party, but with Guitar Hero, unlike karaoke, which requires only the (pretty much) universal skill of singing, you may be subjecting guests to a test of the new and arbitrary skill of matching colored shapes flying down the screen with their corresponding buttons on a fake little guitar. Perfection is the goal, and a less-than perfect performance leads to cacophony. If you're good at the game, it might be fun, but I would say that it is very different from karaoke because it is usually not fun to watch (not enough people "rock out" while playing it, isn't that the point? I guess it screws up your accuracy.) and there is no room for people to let their personalities out in a game that only requires you to push the right button at the right time. Plus it probably means that the owner of the game is going to the best guy at it, and anyone who knows the "Hey, let's play this game I own and am really good at" scenario knows how much fun that is. So, I'm going to have to go ahead and disgree with Mr. Know-It-All, aka Brendan I. Koerner. <-- Google Alert alert! Hi!

Anyway, I'm done being the curmudgeon grandpa for today. Thanks for listening. I'm going to go play guitar now. I'll tune it first, David Fair style.


Susan said...

Well...every party has a pooper, I guess, Mr. "I Play Real Guitar" Hero.

M. H. D. said...

Susan! I miss you. I'd play any video game with you, any time.

Shannon said...

I would totally leave a party if someone broke out Guitar Hero.

Oh no, wait, I just remembered that my fiance actually did this at his bday party a few weeks ago! Another party guest apparently asked to see how one played. So Rob busts it out, the room goes silent, he's nerding out on the fake guitar, and everyone else is just... bored. And then they started leaving and I was mad because I wanted to have our friends hang out. And he just didn't know when to stop. It was pretty sad.

Meg D said...

I cannot even begin to explain to you how wrong you are. Think of it as key-tar hero and let the FUN roll in!!

Sapila said...

That was awesome. Haha, I've seen at least 5 kids on msn with a username including "Randy".

M. H. D. said...


Anonymous said...

Awesomely correct blog entry

Jared said...

I read the whole thing!

This was well thought out and I pretty much feel the same way. I was passively against it for awhile and then I was at some friends' house who had Rock Band so I gave it a whirl and it was actually pretty fun and conquring "Green Grass and High Tides" on a hard level created a communal vibe of togetherness and accomplishment that is only rivaled by the subsequent regret.

"If America took all of the time that it spent playing fake robot guitars and used that time instead to build houses, we would be able to shelter the entire world from every storm that may ever arise. By the way, peanuts are totally awesome."
-former President Jimmy Carter

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Daren said...

Guitar Hero: I'm actually decent, but I still don't enjoy it. But it's actually pretty fun when the only people playing GH around you are musicians.

bex said...

Maybe you would appreciate Southpark's "Guitar Queer-o" episode."

M. H. D. said...

Rebexa, that South Park episode pretty much spot on.