A common perception about gameplay systems is that their complexity is a product of how many moving parts they have. Even if you feel that a simple game can be engaging and that there are plenty of boring complex games, you may also describe mechanically minimalist games as simple and games packed with mechanical levers and pulleys as complex. But there is another way to look at it. In Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman's 2003 game design book Rules of Play, the authors explore the question of what makes a system complex. They devise a thought experiment in which there are two office buildings, each with mail that needs delivering to the opposite building, and tell us that we must program a system that has the messengers deliver those items as efficiently as possible. There's only really one answer, and it's a simple one: we have a messenger take mail from building A, run it across to building B, pick up the mail at building B, carry it back to building A, repeat infinitely.
But then Salen and Zimmerman shake things up. In a second iteration of their thought experiment, they have us design a courier network with ten messengers who must service fifty buildings. The loss condition is that any one building will be waiting too long for its post. Those buildings are not equally spaced apart either, and we can't guarantee that they're all sending the same volume of mail. We could tackle the problem by trying to portion out one messenger for every five buildings, but then our system wouldn't account for there being greater distances between some buildings than others, wouldn't adapt to some buildings sending more letters and parcels than others, and couldn't get mail from one side of the city to the other. If we want fast delivery over long distances and the ability to process the letters in bulk, we should build new features into the system like having our workers meet up to exchange letters, maybe we should get them to visit certain buildings more regularly than others, or we could have the routes of the couriers overlap.
Notice that in the move from two buildings to fifty buildings, nothing changed about the rules of the scenario. The goal is still to deliver letters promptly, and buildings, messengers, and letters function exactly as they did in the earlier version of the experiment. However, when the writers scaled up the problem, we had to do more than scale up the solution to meet it. The new system we blueprinted was not just the previous one with more moving parts; it had to have entirely new features, which is Salen and Zimmerman's point. Echoing the view of journalist Jeremy Campbell, the authors say it's these emergent, interacting features which make a system complex.
This knowledge is relevant for us as people who play games because it allows us to identify complex gameplay systems, but it has particular relevance for those of us who play strategy titles, management sims, and puzzle games. In most action games and some puzzle or strategy games, we interact only with pre-built systems, but there are plenty of experiences in the management, puzzle, and tactics genres that have us designing our own systems to solve problems. The systems we build in these games all break down into either physical systems, abstract systems, or a mixture of the two. For example, the transport lines in Cities in Motion, the factories in Satisfactory, and the physical structures of Bridge Constructor all qualify as physical systems. But the timetables for the inmates in Prison Architect, the programming for our processor in TIS-100, and the trade economy in Stellaris are all examples of abstract systems.
We can think of systems construction games as a discrete genre and may wish to further split it into subgenres based on whether the games have us constructing physical or abstract systems. Within these genres, and in every systems construction game I've mentioned so far, we can architect the kind of complex systems Salen and Zimmerman describe in their book. In Bridge Constructor, we can weld together individual beams to make a support that takes more load than those beams could hold individually because the girders work together to distribute weight; that's an example of complexity in a physical system. In TIS-100, you might change the kind of operation one code module does based on the input it gets from another module; that's an example of complexity in an abstract system. But there's one game, more than any other, that Salen and Zimmerman's thought experiment reminds me of.
2015's Mini Metro is a minimalist puzzle strategy game from Dinosaur Polo Club. If you take our courier thought experiment and you replace the buildings with stations, the messengers with trains, and the letters with passengers, you've more or less got Mini Metro. There are various ways it differs from the game in Rules of Play, however.
1. Just as different letters may be addressed to different buildings in the delivery thought experiment, in Mini Metro, different passengers want to reach different stations. However, to keep the challenge from being positively headache-inducing, Dinosaur Polo Club makes it so that passengers often don't need to arrive at a single station on the map, we just need to shuttle them to a certain type of station. We must deposit triangular passengers at triangular stations, circular passengers belong at circular stations, and so on.
2. Mini Metro has an explicit scoring scheme. Passengers will spawn at stations over time, and every passenger delivered to their destination merits you one point.
3. Mini Metro also has a more complex loss condition. If a station ever ends up with seven or more passengers on it, a timer will start counting down and will keep elapsing as long as the station is over its limit. If that timer reaches zero, the session is over.
4. Our trains/messengers can't move wherever they want. They can only travel along lines we've laid down, and we have a limited number of lines.
5. Mini Metro adds more stations over time, and at fixed intervals, awards you more trains, as well as the opportunity to create more routes for those trains, tunnels which let your burrow your lines under bodies of water, and other features.
As is common in the format, games of Mini Metro start simple and increase in complexity as they go. To understand how we get to those complexities, we have to remember that, in games, we tend not just to have goals but also subgoals. So, in Planetside, the goal might be to out-kill the opposing team, but a subgoal of that would be making sure we're reloading regularly. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, our goal might be to escape the stage intact, but setting ourselves the subgoal of not running out of lantern fuel would be a way to help us do that.
In Mini Metro, our goals are to deliver eager citygoers to their destinations and to ensure that stations don't collapse under the weight of commuters. If we want to carry out those tasks efficiently, we should set ourselves the subgoals of making sure that each station has a train regularly passing through it and that carriages don't become full. Typically, when we lose, it's because of a failure to achieve one or both of these subgoals. If stations are not constantly evacuated of passengers, they back up, which triggers the game over timer, and if stations are overcrowded, you're likely to find that even when trains arrive at them, those trains will fill to bursting. When trains are at capacity, they won't be able to pick up passengers from stations which only makes the problem worse. The complexities we ingrain in our system must be designed to keep us on top of these two subgoals. So what emergent features do we build into our system as the scenario scales up and why?
1. Loops. When your train reaches the last station on the line, the line should pipe them back around to the first terminal again. With a loop in place, the distance any one train must travel to reach any one station is the length of the line; without a loop, a train may have to journey as far as two lengths of the line to reach the same station again. With a loop, the next station a train reaches will always be the one it's neglected for the longest; without a loop, it's possible that the next station a train reaches is one it's recently visited.
2. Stations shared between lines. Just as we can have the messengers trade post, we can have our trains trade passengers at stations. It is particularly important that we build this capability into our system because of the existence of unique stations. Sometimes only one instance of a certain station type will spawn on the map, but passengers who wish to reach that station will pop up all over the city. As it would be disastrously inefficient to stretch all our lines across the metropolis to transport people to every unique station, our only choice is to pass passengers from lines without that unique station onto a route or routes that have it. Handing off passengers from one line to another can also be a way to get commuters from a line without a square station to one that can accommodate them. As square stations are rarer than circular and triangular ones, you'll occasionally need to do this.
Often, the optimal solution is to have all your stations converge on a single point that you can use as a hub. Where possible, you want that transfer station to be in the centre of the map so that you're not stretching lines beyond their limits to reach it, and ideally, you want the station they meet at to be a square. In a perfect world, lines might connect at a unique station, the rarest type, but those tend to pop up closer to the edges of the map precisely to stop you doing this.
3. Alternating station types on a line. This strategy is best explained with an example. Imagine that we have a line that runs through three circular stations in a row. A station will never produce a passenger the same shape as it. Why would a triangular passenger, for example, try to hitch a ride at a triangular station? They're already at their destination. We can know, based on this rule, that our three circular stations will only output triangular, square, and unique-shaped passengers. A train moving along this line may pick up some square, triangular, and unique passengers at the first station, which it won't drop off at the second station as the passengers don't match the station shape. At the second station, it may pick up more of the same, which it can't drop off at the third station because that's still not a triangle, square, or unique.
Our train is liable to exit this chain of three stations stuffed wall-to-wall with passengers, violating our subgoal of retaining open space in carriages. By comparison, imagine our locomotive went through a circle station, then a triangle station, then a square station, in that order. Any triangular or square passengers picked up at the first station would be deposited at the second or third station, and any square passengers picked up at the second station would also be dropped off at the third station. On average, our train will exit the second route setup with far more passenger slots left in it than if it had gone through the first. So, we alternate station types wherever we can.
4. Non-overlapping lines. This one is about as easy to grasp as they come. If railroads overlap then when a train travels across that overlap, it will slow down. You don't want carriages taking longer to reach stations than they have to.
Knowing these strategies, there's a couple of interesting observations we can make. Firstly, Mini Metro explicitly teaches us its rules and what tools we can use to build systems in it but challenges us by having us figure out what complexities we should implement in those systems to get ahead. Most systems construction games use this general scheme. To return to our earlier examples, Bridge Constructor lets us erect beams but doesn't tell us that we can cluster beams in certain patterns to better reinforce our bridges. TIS-100 teaches us about how to implement input, output, and conditional functions, but doesn't tell us how we might use them together to process data between modules.
The second observation we can make about Mini Metro is that not only can we bring components of our system together to create complexities, we can combine those complexities to make new complexities. To reiterate some of our strategies, we want non-overlapping lines, loops, and our routes to converge on a square station. We can put the above aims together to create an ideal pattern for our rail network: It should look like the petals of a flower growing off of a square station in the centre of the map. Now that we know this strategy, Mini Metro would appear to be solved. In fact, through this mindset, all systems construction games could be beaten by learning the correct complexities to implement and putting them into practice. I'm not going to say it's wrong for a game to reward that approach, but if the challenge of a game is only to uncover and memorise a set of strategies, then it's limiting its depth and longevity.
Many games develop their difficulty over time by teaching us a lot of ideal actions and tactics to use but making it difficult, or in certain situations, non-advantageous to execute on them. In a systems construction game, this means the design putting up a lot of walls in our way when we try to embed the complexities in our systems that we want to. Let's run back down our list of strategies and look at how the game can sabotage each one.
1. Loops. When we have a lot of solid ground to work on, running a loop across it is highly doable, but often we have to route our networks across bodies of water. Every time we do this and include a loop in the line, we use at least two tunnels: one for the train to go out over the river or sea and another for it to make the return journey. Tunnels are in short supply, so you have to ration them, meaning you often don't have enough of them to complete circuits across bodies of water and must resort to non-looping lines.
2. Stations shared between lines. The risk you run by implementing this strategy is that those cross-line stations buckle under the pressure of extra passengers. They not only have to accommodate all the regular commuters that show up at any spot on the map, they then have all these additional travellers crammed into them as those people disembark from one line and wait for the train to appear on another. The strategy in which we connect all lines to a single station is a countermeasure which aims to keep this potential overflow of passengers contained. This is a more attainable goal if we can use the "interchange" power-up on that shared station, increasing its capacity and the speed at which it can load and unload passengers, a move which will have all lines moving faster. Still, sometimes that powerup doesn't spawn, and there's no way to eliminate the pressure on shared stations entirely.
3. Alternating station types on a line. The game can make it hard or impossible to use this strategy by spawning a lot of circle stations in close proximity to each other. You can't run your metro through a square or triangle if there are no squares or triangles nearby.
4. Non-overlapping lines. If a designer is smart, they can make it so that rolling with one strategy prevents us from implementing another.
Choice is a critical element of meaningful play, and in Mini Metro, we frequently have to make choices about the layout of our rail networks. If you're looping lines, overlapping them, and having them connect back to the same hubs then, at some point, you're likely going to run one line across another as they encroach on each other's space. The game dumping a cluster of circles in one area also nudges you to twist your lines into pretzels searching for other shapes to thread in between those circles. In both cases, you will see a slowdown of your trains as tracks run across tracks.
When the game trips us up with these tricks, we can't think of our objective as just being to build the "correct" features into our system; the play has been lent depth through us often having to decide when implementing a feature is worth it and when it's not. We may also have to choose which complexities we prioritise. There are trade-offs, calculations we must make about which are the best tactics, and there is risk/reward based on which strategies we choose. All strategy games must have these elements if they want players to keep thinking of original solutions to problems and coming back to play. For maximum depth, they must have us not just devising a complex strategy or system for the whole experience, but revising it on a per-level or per-session basis.
Before we leave this topic behind, let's dispel a few misconceptions about complexity in games. Firstly, complexity does not equal depth. Under Salen and Zimmerman's specific definition of complexity, this means that just because a system might have emergent features in it or a game may push us to implement such features in our games, that doesn't guarantee that those features are going to be meaningful to us. The dynamics in our Mini Metro subway are meaningful to us because they're each unique and have a clear and substantial effect on the larger game state, but when features of a system are too similar, or their impacts are nebulous, the player is going to struggle to care about them. Additionally, if the player can succeed without paying attention to many of the elements in a system, what the design has is not depth but clutter. Secondly, there's this little bit of logic:
Premise 1: Our video game is themed around a real-world system that's complex.
Premise 2: Our video game or a system within it is complex.
Conclusion: Our video game is an accurate simulation of that real-world system and its complexities.
The problem with this line of thought is that while you might be right that both these systems are complex, the complexities in system A are not necessarily the same ones as in system B. So, in our Mini Metro example, our subways are complicated, real rail systems are complicated, but that doesn't mean that they're complicated in the same manner or to the same extent. For one thing, in Mini Metro, the tube map you're building is identical in layout to the railway it represents, but in the real world, stations and train lines aren't laid out in the same patterns they are on maps. Those maps are orthogonal diagrams designed not to be geographically accurate but to make transit systems easy to navigate for commuters. Compare the London tube map to this engineers' diagram. You can wrap your head around the orthogonal map far more easily than the engineers' diagram. There are countless other differences, including real rail networks generally having more lines or the engineering of trains and tracks being a factor in efficiency.
Lastly, it's important to keep in mind that when analysing a game or any system, that we don't have to use Salen and Zimmerman's definition of complexity. The researchers say that complexity can be identified not by whether a system has a multitude of moving parts but by a system evolving interacting features to cope with a problem. However, there are plenty of other conceptions of "complexity". In certain contexts, we might define it as a system having a large collection of elements, or having many properties that an observer can see, or something else entirely. In situations where terms have multiple definitions, there's often a tendency to try and discover which one is the "real" one, but I think this often erodes our descriptive ability rather than improves it. There are myriad meanings of "complexity", and we can use different lenses on the games we analyse at different times to achieve different insights.
To recap, Rules of Play claims that when problems are scaled up, we can't absentmindedly scale up our solutions to meet them. Instead, we have to add new interlocking features to our systems, and at the point we do, we can call our system "complex". This is relevant both in the context of the systems which make up games and the systems that we sometimes build to play them. The systems we construct can be physical or abstract, but the games typically run us through three steps: 1. The designers tell us what elements we can build into our systems, 2. We learn for ourselves what complexities we can build into them, 3. The game tries to disrupt our implementation of those complexities. However, just because a game system is complex does not mean it is realistic or deep. Nor do we have to adopt Salen and Zimmerman's concept of "complexity" in any given scenario. Thanks for reading.
1. Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. MIT Press (p. 152-154).
Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Donut County.
Video games don't just provide us with the opportunity to interact with fictional worlds; they also ingrain in us mindsets through which we process those worlds. Often, how we receive a game environment is a product of not just its contents but also the tools we have to interact with it. In the realm of shooters, we perceive most characters as targets because these games place a gun front and centre, sometimes literally. If you want the inverse, look at a game like Viva Piñata, which situates us in a natural wonderland and hands us gardening implements and food. With those tools in our palms, we find ourselves protecting and nurturing plants and animals.
Player tools can also be relatively abstract. In some action games, we can't run off of the edge of a surface, or if we do, it will trigger a loss state, but in a platformer like Prince of Persia or Ratchet and Clank, one of our primary tools is the ability to leap across chasms. In games without jump mechanics, we often view pits as barriers, but in platformers, we see them as a means of transit to somewhere else in the environment, precisely because of the tools under our belt. Whether our tools are physical or abstract, it's also possible for the elements they operate on to be abstract themselves. Donkey Konga features the classic rhythm game task of interacting with geometric patterns that scroll across the screen. These shapes do not depict real physical objects, but they do remind us of a system of representation we're familiar with: because they exist on a musical stave, we perceive them as notation, and due to the drum peripheral in front of us, we go into the play with a mindset of working out what to hit when.
