Unnecessary Fretting

« February 2010 »


When the history of videogames is carved into platinum-iridium tablets and locked in the vault, which game will go down as the most reviled? Nerds will say Superman 64, because it did indeed suck hard in a way that even awful games don't suck hard. The Puritans and conservatives and Jesus-freaks will, of course, say Grand Theft Auto, because it has fucking in it.

But I think, when it's all added up, the winner will be Guitar Hero. Or, more accurately, the entire Guitar Hero / Rock Band universe, which, for reviling purposes, only counts as one game. There is a certain breed of motherfucker who despises these games, and more importantly, despises the very existence of the idea behind them. And one such motherfucker is The New Republic's David Hajdu, who is still hung up about this shit four-and-a-half years after the first game hit. Why? ACTUAL QUOTE TIME!

"...this is the main failing of music games, and it is a significant one--they have the insidious effect of glorifying classic rock, a music with an already bloated reputation that is founded on its very bloatedness. In the games’ absorption with technical prowess, speed, flash, grandiose show, and fakery, they not only affirm the enduring allure of classic rock to kids and young adults, especially males; they also advance its tyranny."

If there were a video game that let you emulate the wankery of a New Republic writer, called, perhaps, Bullshit Hero II, Hajdu would have just hundred-percent-ed "Through the Fire and the Flames". Yes, there is classic rock in these games. Yes, the first Guitar Hero dipped heavily into arena-rock standards of the 60s and 70s. But if they're representing or advancing the tyranny of anything, it's a view of rock that solidified in the 80s. The hair, the pyro, the attitudes. But seen through the inescapable self-aware media filter of today.

But more importantly, there are over a thousand fucking songs in Rock Band. Classic rock lovers have maybe a hundred-and-fifty, tops. And frankly, every time Paramore comes up on random, I tend to think the game could idolize classic rock a bit more. But then Boston shows up, and I remember that at least the Paramore songs are short.

Hajdu's over-analysis continues at length, in that erudite, stick-up-the-ass way that gives intellectuals a bad reputation. You know, the kind full of sentences the author thinks are cleverly self-deprecating, but aren't? Like this one:

"I knew I looked ridiculous holding a cheesy plastic faux-Stratocaster; yet some of the best times I have enjoyed with my children have required me to look ridiculous. (For more than a few of those movie nights, we have all dressed in clothes to match the films.)" I swear, if I ever run into Hajdu at Whole Foods, I'm going to knock the acai organic fruit leathers he's buying for his spawn as a treat for doing well at Montessori, send the kids home with a case of Fruit By The Foot from Sam's Club, and explain patiently to their father how he's ruining everything that is good and wonderful in the world by considering its sociopolitical impact on his privileged Boomer heritage. I mean, slog through this morass of a paragraph, if you can:

"Elementally, then, the games are concerned with the creation of identity, the mastery of rules, and the navigation of social systems as means of earning distinction and rewards. It fits that they would appeal to adolescents (and regressive adults) struggling to come to terms with the grown-up world. There is no harm in all this, though clear dangers lie in the consequences of success in these games’ schemes--that is, in their opulent glorification of ego-gratifying luxury, idolatry, and easy sex. Foremost among those hazards is the delusion that an ego adequate to achieving rock stardom can be gratified by any amount of anything."

Nobody gives karaoke this kind of shit.

Fundamentally, there's no difference between what Hajdu is doing here and what anti-porn crusaders did in front of 7-Elevens in the 80s. Well, except for vocabulary. But they both think that if a form of entertainment offends their delicate sensibilities, then society itself must reject that thing. The simpleton says that if you see a tittie, you go to hell. The snob says that if you enjoy playing along to "We Got The Beat" on plastic drums, you may lose yourself in an existential void, full of materialistic vice and spiritual emptiness. Same shit, different dictionary.

And then Hajdu REALLY goes off the fucking rails, releasing a toxic cloud of methane gas and forcing the evacuation of several nearby small towns.

"What’s troubling about Guitar Hero and Rock Band is not the presence of competition in the context of music, but the terms of that competition: the values--or more accurately, the non-values--the games promote. The games measure performance almost entirely by two standards: speed and flash (accomplished by use of a whammy bar on the play guitars). The more notes you hit on the games’ buttons and the more rapidly you hit them, the higher your score, the richer you get, and the more girls who thrust their gargantuan digital breasts your way."

Here, Hajdu proves himself to be exactly, 100%, in every way, shape and form as ignorant about game mechanics, motivation, and reward as the Christian pro-family groups are about Grand Theft Auto. He does every single fucking thing they do, almost in the same order.

First, he gets the game mechanics completely wrong. The whammy bar accomplishes flash? What does that even mean? And the game doesn't reward speed, it rewards ACCURACY. Speed and the number of notes affect difficulty. Yes, you will score more points on a difficult song than you will on an easy one, but that doesn't fucking matter, because NOBODY CARES. What matters is how many points you score on a per-song basis, which is measured as a percentage of the maximum points possible for that song, which the game delivers by a five-star ranking. Two hundred thousand points on one song might be five stars, but the same points on another song might mean you failed out halfway through.

He drastically overestimates the importance of both points and in-game money to the player, then completely makes up some shit about gargantuan heaving woman-breasts. Even if titties are in the game, players don't care, unless they get in the way of us seeing the notes, in which case we don't get virtual erections, we just get pissed off at the programmers.

By the way, in case you were wondering, Hajdu does a delicate pas-de-doofus around the whole "why don't you play a real instrument" criticism you'd expect from a piece like this. He implies it, by going on at length about his own musical dabblings, building them up while tearing the music games down. And then he ends the article with a lengthy bit on, what else, Beatles Rock Band, which he damns with faint praise, and simultaneously praises with faint damns, envisioning a version of the game that somehow recreated the shitty, unpleasant part of being a Beatle.

All I can say is, thank fuck David Hajdu isn't the lead on Super Mario Galaxy 2. I'd hate to buy the game, jump on a Koopa, and spend the next hour picking brown goo out of my boot treads with the Wii Remote and exploring my feelings about the value of inter-species diplomacy with the nunchuk. I shudder to think of the dystopian game industry that would result from being based on David Hajdu's ancient, tattered, and largely apocryphal memories of this thing called "fun".