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June 23, 2009

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Rocked Out

Rock Band was actually the reason that we bought the XBox. Belle and I have a soft spot for gimmicky party attractions. Somehow, we forgot that we also have a neurotic, overprotective pit bull mutt. They don't really mix, and we kept putting off our plans. This weekend, we finally bit the bullet, boarded the dog, and brought the noise.

Watching people play for the first time, particularly people who are not A) incredibly extroverted or B) experienced gamers, was interesting. They were usually put on the drums, under the reasonable logic that hitting things is fun, and everyone was pretty much on Easy, because failing a song is not fun (the primacy of fun may be a debated topic in design circles, but when people are drinking it's not really an option). When the song first starts, the newbie would have an expression of utter panic--hitting the pad too late, bewildered by the number of notes coming in, only using one stick--and then, all of a sudden, there'd be this ah-hah! moment and they'd get it.

The speed of that jump between dread to drumming is so quick, in fact, that I've been trying to figure out the cause in the couple of days since. My best guess is that it comes from the realization that you're not just hitting buttons when they cross the bottom of the screen, but that you're playing in time with the music--the onscreen action is actually kind of a miscue. Once new players make that conceptual leap, the rest is a cakewalk. Which begs the question: the "highway o' notes" approach has become so standard that experienced gamers don't question it, but could it be the weakest part of the modern rhythm game? How else could we visualize a musical score without resorting to actual notation?

Once they sat down and got the hang of things, I think people enjoyed themselves. But there's certainly a karaoke factor--nobody wants to be the first to act like an idiot in front of everyone. You have to have a few Judas goats get things started with a couple of songs--the cheesier the better--before people will start to jump in. And even so, I think reports of the game's universal appeal may be a little presumptuous. And that's okay: it's a party, not an enforced Rock Band prison camp.

Not yet, anyway. I'm thinking of training Wallace to be the Fun Enforcer. If he's so set on biting people, we might as well channel it into a useful direction. And snarling madly at the end of a short leash while I shriek "more fun! MORE FUN!" sounds like a good party starter. For me, at least.

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