You'll also notice from the above examples that the tools we use and the mindsets we adopt say something about the protagonist we occupy and facilitate roleplay. In giving us a gun and inviting us to view the environment as a firing range, a game can have us roleplay a soldier. If we're running around with a seed bag and a watering can then it only makes sense that the NPCs in Viva Piñata treat us like a gardener. And so on, down the list. It's not surprising that games are so coloured by the tools they give us to work with; the attribute that distinguishes them from other media is their interactivity, and the tools are how we interact. Interactive capabilities aren't the only element that alters our perception of game worlds: dialogue, art, sound, UI, objectives, and rewards are indispensable contributors. However, developers often design those pieces to match our tools or decide our tools based on how they've laid out these other portions of the design. For these reasons, it's a constructive exercise to take note of what tools games give us, how those tools change our viewpoints and behaviour, and how those perspectives and actions match or don't match the character we're meant to be controlling or the messaging and aesthetics of the experience.
Of course, I used very cursory descriptions of tools and how they fit into larger designs in each of those examples, so let's crack open a game and get a more thorough look at how they can frame and influence an experience. Donut County is a 2018 physics game from indie developer Ben Esposito. Set in a homely rural community, Donut County has players take on the role of B.K., a pudgy and self-centred racoon who runs a local doughnut shop. He spends most of his day messing with an app on his tablet computer which he can use to make a mysterious hole to appear in a distant location. This hole is both our avatar and our tool in the game, and as B.K., we can use it to swallow up nearby objects. As the hole eats items, it expands, allowing us to wrap its teeth around ever-larger entities. Once we sweep an area clean, the negative space closes up, B.K. receives some XP, and we move onto the next stage. Our furry scavenger is inseparable from this app because it promises him the grand prize of a quadcopter if only he can reach level 10.
If we can learn more about games and their protagonists by looking at the properties of their tools, we should ask "What are the properties of the hole?". Most obviously, it's highly destructive. Destructive tools are standard in video games; anything that could be used to eliminate an enemy or a piece of geometry is a destructive tool, whether it's an attack, a weapon, or another practical implement like a pickaxe. In empowerment fantasy games, the thrill of wielding a destructive tool is often in entering a space abundant with objects or characters and using that tool to remove them from that space; Donut County takes that idea to its logical extreme. You're not just mowing down a wave of demons or busting through a wall to follow the mission's breadcrumb trail; levels are only complete when you've cleared all objects on the screen. Everything must go.
Although, we should note that the narrative and symbolism around the hole make it a little less scary than that sounds. While an AK47 or a stick of dynamite are violent and often gory means to destroy whatever stands in your path, the hole is a comical counterpoint to them. In western animation, it's typically associated with mischief, especially in the old Warner Bros. shorts. When the hole consumes characters in this game, their reactions are not fear or pain like the victims of gunfire in a violent action title; instead, they fall through the ground with a hilarious deadpan. And whatever function that gap in the earth might have in the mechanics or code, we know holes don't destroy people or objects, they just move or contain them, and the game acknowledges this.
In the dialogue scenes between levels, we catch up with B.K. and the townsfolk in a subterranean cave where the hole has dumped them and their possessions. Similarly, levels end with a chance to review the "Trashpedia", a codex of all the items that we've swallowed with the pit so far. The Trashpedia gives the impression that rather than having destroyed items, we've collected them. Effectively, the hole is one of the portals from Portal, but instead of us using it to teleport ourselves through the environment, we use it to teleport props and characters out of the environment. It isn't a black hole or a bottomless pit which is what we might assume if we never saw what was on the other side; it's a doorway to the underground.
This tool and the Trashpedia were inspired by, among other media, Keita Takahashi's Katamari Damacy games which also gave us the joy of ripping apart a level like a disgruntled house pet using non-violent means. In Katamari Damacy, you affix items to an immense sticky sphere that grows as you attach more objects onto it, allowing it to pick up larger pieces of junk, expanding it further, and round the cycle goes. Many games increase the power of our tools based on this feedback loop: The better you use the tool, or the longer you use it for, the better a tool you get, which gives you a sharper edge in earning an even better tool. In racing games, driving skillfully wins competitions which earns you cars with better top speed, handling, and acceleration; in an RPG, winning combat encounters can earn you gear with higher stats which increases your prowess during future battles. The pacing of many games is influenced by the length of the time between when we start using the tool in the manner that earns rewards and when we receive those rewards.
MMOs create steady pacing by leaving relatively long gaps between new loot and levels; an unsparing loot racing game like The Crew moves a bit faster, giving you new kit after every race, even if it tends to increment your stats only slightly each time; Katamari and Donut County move at a breakneck speed. As soon as you collect a new item, your tool becomes more powerful, and environments are lousy with items: you're capturing them every few seconds. It creates a feeling of frantic, runaway success, matching the games' absurd and light-hearted tones. It's possible to have such a sudden increase in our tool's power because almost none of the upgrades to it carry between levels; no matter the size of our hole or our katamari when we end one stage, it will start off small again at the beginning of the next.
It wouldn't be possible for individual upgrades to be this empowering in a game with persistent rewards because if you're just going to give the player the rocket launcher or the Lamborgini off the bat, then there's not a lot for them to earn in subsequent missions. Resetting the tool between levels solves this problem so that you can experience the equivalent of the rocket launcher in every level, giving you liberating destructive potential. Although, the trade-off for such games is that they cannot have a long-term upward power curve. For Donut County, this isn't the problem it might be for other titles, as it is a brief, two-hour experience, relying on its charm, narrative, immediate feel, and visual feedback, as opposed to permanent stat investments.
It's not that we don't see some development of our capabilities over the course of the game, it's just that it doesn't come in the form of a bigger stick. One way to delight players and switch up your play is to show them their tool doing something they wouldn't have thought possible before and that's what Donut County is going for. The further you can drag a tool away from its original behaviour patterns, the more potential it has to be refreshing in its applications; although if a tool's new behaviours are distinct enough from its initial behaviour, we may frame this scenario as the game giving players an entirely new device.
Donut County manages to retrofit some surprising new powers onto our tool. We spend the first several levels of the experience watching objects fall into the hole, so what better way for Esposito to turn the premise on its head than to have objects fly out of the hole? It's delightfully shocking because it's the exact opposite of what we've been trained to expect. Our avatar first ejects objects in the level Potter's Rock when we have it absorb some burning wood, and see smoke rise back out of it. We can then use that smoke to push a hot air balloon skyward. Later on, we can make fire fly out of the hole which we can use to ignite props in the scenery, and in some subsequent levels, we go on to cause popcorn, rabbits, explosives, and hurricanes to burst out of it. Eventually, we receive a catapult that enables us to launch the last few items the pit has consumed back into the air.
Donut County also has us rethink what's possible with the hole through it displaying different behaviour based on what kinds of matter fall into it. From the start, the game drills into us the idea that the hole is effectively bottomless. It's this weird non-euclidean object that, for the purposes of play, has finite dimensions on the surface, but can store infinite mass. However, the game subverts our expectations by showing that if we move this negative space through a body of liquid, the liquid will fill it. The first time we see this, it's in the level Riverbed as we have the hole cut across a puddle, but Esposito develops the concept in the level Cat Soup where we find we can use the empty gap as a pot with which to make food. Curiously, if there is liquid in the hole and we pass it under a drinking bird, the hole will become a bottomless pit again. It's another magical surprise due to its apparent impossibility.
While there's a lesson to be learned here, it's not that designers can make mid-game adjustments to their mechanics without thinking about the repercussions. Sudden changes in play can make it feel inconsistent, and the audience can become frustrated if developers rewrite the rules without an adequate explanation. Spontaneously mutating any mechanical element can also stop it gelling with other mechanical elements if the overall design does not properly accommodate the change. Donut County provides some idea, however, of how designers make introduce these surprises without them being jarring, and it does that by having us discover new properties of its primary tool organically.
Some games introduce modifiers and new abilities by forcing us to run right into them or otherwise imposing them on us, but this can feel heavy-handed and unrealistic. Donut County smoothly transitions us into the use of these mechanics not by putting the hole on a track with the fire or the water partway along it, but by having the objective be to pick up every item in a level. We can't leave the stage without collecting the fire, water, popcorn, soup, etc. but when we do, it's out of voluntarily steering the pit into these objects, so it doesn't feel forced. Although, the catapult is an exception to that rule. Additionally, when we receive a new mechanic, it doesn't take much effort to figure out the puzzle of using it because the items in the game behave like their real-life counterparts: fire burns, catapults launch things, etc. and even once you've discovered these mechanical curiosities, levels mostly still consist of using the hole to gobble down objects. That continuation of the original use of the hole means that it doesn't feel like the game has switched modes; fire, liquid, bombs, wind, and catapults exist comfortably on top of the game's undercoat.
We've spent the majority of this essay looking at how the hole functions within the mechanics, but it's also worth looking at how the writing uses this tool to send a message to the player and lay down the stepping stones of a story. The interstitials between Donut County's levels mostly consist of the villagers of the county explaining how their lives were ruined by B.K. dropping all their possessions into the underground. Eventually, the residents and B.K.'s friend Mira convince him to try and fix the local homes and businesses by paying a visit to the Trash King, whose company distributed B.K.'s app and quadcopter. As we find out once they reach his headquarters, the racoons moved into the region a little while ago, and when they did, they began hoarding goods in the area. Since then, life in Donut County has gone downhill for everyone except the greedy racoons whose leader now lives a life of wealth and luxury. As B.K., we use the hole to wreck the king's castle, but the furry monarch tries to discourage our demolition with a generous financial offer. Our protagonist says "no" and uses a combination of the hole and a quadcopter to wreck the Trash King's abode. Mira and B.K. force the Trash King to build an elevator to launch the residents and their belongings back to terra firma.
On one level, we can see Donut County as being about the collateral damage we do in games and how it would affect real people. We're used to running around action titles throwing bombs any which way or barging into peoples' homes and ransacking them for valuables, even when we're meant to be the hero. Donut County has us wield a tool that is only capable of environmental destruction and collection, and says that, in reality, these types of tools risk destroying peoples' livelihood. Using them makes us not the hero, but the villain, at least, if we use them without a mind for who and what we're targetting.
Alternatively, Donut County is about possessions and the transfer of those possessions between people. The racoons, including B.K., are a stand-in for the economic elite. They move into an area and only consume, and soon enough, the people in that territory are left without assets of their own or even disappear from it because their livelihood has dropped out from under them. The racoons have gentrified Donut County. The tool of the hole and the Trashpedia have us emulating that consumptive behaviour, absorbing and collecting goods from the people who need them. The emptiness of this consumption is underlined by the items we sweep up having trivial long-term value to us. They're a one-sentence description in an in-game gallery; the second we understand what we've acquired, we're already gobbling up the next set of trinkets. There's a great metaphor here for how the rich get richer: as we dump more things into the hole, the hole gets bigger, allowing us to put more things into it. B.K. and the Trash King try to excuse their behaviour, with the former saying he was providing people with the products they craved and the latter claiming that he did what he did to help out the racoon population. These are plays on common defences of consumer capitalism, but these arguments come across as disingenuous in this narrative context and weak in the face of the damage done to the county.
A third and related interpretation: The hole is a metaphor for our appetite for material things. It feels sensible to keep squeezing items into it, but not only is it effectively bottomless and not filled by what we feed it; compulsively attempting to fill it only increases its appetite. The goods we acquire don't make us happy, but the act of acquiring them does, and so we continue to consume with consumption as an end in itself, all at other peoples' expense. The game satirises that urge for material satiation by comparing it to being a racoon, rifling through rubbish. Once we start helping the townsfolk, there is no post-stage XP bar, and the promise of a quadcopter vanishes, i.e. There's no material gain to be had. This makes the play a smidge less satisfying, but we sacrifice a little gratification for the knowledge that we're doing the right thing.
In the final level, as we attack the Trash King's HQ, Donut County comments that if we are capable of taking goods from other people to benefit ourselves, then it's also possible for us to use that acquisitiveness to dismantle the empires of the affluent. Although, the game doesn't systemise much about the process of rebuilding after we've confiscated those stolen assets. Because the basis of Donut County's mechanics is a destructive tool rather than a constructive one, there's this quick turnaround from ripping apart the final boss's lair to everything being back in its rightful place with no transitional scenes of putting the town back together. In the credits scene, instead of driving the hole, we fly a quadcopter around the county, reflecting B.K.'s growth from a hunger devouring the town to a blissful observer. All this talk about consumerism and collateral damage might sound grandiose, but through the game's aesthetics, characters, and play, it can deliver it in a humorous, rather than dramatic fashion. Not a lot of people are going to show up for a dry socioeconomics lesson, but they might turn out to see Katamari with a hole.
In conclusion, the tools that games have us use decide a large part of what it is to play those games and significantly influence who the characters we play are. In Donut County, the cartoon hole gives us the sense of a game and protagonist that are playful but concerned with destruction and collection. Games typically have us use such tools to improve the power of the tools themselves and how quickly we can cycle through that loop helps define pacing. You can also see how, with the right framing, a simple tool can be used for some fairly complex symbolism. In this title, late-game events contextualise the tool's consumption and destruction as symbolic of the hoarding of material assets, while a fast feedback loop between picking up items with the hole and the hole expanding clearly demonstrates how goods become reinvested to acquire more goods or how our appetite for possessions paradoxically grows as we feed it. Throughout, Donut County keeps our attention by changing our expectations for what we can do with that tool both mechanically and narratively, and by shifting the target of our tool, it alters the context and morality of our actions. Thanks for reading.
Rock Band 3 was one of gaming's most commendable attempts to breathe new life into a dying genre. With an unorthodox 83 song soundtrack and its introduction of synthesisers, real guitars, and cymbals, it dramatically expanded the series' potential to both entertain and educate. Given that background, it only made sense that Rock Band 4 would carry that revolutionary flag forwards and be another historical advancement in the band game format. Particularly because Rock Band 4 was being released five years after the last entry in the series and had the opportunity to incorporate half a decade of lessons learned by the industry. That gap between games might not have been as long as five years if it weren't for Harmonix not wanting to compete with early blockbuster titles for the Xbox One and PS4, and preferring to take some time exploring new projects like Dance Central for the Kinect. However, by 2015 the console libraries had had time to simmer down, the buzz around the Kinect was receding, and the studio had already put out four Dance Central games in five years.
Rock Band made its return in October 2015, but contrary to expectations, it launched defined more by what features of the series it was gutting than by any intrepid discovery of the new limits of rhythm games. Gone were the keyboard and the pro guitar from Rock Band 3. The game even removed its predecessor's option to play synth parts on the guitar meaning that those songs that you bought thinking you'd be able to play them with five different instruments now had less reuse value. Existing on a different generation of consoles from the original games, this sequel is also devoid of support for many of the peripherals that the series previously used.
Harmonix released a notoriously contrived compatibility chart showing which controllers can and cannot speak to Rock Band 4's software. Of note is the lack of inclusion for many Rock Band 1 instruments, and even if you do have Harmonix hardware from the second title onwards, if you're on the Xbox One, you need a wireless adapter that first retailed at $25, and that launched a month after the game, to use it. For some players, the adapter was impossible to acquire as supplies of the gadget did not nearly meet the demands, and if you didn't own compatible instruments and could not get your hands on an adapter, you had to pay $250 for a bundle including a mic, guitar, drums, and the Rock Band 4 disc. In the UK, that price was £220 (~$333 USD), and in Australia, a stomach-churning $500 (~$355 USD). Compare this to the £180/$170 USD price point of the original game's kit. You were also hard-pressed to find these bundles if you lived in Europe. Product manager Eric Pope openly acknowledged that they were in short supply in the region, and when players did manage to drive home with a box of instruments in the back seat, they didn't always find that it lived up to their standards.
