Every year in January, for several years now, I’ve been traveling down to Kentucky to hang out with 50 or 60 old colleagues from TSR at KenCon—named after my buddy Ken Whitman. This year, I was introduced to two items of particular satisfaction. The first was the “Irish Car Bomb,” a drink consisting of Guinness draft beer, Jameson’s Irish whiskey, and Bailey’s Irish Cream. The second was the Rock Band video game. (Just to be clear, the drink and the game were on separate nights, so you can trust my judgment about both.)
What makes Rock Band so amazing is the gestalt of it. It’s more than just a karaoke game, or a guitar game, or a drums game, or even just a game, for that matter. Rock Band is about four people (technically one to four) facing a virtual audience together and trying to wow them all. If one player fumbles, another can rescue him or her by going into “overdrive”—basically showing off to the crowd while the fumbler gets his/her act back together, so to speak. The onscreen feedback, from the cheering or booing of the crowd itself, to the performanc track for each instrument, to the text messages proclaiming “awesome solo” or “bass groove” or “unison bonus,” to the personalized score (a percentage and possible congratulatory phrase) for each player at song’s end, all adds to the sensation that you’re really working a gig. Do poorly, and the audience will boo you off the stage; do well, and you’ll find yourself invited to ever bigger venues, with more difficult songs and greater rewards.
The song list runs from 70’s hits to modern numbers, which means that my college-aged daughters, my wife, and I can all find songs we like. In fact, the game has provided another way for us to introduce one another to new musical experiences. I got a kick out of the daughters’ reaction to Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time” (“Does this song ever actually start?” and then, “Does it ever end?”); they got a kick out of hearing their mother sing the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and Timmy and the Lords of the Underworld’s “Timmy and the Lords of the Underworld.” For PS3, Xbox, and Wii versions, more songs are available weekly for online purchase.
Which brings me to the PS2 version. We’ve had a PS2 for a couple of years, because it’s relatively cheap and there are so friggin’ many games available for it. So after playing Rock Band at KenCon, and having investigated the options—including the considerable cost for a PS3 console—I bought Rock Band for the PS2, knowing that I could use the same instrument package (wireless guitar, drum set, and microphone) if we later upgraded to the PS3. We played the PS2 version pretty heavily for a couple of months, then bit the bullet and dropped the cash for a PS3 console and Rock Band disk. While the PS2 version is a lot of fun, and probably just fine for casual play, the fuller version adds some tweaks that more hard-core fans of the game pretty much need: like customizable characters and a “Rock Shop” where you can get them new clothes, instruments, tattoos, makeup, and hairdos, by spending “money” they earn from gigs; or like seeing your own band name painted on the side of your tour bus; or like traveling overseas to play at arenas; let alone expanding your song library to keep the game constantly fresh.
I should mention that I’ve performed a bit music before live audiences in the past, singing and strumming an acoustic guitar. (It comes with the hillbilly upbringing.) Given that, I’d say that while playing Rock Band won’t teach you to play a real guitar or bass, the drum set just could get you started toward real percussion, and the singing feedback could certainly help polish your pipes. But even if you never take your performance beyond the virtual stage of Rock Band, the game will definitely teach you a better appreciation for the subtleties of rhythm in music you hear elsewhere. In other words, you’ll enjoy your favorite bands all the more.
In a world too full of violence, an entertainment genre too devoted to hack-and-slash games, and a culture too bent on competition, Rock Band offers a fascinating and satisfying alternative, bringing people together as a team for the sake of performance itself. I honestly can’t think of a better game—or even one that comes close.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, it led me to pick up a real guitar again. I’m taking rock lessons on a shiny red, used Washburn X20. Wish me luck!