Review: Guitar Hero (**** stars)

Guitar Hero Logo

I remember hearing about Guitar Hero way back in 2005. No one thought much of a game about playing a fake guitar. You probably would know that by the title, in any event. Anyway, as far as I remember, I instantly dismissed the game as some cheap gimmick meant to sell fake guitars to parents who thought “Hey, my kid might just like to play a fake guitar”. To learn a fake guitar sounds much more palatable than learning a real guitar, and so lots of people bought fake guitars that year when everyone and their friends and their cool uncles were talking about this. “Dude, in this game you play guitar but not really!”

Guitar Hero is meta-guitar playing, in the best possible sense of the word.

Still, fake guitar playing sounded like a stupid idea to me. A kid, in high school, playing a fake guitar at home certainly doesn’t impress friends nor family nor anyone on the face of the earth…yet…then it became popular. Why, in anyone’s right mind, would they find this “cool” or “edgy” or “fun”, but other games like this were not?

Everyone was playing fake guitars, and I played Dance Dance Revolution. Hitting arrows with my feet. Repeatedly.

There’s no doubt that DDR contains something called “fun” – in 2005 (hey, the years match), in the summer, my friend Joe showed me the moves. I invited him over, we play lots of DDR, I get addicted to the thing. Now you need to know that Joe’s what we could call a “dedicated gamer” – when he starts something, he finishes it. He shows no deviation from the cycle, nothing at all. If he buys it, he finishes it. So Joe plays lots of DDR. At home, at the arcades, wherever; Joe goes absolutely insane. He also plays with his socks on, just asking for broken bones.

Still, Joe and I continued to play that day, not only because DDR provides fun with a friend, but the remarkable way he described my movements as “like a sumo wrestler”. I’ll be frank – I weigh over 200 pounds, and still got a little gut down there. And I slammed that dance pad HARD. Also recommended: don’t eat fried dough before or after DDR. Not exactly a good idea. Friend dough’s still delicious, though.

At the end of 2005, I was still playing DDR. Am I an otaku? No, not really – I initially did it for fun, but then it became a cardio workout, which, really, isn’t so much “fun” and more like “work”. Music/rhythm games (as they are called nowadays) eventually reach a certain dexterity limit – at a point, you can’t get better. I hit Standard, and that was it – doing songs on Expert would make me fall to the ground in a sort of heap of flab like a freshly baked slab of fried dough (though more sweaty and disgusting than delicious). Try as I might, I could not get past the learning curve – my feet said no, as did my body. So, I put my RedOctane pad (of at least 70 dollars or so) into the closet. I did not take up the dance pad since, although writing this makes me want to play some more.

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray,
But now I keep Your word.
68 You are good and do good;
Teach me Your statutes.

Psalm 119

Around September, I suddenly remembered the Guitar Hero series again. Lots of free clone games popped up over the Internet, so no real excuses; you must at least TRY the thing at that point. I mean, critics raved about meta-playing guitar…but then again, critics said that Million Dollar Baby was an awesome movie (It wasn’t – go watch it and tell me it is). So, I tried Frets on Fire. Notes rocketed across the screen. I couldn’t hit any of them. That was on Easy.

Wow, why am I so horrible at this?

Well, a keyboard doesn’t work. Frets on Fire attempts valiantly to work around this handicap by making you turn your keyboard side ways. Use the F1-F5 keys for frets, and strum using the enter key. Frankly, this craptacular setup works terribly. As a result, I bought myself a Guitar Hero controller for PS2, plugged it into the trusty old USB adapter and tried Frets on Fire again.

It turns out that the game’s actually fun!

I downloaded a bunch of songs, ranging in quality (they all happened to be from Guitar Hero, fortunately. Hurray for Bittorrent). Being the somewhat moral man I am, I felt like a swarthy pirate and decided that I would, indeed, buy the game. At Best Buy, I managed to convince my parents to buy it for me (we were there to pick up some sort of audio equipment, so my ulterior motives apparently worked). I brought that baby home, and began my journey into meta-guitar land.

I was a man possessed. I didn’t play any other games for a whole month. It was crazy. I strummed that guitar into oblivion. Thankfully, Harmonix constructed it solidly enough that a plump buffoon such as myself won’t break it too easily.

