The pixelated Paul McCartney, left, and George Harrison in their mop top period, in The Beatles: Rock Band.
THERE may be no better way to bait a baby boomer than to be anything less than totally reverential about the Beatles. So the news that the lads from Liverpool were taking fresh form in a video game (a video game!) called The Beatles: Rock Band struck some of the band’s acolytes as nothing less than heresy.
Luckily, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, along with the widows of George Harrison and John Lennon, seem to understand that the Beatles are not a museum piece, that the band and its message ought never be encased in amber. The Beatles: Rock Band is nothing less than a cultural watershed, one that may prove only slightly less influential than the band’s famous appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. By reinterpreting an essential symbol of one generation in the medium and technology of another, The Beatles: Rock Band provides a transformative entertainment experience.
In that sense it may be the most important video game yet made.
Never before has a video game had such intergenerational cultural resonance. The weakness of most games is that they are usually devoid of any connection to our actual life and times. There is usually no broader meaning, no greater message, in defeating aliens or zombies, or even in the cognitive gameplay of determining strategy or solving puzzles.
Previous titles in the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series have already done more in recent years to introduce young people to classic rock than all the radio stations in the country. But this new game is special because it so lovingly, meticulously, gloriously showcases the relatively brief career of the most important rock band of all time. The music and lyrics of the Beatles are no less relevant today than they were all those decades ago, and by reimagining the Beatles’ message in the unabashedly modern, interactive, digital form of now, the new game ties together almost 50 years of modern entertainment.
With all due respect to Wii Sports, no video game has ever brought more parents together with their teenage and adult children than The Beatles: Rock Band likely will in the months and years to come.
One Friday evening last month I invited a gaggle of 20-something hipsters (I’m 36) to my apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to try the game. After 15 minutes one 25-year-old said, “I’m going to have to buy this for my parents this Christmas, aren’t I?” After nine hours we had completed all of the game’s 45 songs in one marathon session. On Saturday afternoon, I woke up to watch a 20-year-old spend three hours mastering the rolling, syncopated drum sequences in “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Thirty-six hours later, near dawn Monday morning, there were still a few happy stragglers in my living room belting out “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Good thing my neighbors were away for the weekend.
I grew up in Woodstock, N.Y., steeped in classic rock, so I had a head start on my younger band mates. (I suspect many parents will enjoy having a similar leg up on their progeny.) Yet I watched the same transformation all weekend long. We would start a song like “Something” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and as it began, they would say, “Oh yeah, that one.” Then at the end there would literally be a stunned silence before someone would say something unprintable, or simply “Wow” as they fully absorbed the emotional intensity and almost divine melodies of the Beatles.
Not only was the game serving to reintroduce this music, but by leading the players through a schematic version of actually creating the songs, it was also doing so in a much more engaging way than merely listening to a recording. It is an imperfect analogy, but listening to a finished song is perhaps like being served a finished recipe: you know it tastes great even if you have no sense of how it was created.
By contrast, playing a music game like Rock Band is a bit closer to following a recipe yourself or watching a cooking show on television. Sure, the result won’t be of professional caliber (after all, you didn’t go to cooking school, the equivalent of music lessons), but you may have a greater appreciation for the genius who created the dish than the restaurantgoer, because you have attempted it yourself.
Previous music games have been about collections of songs. The Beatles: Rock Band is about representing and reoffering an entire worldview encapsulated in music. The developers at Harmonix Music Systems have translated the Beatles’ scores and tablature into a form that is accessible while also conveying the visceral rhythm of the music. In its melding of source material and presentation, The Beatles: Rock Band is sheer pleasure. The game is scheduled to be released by MTV Games for the PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360 consoles on Wednesday, the same day the remastered Beatles catalog is slated to be released on CD.
Mechanically it is almost identical to previous Rock Band games. One player sings into a microphone, replacing the original lead vocals, while another plays an electronic drum kit and two more play ersatz guitar and bass. (The new game supports up to two additional singers for a potential maximum of six players.)
In the game’s story line mode, players inhabit the various Beatles as they progress from the Cavern Club to Ed Sullivan’s stage; Shea Stadium; the Budokan in Japan; Abbey Road; and their final appearance on the Apple Corps roof in 1969. Unlike in previous Rock Band games, players are not booed off the virtual stage for a poor performance; rather the screen cuts to a declarative “Song failed” message. Previously unreleased studio chatter provides a soundtrack for some of the menu and credits screens, but there is no direct interaction with avatars of John, Paul, George or Ringo.
The colorful psychedelic dreamscapes used to represent the band’s in-studio explorations are particularly evocative, though they serve mostly to entertain onlookers rather than the players themselves (who will be concentrating on getting the music right rather than looking at the pretty pictures).
Of course almost nothing could be more prosaic than pointing out that playing a music game is not the same as playing a real instrument. Yet there is something about video games that seems to inspire true anger in some older people.
Why is that? Is there still really a fear that a stylized representation of reality detracts from reality itself? In recent centuries every new technology for creating and enjoying music — the phonograph, the electric guitar, the Walkman, MTV, karaoke, the iPod — has been condemned as the potential death of “real” music.
But music is eternal. Each new tool for creating it, and each new technology for experiencing it, only brings the joy of more music to more people. This new game is a fabulous entertainment that will not only introduce the Beatles’ music to a new audience but also will simultaneously bring millions of their less-hidebound parents into gaming. For that its makers are entitled to a deep simultaneous bow, Beatles style.