“Goddamn it!” Matthew Norwood ’10 says, throwing his drumsticks down in defeat. “You’re fucking kidding me, right?”
Fingers jerking in undisguised agitation, he gropes the floor for the discarded sticks.
Head hanging in shame, Keegan Cassady ’10 mumbles a word of apology.
“Sorry doesn’t keep us in the green,” Norwood yells, his words greeted with a roar of laughter from the bassist — for some reason Steven Thomas ’10 always finds hilarity in Norwood’s aggravation. His face regaining its former composure, Norwood agrees to take another shot. With the well-known mantra of “one more try,” the bandmates pick up their instruments with a deep breath and a one, two, one-two-three-four.
The plastic guitar slung unceremoniously over his shoulder, Greg Mlynarczyk ’10 flexes his fingers as the drummer, Norwood, dons his only pair of weathered socks to keep the downbeat just right. As the first notes flit across the screen, bassist Thomas reclines against the stained and aged sofa, inconspicuously keeping the unrelenting beat. Topping off this troupe of mock musicians stands Cassady, who lends his vocal stylings to the group. As the members take their stations for the next song, the group of onlookers — both actual and virtual — draws a collective breath. The band begins to play.
For those who don’t know, Rock Band is a video game that simulates the experience of playing in, well, a rock band. As notes appear on the screen, players hit corresponding buttons to play along to the chosen song. The difficulty level ranges from extremely easy to oh-my-God-I-think-I-just-lost-a-finger diffuclt. However, only when players occupy every instrument can they appreciate the full scope of the game.
A true study in teamwork, Rock Band encompasses the adage “one for all, and all for one,” as a mediocre musician can single-handedly bring a band’s score from the glowing green of success to the flashing red of failure. With Darwinian brutality, true gamers willingly sacrifice shabby players for the betterment of the band. Rock Band brings the cutthroat atmosphere of interactive gaming to new heights by forcing players to rely not just on themselves, but on each other. A band can only climb virtual charts when guitar, bass, drums and vocals work in unison.
By offering a staggering playlist gleaned from a wide range of genres, Rock Band appeals to followers of practically every musical movement. As such, this addictive game garners a wide fan base.
“It really has pretty much everything, from hip-hop to classic rock to mind-melting metal,” Andy Principe ’10 said. “It’s just got those songs that everyone knows, so pretty much anyone can walk up to it and enjoy it.”
For many, Rock Band has made music more accessible. Before it, music fans were relegated to the realm of watchers; now anyone can pick up a controller and shred away to artists from The Rolling Stones to Queens of the Stone Age. This is the beginning of a generation of participators, rather than consumers, as more and more fans find it within their power to strum along to their favorite songs. Any four friends can pick up their controllers and chart the course from garage band to rock stars in less than an hour.
Experienced musicians, on the other hand, do not always have an advantage in the game. Principe, who has been playing real drums for ten years, said his instrumental expertise helps him as much as it hurts him.
“The hard level on Rock Band is nearly impossible because it’s just off the real drum part, off enough to make it foreign to me,” he said.
By deconstructing each song to its core and examining guitar, drums, bass and vocals independently of one another, Rock Band offers a lesson in the anatomy of music. Stripping each song down allows players to study their own parts and, more importantly, to see how their parts relate to those of their teammates.
“I really understand a song more once I’ve gone through the vocals,” Cassady said.
In some ways, even choosing an instrument is a revealing exercise for players. Reserved and determined, the bassist sets the pace of each song, while extroverted, exuberant personalities tend to favor vocals. However, as Norwood tore through a seemingly-impossible solo, it became clear that true rock stars are only satiated by the limelight.
The band frequently dissolved into bickering over whose instrument is the hardest.
“Did you see that? There’s no way you could’ve handled that streak,” one member exclaimed.
Aside from these occasional outbursts of artistic differences, the game nevertheless fosters a stronger sense of musical appreciation.
“Before, when I listened to music, the bass was just in the background,” Thomas said, his fingers relaxing after a particularly frantic stream of notes. After playing the game, I realized how challenging some of these songs can be.”
While the game may lead to a more informed generation of music fans, the ability to shift swiftly from the green to orange button does not equate to having legitimate musical training.
“It really irritates me when people who play these video games think they know what they’re doing,” devoted spectator Soyoung Hwang ’11 said. “You would never be able to play Hendrix in real life.”
The fact is, not everyone is a guitar hero.
Sometimes, however, Rock Band inspires gamers to pick up the real-world equivalents of their favorite game instruments. Encouraged by his success in the game, Norwood decided to try his hand at guitar.
“It’s much harder than it looks, but now I definitely admire how hard these musicians work.” Though he handles the electric controller with ease, in reality Norwood opts for acoustic. Even so, he remains convinced that he’ll be up to his Rock Band standards in no time.
The addictive and competitive natures of the game has led to some players forming fake Rock Band groups. Principe and his hallmates formed Resurrecting Zeus after heavy gaming when the second edition was released. When they’re not trying to master the game, they compete against other fake bands.
“We challenge any William and Mary students to try to dethrone Zeus,” Principe said, “if they have the gumption.”
Though the odd participant may see the game as a musical muse, for the vast majority of players, Rock Band acts simply as an icebreaker, party attraction or destresser. The New Yorker claimed young members of Barack Obama’s campaign staff would play Rock Band on the weekends. But when your hand starts unconsciously twitching to the tunes pulsing from your car stereo, it’s clear these games have started something.