Why was this fun, I asked myself? I don’t play any instrument. I can barely read musical notes, and still can’t (and I took Elemental Music Theory, for goodness sake). Guitar has never, ever, EVER, interested me in any way, shape, or form. Yet, I felt compelled to play.A fake guitar became a sweet, sweet indulgence – the virtual crowd, they loved me. Oh God, my hand hurt that first day – I played for five hour straight. I must have done something wrong.

After that euphoric experience, it felt like I broke my wrist. Yet, I continued playing. I was a closet masochist. I had to keep going.

And this music…rock music? Where did this come from? I like music, but never really loved rock – just listened here and then.

My parents never really influenced my listening habits. Sure, they were rock and roll pop people, but there was never music around the house all the time or anything. I never even got a CD player until I went in 6th grade or so – no desire whatsoever. And it’s not as if my musical taste were anything to cheer about – Radio Disney compilations? DC Talk? Yeah, I’m not entirely proud (I still like DC Talk). Just something to listen to while one does other things, really. Catchy stuff.

Yet now, I love rock music. To death. With a passion. Wikipedia became like a godsend to find out about the bands placed in the game, and many more.

And what of real guitar? I now respect guitarists, much as I respect soloists on the orchestra stage. Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto look just as respectable as a Slash guitar solo. It’s all the same – the musicianship, the passion, the skill. It’s just a different subset. Your hand will tell you.

Guitar Hero, and probably real guitar, inspires this passion. Like any great thing in life, it starts with pain. Great pain. But pain makes you learn. It can give us a new perspective on things – it can give us a deeper understanding. Once I straddled the horse, I never looked back. With each new difficulty level, the game continued to beat me down into submission. Harmonix hates me. It wants to give me a water boarding, slam me in the scrotum with a sledgehammer, and beat my head in with a sack of doorknobs. It’s a dominatrix, and I am the slave. I take it willingly – pain and pleasure are intertwined. Then, after the height, the dust settles, and I’ve reached a new level. My skills, they improve. I can now hit chords; new avenues are open to me. I can finally pass that darned Queens of the Stone Age song. I hate you, Josh Homme. But I love it; I can’t get enough. I don’t care if it hurts – it’s tough love. You learn. You improve. And then you want to play more.

71 It is good for me that I was afflicted,
That I may learn Your statutes.
72 The law of Your mouth is better to me
Than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

Psalm 119

Even though it’s repetitive, and perhaps shallow, it shows none of these faces at the same time. Then comes the pain. I finally crushed Ozzy Osbourne and Zakk Wilde under my bare footed heel – they bow to the new rock god of Medium. Then Guitar Hero whips a slice of humble pie into my mouth and smack me into Hard. Once you hit that fifth fret button, you’ll never go back. Did I crush Hard mode? Oh yeah. Expert? No. I just couldn’t get hammer ons and pull offs. The timing was way too precise. The Queens of the Stone Age beat me down again; they regrouped and pulled out the weirdest, oddest timings for guitar playing  I ever attempted to meta-play in my life. But this time I relented. I gave up.

The pain was over, certainly. But what of it?

My great grandfather died a number of years ago. He was an interesting guy – he also had an awkward nickname, Boom. He liked to eat. He liked to eat until he was bursting with food, like a pain. It wasn’t just the taste – it was that sense of being full, overstuffed, something he considered as contentment. Over the years, my grandmother took care of him and took him shopping and the like, but he always remained completely independent. Even at 87, he drove his own car (it’s miraculous he never got into a car accident) and attributed his fantastic 20/20 vision to carrots. He suffered from cancer late in life, skin cancer and lung cancer and bladder cancer and all the bad kinds. He never gave in – not until they told him he couldn’t eat anymore. He died a day after that. He loved eating. In the end, it was his decision to give in – through the pain, he endured because he just loved the different tastes of food and enjoyed himself doing it. He even loved bleu cheese – completely raw, mold and all. He died with pride. When he couldn’t do what he loved with any proficiency, that was the end for him. The end of an era – the end of his life.

You can only do what you love for so long. Guitar Hero is for the masochist in all of us, dying to jump out and break our wrists. And we’ll love it, even though it’s bad for us. Even then, it teaches us to dedicate ourselves to a single task without wavering, a constant desire for mastery. This is what makes us learn; this is what makes Guitar Hero so wonderful. One could call it an over achiever’s gateway drug.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.