Because the controllers haven't been redesigned since Rock Band 2, the guitar and drums for the Xbox One still use the stiff, clumsy D-Pad from the 360. Fans also reported the gamestutteringandlagging, and the drums not always detecting inputs which were unforgivable in a title that asked its players for precision performance. Combined, these faults could entirely ruin 100% runs. It's true that the first batch of Rock Band 1 controllers had more than its fair share of malfunctions, but Harmonix did, at least, offer everyone free replacement instruments on that occasion. It's also more understandable when a developer runs into those kinds of snafus with the first game in their series as opposed to the seventh. Harmonix responded to fretting Rock Band 4 adopters by releasing firmware updates for the instruments, but now you were downloading files and connecting console peripherals to your PC just to make the game playable. Even worse, you might be part of the majority of players who never knew these glitches or fixes existed but would be punished in the scoring all the same.
Somewhere along the journey, Rock Band also dropped the practice mode, drum trainer, freestyle drum mode, highly customisable characters, and percentage-based leaderboard comparisons from previous games. Many players also immediately noticed the big feature-shaped hole where online multiplayer should have been. Additionally, due to exploits that Harmonix discovered in the software, they deleted the original leaderboard scores in February 2016. If you want to read a little more on what was absent from the game's hardware and software, I wrote about it a few years ago over here, but back in the present, we're going to talk about what was missing from Rock Band 4's song library. The game has eighteen fewer tracks on-disc than Rock Band 3, and at launch, couldn't import songs from Rock Band Network or any previous game in the series, nor could Harmonix tell people when those imports would go live. As for the soundtrack they included in the game, it's not to everyone's tastes. It's difficult to critique music in the way we critique the practical aspects of a game because music tends to divide audiences into more select camps based on personal taste, but I can describe the changes Harmonix made and how I received them.
The earlier games relied on long-respected electric guitar-led music accompanied by a few experimental stripes. Rock Band 3 deviated somewhat from that pattern, and 4 takes that deviation even further. In the multicoloured halls of the Rock Band 4 soundtrack, you will find classic rock, indie rock, and alt-rock, but in comparison to Rock Bands past, there's less of that and more songs inspired by country and blues. Plus, where these country and blues songs appear, the inspiration runs deeper into their sound. These tracks include Caught Up in You by .38 Special, Cold Clear Light by Johnny Blazes and the Pretty Boys, Follow You Down by The Gin Blossoms, Kick It Out by Heart, Little White Church by Little Big Town, Mainstream Kid by Brandi Carlile, Milwaukee by The Both, Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo by Rick Derringer, Start a Band by Brad Paisley, Suspicious Minds by Elvis Presley, and That Smell by Lynryd Skynryd. There are also more tracks playing it closer to pop than rock. See: Centuries by Fall Out Boy, Little Miss Can't Be Wrong by The Spin Doctors, Still Into You by Paramore, Tongue Tied by Grouplove, and Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson. Collectively, the songs in this paragraph make up a quarter of the game's track reel.
Of the pieces that remain, it's very hit and miss. I will give Rock Band 4 its due: in taking deeper cuts than any other mainline series title, it shines a few rays of brilliance that it might never have done otherwise. There are selections like St. Vincent's Birth in Reverse which sounds like someone made a jerky pop-rock song out of a Salvidor Dali painting; Queens of the Stone Age's My God Is the Sun, a hard rock hymn sung by a violent desert hermit; or there's Lightning Bolt's Dream Genie, a noisy tsunami of experimental metal. But then there are the misses; the tracks that were never astoundingly popular and that I could take or leave like At Night in Dreams by White Denim, I Will Follow by U2, or Pistol Whipped by Tijuana Sweetheart.
Even considering that most players are likely to find one or two wet squibs in each rhythm game soundtrack, it's hard to understand who Rock Band 4 is for. If you know the person who wanted about three times as much southern rock, considerably more sugary indie pop, and a lot of specific B-tier selections from America's various bands, I want to meet them. The best way I can describe the Rock Band 4 soundtrack is that the R.E.M. song they included was The One I Love. I like The One I Love, but then I like R.E.M. a lot more than most of the other bands in this game, and that kind of pick is unlikely to please anyone but an entrenched enthusiast. Considering that Rock Band 4 was snatching away the songs that players owned in previous games, there was an onus on it to guarantee that the songs it added were going to be of similar quality, and they were not.
While we've already acknowledged a few factors in creating the five-year hiatus between Rock Band 3 and 4, we should also address the most prominent of them: the crash of the band game market. That collapse was, in part, a consequence of many rhythm games with strong mechanical resemblance to each other releasing in quick succession. It can also be attributed to the high price point of those products, and arguably, the setup required to use them. So, it appeared as self-defeating for Harmonix to try and rejuvenate the band game format by offering a game that was closer to the original Rock Band than their last entry, required users buy more add-ons for their gaming machine, may have cost them up to the price of a new console, could require more faffing about to get into a workable state, and didn't import most of their older content. Sure, there are some original elements in Rock Band 4 that we'll discuss in detail, and after five years off, people may have been more willing to buy up instruments or adapters all over again, but there was still a sense that this was one step forward and two steps back. While there was always the potential for Harmonix to improve Rock Band 4 over time with patches and DLC, a lot of your sales are going to be made around the release of your product or not made at all, and there were a lot of deterrents for purchasing Rock Band 4 on day one or even month one. Given that Harmonix is one of the top rhythm developers in the runnings, you have to ask how Rock Band 4 came out so underproduced.
It's probably not down to executive meddling; this was the first Rock Band that Harmonix developed independently and product manager Daniel Sussman expressed that while feedback from MTV Games was instructive in previous development processes, it could also be creatively constricting. It's also not likely to be down to a change of team: many of the same people who developed the original Rock Band also ended up on the Rock Band 4 credits. A more likely culprit is the diminished budget in comparison to previous Rock Bands. The leaner development funds were probably down to Harmonix no longer having MTV Games to bankroll them and possibly also attributable to the declining profits that Rock Band had brought in over the years. When previous trends suggested that Rock Band 4 was unlikely to generate a lot of revenue, it's believable that it didn't make business sense to pour sacks of capital into it. And when manufacturing is so expensive, I'd bet that Harmonix having less credit in their account was a motivator in them pairing down the peripherals.
We could also speculate that self-publishing a Rock Band game for the first time came with unforeseen complications or that remaking the controllers and converting DLC over to a whole new generation of consoles diverted efforts that might have otherwise gone into developing features. Additionally, we should remember that the fourth Dance Central title, Dance Central Spotlight, comprised a streamlining of that series which was generally well-received by critics and fans, possibly making such a philosophy seem appropriate for Harmonix's other rhythm game behemoth. Although, Dance Central was never a feature-rich game, to begin with. Making it into a minimalist title means you lose far fewer gameplay elements than when you do the same thing with Rock Band.
What we do know is that Harmonix co-founder Alex Rigopulos thought that with a superior real-world guitar game out there, there wasn't much use in a Rock Band 4 that supported the pro guitar. That dominating guitar series was Rocksmith, a software package dedicated solely to teaching people the guitar which saw releases in 2011 and 2014, right after Rock Band 3. You could make a good case that Rocksmith was better at this job than 3 because its interface communicated in more detail than 3's did. As for Rock Band 4's somewhat bland soundtrack, the track listing was once again constrained by Harmonix already have published most of the stadium-filling rock anthems out there. According to the company, they made an effort to include hotly-requested tracks from the fanbase, but they would still have to have stretched to find exciting rock songs that didn't appear in the six games and roughly six years of weekly DLC prior. It's not surprising given the circumstances that Harmonix may have had to pick a few less popular tracks or may have had to wander away from the typical band game genres to get their 65 songs.
The music included in any mainline Rock Band is also subject to shifts in the tectonic plates of western music culture, and a lot did change in the rock and mainstream music scenes between the 00s and the 10s. Rock Band has always had soundtracks that kept their finger on the pulse of recent music, but the further we got into the 2010s, the more rock faded from the radio to make room for singer-songwriters' works, riffs on hip hop and R&B, and pure pop. The emphasis was no longer on music that sounded like it was made by ensembles; it was increasingly about showcasing individuals who provided a single human face to focus on and who espoused a personal brand. Music backed by lavish, shiny production as opposed to the dirtier, rawer sound of rock was also on the rise, even in the case of acts presented as bands.
This is not me telling you that pop as a genre is not worth your time (it is) or that it only ascended to the industry throne in 2010 (it didn't), but there weren't as many chart-topping rock acts breaking into the mainstream as there had been even ten years earlier. The bands which were setting the airwaves alight were mostly acquired from previous decades, and there was no equivalent of the explosion in popularity of groups like The Kaiser Chiefs, Kings of Leon, and the Arctic Monkeys, all of which took the spotlight in the period leading up to the original Rock Band. Rock Band 4 was trying to whip up contemporary rock tracks at a time when there was a famine of mainstream rock music. It's forced to make do with relatively unknown and therefore risky bands, as well as acts that stray from the essential rock sound, including the more successful pop artists of the era. But we've spent so long looking at what we lost in the intervening time between Rock Band 3 and 4, let's talk about what the series gained. The design of Rock Band 4 serves to fulfil four goals:
Streamline the play.
Award player performance in real-time.
Allow for more player improvisation.
Simulate song selection as an interaction between the performer and crowd.
Streamlining is about what design elements developers abolish, and we've already covered a lot of that, so let's skip ahead to point number two.
Player Performance in Real-Time
Most video games are concerned with rewarding you not just at the chunkier milestones but throughout the play. We don't just win items, resources, or points at the end of levels, matches, or quests, we also win medals, find loot, and pick up collectables during them. Rock Band, however, is built on top of the template of the early Guitar Heros and play in those games lacked these explicit ambient rewards. Hitting notes lit up your pleasure centres, and you could see your score, streak, and combo increase over the course of a song, but you wouldn't know what your hit percentage or star rating was until you'd played out your last chord. The original Rock Band fought back a little against this presentation: within any single play of a song, the game updated you on your star rating in real-time and informed you how close you were to the next star. Rock Band 4 takes that baton and runs with it.
You may be familiar with gold stars: a secret star rating above five stars that you can only attain on Expert difficulty. Players deep into the series care a lot about this accolade, but the gap between five stars and gold stars is wider than the gulf between four stars and five stars. Because players were never told how close they were to achieving that elite score rating, they couldn't know whether they were just inches off of it and might be able to snag it with another replay of a song or whether they'd fallen far short and any repeat attempts would be in vain. In Rock Band 4, if you achieve five stars on Expert during a song, the star meter then begins tracking how close you are to gold stars, eliminating this problem. It does mean that this award is no longer a concealed surprise, but after three mainline Rock Bands, most players who were serious about the game had already discovered this secret.
Additionally, pop-ups appear over the note highway to tell you when you've engraved a new personal best on the leaderboards or when you've overtaken a friend's score. The design works on not just the principle of regular reward but also the concept that community members are going to care more about beating the score of someone they know rather than that of a stranger. It's a generally correct assumption.
Up to this point in the Rock Band series, there had been some asymmetry between the drums and other instruments. The drums give you the chance to improvise music several times during a song by performing the fills in the track, but there was never an analogue for this feature on the microphone or guitar. You could freestyle into the mic in set passages to ignite overdrive, but the vocalist activates this score multiplier far less often than the instrumentalists, and when they do, there's not the same sense of call and response as you get with those sandbox sections on the drums. The guitar, bass, and synth, meanwhile, didn't give the player a chance to improv their own riffs, and for the guitar and bass specifically, it's hard to see how they would accommodate them.
Drums fills are ubiquitous in rock music. A popular spot for them is in transitions from verses to choruses, and a vocalist can introduce a personal touch to a song in more or less any period of silence, but the guitar and bass aren't exactly rife with equivalent sections in which instrumentalists could let their creative flag fly. The Rock Band guitar is also not as adaptable to music creation as the drums or mic. On the drums, you have four main drums and a kick, and if you've gone all out, the three cymbals included with the pro kit. You've got, at a minimum, a rudimentary electronic drum kit where each pad can correspond with part of a real-world drum set (e.g. The red pad is a snare, the green is a crash cymbal, etc.), and as a singer, anything you can vocalise can become part of the song. The Rock Band guitar, however, is over a hundred inputs short of a real-world guitar and it's not clear how its fret buttons would correspond to notes. Undeterred, Rock Band 4 introduces new music creation tools for the guitar and as well as a mechanical bed for vocal improvisation.
On the mic, we have the vocal freestyle system. In music theory, songs progress through a pattern of chords over time, and on guitars or pianos, we can input multiple notes from a chord simultaneously, but when singing, we only vocalise one note in a chord at a time. However, if we want our performance to sound harmonious, it shouldn't matter which note we vocalise as long as it's part of the current chord. For example, if a phrase of a song is in D minor, we can sing a D, an F, or an A, and it will still sound consonant because those are all notes in the chord of Dm. If the current chord is a G# major, we can sing G#, C, or D#. Rock Band 4 allows you, on select songs, on the highest two difficulties, to do just that, and awards you the same points as if you'd sung the original note the vocalist did. Lines on the note track chart out these alternate pitches, but this mechanic is most intuitively wielded by those who have some experience with music outside the game. This is because knowing how to produce an E note with your voice requires a little more training than, say, working out how to hit the green fret. It's likely that this mechanic can only be used on higher difficulties because of the more advanced understanding of music it demands and because only Hard and Expert modes harbour the precision note detection that lets you move between individual notes without hitting false positives. The system provides a great balance of allowing you to add your own flair to songs while still colouring inside the lines and lets you adapt a song to a smaller vocal range, as long as you show that you have the precision to pull it off.
There is also an equivalent for the guitar, but it doesn't give you the same degree of creative reign. In various tracks old and new, scripted guitar solos are, by default, replaced with freestyle guitar solos. In freestyle solos, you can make pseudo-random inputs to output procedurally-generated music. The game only gives rough instructions on what to do during these solos, asking you to strum to a certain rhythm or finger-tap through a section, but it's your choice which frets to hold down as you do it, and those combinations of frets translate to different notes and chords. This feature harkens all the way back to Harmonix's first project in 1995: The Axe, their low-entry virtual studio for creating guitar music. While that program was unpopular due to the lack of longevity in the experience, here Harmonix tries to find the system a reprieve by developing it a little more and placing it within a more complex music framework. It's an element the studio wanted to bolt onto the original Guitar Hero, but they ran into technical limitations while trying to do so. They later mocked up what would become freestyle solos in 2014, but didn't find an application for them until Rock Band 4 arrived on the scene.
Poring over the evidence, we can see Harmonix went hard on this feature, recording hundreds of guitar samples to make it work, but those samples too often conjure up memories of free sound effects libraries, and the inevitable input latency, even on an automatically-synced version of the game, throws off your whole performance. We also run into that problem we discussed earlier where the guitar can't clearly map inputs to sounds as other instruments can. I know what's going to come out when I sing a B♭ or the sound I'll get when I hit the blue drum, but what chord am I playing when I hold down the green, red, and blue fret? The physical interface that the guitar comprises puts a throttle on how intuitive this system can be while remaining open to creative possibility, and as you might expect, a procedurally-generated version of a guitar solo can't remotely live up to a planned solo formulated by a Hendrix or a Townshend.
There are two disappointments here: One in this feature falling short of expectations and another in these warbling messes replacing the often masterful work of the original solos. It says a lot that DLC support for this mechanic eventuallypeteredout. It was also long known that freestyle guitar solos, overriding the most testing sections of many songs, provided a cheap boost to achieve high scores. In December 2017, Harmonix banned performances that utilised the freestyle solos from being posted on the leaderboards altogether. This was announced as a temporary measure but has remained in place to this day.
The Performer and Crowd
The campaign modes of former Rock Band games ran you through live shows in one of two ways: Either you played a pre-built setlist from the developers, or you wrote up your own, but Rock Band 4 finds a happy medium between the two options. Stroll into a venue, and you'll be handed a list of four songs and asked which one you want to play. You can also opt to reroll that list if you're not feeling it. The game will add the song you chose to a setlist, and you will repeat this process over until you have the first three bangers of your set. If at the end of those three songs there's still more show to play, you select some more tracks using the same method. As in previous games, your song options often come costumed in a theme like "70s rock" or "indie". The audience also may ask you to switch the final song of the set for one of their requests. As you play these songs, you earn badges for hitting hammer-ons, scoring high, and generally being skilled, with those badges stemming from the game's dedication to live rewards. Earn enough badges and stars, and the audience may also clamour for an encore.
