More Than a Feeling

You hit an unexpected realization: Boston was probably one of the top ten videogame level designers of all time.

Problem being, they weren’t aware they were designing a level. If you told them of this undeniable fact when they were doing it, Tom Scholz and his group of Massachusetts-based musos would have looked at you strangely before returning to the important business of recording double-tracked guitar solos and working out how to get the hand-clap machine working. They would have had no conception what a level designer was. One who designed levels? But levels of what? It was the mid-’70s, where conventions like “levels” were the far-off fancy of the loopiest of lunatics.

They had a pop career to take care of, and that they did. If you wanted to be factual, you’ll note their debut album sold 17 million records – certainly enough to keep a man in plectrums for quite some time. If you want to be mean, you’d argue they were instrumental in the power ballad’s creation, so they should be crushed with enormous rocks. If you want to give them a bit more credit, you’ll note that with “More Than a Feeling,” they invented marrying an insistent circular chord progression with a tiny-tiny-BIG-BIG-repeat! structure, which the Pixies cheerily stole for “Debaser,” which Nirvana stole for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which everyone else stole to invent ’90s rock. And if you want to be me, you’ll note their real import in history is designing the best level in Guitar Hero.

Fellow Massachusettsians Harmonix clearly understood what they had in Boston’s design when they imported this piece of carefully crafted aural-terrain into the world of Guitar Hero. Some credit must go to the developers: While the level was clearly Boston’s genius, the game design itself was Harmonix’s. This small developer’s aim is to “create new ways for non-musicians to experience the unique joy that comes from making music.” It’s a noble one. Guitar Hero is the closest they’ve come to achieving their goals.

It’s easy to bracket Guitar Hero with other abstract party games in the PS2’s armory – rest it alongside your Dance Dance Revolutions and Singstars (what we do in Europe instead of Harmonix’s Karaoke Revolution), and snootily dismiss it as just a giggle. Guitar Hero‘s more than that. While Singstar and DDR sit slightly to one side from the main thrust of videogame design, Guitar Hero engages us with one of its secret magics. It probably has a special game designer name, but for the sake of our argument, we’re going to call it the “input fallacy”; one, that’s basically what it does; and two, it’s got that sort of ring of polysyllabic seriousness which implies I know what I’m talking about, instead of just desperately bluffing.

Which always helps.

Games trick you into thinking you’re doing something more difficult and interesting than you actually are. In Prince of Persia, you may just be pressing a single button, you’re rewarded with a powerful leap from the lead character. The fallacy is your brain connects your action to the animation – that it was you that did that, thus you should feel the rush of reward. Your actions created that reaction. In a real way, many of the best games are based around this, and games which fail to make you feel as if your on-controller actions connect to your onscreen actions are dismissed out of hand. This is why – say – Dragon’s Lair connected with gamers less than the similar period’s Defender, despite the spectacular difference in the visuals. In Dragon’s Lair, there was no real sense that you were controlling Dirk the Daring. In Defender, your slightest twitch was magnified spectacularly on screen. In one, you watch the hero. In the other, you are the hero.

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It’s this phenomenon around which Guitar Hero is based, and it’s this which raises it above its peers. In DDR, there’s no sense of your actions creating anything. The game merely judges your actions. DDR isn’t about tricking you into thinking you’re dancing – to actually succeed with DDR, you are dancing. There is no magic here, just you following orders. Similarly with Singstar and Karaoke Revolution: To do well in them isn’t to be tricked into thinking you’re a good singer – but it’s to actually be a good singer. All the games may give you a little flash of the joy of performing with their feedback telling you how you’re the greatest dancer or whatever, but that’s a different thing from the flash of joy of performing the act itself.

Guitar Hero differs. Guitar Hero is about tricking you into thinking you’re playing guitar. You press the buttons and strum with the flipper… and the appropriate noises appear. The power of Harmonix’s system is how – even at the basic levels – they’ve judged the correct number of inputs to make you feel as if what you’re doing has some connection to the music that’s emitting from the speakers. That by waggling your fingers in a certain way, that riff screams out. You stop waggling your fingers… it stops. You’re playing the music.

You know you’re not. But you certainly feel like it.

