What’s Your Price For Flight?

My lovely wife bought me Rock Band 3 for Christmas. I already owned some incarnation of Guitar Hero (also a gift, also from wife), so a plastic guitar with five clacky plastic buttons and clackier strum bar already cluttered a corner of our living room. Guitar Hero belongs to that genre of video game known as a “rhythm game” where correctly pushing buttons on a nominally instrument shaped controller in response to visual or audio stimuli racks up points. You may argue this is true of all video games, so the distinguishing factor here is that the stimuli are nominally music related. Push the buttons in time to the beat or flashing light, basically. Rock Band 3 mostly follows the same model as Guitar Hero except with the addition of more instruments (vocals, drums, and keyboard). With the purchase of a microphone we now have a video game that Susan and I can actually play together.

Rock Band 3 interested me because of the new “Pro Mode” feature. For instrumentals, rather than playing a cut down instrument with five buttons, players now have the option to play the real thing, or at least something a lot closer to the real notes. This requires a MIDI capable device which in the case of the guitar or keyboard could be considered a bona fide genuine musical instrument. The guitar is already on order and won’t show up until March, but I already have a MIDI keyboard. So I plugged it in expecting to kick ass and was instantly, crushingly humiliated. A virtual audience threw beer bottles and kicked me off the stage in the midst of playing “Roxanne”. I barely managed Devo, and “Whip It” involves a grand total of seven keys, dammit.

The problem is, my brain is wired to read music notation. Very hard wired. To the detriment of many other things.

And Pro Mode does not involve reading music. It involves reacting to upwardly scrolling columns of beads. This is the normal modus operandi of these musical rhythm games, but Pro Mode more than doubles the stakes (twelve columns instead of five buttons, mapping to a keyboard octave), and throws in whole scale remappings to other parts of the keyboard for good measure. As a generous gesture, it color codes these bars. However, even this generosity does not create anything close to resembling to music notation. In fifty years, as music education dies a slow agonizing death in elementary schools, it may perhaps supplant music notation and mnemonics such as Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge may be perceived as an utterly quaint historic custom. But this is not the musical notation that I can read today better than I can recognize my neighbor’s faces.

I struggled with this for a few days and got somewhat better. Then I went after a Trophy: playing 200 consecutive notes on Pro Keyboard mode in Sister Christian. I tried for two hours, clawing my way to 170 before screwing up, and gave it up. My brain waggles fingers in reaction to a restricted set of stimuli involving black beans sitting on horizontal lines on a page and that wasn’t about to readily change. So I did what any sane musician would do: I went away, found a recording, transcribed the keyboard part of Sister Christian to manuscript paper, came back, and kicked its ass.

And now you know why this page of music is floating around my living room. You may call it a cheat code if you will. It is certainly an arcane scribbling that, when correctly followed, allows one to beat an arbitrary task set in a video game. The fact that there is some higher merit attributed to this piece of paper is perhaps just a stubborn fiction that I will cling to in the name of my art.

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