In the Rock Band games from 2007-2010, we saw and heard the crowd, but 4 systemises that crowd. There is, at last, a conversation between you and the audience, as a real band would experience. Having a small plate of songs to pluck our setlist from also means we're not boxed into playing whichever songs the designer wants, but at the same time, we're not faced with this gargantuan wall of content which can induce choice paralysis. Additionally, there's a little nudge in there to play songs you might never have by yourself. Regrettably, when you achieve gold stars in these live shows, they still only pay out the same rewards as if you'd gotten five stars, and more irritating is how little the setlist selection UI communicates. The only information it lets slip about a track is its name and the artist behind it. I assume it's so stingy with data on these songs because the designers don't want you dithering over your selections. However, because you can't hear an audio preview of the songs, or see their difficulty ratings, genres, or lengths, you are buried under an avalanche of predictable inconveniencies. Sets easily devolve into being too long, too challenging, or not matching your musical preferences. As the cuts on the soundtrack are more obscure than ever, the game should be vocal about what tracks are going to sound like because a lot of users won't know.
This is part of what's frustrating about Rock Band 4. The developers talk about it as an attempt to bring the original Rock Band soaring back into the public eye without the distracting bric-a-brac of a game like Rock Band 3. They believed their duty was, instead of screwing on more modes and instruments, to take the core play and mechanically enhance it so that they could create the Rock Band they've been trying to since the first game. You might agree that these are worthy targets, but even if you do, you're unlikely to think the creators hit them all. The series is improved by the studio modernising Rock Band's reward loops, music creation capabilities, and setlist-building process, but there's not one of these areas of design that they advance as much as you'd hope for.
Their efforts are consistently undermined by everything from underproduced sound to taciturn user interfaces, and this is a problem for Rock Band because, without its sound and UI, it's nothing. And the whole time Harmonix was trying to mend the dilapidated feature set of the game, another disease was eating away at it, one that we got a whiff of in the dying days of Rock Band 3's DLC. In December 2015, two months after Rock Band 4's launch, Harmonix finally fixed it so that you could import Rock Band 3's soundtrack into your library, and then in January 2016, did the same thing for the Rock Band 1 tracks. Imports for 2, Lego Rock Band, and Green Day: Rock Band came later. Better late than never, but that still didn't mean that these tracks were attainable for everyone.
Syphoning your old Rock Band DLC down from the cloud was a laborious process. When Rock Band 4 launched, limitations on Sony and Microsoft's ends meant that players couldn't bulk download all their old DLC to their new consoles; they had to go through and individually click "download" on every track they owned. The task was enough to put you to sleep when the mainline Rock Band soundtracks alone collectively had over 200 songs. It wasn't until later that the studio added a bulk import feature. The release dates for the imports were also not international. Not only did European PS4 owners have their Rock Band 3 export delayed, but initially, only North American PS4 owners could take advantage of the Rock Band 1 import. It took a little time for that capability to be extended to Europeans and Xbox One owners.
Worse than that, Harmonix was still locked in a battle for the rights to eight songs on the Rock Band 1 soundtrack performed by bands with connections to Harmonix. These included Bang Camaro's Pleasure (Pleasure) and Freezepop's Brainpower. Despite Harmonix stating that these tracks would be available "at a later time", they never materialised. And even worse than that, a lot of the DLC that European PS4 owners were owed took an aeon to arrive. In November 2015, product manager Eric Pope identified "431 songs with issues on PlayStation Store in the SCEE region". At the time, Harmonix expected to have this mess cleared up by December 2015, but a year on from RB4's launch, European PS4 owners were still missing a king's ransom in content, including the entire soundtracks from Rock Band 2, Lego Rock Band, Green Day: Rock Band, and Rock Band Blitz. Across all systems, DLC, both on and off-disc, took a while to migrate to Rock Band 4, but it wasn't until eighteen months after launch that European PlayStation gamers were handed the key to all the soundtracks from previous games. Keep in mind, many of these were customers who had paid over £200 for this game and all its instruments, and often had collectively paid large sums of money for previous Rock Band soundtracks and DLC. Even in January 2018, twenty-seven months after launch, some European users were still complaining of missing content.
When organisation, ownership, and laws are divided by region, simultaneous global rollouts of content are often impossible. In this case, it also seems to be that Sony of Europe simply wasn't as co-operative with Harmonix as other companies. Then there was the matter of the 2,000+ Rock Band Network songs that hadn't made the jump to 4. In November 2017, Harmonix released ten free songs by bands connected to the studio that were part of the original RBN. It was a generous gesture to celebrate a decade of the series. They also eventually reissued a number of popular Rock Band Network songs for 4, but they could never restore the service in its full majesty.
This is likely because bringing back non-RBN DLC required speaking to a relatively small number of people who had departments to handle communication with outside companies, whereas the artists publishing on RBN weren't coming from console manufacturers or record labels. A lot of them were indie bands and bedroom developers which was why they needed a smaller self-publishing service to get their music into the game. It's a fool's errand to try and track down every garage band who uploaded a song to the service and spend time and money renegotiating with every one of them. The real kicker is that because of the limited nature of the original RBN rights agreements, even if you bought a Network track that was later released for Rock Band 4, you have to purchase it a second time for it to appear in your RB4 library. This may be the brightest indicator in this game that we never truly owned the songs we "owned".
While they may appear to be unrelated issues, the difficulties in rehoming your content onto the PS4 and Xbox One, as well as the problems with instrument compatibility stem from the same source: they're a result of the series switching platforms. The Rock Band instruments and DLC before 4 were engineered for use with Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and other platforms of that generation, as were the tracks that made up players' music collections. When the industry switched out which consoles were current gen, it was almost compulsory for Harmonix to recreate their series on the new platforms. Users who didn't own the previous generation of hardware would want to play the game on a current platform, and people who did own an Xbox 360 or a PS3 didn't necessarily want two generations of consoles and quite possibly two generations of peripherals crowding their living space. But that platform switch was like knocking a leg out from under a chair. Suddenly, Harmonix was spending their time treading back over problems they'd already solved in the late 00s like making instruments compatible across games or allowing exports of songs from one game to another.
But I saved the biggest loss for last. Imagine you're someone who didn't own all the Rock Band games, but you picked up Rock Band 4, and you were going to fill in your back catalogue by buying up the earlier editions in the series and exporting their soundtracks. You'd be fresh out of luck because the exports for Rock Band 1, 2, Lego, and Green Day had all expired by the time that 4 came out. Licensing agreements usually last for specific timeframes and that timeframe for on-disc Rock Band tracks was five years. If you didn't grab your export within that window, you're not getting it at all. Whether you're playing for leisure or trying to take a curious peek into the history of rhythm games, it's now nearly impossible to recreate Rock Band 4 as fans of the series experienced it. We're used to titles that released decades ago becoming a rarity on the market and a challenge to preserve, but the Rock Band series started in 2007, and yet it's even harder to piece together than many of those retro classics.
To repeat an observation I made when talking about Rock Band 2, the DLC and the hardware of the series are both the spark that lit its beacon and its most serious liabilities. We'd seen licensing and peripheral issues take a toll on previous games in the series, but it's not until Rock Band 4 that their fuse burned all the way down and the whole thing imploded. We cannot separate that implosion from the fact that Harmonix's electronics and content are dependent on underlying systems, both legal and technological, that they have very partial control over. We also have to keep in mind, when looking at the problems caused by IP rights expiring, that it would be reductionist to view them as "Rock Band 4 faults". They're flaws that affect this product, but those weaknesses were created the moment that Harmonix made the licensing transactions that sealed the Rock Band 1 export in place.
The clock had been ticking for years, and this complication was not exclusive to Rock Band but is a built-in issue with how companies collaborate and reuse work in the current economy and within modern intellectual property law. Rock Band 4 is video games' harshest example of the increasingly widespread policy of letting players own rights to content but never that content itself. Its a demonstration of how badly people can be burned by that gap between owning a CD of a song and owning the rights to that song in a video game. Although I'd emphasise that while 4 has all sort of appendages rotting off of it, it's still difficult to track that issue back to extensive malpractice on Harmonix's part. This developer didn't get to decide how console cycles or music rights work.
Furthermore, while Rock Band 4 released as an underserving rhythm experience, I don't want to compress its feature set down to the systems we got at launch. If the game did significantly advance the series, then it did it by raising the bar for post-release support for a rhythm game. In December 2015, Harmonix introduced "brutal mode" which requires just as much discipline as its name suggests. In brutal mode, all but the most distant notes on the highway are invisible. You can get a rough sense of the patterns you have to play, but you have to memorise them and work out the timing with only the music and tempo lines on the track as guides. The average user will find this infuriating as the play continues to demand high accuracy while the interface is uncommunicative to a cruel extent, but the mode also coaxes you closer to the mindset with which a real rock star would perform music. They generally work without the sheet music in front of them, and without an instructor to tell them exactly what to hit when. For those who live and breathe Rock Band, obtaining "crimson stars" on a song, that is, a gold star rating earned in Brutal Mode, is an enticing challenge.
The same update that implemented brutal mode wired the full combo indicator into the UI. "Full combos" are when you hit every note in a song, and unless you're on vocals, don't input a note where there isn't one. For Rock Band's diehard fans, full combos on Expert difficulty are the gold standard of play, but now and then you do lose track of whether you missed a note during a run, and so Rock Band 4 has a display element to inform you whether a full combo is still possible. If there is a gold ring around the combo meter, all your play within that session has been part of a single, unbroken combo, and if there isn't, you flubbed a note somewhere. This inclusion is mindful of what the most dedicated virtual musicians care about without intruding on the casual experience. For someone who's in the know, that gold ring is everything, but for someone who isn't it, it doesn't distort or clutter the UI.
Finally, the December 2015 update added "taunts", short messages that you can use to challenge friends whose high scores you've just beaten, potentially creating a back-and-forth where you can compete for the top spot on a song. Designers often underestimate the value of social tools because they don't have a direct application in the gameplay, but here is an excellent example of a developer changing how players communicate and being able to make them more dedicated to the game through those social exchanges. Harmonix wasn't in the business of handing out many free features beyond this update, but in October 2018, they did start allowing us to peruse various cosmetic skins for the note highway. It only makes sense that if the note track is the centre of focus during play, that the most impactful aesthetic changes in the game would be to the track. The problem is, the highway existed as a black surface with colourful gems on it because that's what makes the notes stand out most. I've found that when applying other colours and geometry beneath the gems, it just creates extra noise when you're trying to parse dense, high-speed sections of songs.
The hardware end of Rock Band 4 also saw some significant changes. Eventually, Harmonix's Sussman echoed the view that the lofty buy-in for the game's instruments was a mistake and that it excluded people from the experience. The company found a way to slash those prices. In early 2016, Harmonix's instrument manufacturer, Mad Catz, announced that they were seeing record sales of products in the first quarter, but that they'd also seen a sharp increase in their losses for the rest of the year. Despite Mad Katz CEO Karen McGinnis describing Rock Band 4's sales as "strong" and its numbers exceeding Harmonix's expectations, it still wasn't raking in the cash Mad Catz was looking for. The publisher jettisoned their CEO, the chair of their board, and more than a third of their employees in a cost-cutting effort. Around this time, Harmonix severed ties with them, although it's unclear if Harmonix dropping them was a factor in their downsizing or if Harmonix left for greener pastures because Mad Catz scaled back their operational capabilities.
The studio had lost Mad Catz after the debut of Rock Band 4 almost as soon as they'd lost Viacom after the release of Rock Band 3. However, in March 2016, they formed a rosy new partnership with Performance Designed Products, a third-party manufacturer of controllers and gaming headsets. PDP continued pumping out the existing peripherals for the game, and went one further, collaborating with Harmonix to produce a new guitar that folds down to save space, helping to solve the long-running storage issues with the controllers. After all, if the drums can do it, why shouldn't the guitar? This alliance is also how Harmonix brought down the price of the instrument bundles. In October 2016, PDP re-released the Rock Band instrument package, but with the new foldaway guitar, a drumkit with supposedly improved hit detection, a mic, the game, and the Rock Band Rivals expansion pack, all at $50 less than the original bundle. They also took the price of the guitar + game bundle down from $130 to $90.
However, you have to keep in mind that these fixes came a full year after the original release and were delayed until November in Europe, although, Harmonix did offer European customers who'd pre-ordered some free songs for their trouble. None the less, the hardcore Rock Band community have had a strained relationship with PDP, to say the least. The "upgraded" instrument bundle kicked off a second round of playersreportingproblemswithperipheralreliability, this time, for the drums. PDP also manufactured a legacy adapter which allowed those wired Rock Band 1 instruments to plug into the game, but if you blinked, you missed it; they stopped producing the adapter one month after they started. Although they declared a repeat run of the item in April 2017, it was notoriously hard to spot in stores, and by early 2018, PDP was sendingoutemails telling inquiring customers that they're not making any more Rock Band instruments, at all.
We only know this because fans are copy-pasting the contents of their conversations with the company's customer support team onto messageboards; publicly, PDP and Harmonix are inscrutably silent about the availability of the equipment. I would guess there simply isn't the demand for Rock Band instruments to justify these companies continuing to mould that plastic and solder those boards, and that's not too surprising. We know even under Viacom, Rock Band was burning a hole in investors' pockets. However, these companies could try a little harder to communicate with their audiences instead of leaving anyone who wants to get back into the series stumbling around in the dark.
As you can imagine, the manufacturer shutting down that supply chain has only caused the cost of hardware to balloon. At the time of writing, PDP's instrument bundle is selling for $900 on Amazon, and fans consider finding a reasonably-priced one as somewhat of a treasure hunt. Not only is it now impossible for many players to get the version of Rock Band 4 that fans saw at release, but it feels like the game is actively resisting attempts to be played in any form. Meanwhile, people who do have the instruments live in fear of them breaking, and them having to fish in the piranha-infested waters of the Rock Band peripheral market. And let's be honest, Rock Band instruments stand up to a lot of punishment but when the game is about relatively forceful interaction with them, they're going to wear down. Harmonix had tried to open up the availability of the software a little in March 2016, attempting to crowdfund a PC port of Rock Band 4 with a goal of $1.5 million. That they needed to do this suggested a severe lack of investor support. However, the product only received pledges for a little under $800,000 and was cancelled. It probably would have become beleaguered with these long-term hardware issues anyway.
Finally, Harmonix added something to the game that they definitely didn't mean to. In late 2018, Rock Band 4 began exhibiting rare glitches which cause the screen to freeze during play, either with the game still running in the background or hard locking. In the cases that the game does continue running, input lag after the freeze can be so severe as to make the rest of the song unplayable. In the same period, I also encountered several instances of instruments ceasing to take input in the middle of a song, even from the pause button, and only waking back up once I disconnected and reconnected them. These failures in the software can completely ruin your full combo or gold star attempts. Because these defects didn't exist in the first version of Rock Band 4, we know they were either patched in or came into existence when Harmonix performed server maintenance. As of March 2019, these bugs still exist, as does occasional stuttering during play. If you've been clicking on a lot of my sources here, you may also have noticed that I had to link to the Wayback Machine whenever I referenced the Harmonix forums. That's because, in March 2019, Harmonix shut down their boards and deleted all content within. There was about a decade of community history locked up in that space, erased because the traffic thinned to a trickle and Harmonix couldn't justify keeping them online.
After reading through this essay of breakages, shutdowns, and delays, you're probably not feeling too hot on Rock Band 4. I've felt the same way writing this, and I can understand if you're a little sceptical when I tell you, I've had a wonderful time with the game, putting over 300 hours into it. Its history is grim: Harmonix excised many of Rock Band 3's extraordinary features, took the splendour of the soundtrack down a notch, and about half of the new adornments in its systems are well-meaning ideas that don't add to the experience. The basic tools to play the game have too often been unattainable to players, and the series' content and legacy have been ravaged by licensing issues, but there is an amazing incarnation of this title. It's not the launch version that was heavy on cost and light on functionality, and it's not the version that you'd get if you tried to jump into Rock Band today, hunting down the rare unsold instrument packages and trying to go without the original game soundtracks.
