For years, musicians have mocked those of us holding plastic guitars. Fair enough—but we had fun! But with Rock Band 3, we learn what Harmonix was up to all along: Actually teaching us how to play real instruments.
With complex game design coupled with increasingly detailed peripherals, Harmonix has reimagined not only the nature of the music game genre but where video games can take us into the future.
It was a clever ruse. Hand us five buttons and a strum bar in the vague shape of a guitar. Sync the presses to an audio track and suddenly every awkwardly proportioned teenager thinks he's Bon Jovi. (After Harmonix reminded him who Bon Jovi was.)
The rhythm game genre is a multi-billion-dollar industry unto itself now. $80 is a small price to pay to feel like we are part of a band, to feel a little ersatz cool and talent to boot. The air guitar had been digitized.
Most games franchises stop here. Offer the player a challenging but surmountable task. Find a way to reward them to repeat said task. Scratch our collective OCD right behind the ears just enough to never quite satisfy us but stop us from walking away.
Most video games are extremely effective at coaxing us to work, but this work never produces anything much of merit. You may unlock things—virtual things—like a level 70 character in WoW with an epic flying mount. But when you walk away from the computer or console, you walk away as the same person, not as a spell-wielding Death Knight or something.
With Rock Band 3, on top of the new options to play a two-octave midi keyboard...
...you can play "pro mode" guitar parts with a full Mad Catz guitar replica, for which every possible note on the guitar is represented by its own string/fret button. (Yes, that's a whole lot of buttons—102 in all.)
But even more so, you can use a full, real Fender guitar in the game as well...with actual strings...even plugged into an amp.
Instead of digitizing the air guitar, Harmonix (with the help of Mad Catz and Fender) has digitized the real guitar.
The game will still show you the "buttons" to press, but now they're a combination of real frets and strings, a modern take on tabs (labeled with real chord names) with a whole lot more eye candy and real time performance feedback. It's not wholly different than the Rock Band interface you know—therein lies its particular genius: By slowly building vocals, keyboards and other new functions into Rock Band, Harmonix gateway-drugged us into reading a new style of music. Even if that's not sheet music (yet), our fingers will know how to play Bohemian Rhapsody.
Really play it.
Rock Band (original)
Rock Band 3 (pro modes are the outside tracks)
And when you eventually unplug that Fender guitar from the console? It will still play, but not just because it's a neat peripheral. It will play because your fingers know the chords. It will play because you can play it.
So that's what Harmonix has done with Rock Band 3—they're going to teach us how to play real instruments. But there's more going on outside the instrument genre. With Dance Central, a dance game powered by Kinect to track your whole body's movement in realtime, the same company may be teaching all of us to move with rhythm and grace.
Make no mistake, as gimmicky as these titles and their attached hardware may seem, they're crossing an important threshold, leveraging technology to not only entertain us, but to teach us, maybe even improve us while doing so. They've turned that old "edutaintment" category of games into plain, old "entertainment".