This is going to a hard post to write. Normally, I play a game, finish it, and write about it here; but I’ve been playing Rock Band 3 for more than two years, and I’ve been playing one game in the series or another constantly since the first game came out back in 2007. So it doesn’t feel so much like I’ve finished playing the game as that I’ve broken up with the game. Fortunately, the break-up is amicable (and, as it turns out, mutual), but still.
And, to make matters worse: I’ve written quite a lot about the game over the years. So I don’t know if I have anything to say about the game (or the series) that I haven’t already said multiple times before!
Nonetheless, I have a tradition to uphold. So: once more unto the breach, dear friends. (Or: I come to bury Rock Band, but also to praise it in all of its ambition.)
One of my favorite bits of Rock Band 3 wasn’t part of the game itself but rather one of its pieces of DLC, namely the album London Calling. I’ve only listened to rock radio (or any sort of pop radio) for approximately three or four years of my life; this has given me an extremely spotty pop music background. My musical background is relatively strong in other ways, but still: it’s a gap, and one that I don’t actively want to be there.
So one of the things that I’ve always appreciated about the Rock Band series is having an extremely well-curated selection of music; generally the older half of the music on the disc is stuff I’m reasonably familiar with, the newer half is stuff I haven’t listened to, and I’m glad both halves are there. And that curation continues with the DLC, of course.
But, while the biggest gaps in my education start in the 90’s (I’ve never listened to Nevermind, for example), there are significant holes earlier as well: if it wasn’t being played on Cleveland-area radio stations in the late 80’s, chances are I haven’t heard it. And it turns out that London Calling is an example of that.
London Calling is a staggeringly good album, of course. But the nice thing about coming to it first via Rock Band is the way in which I got to experience it. I actually first listened to it while playing through it in a VGHVI gaming session, and going through it with friends is a wonderful way to be introduced to the music. Liesl and I played through it that weekend as well.
Listening to music has always been (at least optionally) a social experience, of course. But still: Rock Band is one sweet spot in that regard. I don’t want to minimize the joys of experiencing a concert with hundreds or thousands of other people, but there’s something nice about doing something with one or two or three other people. And with Rock Band, while you’re not directly focused on your fellow participants, the activeness of your interaction with the music (and with your specific role in that interaction with the music) reflects back into interactions with the people you’re playing the game with. It’s not as tight an interaction as, say, playing chamber music together (or playing in an actual rock band together, I would imagine), or as playing a two-to-four player competitive game together, but it’s more of an interaction than sitting around in a room listening to music together. And, at its best, it can really be something; going through London Calling with friends and loved ones was Rock Band at its communal best.
But London Calling showed off Rock Band at its solo best as well. When playing it with the VGHVI folks, I ended up on drums; I don’t normally play that instrument, but I really enjoyed it, it turns out that London Calling on hard drums is a great level for me, keeping me engaged and (on many of the songs) feeling like I’m overcoming a challenge without ever sliding into frustration. Then, when playing through the album with Liesl, I took the guitar; later, I went through it by myself on bass and on vocals.
And I really appreciated having all of those lenses to approach the album through. It’s a great album through any of those lenses: I’m glad I tried instruments that aren’t in my standard comfort zone. (Something similar happened with The Beatles: Rock Band: I didn’t appreciate Paul McCartney’s bass lines until I played that game. Though I liked London Calling‘s drum parts more than Ringo’s…)
That’s not the only way in which the game combined strong social experiences with new ways to appreciate music. Vocal harmonies, in particular, stand out in that regard: it’s one thing to be playing fake plastic instruments sitting next to somebody, but it’s a significant step up to be sitting next to somebody singing together. And not singing the same part (which is fun enough!): singing different parts, forcing you to figure out how you relate to each other and to the rest of the music. At first, we couldn’t hit the harmonies most of the time; but when we succeeded, it felt great.
Great from a social point of view (I assume harmonies the mode that Liesl and I will be most likely to return to in the future), but great from a musical understanding point of view as well. Which points at another area in which Rock Band 3 has showed me something about myself, in my approach to systems.
One frequent complaint about the Rock Band series is that it doesn’t let you go off script: you can try to throw in extra beats while playing the drums, say, but not only will the game not let you hear those extra beats, it will actively punish you for doing that. I can see where these complaints are coming from, and ultimately I share them to some extent (I was surprised how much of a relief it was to have Rocksmith not chastise me for playing extra notes), but in general I’m much less bothered by that than many people.
The more I thought about that, the odder it seemed: comparing it not just to performing music on real instruments but to other video games, Rock Band is very prescriptive indeed. I generally think of myself as liking to have choices; why am I so happy to have so few in this context?
Part of that is my classical music background, I think: I’m used to sitting in front of a piano, looking at a score, and trying to figure out how to play those notes when I’m supposed to. There is, of course, a lot more to performing classical music than just playing the right notes at the right time, but that remains a key aspect of classical music performance, and one which I’m happy to accept as an unquestioning default.
But that’s not the only thing that’s going on in my psychology with respect to the game: it’s also revealing something about my approach to complex systems. I like complex systems, at least if they’re elegant enough, in fact I can get rather obsessed with them. This shows up in my love of games, but it’s also why I ended up getting a Ph.D. in mathematics. And music is, of course, a gloriously rich, complex, elegant system.
Different people have different approaches to complex systems; my approach is often one that’s focused on learning and appreciating them. I can frequently get a visceral understanding of the guts of a complex system much faster than most people; but the joy of that understanding is the main thing that drives me, I’m less strongly moved by a desire to go off and extend it further. You can see this in my math career, for example: I could pick up math very quickly, but I didn’t end up putting in the effort to be a really good researcher. My current career has put me in an interesting sweet spot: programming by itself involves enough complex systems that being good at learning those gives me a significant leg up, but working effectively in a startup ends up throwing several more interesting complex systems into the mix, e.g. ones involving interpersonal relationships and business goals, and the combination of all of those turns out to be super fun to explore and try to deepen my understanding of.
Returning to music: I’m happy enough listening to music, but actually playing music lets me see more of the underlying systems, as does breaking apart the different strands of the music. Rock Band has always done some of the latter (though Rock Band 3 improves on its ability to let you see different strands, with vocal harmonies and keyboards); it’s been somewhat weaker on the actual “playing” side of things, but with pro keys and pro guitar the gap there has narrowed significantly.
Pro guitar, in particular, was a huge advance over anything else the series had allowed in terms of systems appreciation. In some sense, it’s only going from a 5-button controller to a 132-button controller; but that increased numbers of buttons allows a vastly richer view of the systems that are present within the music that I’m listening to. Especially because those 132 buttons are arranged in a meaningful way: the physicality of playing Rock Band 3 surprised my in many aspects, but none more than what my hands were telling me as they moved along the fretboard.
So yeah: I can’t make whatever music I want within the context of the game, I can’t even do much to chose my approach to that music. But I can see the music that the game is presenting to me in so many different ways than I could before; that is a tradeoff that I was happy to take for two years solid.
I could keep on going; but this is probably as good a stopping point as any; instead, I’ll just link some of my favorite posts on the series. And I will conclude by saying: to those of you who read this who have worked on Rock Band 3, or any of the other games in my series, I offer you heartfelt thanks. You have done good work; you have done important work.
- the beatles, rock band, and genre
- bohemian rhapsody as video game
- my gay avatars
- the psychosexuality of rock band vocals
- the tactile experience of rock band
- i love reifying relationships
- rock band driven development
- games and guitar learning
This post has not been revised since publication.