Rock Band DLC has ended, the bundles are hard to find at retail: Let’s celebrate the victorious dead
The sound of God is the screech of tires,
Lights and magnets,
Bolts and wires,
Strayed from the road, this very one
Still to come.
The sound of tires is the sound of God,
The electric version.
The power and blood will pulse through your song,
Just as long as it
Streaming out of the magnets…
-New Pornographers “The Electric Version”
I knew Guitar Hero was special. I played the game for the first time at the manager’s conference for a large video game retailer, and I didn’t understand the controller for the first song. I did better on the second try, and I came close to a perfect score on my third. That first controller was bulky, and it gave only a few hints about what was to come, but it was like seeing Nirvana at a tiny club. You may not have known exactly what was coming, but you knew there was change in the air.
It’s not worth repeating the story about the split between Red Octane and Harmonix that led to Guitar Hero and Rock Band becoming two different series. One series was interesting, but brought us sequel after sequel while becoming progressively sillier. Rock Band, on the other hand, innovated frequently, and kept the respect for the source material and the joy of playing live music that made the series mean so much to so many people.
Is it possible to listen to “Green Grass and High Tides” without the feel of a plastic guitar in your hand? Do you remember how easy the first-generation drums were to break? My friends and I would introduce and train new players just to be able to always have a full band on the weekends. Singers were always treasured. Drummers were hard to find. We always kept an extra pedal around in case we broke one. Drum sticks that were snapped in two were evidence that the rock was being delivered.
The Rock Band series lent itself well to alcohol consumption, and many local bars began to offer Rock Band nights. The stage at shows like PAX and E3 always turned into a party, with reporters lining up for hours to play. People who didn’t have the time nor inclination to spend years learning an instrument could get a small sense of the rush one received from playing live music.
Suddenly we were all in bands, and we were able to introduce our kids to the music we grew up listening to via a video game. You would gain appreciation for the bassist of certain bands due to learning how to play their parts on simplified instruments. Later entries in the series could actually teach you how to play guitars, but it was always possible to get a sense for the drums through the game, especially if you spent the money on the expensive (but worth it) Ion drum sets.
I set up a Rock Band stage at my wedding, and as the header image to this story proves, I wasn’t the only one. I spent hours creating my in-game avatar, and our virtual band toured the world, playing all our favorite songs. Everyone had a favorite, and bottles of bourbon and cases of beer would disappear as we played long into the night. I’ve argued that Rock Band is the closest thing to proof that games can be art we have, and I stand by it. No other game so thoroughly shared what it was like to participate in a real-world activity.
There were new tracks added every week, and then Harmonix released the Beatles standalone Rock Band game, which was a masterpiece. It’s rare for a game to understand a band’s music so well, including the visuals, animations, and aesthetic that helped the Beatles stand alone over decades of great music. Playing the game with all the instruments, including multiple microphones for harmonies, required the sort of space and dedication that is rarely asked of modern gamers, but the experience of playing those songs in a large room with everything up and running is singular.
Rock Band 3 was the most robust package, but it was released towards the end of the rhythm game trend and didn’t make much of a splash. It’s worth tracking down a set if you’ve never played it; Harmonix was able to take its first ideas to their natural conclusions, complete with a keyboard controller that could be worn and played like a keytar.
The sense of ridiculousness and play never got in the way of the team’s obvious love of the music and this way of experience the music, and playing Rock Band with a dedicated group of people could often feel like going to church. You were plugging into something bigger than yourself, and losing yourself in the art of not just the songs, but the act of playing them. Some musicians were notoriously snobby about that feeling being available to anyone with a game console, but what other games made it so easy to share joy?
This week saw the last release piece of DLC, with the elegiac “American Pie,” a fitting send off to the series that made guitar-based music cool again. Plastic instruments now fill garages and closets, and half-broken plastic guitars and drums are a common sight. The dream has died, and the ride has come to an end. Harmonix provided us with five plus years of amazing games and music, and for that it’s worth tipping our hat, dusting off the old instruments, and remembering the glory days of plastic instruments and our neighbors asking us to turn that damn music down.
It's possible the series will return in some form, but packaged goods are getting harder to sell, and those huge packages were hard to create, ship, and sell at a profit. The industry has moved on, and in many ways it left fans of rhythm games played with “real” instruments behind.
Here’s to you, Rock Band. You were the best.