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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Player's Club: Five Fallacies About The Beatles: Rock Band

There's this thing called The Beatles: Rock Band. You've probably heard of it, assuming you've turned on a television or picked up a newspaper or magazine at any point in the last two weeks. The hype is deafening, but justified. Still, some misconceptions about the game have taken root, and it's about time we weeded them out. Weeding out is definitely something the Beatles are familiar with.

1. It’s just another Rock Band game.

Although the gameplay is fundamentally the same, The Beatles: Rock Band looks and feels like no other music game. Instead of tossing out Beatles songs with the same generic character designs and performance animations found in Rock Band, Beatles: Rock Band was built from the ground up to offer an all-encompassing Beatles experience. A breath-taking opening sequence sets the visual tone, and every cut-scene and background animation is both elegant and unmistakably Beatles-esque. You also unlock various pieces of Beatles memorabilia, like photographs, old promotional films, and even the band’s 1963 fanclub-exclusive Christmas 45. The experience is so consistently engrossing that I’m not even bothered by another major distinction between this and other Rock Band games: it’s completely self-contained. You can’t mix-and-match songs between Rock Band and Beatles: Rock Band.

2. It’s not just another Rock Band game.

Other than the presentation, there are no surprises here. The Beatles: Rock Band plays almost exactly like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. You’ve got a little plastic guitar with five buttons and a strum bar, a kit with four drums and a kick pedal, and a microphone for the vocals. With these controllers you play along with classic Beatles songs, hitting the drumpads or the guitar’s buttons based on a stream of color-coded notes that act as a simplified music chart. There are a few minor differences; the tone switch and whammy bar no longer affect the music, and up to two other vocalists can harmonize with the lead singer. Otherwise Beatles: Rock Band plays exactly like you’d expect.

3. It could be the “most important video game of all time”.

So says Seth Schiesel of the New York Times, whose hyperbolic review has inspired much online discussion. It’s possible this game could attract consumers from outside the traditional video game demographics, and might provide a prime bonding opportunity for young and old. Nothing about Beatles: Rock Band will change how games are made, marketed, or consumed, though. It’s foolish to assume whatever acclaim or respect this game might receive will carry over to the medium in general, or that grandparents who love the Beatles will all of a sudden start playing Call of Duty or Uncharted. Beatles: Rock Band’s importance will be measured by two things: its impact upon parent company Viacom’s stock price, and if it convinces major music game hold-outs like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and U2 to play ball. Otherwise Beatles: Rock Band will go down as a beautiful and incredibly enjoyable footnote.

4. You have to be a certain age to like it.

I’m seen a lot of message board and weblog comments that basically look like this: “maybe my dad will like it, but I’m in my 20’s, and nobody I know listens to the Beatles”. Nobody has to like the Beatles. In fact, “I don’t like the Beatles” is the most effective critique against the game. You can’t argue with that. But you also can’t ignore the band’s timeless appeal. Your twentysomething friends may not like the band, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands of people born in the ‘80’s who do love them, along with millions more born in at least one of the last ten or so decades. It’s impossible to be universally loved, but I’m pretty sure the Beatles come closer than any other rock band. I’ve loved their music since I was ten, and I was born several years after the band broke up. If I followed the logic I’m attacking here, and based my argument solely upon my own personal experience, I’d say that people in their twenties and thirties enjoy the Beatles more than their parents, since almost all my friends like the band, but none of my parents, aunts, or uncles ever really cared. That’s obviously an idiotic statement, but it’s just as idiotic to say you have to be old to enjoy this music. The Beatles aren’t just beloved by baby boomers; their appeal is wider than any other band that has appeared in a music game, because their appeal is wider than any other band, period.

5. The game, and Beatles appreciation in general, is pointless nostalgia and misguided baby boomer hagiography.

Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost is a brilliant video game scholar. Few writers come close to the impact he’s had upon the field. He’s also as wrong about The Beatles: Rock Band as Seth Schiesel. Here’s a quote from Bogost’s rebuke to Schiesel’s review:

“The Beatles: Rock Band represents the apotheosis of boomer nostalgia. It is memory created from scratch by their children, as if to affirm, ‘Yes Mom, the Beatles really are the pinnacle of music and culture, just like you always suspected.’ It is a game that says, implicitly, ‘It's still 1969 in everyone's heart, even if we couldn't all be there.’ It is the Greatest Generation for that generation's children. It is a pat on the back and a knowing smile to those who gave the finger to the back-patters and knowing-smilers”

Bogost’s argument is just as ridiculous as Schiesel’s, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. He seems incapable of separating the Beatles’ music from its era, inextricably linking it to the faulty, self-obsessed narrative that boomers have created about their youth. He also implies that younger people only enjoy the Beatles’ music because their parents or grandparents did. So, depending on your age, Bogost is either insulting or condescending.

It’s true that not enough attention is paid to the sociopolitical subtext of video games, but The Beatles: Rock Band should be one of the last places to start. The game doesn’t beatify anything about the 1960’s other than the career of the Beatles, and it’s absurd to claim that a celebration of that career is a de facto celebration of baby boomers in general and their overall cultural impact.

The Beatles remain relevant as a band not because our parents’ generation holds them up as the pinnacle of the form. It’s not even because their music has thoroughly influenced all of rock and pop. They remain relevant because a significant portion of each successive generation has fallen in love with their music. Some people might love that music solely as misplaced nostalgia for a 1960’s that never really existed, but it’s untenable to claim that everyone loves them for that reason. You can love the Beatles because you think they wrote really good songs. You can appreciate the unique and undeniable influence they’ve had on pop music in isolation from whatever other cultural impact they’ve made. To say otherwise is just kind of silly. You can even vehemently disagree with Schiesel without resorting to intentionally antagonistic hyperbole.

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