Monday, February 14, 2011

Remembering Guitar Hero

Guitar Hero is gone, and I have a confession to make.

When Activision announced the closure of the Guitar Hero brand last week, my very first thoughts were occupied by the great philosopher-poet George Costanza. In an episode of Seinfeld titled “The Invitations,” Costanza is informed that his bride-to-be has passed away, her untimely demise the result of being poisoned by toxic envelopes George had purchased for their wedding invitations. Without a trace of irony or grief, he utters the line, “Well, hmm, let’s get some coffee.” The line provoked a small controversy—George’s lack of concern for his would-be spouse’s welfare carried uneasy traces of domestic abuse and neglect—but it also gave its audience a glimpse of the uncomfortable feeling that had by then become Seinfeld’s calling card: a reminder that being human occasionally means experiencing feelings that we’re not proud of. (George, empathy-defunct uberman that he was, was of course immune to such reflection.)

Without further ado, please allow me to purge my conscience. My initial reaction to the brand closure was one of unflinching and sincere apathy, with just a hint of Rock Band-fanboy schadenfreude. I am not proud, but there it is. The Guitar Hero brand and I did not have the best relationship for reasons that I’ll mostly keep to myself (as cryptic as that sounds)—but we did have a relationship. On a personal and professional level, I knew a number of people who worked on Guitar Hero games throughout the franchise’s peak phase. One in particular, a terrific Bay Area sound engineer who served as a note tracker, introduced me to some of his studio’s crew—good people and great musicians, all of whom seemed to feel as though they had found a terrific place to work and took pride in creating a fun and interesting product. Their studio was downsized some time ago and many of those layoffs were presumably not included in the looming “500 lost jobs” figure attached to last week’s news. And as that news began to sink in, I started to think about old times.

As “Guitar Hero” as it gets.
During a snowed-in vacation in Boston several years ago, a friend dialed up Guitar Hero 2 on a borrowed PS2 and we took turns playing tunes on the one guitar in our possession. (On medium difficulty—how innocent we were!) The current console generation was just beginning and I had been away from videogames for several years, having mostly skipped the PS2/GameCube generation. GH2 was the first game I’d played in a long time, and I found the experience revelatory. Here was a game I had almost missed that was breaking new ground—allowing players to simulate the act of making music with songs they know and love (along with a selection of nü-metal dreck, but let’s ignore that). GH2 was my gateway drug—or at least, a catalyst for my triumphant return to console gaming.

The love affair would not last. I purchased an Xbox 360, and with a spirit of adventure, both Rock Band and Guitar Hero 3. Placing the two games side-by-side shed a lot of light on my music-gaming preferences (including the revelation that there existed such a thing as “music-gaming preferences”). GH3’s interface felt cluttered and clunky—a crowded pastiche of rock stereotypes and product placement (not that RB was blameless in either regard) that looked as though it had been splattered onto its canvas with no editorial eye whatsoever. The game’s rhythmic requirements were looser than Rock Band’s—I remember being happy about this when it came time to play “Number of the Beast,” but ultimately felt that Rock Band’s less-forgiving rhythmic expectations delivered a more musical product. Most of all, the song selection felt claustrophobic and much more genre-specific than its competition; whereas Rock Band’s party-friendly catalogue seemed to say, “Look what we managed to include!” Guitar Hero was positioned as if to proclaim, “We didn’t include any of the crap you didn’t want.”

I’m sure that last part was objective truth for a particular audience, but for me, playing the game in my living room and trying to convince my live-in girlfriend that our new gaming console was a postive addition to our lives, it was quickly clear that Guitar Hero did not pass muster. The choice had been made, and as store shelves became flooded with new iterations, I parted ways with the franchise.

On a personal level, I felt I had to take a moment to say “Goodbye, Guitar Hero,” the way one might attend a funeral for an old friend with whom there has been a falling out. You were not a perfect game, but you were an important game. You made a lot of people happy, gave birth to some world records, employed many talented and passionate individuals, inspired one particularly amazing episode of South Park, and helped expose a new generation of listeners to some great guitar music. Approaching the end, you were exploited beyond recognition and forced onto a market for whom the novelty had worn off—and ultimately taken before your time. Thank you for the good memories. We’ll miss seeing what you could have been.
blog comments powered by Disqus