Friday, February 11, 2011

Guitar Zero

Guitar Hero is coming to an end.  Musicians the world over, rejoice.

I'm not ragging on Guitar Hero itself.  As a game, it invites the player to do something radically more creative than just find monsters and blaze away at them with whatever gun they've found in the game's environment.  Still calling on no more skills than hand-eye coordination, GH sends waves of notes sliding down the TV screen; as the notes enter the scoring box, the player should key the appropriate "fret" bar and strike the strumming controller.  There's also a so-called "whammy" controller so you can throw in special effects to make your played character more of a star.

No word on whether overexcited fans flash the stage or throw their undies.  I doubt it, it's supposed to be a family-friendly game.  But still, if you want it to be lifelike...

Actually, if you want it to be completely lifelike, the game should require you stay up many, many hours beyond your bedtime, spend interminable weeks on a tour bus jetlagged and cranky, have to shout at assorted promoters, venue owners, suffer endless equipment breakdowns, et cetera.  But who'd want to play that?  And at the end of it, I think flashing fans would be a puny reward for all that misery.  So Guitar Hero is a highly concentrated caricature of the most exciting part of the rock-n-roll star's life, the stage performance.  And none of the bad stuff.

If you're not already a guitar player but have ever strummed even one note on an "air guitar," then Guitar Hero's controller is perfectly comfortable.  It's the right shape, a tad smaller than the real thing, and not terribly demanding.  Five keys for frets, strum bar, whammy bar.  Nothing about a wa-wa pedal, tuning the amps, having a string break in the middle of a song.  Unlike some other games, Guitar Hero uses both hands, never tries to terrify you with gruesome images, and features lots of different music.  But what if you're already a musician?

Don't play the game.  GH's controller, the fret bars for example, is nothing like a real guitar.  They're evenly spaced and go all the way across the neck.  Three-finger E, for example, requires fretting two strings next to each other, and one string by itself at the next fret down the neck.  Guitar Hero isn't that picky: either fret it or don't.  Nothing in there about individual strings.  And down at the strumming controller, you're either hitting the strings or you're not.

So if you've been playing a lot of Guitar Hero and it's got you all excited to learn how to play, first be warned: you don't know anything yet.  You have some bad habits to unlearn before you can begin to learn the good ones.  Guitar Hero is to guitar playing as operating a computer mouse is to typing.

I've never actually played it, but I watched a couple of kids whaling away at the controller in front of a display at Best Buy.  They were pretty physical about it, making faces and as far as the game went, doing very well.  They were certainly keeping up with the notes on the screen, and occasionally a message would flash on the screen to announce their Star Power had increased or something like that.  I asked them if they knew how to play guitar.

"No.  But maybe I could, now."  It's nice to imagine, isn't it?  That you could play a game and become good at something real from that experience.  Microsoft's Flight Simulator series of "games" is so realistic in the behavior and control that you could spend hours "playing" in the Simulator game, step into the cockpit of one of the modeled aircraft and recognize all the salient gauges and controls well enough to describe how and when they're used.

 It wouldn't make you a pilot, not by a long way.  It's one thing to crash and press Reset, it's a whole 'nother thing to crash and wait for the trucks with the flashing lights.  But you'd be familiar with the controls, the theory would be sound.  Actions and their natural reactions would be as you'd learned in the game.

There's other games even further removed from reality, but based on activities that should be fun and involving.  Tony Hawk, legendary American skater, has his name on a skateboarding game series; the last two installments have had a skateboard-like controller.  How did a player interact with the game before?

Thumbs.  Clicking the controllers, wiggling the little joystick.  Growing up, my thumbs' involvement in skateboarding was 1) holding wrenches to switch wheels from one deck to another and 2) trying not to break them during falls.  There were lots of falls, a couple of scars.  I brought a lot more natural skill to biking, but there are a few permanent marks on my body from that, too.  Maybe I should've played one of the biking games instead.  No, wait - those weren't around then.  You had to actually go out and do it.

I'd love to be able to play guitar.  I know it takes a big investment of time and effort, and of course a bit of outlay for a guitar.  You can get a good used axe all over town for as little as $100.

That's cheaper than a new copy of Guitar Hero.

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