What separates Guitar Hero from Harmonix’s other offerings is its choice of peripheral. Playing on a controller creates a level of abstraction through the input method. Noises are appearing, but in a way which you know bears no relation to how they’re really produced. With that plastic guitar hanging around your neck, that leap of faith is a lot easier to make. And this is where Guitar Hero achieves Harmonix’s stated aim – to give a little of the absolute thrill of creating noise, feeling connected to this wave of pure sensation. You want to know what it feels like to play guitar? It’s like the state of zen-tranquility in motion chased by surfers, samurai and shoot-em up addicts. It’s a little like realizing you’re the breath of God. Guitar Hero takes you into the neighborhood and shows you the view.

And as my ex put it after blasting through The Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows,” “I deny anyone can be in the same room as Guitar Hero and be unhappy.”

It’s not a game. It’s a pharmacological miracle.

And, returning to the point in question, Boston are level designers par excellence because their song shows off Harmonix’s mechanics to their best effects. Other songs do various aspects of the performance better. Others are much more challenging. But none manage to express, in the topography of their guitar line, the varied and absolute pleasures of playing Guitar Hero.

It’s more than just Guitar Hero, though. In its simplified – distilled – echo of real guitar playing, it teaches you a little of why guitarists play certain songs. Before playing Guitar Hero, I had something of an old punk’s puritanical disgust for over-technical guitar players destroying records with their unwanted virtuosity. Now, I can see why the pleasure overwhelms them and they want to do so. The breathless rush after you fall off the end of a guitar solo into a hard, extended note makes you see this… it’s addictive. So, they’re addicted to it and can’t help themselves. I don’t really blame them. It’s a feeling worth chasing.

It also teaches you that the best, the very best guitar-led songs manage to hit these sensations while still serving the song, because there’s more than the act of guitar playing being taught. It’s also engages with your understanding of the song itself. Guitar Hero, in some ways, is an active form of music criticism, opening the songs’ guts to a layperson so you can see how it’s working, like Natural Scientists trying to understand the universe’s design in a daisy. For example, I know “Ziggy Stardust” is a great song, but by the game walking you through Mick Ronson’s lyrical and witty guitar line, I understand it all the better: How it flicks between the hard and the soft and the counterpoint to Bowie’s lines; how it’s really good.

Even artists I’ve got less time for are shown in a better light. Take Franz Ferdinand’s reheated, post-punk art-pop, represented by “Take Me Out.” Coming from an entirely different tradition to the majority of the songs Guitar Hero offers, its oblique rhythms provide off-kilter challenge, and playing them shows you how imaginative, how ballsy, and how, through odd ingredients, its momentum is created. Playing the Chili’s cover of Stevie’s Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Sum 41’s “Fat Lip” have led to similar grudging respect, against my previously developed critical (and terribly snobby) faculties.

Going further, and showing it isn’t just that Guitar Hero makes all songs great, the array of B-level filler mostly just sits dead on the disc, taking up space. Guitar Hero‘s explanation only works when there’s something worth explaining. Flipping it around, obviously enough, songs you already love have their greatness re-affirmed. “Ace of Spades” is nothing less than the sound of the universe’s atria slamming shut during the world’s sexiest coronary, and captured perfectly here while (on higher difficulties) sitting on the absolute immaculate boundary being too hard to play and impossibly satisfying when you do. Equally, the Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows,” whose dense rhythms can stun the unwary fledgling even on Easy.

“More Than a Feeling” isn’t that hard – only on Expert does it start to really take your fingers apart, one knuckle at a time. This is part of its majesty as a level, gently walking you through everything great about Guitar Hero. Delicate movements of the fingers across the plastic fret board during its idyllic opening, before it releases the Searing Guitar Sound™ into a lyrical refrain, descending toward… oh, baby Jesus, hold me now – the golden moment: The long held note leading into the chorus, lengthy enough to give you all the time in the world to work the whammy bar to power up your Star Power meter before releasing the Bonus Power by holding your guitar aloft, just as the power-chords of the chorus kicks in. The whole screen lights up. Your face lights up. The stars shine brighter. The world’s a better place.

It’s More Than a Feeling, and you’re feeling more than that.

Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.

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