However, it was possible at a certain time and under the right circumstances to obtain a form of the game that had a relatively rich feature library, wasn't absurdly expensive, and had hundreds of songs from previous Rock Bands singing in chorus. A lot of the reason I've had to talk about the miserable aspects of Rock Band 4 here is that they were what was new in this package, but that doesn't mean that the audio and tactile magic of Rock Band that we loved back in 2007 isn't still in here. It's just not noteworthy in an essay like this because if you've gotten this far, you probably know what the core play consists of.
If you still feel sad about the sorry state of Rock Band in this day and age, maybe this is a comforting thought: We don't have to define a game series, or in fact, anything else, by how it ended. Rock Band 4 is no more representative of the series than any other core Rock Band instalment, and for most of the years in which Rock Band was active, it was sensational. I wouldn't blame you for thinking of Rock Band 4 as a $250 box of disappointment, but even if it is, the series as a whole is one in which you can have some of the most entrancing experiences with rock music in any medium.
Rock Band deserves not only recognition as one of the best rhythm games ever made; it is owed attention and acceptance for introducing a generation of rhythm gamers to the pantheon of rock music both classic and contemporary. There are also countless stories of people having found Rock Band to be a gateway to playing music themselves; it gave them a taste of lining up physical movement with sound and making grand displays of coordination and rhythm. Wanting more of that, they picked up a guitar or some drumsticks, and now a talent for music is something they carry with them everywhere. Whatever problems may plague Rock Band 4, not many games can say they contributed so richly to peoples' connection to art and entertainment. As someone who found new bands, had uplifting sonic experiences, and was brought closer to the rock genre by this series, I can earnestly say that I wouldn't be the same person without Rock Band. Thanks for reading.
1. The original run of Rock Band DLC stopped on April 2nd, 2013, but further tracks were debuted in 2015, in anticipation of Rock Band 4's release.
2. Technically, some people can sing two notes at the same time in a technique known as polyphonic overtone singing. However, this is an exceptionally rare edge case, and the songs included in Rock Band never use polyphonic overtone singing.
3. The original coverage of the game over at IGN claimed that vocal freestyle just requires you to sing in key, but this is erroneous. The shifts in the UI's guidelines follow chord changes, not key changes, and Harmonix confirmed that vocal freestyles involve following chord tones, not just the current scale.
4. Loading Screen Tips by Harmonix Music Systems (Oct 6, 2015), Rock Band 4.
If you've been following this series of articles from the start, you'll know that Harmonix laboured for a decade and a half to release a game that was both significantly profitable and critically well-received. You'll also remember that their breakout success, Guitar Hero, was snatched from their clutches in an Activision buyout, but that they managed to avert disaster through developing Rock Band 1. If you stop retelling their history there, it sounds like the story of a rhythm game underdog graduating to global popularity, but look at the sales data, and you realise this is about them experiencing mainstream success for only a fleeting instant before descending into what CEO Alex Rigopulos described as a "sustained horror show".
The original Rock Band was actually the commercial peak for the franchise, with Rock Band 2 raking in less than 1, and The Beatles: Rock Band making less than 2. The band game format had been invented in 2007, but by as soon as 2009, it was about ready to wink out of existence, which was a little unexpected when it was still wedged deep within the public consciousness of the time. If you ask people how the genre reached death's door, they'll generally tell you "oversaturation", but it's a little more complicated than that. Yes, the market did become oversaturated, but these band-based products were always going to be more susceptible to that than conventional video games. Rock Band was a risky venture from the get-go.
New adopters for the games had to pay well over £150/$150 for an instrument bundle and had to dedicate no small amount of in-home space to those peripherals. If a controller broke or the owner just wanted to upgrade, they were also looking at hefty fees. Now, it's hard to tell exactly how much these factors played a part, but you've got to believe that consumers wouldn't have treated buying a Rock Band or full band Guitar Hero game the same way they would have thought about buying a standard £40/$60 AAA title that required trivial storage and living room space.
It's also true that the western territories that Harmonix and Activision were targeting were undergoing a recession from 2007 onwards, the exact period in which the industry was establishing the band game genre. And while both these companies are guilty of flooding the market, the damage Harmonix did pales in comparison to that of Activision's. If we're counting releases for both home and handheld consoles (but excluding arcade machines or mobile games) then from 2007 to 2009, there were five Rock Band games. In the same period, there were twelve Guitar Hero games. Outside of mobile development, I've never heard of a series releasing twelve games in three years.
It's also not as if Harmonix kept making Rock Band games oblivious to the market drowning in copycat products. Alex Rigopoulos said of Rock Band 3 "Our ambition [...] was really to re-energize and reinvigorate the (music game) category and advance it and move it forward". The perspective here is not one of a CEO continuing business as usual, even with the rhythm genre sky falling, it's of someone who considers the genre to be stagnating and wants to reboot the format. And it's not all talk. When Harmonix released Rock Band 3 on us in 2010, it upended the hardware conventions and feature set of the series with a revolutionary attitude none of the previous sequels had. It expanded the experience with deceptively simple logic: If Rock Band is a rhythm game about overlapping play between multiple instruments then the most conceptually simple upgrade you can make to the game is to add another instrument, and the one widely utilised rock instrument missing from Rock Band was the synthesiser.
Of course, jimmying in another peripheral is easier said than done. Manufacturing multiple controllers was one of the most strenuous challenges of developing Rock Band, and every time you a new added one, you drove up the price for the full set of instruments. However, by Rock Band 3, Harmonix had had some practice at getting plastic in players' hands, and most fans owned a reliable guitar, mic, and set of drums, so they wouldn't need to buy the whole hardware suite all over again. This made for a gentler introduction of the synthesiser; it was only one more item for audiences to purchase.
You'll remember that Rock Band always simplifies real-world instruments so that lay people can play them, and in true fashion, the synth consists of a couple of octaves of a standard keyboard capped with an extra C. If that sounds like gobbledygook to you, don't worry too much; the important thing to remember is that this is just a slice of a professional keyboard. Of course, every Rock Band instrument worth its salt tests the player in a way that the others don't, and the synth examines our aptitude at moving our hand left and right across a set of buttons as a song moves up and down in pitch.
You might be thinking that the guitar and bass already had us sliding our digits along a shelf of buttons, but at most, you moved one fret over with each shift, and those instruments cared a lot more about precision. The keyboard, on the other hand, is a twenty-five button peripheral split into five coloured sections, and you have to hit a key within one of those coloured portions as prompted. With large target areas to press down in, imprecision is often not punished as it would be on the guitar or bass. However, even if you ignore the black keys and just play the ivories, you have to move up to twelve keys up or down the keyboard at a time. You'll also notice that the orange section of the synth, which is used almost exclusively on Hard and Expert difficulties, consists of a single key, ensuring that Hard and Expert ask for a laser precision other modes don't.
If the most obvious way to add onto Rock Band is to implement new instruments then the second-most obvious is to build parts onto the existing music hardware, and this is how the "pro" guitar, drums, and bass found a home in Rock Band 3.
The pro drums add three plastic cymbals above the existing pads. Up until this point, drums and cymbals had both been represented using the four coloured pads meaning that the designers often had to get crafty to simulate a real kit. E.g. During the chorus of a song, the yellow pad may represent a tom-tom, but during the bridge, it may morph into a hi-hat to adapt. The transformation can be a little jarring, but more to the point, the standard drumkit suggests that smashing a drum feels the same as striking a cymbal and that's not true-to-life.
The pro drums finally acknowledge the tactile difference between cymbals and drums, and while the four drum pads are at roughly the same height and right next to each other, the cymbals are at differing elevations with non-uniform spacing. This challenges even the virtuoso Rock Band drummer by forcing them not just to think about where on the instrument they're hitting along the X-axis, but also now, the Y-axis. Slamming on one of these new platforms might not be challenging when done in isolation, but you have to be able to move seamlessly between the cymbals and drums while keeping to the rhythm of the song. Note that none of the cymbals slots into the kit directly in front of the player, creating a gap through which they can still view their television.
The cymbals are coded blue, green, and yellow, and by having all of them share a colour with one of the drums, the game can radically simplify the UI for them. Instead of having a note lane for every drum and cymbal, the cymbals use the existing lanes that match their colour but represent themselves with a circular note as opposed to the rectangular notes which denote a drum strike. Put another way, the game had previously distinguished drum inputs by colour but now uses colour and shape to do so. This betrays the design philosophy that Rock Band 1 set out. In the original game, notes were oriented on the track to give the player a physical sense of where they should be striking the drumkit, but in the pro UI, the cymbals occupy the same spots as many of the drums; there's no sense of them being above the pads. If we want to play devil's advocate, we can, however, say that most players buying the pro drumkit are going to be dedicated enough that they will likely overcome any unintuitive commands in the UI.
But where does that leave the synth? It's cost-effective and not that demanding on the consumer to sell them three cymbal pads but larger keyboards are pricy and have a massive footprint in a room. Fortunately, because Harmonix created the keyboard at the same time they introduced the "pro" feature, they can have the pro synth functionality built right into the base instrument instead of requiring you to go out and buy a new peripheral. The pro mode on the synth has you not just aiming for the coloured sections as you play, but hitting the exact keys that would sound those notes in the song. In this mode, tinkering with the synth becomes more about dexterity which means it does start to blend into the guitar and bass conceptually, but it has a completely different feel to them. You place the keyboard on a table or your lap in front of you and play with your palm pointing away from you, whereas when playing the guitar, you hold the peripheral across your body and press down buttons with your palm facing towards you. On the keyboard, you also have the unique task of getting your hand around the raised black keys, sometimes while simultaneously pressing down on the lower white keys.
We should note that while the pro guitar, bass, and drums are close approximations of their real-world cousins, if you're learning keyboard as an instrument, one of the trickiest tests of your co-ordination is being able to use your left and right hands on the keys independently of each other. Rock Band 3 does not simulate this challenge; the synth peripheral is not long enough for you to play with both hands and it's not something the UI can facilitate. However, there's some accuracy in this inaccuracy. The synth parts in the game, while they don't have a left hand, are still often 1:1 recreations of what the keyboardists who performed these tracks played. There is no left-hand part essentially because the left hand in a piano piece typically provides the rhythm and bass for a song, but in rock music, you already have a drumkit and a bass guitar to do those jobs. So, these songs can get by only including a right hand or melody part for the keyboard.
Another problem Harmonix faced was fitting all those keyboard inputs into a graphical interface. It's easy enough to do that with the drums where there are eight inputs, all unique, but the synth has twenty-five keys that break down into only two types, meaning there's no easy way to compress down the relevant data on what to play. Remember, not only is a GUI with a lot of channels on it overwhelming for the player, but you also couldn't fit it onto the screen alongside two other note highways. Harmonix rises to the task by having the note board for the synth slide left and right as the song goes on to encompass only the areas the player will be working in. This is possible because the game only needs to display the notation for one hand at a time; it would be right out of the question if a left hand was involved.
If you think the pro drums or the keyboard are complex, you haven't seen anything yet. The pro guitar comes in two forms. The first is a guitar controller manufactured by Mad Catz that has one-hundred-and-two buttons to emulate every place you could hold down a string in conjunction with one of seventeen frets (6 strings x 17 frets = 102 buttons), as well as six strings on the guitar body to strum. Then there's an actual twenty-two fret guitar from Fender with touch sensors situated under each intersection of the strings and frets. Effectively, the pro guitar mode not only increases the number of frets from five to seventeen (or twenty-two) but also introduces the concept of strings to the play, drastically increasing the level of manual aptitude the player must display. Thought of another way, the original guitar peripheral effectively had one string, while the pro guitar has six.
To play bass with either of the peripherals, you simply use their top four strings which is never going to feel exactly like an authentic bass because the actual instrument has its four strings spread out across the whole neck and not clumped together around the top. However, with the Mad Catz Mustang launching at $150 RRP and the Fender Squier Stratocaster at an effective $310 ($280 for the guitar and $30 for the MIDI adapter that lets it interface with a console), expecting consumers to purchase separate guitar and bass peripherals would have bee more absurd than ever. You may also have worked out that as the Mustang has five fewer frets than the Squier Stratocaster, you cannot play the full guitar part for every song with it, but there is some trade-off. As the Mustang has plastic buttons instead of metal strings, it doesn't hurt the player's fingers, and the owner will never have to replace snapped strings. For whatever reason, both guitars also lack whammy bars.
In adding more complex electronics to the Rock Band stable, Harmonix threw the series back to the production troubles of the original game which was plagued with long gaps between release windows. While the Mad Catz controller reached shelves on the month following Rock Band 3's launch, the Squier Stratocaster's release was delayed, and it didn't come out until May 2011, six months after the game's launch. The developers working on the software side had also had their work cut out for them. There's probably no way to quickly convey to the player which of up to one hundred-and-thirty-two inputs (22 frets x 6 strings = 132) they need to enter at any one time, especially when they may need to hold down multiple inputs at once. Developers Jason Booth and Sylvain Dubrofsky would need to solve this issue as they designed the pro guitar mode. The two first experimented with a system wherein each lane of the note highway would correspond to a different fret on the guitar and where different coloured gems would each correspond to one of the six strings. A similar prototype used numbers instead of colours to indicate the correct string to hold down. I don't believe there's a world in which these interfaces would have made it into the final product.
The colour system only worked in previous Rock Bands and Guitar Heros because areas of the instruments were painted with those colours. You can see which drum is the green drum and which fret is the red fret because of the markings on them; there are no such markings on the strings of a guitar and there's nothing intuitive about the idea of the third string down being a blue or a yellow. The system of numbering the strings gets closer to the mark, representing the fifth string down with a "5", for example, but if you're going to have a single lane on the highway for every fret, you're going to need twenty-two lanes. Sure, the keyboard might be capable of twenty-five lanes, but you can represent more of the keyboard in a smaller interface as the white and black keys share much of the same space. Plus, the keyboard doesn't have the complication of the strings.
Booth and Dubrofsky's solution was to re-orient the board. Instead of looking at the guitar horizontally with a lane for each fret, the player would look at it vertically with a lane for each string. The gems on those lanes each have a number affixed to them which signals the fret that the player is supposed to play. So a "5" travelling along the leftmost lane means the player must place their finger on the fifth fret of the topmost string while a "7" travelling along the rightmost lane would mean they have to play the seventh fret on the bottommost string. This was a solid system for having the players perform arpeggiation, the act of sounding out each note of a chord on its own. However, asking users to play entire chords at once with this setup would have only baffled them. For example, requesting the guitarist to play a C major chord might end up being conveyed by a "3" on the second string, a "2" on the third string, a "0" on the fourth string, a "1" on the fifth string, and a "0" on the sixth string all simultaneously. That's a lot of information for the player to decode at once, especially if your entire song is going to be using that chord format.
In solving this problem, Booth took inspiration from the "Brain Wall" segment of the Japanese gameshow The Tunnels' Thanks to Everyone, better known in English as "Human Tetris". In this game, a wall with a hole in it approaches a player, and they must contort their body into the shape of the negative space to pass through it. Booth implemented a similar principle involving the guitarist stretching their hand to match a shape on the note highway with the game providing constant feedback on their current fingering. When pro mode wants you to play a chord, a numbered gem comes down the note highway which lets you know which fret you must place your forefinger on. A line extends to the right of it which moves up and down across the strings like a mountain landscape. The elevation of the line as it passes over a string lets you know how high up the fretboard you must place your finger on that string, using your forefinger as a reference.
The game also relies on the fact that the notes we play within a song aren't just random; they conform to a set of chords with a rock song usually using around four chords for the whole piece. Players in Rock Band 3 have the option to force chords to display alongside the note highway, similar to how they are projected on real sheet music. Users can also look up the chords involved in each song in-game or run through a set of tutorials on tablature and technique developed between Harmonix and the Berklee School of Music. There was always going to be a sharp learning curve for the pro guitar; playing it is volumes more complex than anything in the original game, but with so much thought put into its introduction and interface, the experience is still more encouraging than trying to learn guitar on your own.
