Last Christmas I did something silly. I went out shopping for the one must-have item of the season: a Nintendo Wii. Not on Christmas Eve - that would have been merely idiotic. I left the house at noon on Christmas Day, long after all those shiny white boxes had been unwrapped. The looks I got from clerks suggested they were too appalled to even laugh. Whatever. I was visiting my parents in New Hampshire. I had nothing else to do.
But you know what? On the ninth try, I got one.
I spent the next few days stabbing goblins, stitching up incisions and knocking down dozens of pins at a time. It was glorious. It was more than I dreamed it could be. My right wrist was exercised as never before.
When I returned home to New York, I saw the Xmas gift that one of my housemates had bestowed upon us: GUITAR HERO II. Along with two wireless guitar-shaped controllers.
And I did not touch my Wii again for two months.
Hi, my name is Walter, and I'm a Guitar Hero addict.
But the problem's deeper than that. It's not just my adorable, "revolutionary" Wii that I'm forsaking... see, I'm also a musician. I spend hours every night hitting buttons, pretending, when I could be making actual music on a non-fake instrument!
(gasps of shock)
And I know I shouldn't be abandoning my precious keyboards like that, but... it's just so damn fun! I can't stop! It's a whole other dimension of fun - it makes video games where you control some little running-jumping-shooting avatar seem like busywork! And there's a genuine sense of accomplishment I've never gotten before!
("Walter, there is no shame here. Just calm down and tell us your story.")
So, I start on Medium. I don't start on Easy, because I'm not a pussy. Medium.
The controller has five buttons: Green. Red. Yellow. Blue. Orange.
But I've only got four fingers: Index. Middle. Ring. Pinky.
Aha, but! MEDIUM DOESN'T USE THE ORANGE BUTTON. And this is why we love it. We're safe.
I quickly realize, though, that I've never used my left ring or pinky in a video game. Ever. These fingers are rhythmically stupid.
("But Walter, you said you play piano.")
Yeah, but not WELL. I can slam my left hand down on any three-note chord you want. But that's a long way from mastering a speedy walking bass line.
So we pass the controller around, QXZ and jm and me, and we limp along. We fuck up a lot. When you finish a song, you get a three-star rating. (Lower ratings don't exist, and none of us are good enough to get four.) When it's someone else's turn, sometimes we hold the other controller in our lap and play along silently. Just practicing.
Then Tyler gets home.
Tyler works at a post house - a high-end editing facility for commercials and music videos. They've got a huge plasma screen, and they've got a PS2 hooked up to it for blowing off steam in the wee hours. They've been jamming on this game for months.
Tyler plays on Hard. Watching him, we enter a whole new realm of understanding (that we suck). The colors are flying forward so fast I couldn't even fully process the runs, let alone react to them. So instead I watch his hand. It flips effortlessly from what I mentally call "first position":
index=GREEN middle=RED ring=YELLOW pinky=BLUE
...to second position:
index=RED middle=YELLOW ring=BLUE pinky=ORANGE
Now of course all he's doing is sliding his hand up the neck half an inch - and real guitarists do things much more complicated all the time - but there's no way I can make that leap. Because you've got to do it without looking at your hand. You have to just know.
Many people I know who play this game never cross this barrier, because you must unlearn everything that Medium has taught you. The whole pinky=BLUE connection you've spent hours drilling into your tendons is now constantly called into question.
Three of the four songs in the first section are explicitly chosen to help you make this adjustment. "Surrender" by Cheap Trick, "Mother" by Danzig, and the horribly dull "Shout at the Devil" by Motley Crue - all of them have verses that force you to keep moving your hand up the neck to switch chords: GREEN-YELLOW, then RED-BLUE, then YELLOW-ORANGE. (Because you simply can't switch from index-ring to middle-pinky with any kind of celerity. Try it. Even today, ten months later, after five-starring several songs on Expert, I still can't reliably contort my fingers like that.)
And so, this is maybe three weeks later, I've begun my Career on Hard, I get through those three songs, I'm feeling fairly pimp about my ability to move up the neck. But then I hit a roadblock so massive, a leap in difficulty so insane, that it was actually moved much further into the game when it was ported to the Xbox 360.
The bridge of Wolfmother's "Woman" is nothing but hammers.
A "hammer-on" (or alternately, possibly its friend the "pull-off", though with a fake guitar I really can't see the difference) is when the notes are so close together you can play them on the neck. Hit the strum bar once with your right hand, go squeedly-dee with the fingers on your left, and if your timing's right, you get all four notes. Simple concept, right?
(And here is an area where the designers at Harmonix made a vast improvement on the game's engine - I know that GH1 theoretically detects hammers, but I can't ever get them to work. Having learned on GH2, going backward feels like playing with thick woolen gloves on.)
