Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Coolness Simulator

A burning question: are professional guitarists naturally keen at Guitar Hero II? They should be, right? The controller’s a fake fucking guitar: five colorful fret buttons below the head - a single string of sorts to strum - a Whammy bar for chewing on the long notes. Size of a parlour … uh, axe. Odie-tongue red. Obviously, I already scratched my initials into it. But is there a road and stage advantage for pros?

Only one way to find out = party. My drunken, train-hoppin’, post-BeerFest panelists include Red Ram’s Mark Feduk, the Secretaries’ Tash Fryzuk, singers John Guliak and Corb Lund, Twin Fangs’ Paul Coutts joining on this side of the river. So. What happens first is you invent a band name, usually pornographic. Thus far, the righteously assembled have chosen in an AC/DC font: Emotionz, Shittickets, DNK, Devildyke and Truck, the night’s winner. By now, every available towel is slurping up spilled beer and some kind of leopard-skin liqueur Jenny Jenny from the Sun brought in.

Even this early, the “coolness simulator” has us all laughing and some ooh-ing at the sublime cartoon art of the menus. We pick our weapons, a fine exercise in gender-swapping – Manga-scrawny Judy Nails on the Cherry Blossom Gibson Les Paul, for example. The first four songs show up.

Lund to this day ignores Wolfmother and goes for Shout at the Devil, where everyone else usually picks Cheap Trick’s Surrender. Psychologists would do well to cross-section these choices. After some serious play, the list grows – G’N’R, Spinal Tap … even War Pigs. Solid.
“It’s not really a guitar, it’s a Whac-a-Mole!” Coutts exclaims. He’s right. As notes colour-matching the fret buttons speed down the infinite neck, your job is simple. Hit the fret button at the same time you strum, matching the oncoming target note with precise timing. The easy level (where you don’t make money to buy more songs, outfits and guitars) uses only the top three frets. And no chords. Easy. You basically play a pared-down rhythm guitar initially. Expert level, on the other hand, crushes your hand into a furry albino lobster claw which doesn’t matter much because you’re head’s screwed right off your neck anyway.

The game is a hit. Rock poses are struck. Sitting while playing appropriately mocked. Fryzuk screams and drops the thing laughing while hound-voiced Guliak slags himself, but gets the general hang of it. “I give myself ½ star out of five,” he laughs. With my own band, Hebrella, I quickly notice out loud how effective this game is as a role-playing device. Just like real musicians, you’re deaf to how great you just played, obsessed with and chatty about the notes you missed. Uh, great post-gig conversation, in other words.

Hard-rockin’, grey-wearin’ Coutts, meanwhile, generally refuses to pilot any videogame. But while a dance party forms in the music room, there he is, strumming to Danzig all by himself. A heartwarming crossover.

Side note: Someone clever should mix Guitar Hero with bar karaoke. Add virtual drums and keys. Instead of going out to see music, you’d make it! In the meantime …

Lund, it turns out, starts taking names after the typical pro-to-nerd translation fumble. His pro advantage kicks in. He rises to the top of the musician heap. The metal set list has him especially going. “Someone had good taste there,” he muses. “I could imagine it becoming very involved.

“Then again,” he points out the obvious, “it might be a better investment of time and energy to actually get a real guitar and apply your efforts there. But who wants to do that, right? Not like there’s any money in it.”

Thus: Guitar Hero’s ultimate drawback, this early version, anyway. It’s different enough from the real thing that if you can’t already play a real guitar, you’re totally pissing your time away.
Guliak and Lund happily spending the next hour on Wii Sports golf, well, that’s another story.

BACKBEEP: IBM Machine Language music programming (1985)
How cruel our junior high teachers were, making us program an entire song in machine language! Each note was something like “6348.” To go through and program all of Talking Heads’ Heaven without the ability to read music was the first time I stayed up all night on an assignment. Bah! All for a C+. But, you might say, was not a thing learned? Oh, yes. As stated: my teacher was a dink.

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