Put your hand up if you like video game soundtracks. Ah yes, just as I thought. You all love them, perfect. I’m quite a fan myself, despite the fact there’s only one shop within a hundred miles that stocks any whatsoever. When I do get there once in a blue moon, the large stacks of precariously piled CDs jut scream out visions of candy coloured, Japanese role playing, time consuming dungeon crawls. Oh and Naruto. Lotta love for the Naruto soundtracks there, even if most of them aren’t for any actually Naruto games. But I digress.
Amongst all of those stacks of CDs, never have I come across anything with “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band” emblazoned on the cover, idly sitting in front of either another seventeen Final Fantasy soundtracks or a horrifically overpriced Tales of Symphonia 12 disc box set. And this absence didn’t occur to me until today.
Why aren’t there any Guitar Hero or Rock Band soundtracks out there? Surely, with the popularity of the games and the fact that the music featured in them is already rather established, they’d be able to make a killing. Not off me of course, but off some people? Sure.
And then the next thought occurred to me; why didn’t I long for the presence of a Guitar Hero soundtrack on that shelf, replacing one of the faceless JRPG covers?
And the answer’s simple, the music in them is fairly rubbish.
For while the Guitar Heroes and Rock Bands and so-ons of this world are rather popular gaming franchises, especially with people who wish they were able to proficiently play guitar, drums or rock music in general, the music featured in them isn’t the main appealing factor, is it? Whenever I look through the song list of a new Guitar Hero installment, I always note about five songs I kind of like, with one or two that I really love if I’m lucky. And that’s not the way a music game should make you feel.
So I put up with the music; it’s not the thing that draws me in. After all, how many of you see a song by a rather faceless and thoroughly pants indie band you’ve probably never heard of and squeal in anticipation at the thought of rocking out to it through your disappointingly adequate TV speakers? Or jamming along one more time to “You Give Love a Bad Name”, that painfully ubiquitous Bon Jovi song that seems to get included on every track list that doesn’t include enough mildly nauseating nostalgia harking back to the ’80s?
Games like Guitar Hero may not have the best music in them, presumably to save costs because decent rock costs more than twenty pence to acquire the rights to, but that isn’t the beginning and end of this problem. If you were to map out the number of modern music games currently available across a large music store organized by genre, we’d start to get a better idea of the problem.
The rock and metal sections would be cluttered with update after update of the two main players in the industry and special band-specific editions for musicians that stopped being current in the industry about twenty years ago. But what about everywhere else?
Nearly every other genre would be painfully thin on the ground. And while the likes of pop, indie, rap, dance and whatever-the-hell-Wii-Music-was-supposed-to-be have begun to be featured in games more recently, there’s still nowhere near the kind of breadth of choice in our interactive music as there is in our conventional kind.
And while DJ Hero and Band Hero and whatever Hero’s coming to save us next is all well and good, I really think developers should be casting their intellectual nets far further into the pool of music gaming ideas that remains thoroughly uncharted. Where are the games that challenge players to become singer songwriters and master piano and vocals at the same time before encouraging them to write their own music? Where are the electronica-based games that look like Tron and combine synths and mixing decks to create your ultimate rave? We haven’t even begun to look at games that actually evaluate the quality of a player’s singing on its own merit, as opposed to just imitating the original style of the band. And that’s not even going into jazz, blues, musicals, classical, instrumental, acoustic, folk and countless other genres that are just as much music as rock and roll.
Until these types of games start getting made, I will no longer celebrate these maddeningly niche rock music games that are able to project themselves to the masses because of a vacuous lack of competition. Video game fans could turn to anything given half the chance; if only they could give it a go.
After all, if they think that “being in the moment” is jamming along to Guns ‘n’ Roses on Guitar Hero III, then clearly they’ve never been in the depths of a massive crowd wailing along at the best gig of their lives. Obviously they haven’t ever swung along as they sank into the piano keys of a jazz band or been at the heart of an orchestra playing the score from Pirates of the Caribbean or Dmitri Shostakovich’s heartbreaking 110a Symphony. And if they haven’t, it’s incredibly difficult to understand what it truly feels like to be in the moment of music that really makes you feel. There’s no better place than in games to share these moments of exhilaration and euphoria, moments which create the same feelings as catching that elusive legenedary Pokémon, saving Hyrule from Ganondorf one more time or collecting that final star in a Mario game.
When games are able to create memories so powerful that when you hear that song again, a swelling of pounding emotion comes surging back into your head and all you remember is how you felt back then, then I will believe that music gaming has reached its zenith, not before. And while it may not sound like I have something against punk or metal or old school rock music featuring in the Rock Heroes or Guitar Bands of tomorrow, I don’t. I just think suggesting it’s the only type of music gamers are interested in is ridiculously stereotypical and, far more dangerously, dull.
If you ever needed a sign that music games need to start diversifying, just look at Just Dance. When a game can so diabolically manage to create a more unique set list and experience than pretty much every major player in the industry combined, it’s time to start getting worried.