As a collective, the pro peripherals help players forgo one of the most demotivating aspects of learning to play music. For the first few weeks or months that you're learning an instrument, it sounds hideous. You can make huge strides of progress and still get very little positive aural feedback. With the pro gameplay, Rock Band does what the series does best: it allows almost anyone to feel like they're playing music and to make exciting sounds from their earliest sessions. Rock Band 3 is also a landmark achievement for the music game genre because, more than any other rhythm game before it, it blurs the line between controller and instrument. Not only is playing the pro instruments on Expert close or identical to the process of playing music outside the game, but many of these peripherals can also be used to create your own music.
The Squier Stratocaster can output sound to an amp, and while the word in the community is that the Squier is a shoddy analogue instrument, both the Mustang and real guitar are capable of MIDI output, giving players access to reliable, low latency MIDI guitars. The keyboard can also output in MIDI, and a twenty-five key synth is the exact kind of device that can get a budding artist started in electronic music. At $80 RRP, there are cheaper solutions on the market, but a wonderful feature of Rock Band 3's MIDI adapter is that if you have a MIDI synthesiser you prefer, you can use that too. You can also use any USB mic with Rock Band, and while Harmonix has never been vocal about it, the USB connection on the old Rock Band drums means you can plug them into a PC where you can use them in conjunction with your own PC software. Additionally, since Rock Band 2, you've been able to use special drum brains to connect your own electronic kit to Rock Band.
Harmonix could have made it so that audiences learned to play an instrument in Rock Band 3, but that they would then have to go out and purchase another pricey piece of equipment to continue their journey with that music. Sadly, when you force people to do that, a lot of them can't or won't take that next step and graduate to playing music for themselves. However, Rock Band 3 makes it so that qualifying from instrumental karaoke to authoring your own tracks simply means plugging your controller into a different machine. One of the saddest tragedies of Rock Band 3 is that the MIDI adapter and pro guitars, being specialist products, were manufactured in limited amounts, so they are highly expensive today and in the future may be impossible to own for even the most willful of games enthusiasts.
While all the instruments were awarded pro modes, the vocals weren't and never could have been. You had all the equipment you needed to sing in Rock Band like a professional from the start, but that doesn't mean that this sequel didn't introduce something new to the mainline series for vocalists. The recurring mechanics of many game series are not just the product of the general theming of the series. Some of them existed for one-off games with a specific theming, but players loved them so much within that context that they then became a permanent fixture of the series.
For example, Assassin's Creed III introduced the activity of free-running through trees to impart the connection to and knowledge of nature that its Native American protagonist had. But the mechanic allowed for such increased interactivity with an organic environment that it stuck around for the following games. The vocal harmonies in Rock Band 3 and 4 exist for similar reasons. The mechanic allows up to three players to sing on a track simultaneously, each taking on a different vocal part of the song. It was The Beatles: Rock Band that first introduced vocal harmonies because intertwining vocalising was an unmistakable mainstay for the band and because Harmonix needed to represent every Beatle member's voice in the game both figuratively and literally. The broader application of it, however, is obvious.
As happens with many titles, improvements in some areas of Rock Band made development tougher in others. When putting together a rhythm game soundtrack, you often have a helping hand: the most popular songs in every mainstream music genre have been well-documented, and you can use that popularity as a guide. The problem for Harmonix was that because they'd been releasing new tracks every week for three years, they'd already covered a lot of the crowd favourites. Within the narrower wedge of rock music they could pull from, they were locked out of many options because they needed an armful of songs that brought both vocal harmonies and the keyboard into the fold.
The song listing they ended up with includes shoe-ins to please the average headbanging rocker like Here I Go Again by Whitesnake or Get Free by The Vines. Yet, far more often, the need to work within the constraints of Rock Band 3 has Harmonix reaching for deeper cuts and flaunting enviable curation skills. The soundtrack they produce feels closer to a playlist someone made for you than it does a licensed soundtrack. There's Yes's jaunty prog jam Roundabout, Tegan and Sara's naked document of emotional collapse The Con, and seafood-based camp rock with The B-52's Rock Lobster, to name just a few. There are also certain songs which invite epic communal gatherings like Space Oddity by David Bowie and Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. These songs wouldn't come at you with the blusterous force that they do if it weren't for the inclusion of the keyboard and vocal harmonies; it's impossible to imagine these tracks without them. Although, once you've seen the synthesiser, you do notice where older Rock Band tracks contain synth parts but don't include them in the play. Harmonix did retroactively add keyboard play for a number of these tracks, but you had to pay a fee for that addition, and the coverage was never universal.
Harmonix also committed a minor blunder in letting gaming publication Gottgame leak their soundtrack a while before release. The leak probably wasn't intentional on Gottgame's part: In a video posted by the site, their editor Steve Masters interviewed Rock Band 3 project lead Daniel Sussman while, in the background, a player scrolled through the tracklist of a pre-release version of the game. In response to this, Harmonix put out a humorous video from Gamescom in which then-director of PR and publishing at Harmonix, John Drake, condemned sites like Rock Band Aide and Giant Bomb who reported the leak, while Sussman flicked through the full library of Rock Band 3 tracks on a widescreen TV just behind him, implicitly confirming the on-disc catalogue. In the words of Drake:
"We are communications professionals. We would never make a mistake and accidentally leak 83 songs well before our game comes out totally by accident because we weren't paying attention".
While Rock Band 3 is mostly about new instruments, upgraded instruments, and a left-field soundtrack, there are some surprisingly effective quality of life improvements in here. Firstly, the game allows players to quickly switch their profiles between instruments without having to sign out on one peripheral and sign in on another. It's what you need to be able to do to play a game in a social setting where people are going to want to drop in, drop out, and switch between pillars of play. You'll also find that when you finish a song, the interface tells you what percentile of the leaderboard you landed in. This is far superior to giving a leaderboard ranking as many designers do because that number doesn't tell you how talented you are relative to other players. At least, not if the game won't tell you how many other players there are, and once it's given you both numbers, it might as well also crunch the maths to tell you how they fit together. Knowing I'm in the top 40% of drummers on Everlong is far more meaningful as a statement than knowing that I'm #14,593.
Lastly, Harmonix stitches the game together with more scenes that suggest you're part of a touring band instead of just periodically accessing a band mode. The main menu has your musical group walking the city streets, you can see them in the background of difficulty selection screens hanging out on planes or in limos, and loading seams are hidden with a few seconds of your group going through a drive-through or having their stage constructed.
Rock Band 3 is Harmonix's most complete effort to live up to their mission statement of providing audiences with accessible music tools and making them feel like they're playing real instruments. That sizeable gap between playing with the controllers on Expert and playing the actual piece of kit is gone; the developer has laid down a path that can take a player from awkwardly strumming their way through In Bloom on Easy to playing heavy metal on a real guitar. This is also the rare game which expands both the depth and scope of a genre simultaneously. Between the pro and basic peripherals, Rock Band 3 emulates eight different instruments and allows for up to three vocalists to sing alongside the rest of a band. It sees the series push the song count well over the 2,000 mark and challenges you to broaden your tastes with its colourful soundtrack. At the same time, you can put more hours into Rock Band than ever, trying to perfect your ability with these instruments.
So what was Harmonix's reward for this innovation? Rock Band 3 sold fewer copies than even The Beatles: Rock Band which, remember, grossed less than any mainline Rock Band game. While Viacom originally purchased Harmonix for $175 million, they wrote off a $200 million loss from the Rock Band franchise. Two months after the Rock Band 3 release, Viacom sold Harmonix. It was widely reported that the developer was bought up by Russian investment firm Columbus Nova, a potentially controversial business deal, as in 2018, the largest client of Columbus Nova was sanctioned by the U.S. government as part of a pushback against the shady business practices of Russian oligarchs. Bizarrely, even though Viacom themselves publicly claimed that they sold Harmonix to Columbus Nova, the developer says that this was pure fiction and that over the years, they've been trying to correct the record. Then, four months after Rock Band 3 launched, its publisher, MTV Games, shut down. At this point, the game had sold only 800,000 copies. Harmonix turned to Mad Catz for publishing and distribution and under them sold a further 400,000 units.
Unfortunately, in 2013, their song licenses began expiring. The developers haven't had to pull a proportionately high number of songs from the game, but some of the tracks we lost were real bangers like B.Y.O.B. by System of a Down, Don't Stop Believin' by Journey, and Dreams by Fleetwood Mac. There's even an achievement for Rock Band 3 that it's impossible to unlock now as the song it relied on was removed from the DLC store. It's not as if Harmonix just laid down and let their song library wither though; they continued pumping out tracks as strong as ever, and it's true that we can't just view the profitability or popularity of Rock Band through the lens of how many units of the game they sold. Harmonix was far more reliant on DLC and far stronger on it than other companies, and they were also making a certain amount of money on peripheral sales.
The studio reported even in late 2014 that there were still hundreds of thousands of unique players. I don't know of another company that can say that they were putting out original content for their game every week for roughly four years, let alone demonstrating that there was still demand for it. But I bring up the sales numbers for the games themselves because they tell you how many people were experiencing Rock Band and how likely Harmonix was to make a sequel.
It wasn't that Harmonix didn't create a piece of media with a sizeable following or that that fandom was lukewarm on their creations. However, the pressure for how large your audience should be and how much money you should make from them is so crushing that Rock Band 3 became one more example of Harmonix doing everything right and the industry throwing it back in their face. We can call what happened to this style of game "oversaturation", but that term implies an excess of the same kind of experience available to players. Contrary to that, what we've seen in breaking down Rock Band 3, it that it was teeming with new experiences, but the price and availability of the pro peripherals meant players couldn't always access them. Harmonix wasn't forced to drop this format because they were endlessly iterating on the same ideas; Rock Band fell by the wayside just when its sequels were at their most innovative.
As the market moved on and Harmonix started doing numbers with Dance Central which surpassed Rock Band's at the time, they put Rock Band on what they saw as indefinite hiatus, but the gaming community only saw this as retirement. And as well as the studio might have done with DLC for that half-decade, at a point, they stopped supporting that too. In my mind, the guitar game party didn't stop in 2010 when Rock Band and Guitar Hero games stopped releasing; it happened when Harmonix stopped producing tracks for their games. It happened when there were no more opportunities to put your fingers to some plastic frets or your foot on a drum pedal and feel something new through that instrument. The date that happened for Rock Band was April 2nd, 2013. On that day, Harmonix released their last planned song for Rock Band, Don McLean's spirited ballad American Pie. It's a track about a man with a humble dream of making people happy with his songs finding himself unable to play them again, living through "the day the music died". Thanks for reading.
The original Rock Band was breathtaking as a game that found a balance between creating distinct activities for its players to engage in and uniting those activities through recurring motifs in the play and intervals of direct co-operation. However, the most iconic elements of Rock Band remain the instruments. Rhythm game peripherals give designers a degree of control over the tactile and manual experience of play that most developers never get. Yet, the strain that manufacturing such controllers can put on a company and these studios' reliance on sometimes volatile technologies can be lethal liabilities for a rhythm series. Both are problems that will disturb the waters of Rock Band before we're done talking about it.
Rock Band 2
Rock Band 1's dependence on physical products is probably why MTV Games heavily staggered its release across various territories. Manufacturing and distributing the peripherals for one region takes enough time and labour without trying to coordinate that manufacture and distribution for every country simultaneously. Rock Band 2 was put out in North America before its predecessor made it to Australia. Although, even if you got your box of instruments first, that didn't mean you got it functioning. Various guitars from the game's original batch had non-responsive strum bars, and all drum kits shipped with a kick pedal that could literally snap in two during play. It's the most viscerally shocking fault I've ever seen with a piece of video game hardware. The fragility and glitchiness of these instruments might be down to Harmonix realising too late that they needed a permanent team on the ground with their manufacturers in China.
To regain the public's trust, the company not only had to replace broken instruments for free but also had to ensure that the next generation of the peripherals visibly addressed the current issues. Rock Band 2 launched in 2008 with drums and guitars that were less prone to dropping notes, as well as a metal plate screwed to the drumkit's kick pedal. That slice of metal was not just a functional addition; it symbolically suggested more resilience in the instruments. But a few consumers took these upgrades to be part of a literal conspiracy. A class-action lawsuit filed by Kansas resident Monte Morgan accused Harmonix, MTV Games, Viacom, EA, and Best Buy of manufacturing instruments that would break on purpose so that people would buy replacements or upgrade to the Rock Band 2 peripherals. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense when we also know that Harmonix was exchanging broken instruments for working ones at no cost. Morgan would later drop the suit in 2009.
Beyond the simple fixes, Harmonix also added some new functionality to the instruments. As the experience in Rock Band derives from software and hardware, Rock Band 2 and the other sequels must represent not just an update to the content and mechanics of the games, but also their controllers. The Rock Band guitar and drums went wireless, a feature that Harmonix had intended to include in Rock Band 1, but according to the project lead, Greg LoPiccolo, couldn't do as Microsoft had not finished developing the wireless peripheral technology. The drums also now featured a small, hard circle in the centre of each pad, providing a target for players to aim at so that their strikes wouldn't wander off-centre.
On the audio-visual side, this is the first Rock Band or Guitar Hero game that could be auto-calibrated. Manual calibration is a dull and finicky task, but one that you had to commit to if you took the game seriously. A few milliseconds of calibration drift can be the difference between hitting a note and missing it, and with the increasing popularity of HD TVs in the late 00s, that was becoming a problem for a more substantial proportion of users. HD TVs tend to take longer processing images and sound than their more primitive ancestors which means that, without technical adjustments, you're going to see a more extended period between when your console thinks a note has hit the goal line and when your TV displays it happening. Similarly, you'll hear longer intervals between when you input a note and when the game outputs a sound. To make calibration less of a hassle, Harmonix made it so that one of those "screws" that holds on the Stratocaster's pickguard is actually a light sensor. By having the screen flash and measuring the time between when the burst of light occurs and when the sensor registers it, Rock Band 2 can determine the visual latency. A hidden microphone in the guitar uses an equivalent method to measure the audio delay. The version of the instruments I've described here became the template for the remainder of the series.
This is all relatively straightforward, but understanding Rock Band 2 as a piece of software is deceptively complicated. Because of the nature of the series and its content delivery mechanisms, a sequel for Harmonix's large scale rhythm game can't exist the way follow-ups do for most other titles. The primary purposes of most video game sequels are to dish out more content like story and levels, and rework the design, but Rock Band doesn't have stages or much of a story to tell. Harmonix could make their sequels comprise content updates by having them inject new songs into your library, but their downloadable music store potentially obsoletes the need to do that.
To other AAA titles, DLC is a mission pack or a new area that you sell in addition to the game proper. The cost and effort to produce it is considerable enough that you can't keep releasing new DLC all year round. Additionally, because quests or levels are complex entities where all the components are inter-reliant on each other, you can't just chop them up into four-minute chunks, sell those chunks off separately, and let your audience decide which ones to buy. But you can do that when you're selling individual songs which are shorter self-contained entities, and you can keep releasing those on a regular basis because you don't need to develop them from the ground up; all you need to do is license them, chart them, and host them. Most of the production work in Harmonix's model is performed before the developer steps in; it was done by the people who wrote, performed, and produced these songs which is what makes the model viable. But the existence of these weekly releases meant that players don't have to wait for a new entry in the series to get new material for the game, making a sequel far less essential. Although, I would say that, as with the original game, soundtracks in sequels can get players experiencing songs they might otherwise never buy.
Rock Band 2 was also unlikely to add any earth-shattering new mechanics to the series because the original game was very mechanically complete while also being fairly minimalist. The user's attention is already taken up at all times by the act of playing the music so you can't ease in many more tasks for them to perform alongside the core play. You could expand the experience by adding more instruments, but they would be their own Atlassian burden to develop. This is partly why Rock Band 2, and most other entries in this series, don't radically reshape how you interact with the experience. However, that doesn't mean that the series is lacking content or mechanical robustness; Rock Band 2 is a voluminous song pack, an excuse to release new controllers, and some tweaks to the feature set. If this was a different genre of game, it might be more, but the completeness of the original Rock Band and the gushing oasis of content in the form of the music store meant that it didn't have to be.