So the bridge of "Woman" goes (just pretend I'm singing notes to you):
And then after that, as the solo starts, there's MORE hammers, going up the scale instead of down. This is far too hard for most people. They just give up. I've seen it again and again. But I threw myself at it, day after day. The only reason I even knew it could be done was that I'd seen Tyler do it. And the only thing that sustained me was, despite the fact that I'd never heard of this band, despite the fact that their lyrics were horrible, this solo I was attempting was seriously badass.
Here the most amazing aspect of Guitar Hero, the phenomenon that makes it feel just as fun as (maybe MORE fun than!) playing a real axe, kicks in:
If you just keep doing it every day, you magically become awesome.
Progressing through Hard is nothing like progressing through Medium. Instead of listening and following along, you feel like you're creating the music. With twice as many notes to pay attention to, your head starts bobbing to the drums. Then your heel is tapping. Then, in between, your ass gets going back and forth and without even thinking about it you're DANCING! And leaping into the air and banging your head (on those few occasions you can afford to) and you are just having this insane amount of fun and you can't believe you even wondered if the extra $40 for the wireless controller would be worth it because OH HOLY GOD YES.
See, there's a whole lot going on behind that threedee mass of colors flying at you, but if you take your eyes off the board for a second, you're dead. Your little avatar that you dress up and give a special type of Gibson to, the crowd that's bouncing around maniacally, the impossible swoopy camera crane moves and the funky sets and flashing lights - none of that impressive design is there for you, the player, to enjoy. It's for the other people in the room, cheering you on. Your real avatar is your real body. And when you achieve victory, YOU feel like a goddamn rock star.
Once I had reached the final section of songs on Hard, containing more shredding than anything I personally have on my iPod (Suicidal Tendencies? Megadeth? Come on guys, seriously) I wondered "Hey... what about that whole Medium gig? Remember that?" I switched back and found that I could five-star anything I attempted. After about two months with the game, Medium was now pathetically slow.
And soon after that, I beat the game on Hard, and started in on Expert. Which is not nearly the sizable leap that Medium-to-Hard is. "Freya" by The Sword was a serious obstacle - the riff requires you to stretch your pinky all the way over to orange while remaining in first position. "Bad Reputation" by Thin Lizzy was another - a lot of frenetic up-and-down strumming and then crazy hammers out of nowhere. And when I hit "Psychobilly Freakout" by Reverend Horton Heat, which is not so much a song as it is an electrified epilectic fit, I understood why he was allowed the title of a religious leader, in a way that actually seeing the guy perform back in high school hadn't been able to teach me.
So it was there that my progress stopped dead. But I didn't stop playing. I went back and concentrated on five-starring everything i could on Hard. Where I used to have to use Star Power just to make it through the solos, now I was memorizing them ("Last Child" by Aerosmith, "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" by The Rolling Stones, "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath) if they weren't already drilled into my head note-for-note during my years of teen angst ("Sweet Child o' Mine" by Guns N' Roses, "Who Was in My Room Last Night?" by The Butthole Surfers, "Them Bones" by Alice in Chains).
I kept at it, kept honing. Often I'd see a string of notes and have no idea how to get past it. I learned to entrust the matter to my subconscious, and more often than not I'd fly through unscathed. I was better than I thought I was - or maybe, my body was better than my brain.
And finally, at the end of June, I defeated Psychobilly. "YYZ" by Rush, the encore immediately after, fell on my first try, as I'd known it would. I started in on the final section: again, Suicidal Tendencies and Megadeth. Soon I had maneuvered and connived my way past "Misirlou" by Dick Dale (with a whole bunch of extra shredding that wasn't featured in Pulp Fiction).
I had surpassed Tyler.
Soon after that, I stopped playing - because I got GH1, and the pseudo-sequel cash-in Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80's. But I returned to GH2 a few days ago, to see if there's anything else I can score a little higher on before GH3 comes out next week.
And to my astonishment, somehow, I'm even more proficient. Not only can I decode huge strings of squeedly-deedly immediately, but the split-second interval I have in which to switch chords seems at least twice as long. Just the other night I five-starred "Carry On Wayward Son" by Kansas on my first try - which was something I used to fruitlessly attempt three times a night, every night.
I know that someday soon the whole game will bow to me. I know that I will beat that fucking stupid Megadeth song with nine solos on Expert. It is a statistical certainty.
And here's where the shame spiral evaporates: I know that the time spent playing this game has made me a better musician in real life - even though one exercises my left and the other my right. I react faster. I think in tiny melodic fragments and trills which I can combine like Legos to make a badass solo of my own. This game makes you analyze some of your favorite songs, study them, in a much deeper way than just listening to them repeatedly can allow.
After I finish with GH3, I think I'm going to try taking up the bass.