Over the last couple of months, I’ve been going through all the Rock Band 3 Pro Keys songs on Expert, going through each one several times to try to do as good a job on each one as I can. You can find more details on my other blog, if you want blow-by-blow narration, but I figured I’d give a bit of a recap here now that I’m done.
It’s been a very interesting experience. Some of that is what I talked about yesterday: I just don’t put in that sort of repeated focused practice in other video games, and I don’t think other games support that nearly as well as the Rock Band series does, Rock Band 3 in particular. And after years of doing not particularly well in competitive multiplayer video games with the VGHVI crowd (who, I assure you, are an extremely congenial bunch, I can’t imagine losing to nicer people!), I take a certain pleasure in having one mode in a game that I can point at and say that yes, I’m better at this than the vast majority of you. (As of this writing, I’m in 34th place on the overall Pro Keys leaderboard. Though I’m pretty sure that at least one person reading this blog is better at Pro Keys than I am…)
And watching the leaderboards has given me a glimpse into how this game appears different to people with different musical backgrounds: while my ranks on individual songs are all quite decent, they aren’t uniformly so. On some songs, I worked hard and still ended up with a rank in the two-hundreds, while there were other songs where I finished my first run through the song, felt that I’d done a kind of sloppy job, and was already up in the mid thirties. The pattern there seems to be what kind of playing the song requires: I don’t do so well on songs that require you to play the same notes over and over again quickly and precisely, while I can easily imagine somebody who is much better on Expert (non-pro) Guitar than I am will find that those skills transfer over to let them do well on such songs on Pro Keys. Whereas songs that require you to play through melodies and natural sequences of chord changes are ones that I can pull off without much thought at all: my hands know how to do that sort of stuff, no problem. (I knew that figured bass training would pay off eventually!)
When I first started Pro Keys, I found the notation a little bit frustrating, but I got the hang of it soon enough. And one of the realizations I had over the course of that process was that, if an interval was too wide for me to be able to read it at a glance, it was almost certainly an octave: that made certain songs a lot easier for me to play. But, dense as I am, it took me a while to realize the following: that’s very useful for me, because my hand has decades of experience in exactly how wide an octave is, but it’s a lot less useful to somebody who is coming at the game without a keyboard background! And octaves are only scratching the surface: my hand also knows what all sorts of triads feel like, including their various inversions and the combinations of black and white notes that show up in different keys. I have a huge amount of respect for anybody who has made it through the expert songs without a piano background: you (and your hands!) have learned a lot in that process. (My hands have learned something in the process, too: I would seem to be better at playing fast arpeggios with a reasonably even rhythm than I was before I survived Antibodies and Roundabout.)
So now I’m definitely a supporter of the notation that the game uses for notes. It’s obvious what the notation means, and the color divisions make sense on both a musical and a tactile level. It’s still not nearly as second nature to me as standard musical notation is (in particular, I seem to do most of my positioning by comparing the relative location of new notes to earlier notes, combined with knowledge of what makes sense musically, instead of directly translating a note on screen to an absolute position on the keyboard), but I can’t remember the last time when I had to look down at the keyboard when playing, so the notation is more than good enough.
Or at least it’s more than good enough within the constraints of the game. A two octave keyboard is a huge improvement over five buttons, but it’s too small to play all but the simplest of real songs; what’s worse, you’re never playing more than an octave at any given moment. So you play through the whole game with one hand, and while I suppose it’s convenient to have a hand free to activate overdrive, it’s very stripped down compared to real piano playing. (And, I suspect, compared to real keyboard playing in a rock band, though I don’t have any experience with that.) My guess is that the distance between Pro Keys and playing on a real instrument is significantly larger than on Pro Guitar or (probably) Pro Drums, though I could be wrong about that as well. I would love it if Rock Band 4 could have a much more serious Pro Keys mode, though it’s not at all obvious to me how to do that while working within the confines of the screen and without falling back to standard musical notation; then again, if anybody can come up with a way to cross that gap, it’s Harmonix. And, of course, I’d be perfectly happy with a mode that gave standard musical notation while letting me use both hands, though that would shrink the potential audience even more: as is, I’m somewhat worried that Harmonix is on the wrong side of an Innovator’s Dilemma slope.
But if they’re on the wrong side of that slope, it’s because they’re adapting their game more and more to players like me. Good times.
This post has not been revised since publication.