Despite the name, Rock Band 2's function is to be more of a Rock Band 1.5: a waystation between the first and third game, and it does that job excellently. Its patches to the original design come in the form of features like "Breakneck Speed" and "No Fail Mode". Breakneck Speed adds the option to notch up the rate at which the note highway scrolls which not only allows for a more gruelling challenge but can improve the readability of the note track. Remember, this switch is not increasing the tempo of a song, only the speed at which the inputs fly at the player which means the notes have to be more spaced out. The advantage of that spacing is particularly noticeable when speeding through guitar solos that are dense with notes and when you need to distinguish between two drum hits you must play at the same time and two you should play a fraction of a second apart. Truthfully, the interface always needed to indicate subtle gaps between drum notes better than it did, and while Breakneck Speed isn't a strict fix for that issue, it goes some way to help.
"No Fail Mode" is what it sounds like and is a feature which is cognisant of Rock Band's status as a party game. No one wants to be casually singing along to music at a public gathering and hear the track cut out halfway through, so, No Fail Mode swoops in to save the day. A secondary effect of this mechanic is that has players rethink how they deploy overdrive, a limited-use power which lets you double your score multiplier. In Rock Band 1, you would sometimes save your energy for the more demanding sections of songs like instrumental solos. Even if you couldn't hit many of the notes in these sections, you could still activate overdrive to make sure the gems you did hit scored higher than usual and kept your crowd meter from dropping to the bottom. Remember, when the crowd meter was empty, you would fail out of a song. Now that you don't need to use overdrive as a safety net, you can use it solely to optimise your score, lighting it up in thick jungles of notes or in sections where you know you can perform flawlessly. The disadvantage is that while No Fail is on you won't get to feel the sense of teamwork that you get with a bandmate using their overdrive to pick you up when you're down.
Minor improvements to Rock Band 2 include drum tutorial modes which instruct players on common drum patterns and on how to play fills. Meanwhile, on the vocals, spoken-word sections of tracks are now more flexible about what phonetic inputs they'll allow. They try less to detect correct annunciation and just measure whether you're making noise. The game also conceives of a new direction for the campaign mode. Rock Band 1's world tour was, like Guitar Hero's, one long setlist divided between several venues, so, while you were ostensibly taking to the stage at all these different concerts around the world, it felt like you were working from a single hub. In Rock Band 2, venues have multiple shows available in them, and having individual nested menus for each location is a surprisingly effective way to convey that you're travelling to discrete places. Beyond the gameplay systems, Rock Band 2 was also the site of a lot of important events in the rhythm game and even the music industry.
The Rock Band 2 release party was played by The Who who, according to LoPiccolo, had not performed in a theatre in thirty to forty years. The game also featured the debut of Guns 'n' Roses' track Shackler's Revenge. Prior to Rock Band 2, the last original studio albums (i.e. Not live, greatest hits, or covers albums) released by Guns 'n' Roses were Use Your Illusion I and II, which
landed on the same day in 1991. Meanwhile, the most recent original GnR song was Oh My God, part of the soundtrack for the 1999 Schwarzenegger film End of Days. Despite once being gods of rock, GnR hadn't produced a new collection of music for the best part of two decades, but in 1999 frontman Axl Rose had spread news of an upcoming album called Chinese Democracy. If you have any interest in rock history, I'd advise you to check out the troubled production of Chinese Democracy. Its winding history and its failure to materialise for nineteen years meant that it was the subject of plenty of rock industry myths and fans began to think of it as vapoursound.
When the album finally arrived, the first and only official single plucked from it was Shackler's Revenge, originally released as part of the Rock Band 2 soundtrack. GnR did something unprecedented in the music industry, that was, quite frankly, impossible to replicate. This wasn't just a case of a piece of music receiving a progressive release platform; because the track released with a gameplay component, it fundamentally altered how people experienced it. You'll also notice Bob Dylan's Tangled Up in Blue and AC⚡DC's Let There Be Rock on the soundtrack. Rock Band 2 was the first video game to feature a Bob Dylan song and the first rhythm game to use the music of AC⚡DC.
Lastly, Rock Band 2 was the first Guitar Hero or Rock Band game to have an on-disc soundtrack composed entirely of master tracks. Many of the songs for Harmonix's Guitar Hero games and some of those for Rock Band 1 were actually cover versions of the songs recorded by third-party studio Wavegroup Sound. In the case of Rock Band, it's something a lot of players probably won't have picked up on because the covers are masterfully close to the originals, but it's true of tracks like Ballroom Blitz by Sweet and Mississipi Queen by Mountain. When Harmonix's games announced that a song wasn't "by" an artist, but "made famous by" them, it was a subtle clue that you were playing a cover version. On Rock Band 2, however, every track is just as you'll find it on any official release by the band it's associated with. In 2008, a rhythm game with eighty-three tracks, all of them master recordings, was something unheard of, and it set a new industry standard. Every Guitar Hero and Rock Band game that came after took their songs from original studio recordings or live performances by the relevant band. However, there was a slight snag with Harmonix's concept of the persistent music library.
What Rock Band was doing with their in-game content may have been in the spirit of people in the real-world collecting LPs and CDs, but the difference was, we didn't retain a physical copy of the Rock Band songs we purchased. It's arguable that we've never owned them at all; what we were buying was not the songs, but the rights to use them within a context dictated by a contract between Harmonix and whatever record company held the license for the music. When that context changed, we could no longer guarantee that we would be able to access those tracks. You'll note that that's never a problem we would have had with a physical music medium. The way this problem first manifested in Rock Band was that players who wanted to be able to carry their on-disc songs from the original game forward to the sequel had to pay an export fee to cover the cost of Harmonix relicensing the songs. In a few cases, the labels who owned the tracks refused to license them out to Rock Band 2 at all, and so, you can't export classics such as Run to the Hills by Iron Maiden or Paranoid by Ozzy Osbourne. This would be a recurring issue throughout the series with certain songs never breaking free from their original disc release and certain games not accepting exported tracks that previous games did. It might not sound like the end of the world, but as with the hardware, put a pin in this one because there will be dire consequences down the line.
Rock Band Network
Another break between real-world music collections and our music libraries in Rock Band was the absence of an indie scene. It's not that there wasn't identifiable indie music in these packages; in fact, there was probably more than in most rhythm games due to Harmonix including songs from employees' bands. However, you couldn't have a wholly independently-produced Rock Band track because everything was published via Harmonix; if a song couldn't get the green light to be processed by them, then it wasn't going to make the soundtrack. If Rock Band's pool of DLC constitutes a music industry in itself then Harmonix was a big dog record company monopolising the whole thing, and where would our music industry be without independent publishing and smaller labels?
Many companies would have revelled in the control that Harmonix held over downloadable products at this point, but to their credit, the studio wanted to democratise the process of deciding what gets to be in the library. Around this time, Microsoft was distributing a free set of development tools for the Xbox 360 and PC by the name of "XNA". For a small licensing fee, almost anyone could publish their work in XNA to Microsoft's console under the Xbox LIVE Indie Games label. Remember, this was right during the indie explosion of the late 00s. Harmonix allowed any artist to create their own Rock Band track through a modified version of the music production software REAPER. Users would take their REAPER track and use a Harmonix tool called Magma to turn it into a file that Rock Band could read. The reasoning for that naming was that, I kid you not, all rock comes from magma. Users could then upload and sell their Rock Band creation via the in-game store using the XNA licensing. Harmonix called this store the Rock Band Network.
The New York Times had, at one point reported that Harmonix codenamed this project "Rock Band Nickelback" to defuse any interest in it, but Rock Band Network Senior Producer Matthew Nordhaus said he worked on RBN from day one and never heard the name. In another unusual twist, a Harmonix forums user calling themselves jjdude1 predicted the existence of this system all the way back in January 2008. Of course, what I've described is a development suite and store for the Xbox 360, but that doesn't cover other platforms. Because Microsoft had user-friendly self-publishing tools that the other platform holders didn't, they got the RBN service first, with it going into open beta on the 360 in January 2010 and then receiving a full release on the platform in March. In fact, the system may not exist if it weren't for XNA and it's a solid example of the often unpredictable benefits of opening your platform to a vast creator community.
XNA and XBLIG were set up with small independent devs in mind, but the same tools allowed a AAA studio to host a whole new gallery of independent creations. As for the PS3, the service launched there in April, but the number of tracks that Harmonix could upload at a time was severely throttled due to the limitations of PSN and tracks always came to Xbox 360 30 days earlier. Rock Band Network didn't reach the Wii until September, but the demand on the platform was so low that they shut down the Nintendo version of the store after just four months. The RBN was, for this rhythm game, what Bandcamp was for wider music, and the service ended up housing over 2,100 tracks, including favourites from artists such as Devin Townsend, Flight of the Conchords, and All That Remains.
It would be easy to dismiss the period between Rock Band 1 and The Beatles: Rock Band as a time when Harmonix was coasting on the success of their initial game, but it would be a lazy response. While I wouldn't call the first Rock Band sequel a revolution for the series, it's clear that during the games' first couple of years, Harmonix was still committing to fixing and innovating. Rock Band 2 adapts the initial band game concept to suit it to a casual atmosphere and was the stage for a number of firsts in music gaming. The peripherals bundled with it bumped up the standards for band game kit and became what we remember today as the canonical Rock Band instruments. It's also easy to forget Rock Band Network as it was not a game in and of itself, but it was an idealistic use of independent development tools; the largest scale effort there's ever been to incorporate player creations into a game while ensuring that they're paid for their labour. But if you're reading this feeling over-the-moon for Harmonix, don't get too comfortable, because the demise of the band game genre is on the horizon. Thanks for reading.
Every AAA game coalesces from the blood, sweat, and late nights of countless developers, but Rock Band 1 was a game that was particularly hard fought for. It wasn't just the output of a single development cycle; it was Harmonix's prize after twelve years of failed experiments and constriction by the industry on which they relied. After falling from the giddy heights of Guitar Hero, Harmonix would make Rock Band the pick with which they'd climb back to the peak of the rhythm game mountain. The game constituted an extreme jump up in scale for a rhythm game developer, one for which there was no precedent.
Talking about scale in the context of rhythm games is always weird. Typically, when we say a game has a large scale, what we mean is that the borders of its world are miles apart or that it's chock full of features and mechanics, but rhythm games rarely allow for spatial exploration, and the format as a whole is not that mechanically dense. The crux of the genre is that you interact with a controller in time to music, the game scores you on your interaction, and there's little going on outside that core play. Scoring systems and hardware can vary, and developers may put out a rhythm title with an exceptionally long tracklist, but no one can tell you the map in the new Ouendan will be three times as large or that they're adding a crafting system to Gitaroo Man. However, Rock Band scales up the rhythm game and does it not by adding a lot of extraneous bells and whistles to any previous experience's core mechanics but by effectively being three overlapping music games on one disc. When we think of it this way, its £180/$170 entry point doesn't seem as extortionate.
That price on the front of the box was always going to be daunting, but Rock Band was doing for the kingdom of music games what action-adventure titles once did for games with direct character control. Instead of being concentrated around the performance of a single task, action-adventure games were about switching between a lot of different mechanical modes, all of which fed into the same nexus. The same idea is enshrined in Rock Band. However, you can spend far more time honing your ability on any one Rock Band instrument than you're likely to spend perfecting your platforming or shooting in an action-adventure. The tasks in Rock Band also feel more distinct than the jobs in most other games because there are three different control mediums for the experience: the guitar, drums, and microphone. Now, we could assume that those input methods are known quantities, especially when titles like Karaoke Revolution and GuitarFreaks existed long before Guitar Hero was in diapers, but these games have more nuance hidden inside than you might think. What's more, there are a lot of small but impactful touch-ups Harmonix made to these formulas, so let's take a closer look at each of these instruments.
When you're playing the guitar, your success is proportional to your dexterity. Getting the hang of any rhythm game instrument is about mapping a series of visual cues to physical actions. When you start out with Rock Band's guitar, you will see a green gem come down the track, recognise that you need to press down the green fret button and the strum bar, and do so. With time, you need less and less conscious consideration of where you move your fingers, and you don't have to think about the action of playing a green note any more than you would have to think about how to do up your belt in the morning. It's all pattern recognition and muscle memory, and the same thing applies for the drums, but once you graduate to Hard and Expert difficulty, the game throws you a curveball. Orange notes begin regularly appearing on the note highway, and you must unlearn some of your technique to progress.
When you only have four frets to worry about, you can map a single finger to a single fret. If you see a red note come down the note highway, you know you need to press down your middle finger; if you see a blue, you depress your little finger, etc. But once you have more frets than fingers in play, you can't always keep your digits on the same buttons, and so this simple mapping of frets to fingers goes out the window. Which finger you press down to react to the gems becomes more contextual and learning to adapt to those contexts is one of the most intimidating challenges anyone teaching themselves the Rock Band or Guitar Hero guitar has to overcome. Although, it is true that Rock Band is a little more willing to work orange notes into Medium difficulty songs than Guitar Hero was. There is also a minor challenge in both games in learning to hammer-on and pull-off notes: you have to start thinking about using the fret buttons in or out of conjunction with the strum bar depending on the section you're playing. The changes are also not just on the software end; since Guitar Hero, this peripheral has gotten a makeover.
Rock Band's imitation Fender Stratocaster has an effects switch which allows you to choose the voice you want to colour the overdrive sections of a song with, but a more subtle feature is its redesigned fret buttons. On the Guitar Hero controller, these buttons were tabs which stuck out of the guitar neck, but now the first five frets of the guitar are flat panels which can be pushed down. This means that there's no negative space between them, allowing you to smoothly glide up and down the guitar when you need to change your fingering. Rock Band's designers also thought about how to get players moving their hand greater distances across that fretboard without complicating the play.
Guitar Hero and GuitarFreaks only had players positioning their fingers across the top end of the guitar neck which made input manageable for people who didn't play a real six-string, but it meant that you never got to act out those moments where an instrumentalist slides their hand closer to the base of the guitar. It's a particularly memorable sight if you've spent a lot of time watching musicians drop down to the last few frets to tap out a face-melting solo. What's more, because Guitar Hero virtuosos never moved their hand more than one fret down the guitar at a time, they didn't experience the sensation of frets becoming closer together as you travel south, and so, having to tweak your muscle memory to play with them.
But how do you emulate these high frets without adding so many new buttons that the difficulty becomes staggering, even for experienced players? Harmonix's solution was to add a second set of the existing fret buttons to the bottom of the neck. They still function to hit the green, red, yellow, blue, and orange notes, but when playing through a guitar solo, if you crack a gem using one of these buttons, you don't have to strike the strum bar as you do it, and can tap your way through the solo just like the pros do. As on a real guitar, these higher frets require more precise finger placement but reward it by allowing you to quickly move between them which is a welcome advantage in any frantically fast section. Unlike Harmonix's previous guitar games, Rock Band also gives players bonus points based on how accurately they play a guitar solo, helping lend these frenzies of technical proficiency the same prominence in the play that they have in the audio.
One problem Guitar Hero had is that the bass didn't feel like its own instrument in the game as much as it did a boring version of the lead guitar. In the real world, basses are distinguished from standard guitars by having fewer strings, and possibly by other physical features, like a longer neck, but because it doesn't make economic sense for Harmonix to release a dedicated bass guitar peripheral, and because they don't simulate strings in their games, bass play was effectively guitar play. When every other part of a band already draws more attention than the bass, the instrument doesn't need a mechanical treatment that makes it fade further into the background.
