Music fans and gamers shared a toast in celebration upon hearing the news in mid-April: Later this year, Activision and FreeStyleGames will resuscitate the long-dead Guitar Hero franchise with its first installment in nearly half a decade. Guitar Hero Live, as its title tantalizingly implies, aims to thrust ambitious players and their undersized plastic guitars onto the virtual rock stage, thus realizing every lazy man and woman’s dream of performing music before a paying audience without having to actually play music or book a show.
Previous iterations of the series, of course, promised to indulge similar fantasies. The difference this time around is that FreeStyleGames has marshaled a real crowd: They strapped a GoPro to a guitarist’s head and recorded him playing to thousands of eager concertgoers, who respond to every player’s button-shredding with commensurate vitriol or glee. A novel concept, most games journalists seemed to agree when it was initially announced — and then the trailer dropped.
“This isn’t what it feels like to play the new Guitar Hero,” the trailer declares as someone rocks out in first-person before a cheering audience. “This is the new Guitar Hero” — and never has a promise sounded so much like a threat. I’d imagine that FreeStyleGames aspired to some new degree of realism in music simulation with this approach. A real crowd and real bandmates, they must have reasoned, is bound to make the whole experience feel real. But no. They aimed for something like virtual reality — total verisimilitude — and they landed closer to a genre of games we haven’t seen since 1992.
In the early days of the CD-ROM, a lot of video game developers thought they’d found the future of the medium. They started integrating live-action video into otherwise animated games to make a sort of game-movie hybrid, which some people call FMV Games or Interactive Movies. Most of them were very bad. Virtually all of them looked worse. But for a few years developers committed to the idea as if they’d invented a new medium.
On the next page: A take-for-take look at the Nineties vibes of Guitar Hero Live
To give you an idea, here’s an image from The 11th Hour, from 1993:
This, meanwhile, is from the new Guitar Hero:
Here’s Sewer Shark, from 1992:
And Guitar Hero Live, again:
Here’s 1995’s Police Quest:
And, once more, Guitar Hero Live:
None of these, by the way, are cutscenes in the usual sense, but part of the gameplay. The FMV Game format prided itself on full integration: You “controlled” the video elements as they unrolled like a movie, an illusion the game typically achieved by flipping between one clip and another every time the player made a decision. Because it uses green-screen and a lot of CGI to weave its disparate elements together, Guitar Hero Live looks to be a bit more sophisticated in the way the video will respond. Playing badly won’t likely trigger an angry audience reaction so much as slowly morph into one.
But the problem has little to do with execution. It’s more a question of purpose: Who could be enthralled by this sort of phony immersion? Nobody ever played Guitar Hero because it seemed a reasonable substitute for playing a real guitar. The series was popular because playing Guitar Hero is fun as its own activity: a reflex-testing, button-mashing party game, amusing to clown around with. Surely the way forward isn’t to double down on the game’s least interesting element. In fact, that’s why the later Guitar Hero and Rock Band titles killed the trend: The mechanics started to become too elaborate, the demands too intensive — and all at the expense of fun. The only thing that looks fun about Guitar Hero Live is the chance to revisit a gaming fad that hasn’t been around in twenty years. Whether interactive movies are amusing enough an oddity to make giving this a go worthwhile remains to be seen.
But then again, who could resist this?
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