So far we have blogged a fair amount about a few genres of games. For example, we’ve talked a good bit about role playing and simulation games. With that said, one of the most engaging historical experiences I have had with a game came involved a plastic guitar. Beatles Rock Band offers some interesting elements for understanding what history can do in across game genres. If your unfamiliar, the game lets players play through the Beatles career, and in so doing gain a deeper appreciation for their music chronology of The Beatles.
It is not a simulator it is a storyteller
Playing the little plastic guitar does nothing to simulate being a member of the band. To varying degrees, it simulates playing the songs. However, it does nothing to simulate their experiences. With that said, learning to play the songs on the plastic instruments does get you inside the parts of the songs. That is to say, it changes how you hear them. It gets you to isolate particular choices in the drums, base, guitar and vocals. With that noted, this is not an artifact of simulating history. It is just an element that comes with playing these kinds of music games. The historical work of the game comes in its stages, which situate the Beatles work in a chronology and a series of performances. In an era of iTunes and a constant recycling of music in advertisements it is almost to much to expect young people to know if a song is a Beatles song, let alone how that song fits into their career. While I was a minor Beatles fan I can say that the game taught me a considerable amount about what music came when. Further, I have an idea of how their music developed over that history.
Writing History is Why this Game Exists
History is not a side show in this game. In fact, it is not an overstatement to say that this game exists as a vehicle for telling The Beatles story on the terms they want it told. It is not easy to get the Beatles music into anything. Just ask Steve Jobs about how much work it took to get them in the iTunes store. The history of this particular game is itself quite telling about the idea behind the game. One of the core stipulations behind the creation of this game from the living members of the Beatles was that it had to span the entirety of their career. While they were reluctant to agree to any number of music distribution ideas, the idea of allowing people to explore their careers over time was compelling enough to make this game happen. In short, the historical component of this game, the idea that it would teach people about The Beatles history, was critical to its creation. I think you can get a sense of the kind of story they are trying to convey in this commercial.
The Archive is Your Reward
The unlock-able content in the game, what you get as a prizes for various in-game achievements, is digitized historical artifacts. Ephemeral video footage, scans of notes and drafts of songs, photos, audio from interviews, these are your rewards. Advancing in the game is all about opening up the vaults, about finding these artifacts. Beat Helter Skelter on hard without missing a note and you collect some kind of ephemera. I find it fascinating that the Pokemon “gotta catch’um all” approach can work so well with archival material. Success in the game is rewarded by more contact with their history.
The Past Sells
When I first read about Beatles Rockband a significant part of the pitch for the game was about the work done to turn the original two track recordings into four track recordings that could be used for the games. That would be a lot of audiophile geekery in and of itself, but the article went on to pitch this as an important feature of the game. The game designers were able to pull out never before heard spinets of audio from recording sessions; band members counting off the beat, cracking jokes, etc, and that they had put this content into the game as bumper audio in the waiting-around loading screens. This is very exciting to Beatles fans. Part of the sales pitch for this game is that it provides this “never before heard archival content.”
In the end, I think the game does a great job at illustrating how history as stories about the past that people care about is a bountiful resource for us to draw on. All too often I find myself thinking about history games in terms of a series of existing history games I have seen. I feel like this example suggests that every genre is potentially a genre for history games (Dance Dance American Revolution anyone, or how about Cooking Mama, 1770’s: Gadsby’s Tavern Edition). With that said, you might rightly ask if this kind of insider story, this sort of celebration or fandom, really constitutes the kind of history we are looking for.
Is this History, Hagiography, or something else?
I learned a lot about the Beatles form the game. I left the game with a much better understanding of their music and the chronology of that music. The game celebrates and promotes the history of the Beatles, but aside from providing a chronology and a series of historical sets on which they played you don’t learn much else. This is the kind of history that fans like.
One can imagine music games that would focus on other parts of music history. As a thought experiment, imagine a game where you had to make it as a musician in a few different historical time periods, or music scenes. Just as Grand Turismo incorporates a significant amount of related components in the process of racing cars one could imagine expanding out some of the features in the story mode of other Rock Band games and using that as a basis to explore the business and culture of music in different historical moments.
Ultimately, Beatles Rock Band makes me excited about the possibilities of history playing a significant role in adding depth to any number of game genres. At the same time, the set of commercial interests that had to align to make a game like this happen suggests that historical games in this mode are likely to be more hagiographic than historical.