Rock Band is over. Well–kind of over. It’s been “over” in the people-who-wouldn’t-otherwise-touch-a-Playstation-caring-about-it sense since a few months after Beatles Rock Band came out, but now it’s “over” inasmuch as after April 2, when “American Pie” will be released (nice timing), developer Harmonix will shut down the downloadable content pipeline for good. After five years of DLC, with no new games on the horizon, that seems like just cause for a plastic-drums post-mortem.
Rock Band made very annoying noises; it made things kind of boring for people stuck playing plastic-bass; it made the pack-in songs almost unlistenable, after a while. (“Maps” is ruined for me. Sorry, Yeah Yeah Yeahs.) But it also brought people with vastly different tastes in music and recreation together to yell at each other for messing up the bridge in “Say It Ain’t So.” So let’s remember that: For a few years, there, toy instruments were nearly as good at social lubrication as alcohol.
The really amazing thing about Rock Band was that it turned one of the geekiest, most insular videogame genres out there into a party game that transcended geekiness entirely. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Japanese rhythm games that preceded it, but you will be after you watch this 14-second video of a Japanese guy playing one:
Bemani and Guitar Freaks are group games: a large group of otaku will form behind you at an arcade if you’re as good as this guy. If you’re not as good as this guy they’re about playing alone until you are–they’re a sport, almost, something to master alone through brute-force repetition in the hopes that you’ll eventually impress the boy or girl of your dreams with it. (Every subculture has its own boys and girls of its own dreams.)
Guitar Hero didn’t change any of that; it just opened things up to gamers who preferred Black Sabbath to Japanese EDM. It’s telling that the South Park trend-chasing episode on the subject was about practicing alone and alienating all your friends until you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing.
So when Rock Band came out I expected more of the same–people I used to play EverQuest with mastering fake drums instead of guitars. Instead, all the people who used to make fun of me for playing EverQuest joined in.
A lot of factors made that possible–the songs were more popular, the graphics were less insistently metal, and at first everybody was equally terrible at the drums. But the big draw was the instruments themselves, sitting next to each other in front of the TV. Whether we realized it or not, all of us had always wanted to be in a band. Specifically, all of us had always wanted to be in a band together with our friends. So much of a good house party is implicitly about double-checking where you stand with the people you like being around, making sure you’re part of their “we,” for a while Rock Band made that explicit and easy to talk about, in part because it was just so goofy.
Eventually my roommates and some of my friends became an actual fake band, and proceeded to do the Guitar Hero-mastery thing as a unit. But you didn’t have to be good at Rock Band to enjoy it; you just had to enjoy music, and the way a great song can immediately make everybody in a room feel a certain way.
My guess is that everybody who is still playing Rock Band in 2013 is officially A Rock Band Guy, and I only play the trombone–not ska trombone, alas–so I don’t have any actual experience playing loud music for a rapt audience. But a really good “Tom Sawyer” run, at that kind of circa-2008 party, gave schlubs like me the chance to stand up, hold something that looked kind of like a guitar, and pretend to play music for other people. Which was nice.