Guitar Hero and Rock Band have recently released the newest installments in their franchises. In honor of their return to the forefront of gaming, or at least the peripheral vision of gaming, I thought I’d go ahead and tackle the subject of rhythm games.
Exciting, aren’t they? All fingers dancing up and down the frets. Strumming down, and, sometimes, up. Wammying on the wammy bar. Other music related things. These games were absolute blasts to play with a group of friends. Chilling on the couch and jamming to hip young rock music.
What exactly about that cultural phenomenon enthralled us so intensely? Was it the synthetic cheers of a digital crowd? The companionship of crafting a musical journey with your friends? The joy of fine tuning a solo in the practice room for hours on end?
Nope. We always just wanted two things: points and music. It might sound a little cold and clinical to say that, but honestly it’s the truth. Let’s look at the facts, shall we?
When people sit down to play these games, do they sit down for one or two songs? No, they sit down and jam to a ton of them. You make a night of it, blazing through a playlist on your own or forming an impromptu band with your friends.
And when you complete a song, you’re not done with it forever. You go back and play it again. You do it better, you do it on a higher difficulty, and you repeat the whole process until you really nail it. Sure, completing some songs at all are impressive enough on their own. But can you really even say you beat the song until you beat it with five stars?
Of course not. So you go back and do it again, and again. And eventually you pull it off, for that song. But here’s the thing: there’s a bazillion songs. Your brain is screaming at you to rock the high score on all of them.
Because the game is simple. The core mechanic of rhythm games is incredibly straightforward. No matter how many extra attachments are added on, they’re just extended quick-time events set to music. It’s imminently understandable, easily repeatable, highly addictive, and perfectly conducive to trying to grab the high score.
Seriously, there’s an obscenely low threshold for repeating sections of these games. How many of you have started a song, missed a few of the first notes, and then just instantly restarted? And then you do it again! Over and over because it’s the easiest thing in the world and you want to do it perfectly so you can get a high score.
So on to the second part: we like music. Seems… almost too obvious, right? But it’s honestly the answer. In fact, it’s probably a bigger reason than the previously mentioned high score thing.
The simple thing is people love music. Even people like me for example. I like music but don’t go out of my way to learn about it and pick favorites. There are a ton of songs out there that are just a blast to listen to.
So rhythm games just turn the process into an activity. Instead of just zoning out sitting in a room listening to music, you can actively engage in making the music. It focuses us in even more, makes us listen to the songs, gets us to feel them in a way we wouldn’t otherwise.
Which is something we always would enjoy to do but, for most of us, rarely have the opportunity. I like music a lot, but I would never just lay in bed listening to it. It’s just not for me, so I would never otherwise get to know a lot of songs.
Rhythm games give me, and you, that opportunity. It takes something everybody already like, music, and frames it in a different way. It makes it even more enjoyable to people who already like it and enjoyable in the first place to people who wouldn’t otherwise. All by engaging them with a simple quick-time event mini-game.
The simple fact of the matter is that rhythm games are little more than diverse sound tracks attached to a simple game. The creators took a simple concept, added another simple concept, and watched millions of people become addicted in the blink of an eye.
So why did we all stop playing? We definitely did stop playing. They might be making a small comeback but there was a large stretch of years where rhythm games were basically dead. Nobody made them, and nobody played them. But if the formulae for these games was so simple and perfect, why would we ever stop playing?
The answer is simple oversaturation. There’s only so much you can play a single type of mini-game before it gets really, really boring. By the same token, there’s only so much you can listen to a song before you just get sick of it. Rhythm games suffered from both of those problems.
At the same time, people started to realize that every new release was a full game-priced set of songs. There was no real room for innovation in the game, so each one was basically the same as the last but with new music. Eventually they even started selling songs individually as DLC, which really was nailing its own coffin.
That said, time has passed. The two new releases have actually added some new ideas. Maybe that’ll be what it takes to reinvigorate the genre and get people playing it just as much as before.
I mean probably not. But maybe.