Holding out for a (DJ) Hero

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I like music games. They catch a lot of flak from both game and music snobs for either their gameplay—which is pretty much just an overwrought version of Simon Says—or that fact that they might discourage people from actually learning to play an instrument, but I think both of these perspectives miss the point. Music games provide players with a different, entirely active way to engage with a song they might have heard a thousand times, but have never been interested enough in to devote more than a couple percent brain capacity to. By combining the elements of a simple colour matching game with the preexisting rising and falling moments of intensity in music, your success in the game bit is then reflected by the song itself, which results in a double hit of Good Chemicals in your brain. It might not be exactly the same as playing the music yourself, but it’s still synesthesia like nothing else in gaming. 

I was at a small get together about a month ago that eventually became a Rock Band party, and everyone playing groaned a little when Alanis Morisette’s "You Oughta’ Know" came up on our set list. But then—and this is almost certainly owed, in part, to the controlled substances saturating every fiber of our bodies—when the chorus came on we all started singing. Loudly.

“…’till you die, ‘till you die, but you’re still AH-LIVE, and I’m HE-ERE…”

Ahem.

I’m sure that musicians have entirely different reactions to the game, seeing as the activity is an abstraction of something they’re actually familiar with, but for the rest of us philistines, that abstraction allows us to sample an old, almost elemental energy that would otherwise be off-limits. And what’s more is that it allows us to do so with incredible ease—all it takes is a little money, a little time, and a little hand-eye coordination. Learning to play an actual instrument would take considerably more of all three.

Still, I don’t want to defend Rock Band as replacement for the joy and fulfillment I assume comes from actual musical training. If Rock Band is a methadone shot, I imagine that actually being able to play the guitar would be like a heroine needle in the eyeball. If this idea sounds altogether more coherent and focused than my usual brand of belligerence and nonsense, it’s because I’ve stolen it almost entirely from Kieron Gillen, who is a much better thinker, writer and man than me (any belligerence and nonsense you’ve read in these opening paragraphs should, however, be attributed to me and not him). But I’m allowing myself to play the plagiarist because I only wanted to use this as a springboard into something more specific and topical.

What I want to talk about is DJ Hero.

I’ve never actually bought a music game before yesterday, and I’ll admit that’s for a pretty crappy reason—two crappy reasons piled atop each other, actually. First is “that shit be expensive.” The cost of a full Rockband kit is nearly quadruple that of any other game, and I figure I already spend way, way too much money on videogames as it is. Second is that for every song I’m excited about on their track lists there’s three, well, "You Oughta' Know"s. As the above anecdote illustrates this isn’t as much of an issue when you’re actually playing the game, but damn if it doesn’t affect my purchasing decision. To my wallet’s chagrin, DJ Hero had effective counter-arguments against both these points.

First of all, it’s cheaper than Rock Band. Not a lot cheaper, but seventy five dollars is seventy five reasons and all that. Second is that, as anyone who’s ever noticed my name next to a story in the paper can probably infer, a hip-hop/electronica tracklist is a little bit more to my taste than a smorgasboard of top 40 pop/rock hits from the past forty years (with an obligatory infusion of indie cred, obv). Add to that the fact that each and every track in the game is an original mashup by the likes of DJ Shadow, DJ Z-Trip, DJ AM and that playing the game will be the only way to hear said mixes until the soundtrack is released and… I’m already reaching for my wallet, aren’t I?

I haven’t gotten very far into the game yet, but I’m prepared to say that it is “good,” and if that last paragraph made your metaphorical pants any metaphorically tighter, then it’s certainly worth a look. The mixes I’ve played so far have ranged from “marginally dope” to “hell-of dope,” and playing with the bundled-in turntable peripheral makes me feel slightly less like I should replace all my jackets with black trenchcoats than do the usual plastic guitars and drumsets. But I don’t want to talk about whether or not DJ Hero is a good game (which it is). What I want to talk about—in an unusual change of pace from my typical story leads—is actually what I started off this post talking about: the issue of abstraction.

The strength of Rock Band, I think, is that no one really needs it explained to them. Even someone who’s never been in the same room as a guitar could probably rock out on an air instrument, so firmly ingrained are the traditional “rock” instruments in popular culture both visual and audible. Turntables are a bit different. After buying the game yesterday I had to explain to two different people how a DJ used them to make music—cutting together repeated sections of multiple records, layering effects, scratching, etc. This explanation was met with incredulous expressions both times. It’s telling too that I, the explainer, am basing my knowledge entirely on watching DJs at shows, a couple interviews I’ve done for FFWD, a little reading into the history of hip hop and the documentary SCRATCH. For a genre of gaming based mostly on accessibility, choosing turntablism as the dominant focus for one of these games is catering to a uniquely niche market.

Compounding this is the fact that turntablism, in my admittedly shallow understanding of the art, is already pretty abstract.  Claiming that a DJ isn’t a real musician is one of those annoyingly small minded statements often made by people who don’t “get” or don’t care to “get” hip hop music, but it’s completely reasonable to say that they aren’t typical musicians. Even before the rise of the mashup, a DJ created new tunes by cutting together bits of old ones, improvising effects and beats overtop of an (often totally unrecognizable) musical milieu. Needless to say, the process is already an abstracted version of the traditional “hit these strings with a little bit of plastic and they will play these corresponding notes.” A turntable videogame is an abstraction of an abstraction.

I don’t think this is necessarily to its detriment, though. DJ Hero’s mixes are all mashups of two (and only two) tracks, so you could make the argument that its concern isn’t with the simulation of playing live music. Instead, it’s more about understanding the mentality of the DJ. Why are these two tracks being combined? Is it their thematic elements that are being made to comment on each other, or is he just playing around with the aesthetics of the sounds? How do these three bars from this song feel so right when played alongside these three bars from this other song written twenty years earlier? Structuring the game around finding and enjoying the unlikely places where the brass cog-teeth of the Great Machine Pop Culture interlock actually implies a pretty strong understanding of turntableisms’ history, as well as the current direction hip hop is heading in. Whether or not anyone will want to buy it is another thing entirely.

“Who is this for?”

That was the question I kept asking myself as I played the game’s opening track lists. There seems to be enough track diversity to attract fans from across the spectrum of the hip hop/electronica/dance subgenres, but it isn’t an issue of appeal—it’s an issue of distance. The turntable peripheral creates a certain distance from the music that doesn’t exist with the other pretend instruments, and I’m wondering how many people will be willing or able to appreciate this different approach. Seeing as the direct though—here’s that word again—abstracted connection those other games are able to create between their audience and their music was such an intrinsic part of their appeal, it’ll be interesting to see how DJ Hero situates itself amongst its kin both critically and commercially. Will it, much like the music it features, carve itself out a comfortable niche within the larger context of the mainstream culture? Or will it, like a Blueprint sequel album, settle to the bottom of an icky soup of increasingly consumer-focused regurgitation?


more in Video Game Features     |     posted Oct 28th, 2009 at 4:24pm     


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