Friday, March 26, 2010

Interface In Guitar Hero

This assignment is about Guitar Hero, a popular music video game.

Assignment 2, Question 2
DJ Hero, Rock Band, Lego Rock Band, Dance Dance Revolution, Band Hero, Elite Beat Agents—the video game market today is saturated with music games. One can hardly look at a month's release calendar without seeing a “Hero” game or Rock Band expansion ready for launch. This was not always the case though. The popularity of music games exploded in 2005 with the release of Guitar Hero (the first in a long line of Guitar Hero's). By analyzing Lev Manovich's chapter The Interface, one can see that much of Guitar Hero's success (and limitations) can be attributed to its [at the time] unique interface which eschews traditional video game notions of navigable space and instead focuses on using a plastic guitar peripheral to develop a convincing illusion of making real music.

When creating a video game interface, it is widely accepted that they should immerse the player rather than distract him. Guitar Hero plays on this notion heavily by centering its gameplay mechanics around rhythm and coordination instead of memorization of button combos and commands. This is achieved primarily through the aspect of Guitar Hero's interface that Lev Manovich would refer to as its “tool” (The Interface 66). The vast majority of Guitar Hero discs shipped with a plastic guitar shaped controller with five colored buttons, a strum bar, and a handful of other less important input devices. To play, users hold down the colored “frets” as matching colors scroll towards a target zone and then strum either up or down when the on screen notes reach the target. Players initially assumed that the interface for playing felt natural because the colors onscreen coincide with the colors on the peripheral. Ironically, though, a unique game mechanic reveals that this is not actually the case. What actually makes the interface logical to the players' brain is the arrangement of buttons (both on screen and on controller). That is, the notes are arranged horizontally, and the leftmost note seen by the player corresponds to the leftmost button, and so on. “Lefty flip” proves this to be true when it disorients players in “duel” sections by temporarily mirroring the onscreen note arrangement over a central vertical axis. The colors merely assist the players' brains in sorting notes because horizontal perspective only stops being warped briefly before the notes hit their targets. Collectively, the guitar peripheral can be said to be the single most important aspect of Guitar Hero's interface and the component that creates the game's “unique user experience” (Manovich 67).

However, Manovich iterates that “to change the interface even slightly is to change the work dramatically” (67). Guitar Hero serves as a powerful, albeit unfortunate testament to that statement. One will recall that “most” copies of the game shipped with the unique peripheral. For consumers who did not want to spend around $40 more than the standard retail price of a video game, they were given the option to buy the game on its own. As a result, it would have to be played with a traditional controller. This change renders both onscreen color and horizontal note arrangement irrelevant, as each note corresponds to a seemingly random shoulder or face button of the controller. This change in interface, in turn, forces Guitar Hero to become a tedious and confusing game of timing rather than an intuitive means of fulfilling players' “rock and roll fantasies.”

Manovich also discusses the process by which interface has become “culture encoded in digital form” (70). This has been true of the Guitar Hero franchise from its release. The game takes audio, which traditionally has been an afterthought to video games, and makes it significant, compelling, and interactive. The soundtrack, rather than being “background noise,” is what the players actually play with their guitar peripheral. The onscreen notes discussed earlier are arranged to make the player feel like he is producing the music a variety of popular songs. In this sense, music is a game, not just a distraction. It seems as if the player is playing the guitar solo in Freebird, or the bass in Killing in the Name Of. Upon further inspection, though, it is obvious that Guitar Hero's interface is adept at creating an illusion, not a simulation. The controller's five notes cannot possibly replicate a real guitar accurately, nor can the single, clicky digital strum bar replace strings. The illusion of the interface is pealed back when a player makes an error. If he fails to play the correct note at the correct time, an error sound is played (much like a string being awkwardly plucked by a baby). It becomes obvious that the player has no freedom in creating his own music, and instead is being led to correctly input a series of buttons to allow the in game track to continue to play. This is further illustrated by the fact that Guitar Hero lacks any “free play” mode to speak of. No where in the game can a player create a solo by just playing notes as he sees fit, because the “notes” are actually just buttons that the game tricks players into believing have musical value.

Ryan Sammartino

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