JT: He’s a skinny steampunk-looking guy named Slatterback Jay (I’ve always liked the last name “Slatterback”, I don’t know why), and because I can’t escape politics, my band’s name is No Match List. Yours?
AM: Mine’s a redhead named Ari Danger, and because I can’t escape Devo references, her band is called Prophylactic Tour. I like that you can reduce it to one avatar to obsess over in this new one, because one avatar plays a bunch of different instruments. I never was as quite in love in the old game with my singer as I was my guitarist, and now I don’t have to choose. So, what’s your verdict so far? Better or worse that RB1?
JT: I’m keeping my initial avatar looking the same until I rack up some serious cash, then I’m going to go on a shopping spree. Another benefit of this game – it makes clothes shopping more fun than any aimed-at-girls “fashion” game that’s ever been designed. So far, I’m enjoying it slightly more – I feel like the game opens up a bit faster, although I’m really sick of having Today by the Smashing Pumpkins come up every time I play a Mystery Set. What do you think makes games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero so engrossing?
AM: Most of it is that it’s cool to hear real pop music during a game. No, seriously, between the shape of the game players and the animation and the sheer awesomeness of the animation, it really gives you a chance to fantasize about being a rock musician. GH3 was fun at first but lost its appeal quickly because you could tell the designers didn’t really understand rock music culture. But Rock Band really gets it and finds it funny. Plus, you can play “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill. I also like the group play appeal of the game. Which is why I’m glad they’ve designed even solo play to be more like group play. Have you played online yet? What makes this game so addictive to you?
JT: There’s a constant debate that’s been raging on in gamer culture for the past few years about “casual” versus “hardcore”. Like most gamer debates, it’s interminably stupid. The root of gaming comes from games that, today, would be considered “casual” – games which were about simple mechanics, often elegant design and quick sessions. However, they’re also games that are devilishly tricky precisely because the mechanics are so straightforward, games which, like many well-designed skill-based diversions, can with obsessive practice develop impressive (if otherwise useless) skills. The Rock Band iteration of the virtual-musician genre gets it perfect – a whole set of skills that can be developed so thoroughly as to feel like a titanic accomplishment, but accessible enough that you can reel off “Livin’ on a Prayer” while your leftovers are microwaving.
AM: It’s true. I think most gamers would call me “casual” because I don’t play a lot of games, but I’m at the point in playing Rock Band where I play on hard most of the time. I’m actually surprised that there’s not a backlash against the Guitar Hero/Rock Band games precisely because the speed of the game, the community of it, and the fact that it gives you a chance to emulate a typical fantasy draws in a lot of people who don’t play video games. I have friends who haven’t owned a system in years beg to come over and play with us. Or maybe there is a backlash. Have you heard anything like that?
JT: GH/RB allows enough of a hardcore obsessiveness that I think it gets to skate by – plus it emulates something upon which we place a societal value of kickassness, being a rock star. And thanks to YouTube, great players do become stars of a sort. Speaking of your earlier point, what do you play? I’m interested to see what appeals to a “casual” Rock Band obsessive.
AM: I play the guitar, and sing occasionally (on easy, and much to the consternation of people around me and dogs in neighboring counties). Guitar is what I’m good at. I don’t have the greatest rhythm, and so the drums have basically scared me off, though I’m not ruling them out forever. When Marc and I play together, I’m usually on guitar and he’s on drums. What’s interesting to me is how much of a gap there often is between songs I like to play on the game and what I listen to. The Pixies is absolutely a better band than Boston, for instance, but wailing on a Boston guitar solo or singing “More Than A Feeling” is more fun. What do you play? Any dirty secrets about yourself you’ve discovered playing?
JT: Right now I’m trying to make the transition between Medium and Hard on guitar and Easy and Medium on drums, so my preferences have taken a backseat to anything that can teach me how to properly use the infernal orange fret. I’m a big fan of any 70s rock at this point, just because I feel calmer and more focused while playing it than more modern stuff. The structure of the songs also tends to break down more closely and logically, which is key for learning how to adapt my playing style. I also love rocking out to Alice in Chains, which is probably my most shameful secret. You?
AM: I sing along when playing Duran Duran. Shoot me now. The key to using the orange fret for me was thinking of it more like playing the actual guitar, where you run your whole hand up and down, and sometimes you can play the same notes in different ways. Not that I know how to play the guitar. Being lazy, I gave up after like a day of practice. One thing I’m really loving about this game is you can have a solo world tour all by yourself, with the setlists and opening up new cities and all that jazz that you needed a group to do in the last game. Also, they added Austin to the game, though I quarrel with their choice of clubs to parody. What do you think of the changes from the old game?
JT: I’ve only done solo so far (I’m on PSN, by the way, and my name is Hegemonyhog. Friend my ass!), but I love the fact that they’ve made it a full solo game rather than a bastardized Guitar Hero with hints of greater things on the horizon. That was one of my greatest complaints about GH3 – in order to make a “more fun” solo version, they just added in a bunch of useless modes that generally ended with you waiting around until you got the right power ups to beat Tom Morello’s bullshit. It was like Mario Kart with a guitar. Mario Kart with anything never works unless it’s Mario Kart with Mario, Karting. You?
AM: In previous reviews of games from this line, I had to talk up the lack of diversity, and I think the designers are actually listening to complaints and trying to do better. The first Rock Band made a lot of different skin tones and face shapes and body shapes available, and there’s even more now. And the men and women are equally represented in avatar options. The last game suffered mightily from too few female sung songs, and they’ve tried to fix that though they have a long way to go. But what frustrates me to no end is they seem to fall straight for the corporate-owned “alternative” radio rule: No black musicians. Or very few. It bothers me that they can somehow find room to have a hip hop act (Beastie Boys) but can’t even stop to consider that people would love to play Jimmy Hendrix. That’s probably my biggest complaint. Is there anything that you don’t like?
JT: That was my big complaint, as well. Why not an intense Bo Diddley lick? I think my only other complaint so far is in the city layout – many times, it’s hard for me to remember where a song I wanted to go back and five-star was, because of all the venue assignments in each city.
AM: What songs/bands do you want to see available in downloadable material? I’m hoping (dork in me) that they make a Fleetwood Mac pack, because Buckingham is a fun guitarist. I hope someone thinks about how great every instrument is in your average Prince song, and they make that a downloadable pack, though I fear Prince might not be generous about that.
JT: I want me an Eric Clapton pack. I want my fingers to bleed.