Designed by Harmonix
If you’re a teenager, young adult, parent, mall shopper, bar goer, TV watcher, or newspaper reader, you’ve probably heard of Activision’s Guitar Hero, the video game that hands you a plastic, guitar-shaped USB controller and tells you which buttons to push in order to “play” along with groups as diverse as White Zombie and the Rolling Stones. But even Guitar Heroes get lonely, which may be why MTV recently paid $175 million to purchase Harmonix—the software studio that created the game—and instructed them to make Rock Band, adding a plastic microphone, bass, and drum set to the mix.
What better way to put this game through the paces, I thought, than to have my very own rock band, The Little Death, play it together? After all, we’re a real group of seasoned professionals, with nuanced chemistry and decades of collective experience. There’d be Moby (yes, I’m in a band with that famous vegan guy who sold all those electronic music records) on bass, our drummer, Aaron (who used to tour with Duff from Guns N’ Roses), my wife Laura Dawn (who released a solo album on Warner Bros. and appeared as a featured singer on Moby’s last album) on vocals, and me on the axe (I’ve been playing for more than 20 years and toured the world as Moby’s live guitarist).
Before the others arrived, Laura joined me to embark on our first “World Tour.” In this mode, players customize every aspect of the characters that will impersonate them on their journey toward stardom. Laura became Lola, a lithesome blonde with “diva” features, skintight pants, and “hippie bangs.” I evolved into Vito, tall and muscular, with a “stone jaw” face, a leather vest, and a hairdo dubbed “wild curls.” (The avatars were stylish, handsome, and…hmm, somehow familiar. We had both basically created slightly better-looking versions of ourselves.) The rest of the band skipped the “Rocker Maker” stage in favor of generic, randomly generated characters—with our first song, Radiohead’s “Creep,” Moby was represented by a greasy, long-haired guy who looked like a bong salesman from Tallahassee, while a short Asian dude with a Mohawk and studded leather jacket stood in for Aaron. But the creation of an alter ego is any musician’s first true rite of passage, so Rock Band gets the first step right.
Now, it just so happens that “Creep” is a song Laura and I once covered in real life as a part of Moby’s band on the Conan O’Brien show, so confidence was high as our characters took the screen onstage. Below them stretched a series of vertical grids, each containing six lines, just like the six strings on a guitar (don’t ask me why the bass, which has four strings, or the drums, with none, had the same type of grid). My job was to press the big, colorful buttons on the guitar’s neck to correspond with the big, colorful dots scrolling down the far-left grid. Seemed pretty simple. But while attempting to negotiate the song’s opening riff, I found myself awkwardly fumbling with the controls; hearing particular notes in the song, I’d instinctively move my fingers to the spot on the neck where the correct string would normally be. Despite any real-life virtuosity, in the world of Rock Band, I sucked.
Aaron experienced similar problems. “It’s not letting me hit the drums when I want to,” he complained. Apparently Rock Band failed to signal our drummer to play some of the most important, basic beats, while asking him to hit others that would have been superfluous if we’d been playing this song on a real stage. Moby didn’t seem to encounter much trouble with the bass, however. “I learned Guitar Hero a few weeks ago from a friend’s 11-year-old,” he explained. “This is pretty much the same thing.” Since Laura was able to actually sing into her microphone (as opposed to pressing buttons), her only problem was spiritual. “This game is making my soul hurt,” she lamented.
After four or five more tries, we finally got the hang of it. But then my eyes began to ache from chasing the cues and the living room spontaneously appeared to rotate. I wish I could’ve credited Rock Band’s designers with having purposely engineered this phenomenon to simulate the effects of secondhand pot smoke, but the scene in my living room was decidedly un–rock ’n’ roll. I wanted to lose the bong salesman and the Mohawk dude and go have sex with the hot blonde singer in the back of the tour bus, but there was no button to make that happen. Where were my USB-powered cigarettes and Jack Daniels when I needed them? Where was the danger? The excitement?
Despite the groovy soundtrack, Rock Band really has almost nothing to do with the reality of playing music, or even possessing musical rhythm. It’s really about hand-eye coordination—watching the TV and pressing the right buttons at the right time. To be fair, it can be a lot of fun. The game’s designers have married classic, fast-paced game play to the mystique, style, and sound of rock and roll. And, if you’re playing for a laugh, Rock Band will provide plenty. I can’t tell you how much it made me smile to see my grown-up friends grappling with silly toy instruments.
So if you’d never, ever, under any circumstances consider learning an actual instrument, I might recommend this game. Otherwise, just go out and buy a cheap guitar. Because playing in a real rock band is actually pretty easy, and who knows? If you practice for as many hours as the average 12- to 35-year-old spends playing video games, your own music just might end up scrolling down Rock Band’s screen one day.
Daron Murphy is a Brooklyn-based writer and musician.