If you want an element in your game to feel special, whether it's a tool or an enemy, you need to give it an attribute that no comparable element has. Maybe this one sword lights up with fire or this one enemy moves in an unlikely pattern. In this case, Harmonix can't have the bass do anything physically that the other instruments can't do, as they channel it through the guitar controller, so they bring the bass into its own by doing something mechanically unique with it. While all other instruments can only reach a maximum 4x score multiplier, the bass can swell to a whopping 6x. After giving the instrument more scoring power, the designers then inflate the score threshold needed to attain each star with it.
This might sound like giving the player a bigger net only to present them with a larger ball, but because the bass's maximum multiplier is higher than that of any other instrument, it takes more time for the player to rev back up to the full multiplier after dropping a note. While the guitarist may get a more technically complicated note stream to shred through, they don't have to worry as much about consistent play because if the worst should happen and a prompt slips past them, it's only going to be a few bars until they're back at the max multiplier. The bassist may be less likely to play a blistering part than the guitarist, but when there's such a long trek back to their target multiplier, they have to ensure they keep it. They do this by concentrating more on endurance and consistency than the other instrumentalists.
Even more than the bassist, the drummer has to bind themselves to the rhythm of a track. An essential tactile difference between these instruments is that while you interact with the guitar or bass directly, you must hit notes on the drums through the medium of the sticks. Another thick line of separation is that the drums do not require the fine motor control of the guitar or bass, but instead, ask for big, sweeping motions. This makes them sound a lot easier to operate until you realise they require you to coordinate not just the movement of both of your arms, but also one of your legs, as you have to hit the pedal. In a similar way that incorporating that orange fret provides a whole new frontier of difficulty for the guitarist, one of the tallest hurdles that rookie drummers must overcome is learning to move their leg to a different rhythm than their arms. Hitting the kick drum is straightforward enough when you need to do it at end of a measure, but it's a little harder when you play it in the middle of a bar, and harder still when it's played off-beat or when you have to alternate between the bass drum and the others quickly.
The drums were the first of the instruments that Harmonix began work on; the studio gave themselves more time on this peripheral than any of the others as they'd never developed a drum-based game before. They took a trick from Konami's DrumMania by tilting the drums further towards the player than a real kit does, making striking them feel more natural. However, for the designers, the kick drum posed a puzzle. One of the ways that rhythm games make it feel natural to translate on-screen prompts into manual inputs is to have the note streams on the monitor line up with the buttons of your peripheral. With the drums, for example, the note highway is set up so that red notes appear in the leftmost column, to the right of those are yellow, then blue, then green, and the drums themselves are laid out so that the leftmost drum is red, then yellow, then blue, then green. It makes it intuitive to tell how you're meant to move in the space around you to hit the gems. But if this is the scheme we're using then how do we crib a bass drum into the UI?
In the past, introducing a new note always meant inserting another lane for it on the note highway, but if you do this with the pedal, you create confusion about the layout of the drumkit. Imagine that we put the kick note lane in the centre of the highway, between the channels for the yellow and blue pads, roughly what DrumMania did. The player could easily be tapping the yellow drum, see a gem come down the highway to the right of the yellow road and understandably go to beat the drum to the right of the yellow: the blue, only to miss. That's not a system in tune with player psychology, particularly because users often have to react to prompts on the screen within a split second. The brains at Harmonix found a solution by making the cue for the kick an orange line which sits underneath the other notes. As it's not a gem, it won't be mistaken for a drum that the player has to hit with the stick and its position beneath the other prompts signals that the player needs to interact with something below the top section of the kit, i.e. The pedal.
Another original invention for Rock Band was the drum fill. When the drummer has enough energy to activate their temporary points-doubling power, overdrive, a freeform section will appear at a fixed point in the song. Here, they must play an original drum part and then hit a green gem at the end of it to kick on their overdrive. It rarely works out perfectly because there's often a delay between hitting your pad and hearing it sound through the speakers. It's problematic when trying to match the beat of a track and comprises a latency issue. It could hypothetically be solved by properly calibrating the game to ensure there's no gap between manual input and audio output, but even using the auto-calibrate features in the later Rock Bands, I've always found the sound lagged behind my drumming. This is not a problem during scripted play as the game otherwise doesn't play notes based on when you hit the input, but checks if you were in the rough window of the note sliding over the goal line and continues to play sound on-time until it detects a miss. During the drum fills, however, the game can't know what on-time looks like because you're improvising something that no one has played before. Still, creating drum fills which suit a song is its own new skill, and in this mechanic, there's a glimmer of the early days of Harmonix when the company was all about letting players create new music as opposed to playing along with existing tracks.
The drums require the most room and assembly of any of the instruments, but they're the closest to audibly replicating their real-world cousins. As hitting the drum produces real noise, it is in its own small way, an actual percussion instrument. Because the frame of the drum kit places two pipes below the yellow and blue drums, you even find that the inner drums have a unique sound quality compared to the outer drums.
The vocals are the black sheep of the Rock Band family for a couple of reasons: One, the singing doesn't provide an emulation of a real-world musical task; it is the task. If you're singing in Rock Band, Lips, or SingStar, then you're singing. Two, the vocals aren't an instrument. Or if you want to get really weird about it, you are the instrument. Because the vocals do not rely on an external instrument for input, the designers can't use the same visual interface for the vocals that they would for the other modes of play. When singing, you will see a scrolling area of the screen which displays input prompts, but unlike with the UI of the guitar, bass, and drums, it moves across the x-axis rather than the z-axis, and it doesn't use the gem system. The designers built the gem system around the concept that you will have to hit a specific button at a particular time; it can't apply here because there are no buttons. It's relatively straightforward to develop a prompting system for the guitar where you can build both the guitar and the software it interfaces with, using colour coding and a small range of inputs, but the human body wasn't designed for compatibility with a music game. Our vocal cords don't have a colour guide or a restricted palette of actions; the mechanical process that we use to sing a note is complex and hidden from us.
Singing video games could try to tell us what note we need to match in each section (e.g. F# or D) but the majority of people can't match a text representation of a note to a sound, and feeding the user this information in real-time would make play prohibitively complex. An approachable interface for singing needs to communicate the melody in a language we all understand, and while we're not all fluent in formal musical notation, we do comprehend the general concepts of pitch and some notes being higher or lower than others. So that's what karaoke game interfaces rely on, generally showing you how high or low you need to hit a lyric, especially in relation to other lyrics. This is also why the vocals GUI uses the y-axis to denote the type of note to input while the instrumental UIs do it across the x-axis. The guitar, bass, and drum interfaces are referring to objects that exist from left to right in 3D space, so the notes on the screen can be laid out left to right. When singing, there's no spatial input for the UI to be matched against, but the designers can and do exploit the fact that we use the same language to describe height that we do pitch. "High" notes appear higher up on the interface, even if we're using two different definitions of "high" there. The same applies to low notes. Of course, this is a bit of a vague guide so you do need to know the shape of the songs going in, which is one reason why Harmonix picked tracks for Rock Band that they thought people would greet as old friends.
Harmonix borrowed the vocal interface from their earlier title Karaoke Revolution, and while SingStar may be the most famous name in microphone gaming, Karaoke Revolution always had the more sensible presentation of the music. SingStar displays its notes statically and has a cursor move from left to right across them as the song plays. When the cursor reaches the right side of the screen, a new frame of lyrics appears, and the pointer starts over from the left side. This has the potential to throw you off because once you're at the end of one vocal phrase, you can't see the next one coming. You can miss a note for no other reason than the screens advancing quickly and you not being ready for the first word in the next section. Instead of having the lyrics be static and the pointer scroll across the screen, Karaoke Revolution and Rock Band have the pointer remain static, and the words scroll. Under this system, the start of the next lyrical phrase is always visible, even at the end of the current one.
It is also necessary that songs are chopped up into phrases; it's part of maintaining a fair scoring scheme. While missing a note on any of the instruments will cause your combo to break, asking the player not to skip any jot of the vocals would be a much taller order. Again, the notation is far vaguer, and on expert vocals, you're basically replicating the song as a real performer would. Instrumentalists are not held to that standard. So, instead of tracking whether you hit every single microsecond of the melody correctly, Rock Band divides songs into phrases, and measures how much of each phrase you hit. As long as you sing enough of each frame correctly, you retain your combo.
There are other splits between the singing and instrumental play: Firstly, the difficulty curve for the vocals consists of performing one task with steadily increasing specificity, whereas the instruments often ask you to learn some new task at a point like changing fingering on the guitar or incorporating the kick drum. Secondly, while moving from Medium to Hard or Hard to Expert on an instrument means more complex note charts, on vocals, the notes are more or less the same, but as you clamber up the difficulty ladder, the range in which the game considers you to be reaching a note narrows. Thirdly, the vocals are the only territory of the play where accuracy involves more than a simple dichotomy of hitting or missing a note. On the vocals, if you skirt a note, it will contribute a modest amount to the combo meter, but the closer you can get to singing it dead-on, the faster that circle fills. This is the play's acknowledgement that while the instruments use an array of distinct buttons that are all either "on" or "off" at any time, vocalising happens on a spectrum. It also recognises that because that spectrum is so granular, it's not reasonable to demand that players on lower difficulties always hit the desired input with pinpoint accuracy.
To ensure that we can always stretch to a note, Rock Band clings to an established feature of the karaoke genre: letting us sing in any octave. Rhythm games generally work because they have standardised controllers, but the human voice isn't standardised; we're all sonically unique and can't guarantee that we can match the range of voice the original singer used. Imagine that you have a piano in front of you and that your finger is on middle C. Now imagine moving up to the next C on the keyboard. The space from that first C to that second C or between any two notes of the same type is an octave. Those two Cs are still Cs, just higher or lower than each other. All of us have a limited range of octaves we can sing in, and so, the developers of these games measure whether we're hitting the original note, not the original octave. Whether you're a soprano or a baritone, you can still warble along to The Outlaws' Green Grass and High Tides. Although, this does also facilitate a behaviour in a lot of video game singers that you wouldn't get in the real world. Sometimes, instead of sliding their pitch up and down within an octave, players rapidly flip between octaves as they find it easier to sing the higher notes in a different octave than the lower ones. This alternating between a high and low voice tends to sound bizarre and inorganic, but the system still rewards it.
While Rock Band develops its instrumental systems far beyond that of previous rhythm games, it doesn't push the boat out as far with the vocals. However, there was a tidal wave of singing games pre-Rock Band to which there was no equivalent for the guitar or drums. By 2007, there had been far more opportunity for the industry to find out what the right choices were for vocal gameplay and Harmonix didn't have to do much development of the genre to bring it up to speed. The two new ideas they do introduce in Rock Band are "talking parts" where the game scores you not on pitch, but annunciation, and percussive parts which you play either by hitting a face button or tapping the microphone. The former mechanic lets you work through spoken lyrics with your personal style while the latter gives the vocalist something to do while instrumental sections of the song go by, although both were prone to go numb to player inputs.
Those are the mechanics specific to each peripheral, but to get a full picture of Rock Band, we also need to think about the mechanics that are universal across the instruments. Let's return to that concept of consistent play. When we listen to someone play music, we want not just to hear them hit every second or every fourth note; we want to receive a whole run of notes in a row. If someone can't play consistently, they can't play music, so, most rhythm games, including Rock Band, reward users for reliable play rather than random spurts of accuracy. Of course, when trying to draw a skill out of your audience, it's good practice to test for that skill using multiple different mechanics. This can help you get a clearer read and give your audience a more rich and varied experience which is why Rock Band checks for consistency using three different mechanics common to rhythm games.
There's the crowd meter which fills as you raise your score and drains as you miss notes. If the meter hits 0%, you fail the song. You'll also notice, however, that it empties on a miss faster than it fills on a hit. This means that it's not enough for you to hit 50% of the notes, you have to be on-point for the good majority of them or you're going to get booed off. This mechanic also plies you with an auditory reward in addition to a mechanical one. In select tracks, if you can keep that meter filled to the top, the crowd will start singing along to the song. It's a feature that Rock Band project lead Greg LoPiccolo thinks was devised by the game's audio director Eric Brosius. It allows the game to embody the atmosphere of playing to a crowd better than Guitar Hero ever did.
The combo system is the most stringent measure of consistency in the game and causes your mistakes to count for more by creating a ripple effect from them. If the percentage of notes you hit was the only factor in scoring, you could get away with a lot of blunders, but the combo mechanic makes it so that when you miss a note, the next several notes that you play will yield fewer points. It's an ingenious technique rhythm games use to weight score strongly for accuracy, and it's one reason why you can play two different runs of a song, hitting 99% of notes in each, and those two attempts can produce scores tens of thousands of points apart. The combo system ties into the crowd meter as it's scoring more points which raises the crowd meter, meaning that keeping your combo is essential for soaring out of the red zone.
The combo meter then stacks with the overdrive system. Songs contain sections where, if the player hits every note in a row, they will receive some "energy". Once the player's energy meter is half full, they can active overdrive to double their multiplier for a limited time. A mediocre player might be able to hit an 8x multiplier now and then or be able to pick up a modicum of energy, but only someone who really has the play down will be able to do both, bringing them up to a frequent 8x multiplier (or 12x on the bass). At least on the vocals and guitar, the overdrive mechanic is also a betting system in disguise and one that rewards the player for awareness of their own abilities, and knowledge of the song.
Optimally, the player should activate overdrive in a section where they know they won't drop notes, so, they have to be aware of when the intensity of a song increases and whether they can match that intensity at that point. If you think you're liable to skip a lot of notes in that upcoming chorus, maybe that's not where you want to double your multiplier. On the other hand, if you know that you can nail it and that that section of the track is where you'll get the best points/time ratio, that's exactly where you want to activate overdrive. Then there are a lot of grey areas in which you can't be sure that you'll keep your multiplier if you activate then and there, but you might want to risk it anyway. There is an additional challenge for the guitarist and bassist in working out the opportune moment to activate overdrive as they must tilt the guitar upwards to do so, and remaining accurate while swinging your controller around is easier said than done.
But just because you're consistent doesn't mean that you should expect Rock Band to be in return. See, you set your difficulty level when playing a track (Easy, Medium, Hard, or Expert), but songs also have their own difficulty rating (Warmup, Apprentice, Solid, Moderate, Challenging, Nightmare, or Impossible). Ostensibly, the difficulty of the play is a combination of the difficulty level you've chosen and the difficulty rating of the song, but the labels on the tracks are not particularly accurate indicators of whether they'll make you break a sweat or not. For example, on the guitar, Electric Version is a Moderate difficulty song that I am incapable of five-starring, but Cherub Rock is a Nightmare difficulty song that I can gold star with no trouble. The spotty difficulty identification continues all the way through the Rock Band series, and while it's irritating for everyone involved, it makes life particularly hard for anyone just learning the instruments. They have to use trial and error approaches to find what pieces they can play because the game doesn't willingly give up that information.
I'm unconvinced that Harmonix could provide wholly transparent difficulty ratings, even if they want to. What a player finds tricky is going to be subjective. One guitarist might think that the hardest part is playing patterns that wind and curve across the highway; another might have more trouble with rapid strumming. Some songs are also much harder on certain difficulties than others, and some tracks have easy sections and more trifling sections. Those last two elements wouldn't come into play in another game where the designer would have total control over the challenge within a level, but despite being the development studio, Harmonix only has so much say over the difficulty.
The basis of these levels is not content that was designed by a developer to be fair to the player; it's music that artists wrote to sound emotionally resonant. Many songs don't have that steady curve of difficulty that level design relies on; they have choruses that might be more intense than verses or instrumental solos where the difficulty quickly spikes. Instead of leaving behind easier sections of the level to venture into harder territory, many songs come back to those easier patterns over and over because most popular music contains a lot of refrains. But if you can find your groove, the game remains compelling because it is constantly feeding you inputs you have to pay attention to. During play, there's no downtime, and when the note highway becomes particularly frantic, you can enter a mode where your subconscious does most of the work decoding those patterns and moving your hands or legs into the correct positions.
While we have, so far, only discussed playing the game from an individual standpoint, we can't let that be the sole perspective from which we view this experience. When played single-player, Rock Band may be a singing game or a drumming game or a guitar game, but it's designed for multiplayer and having multiple performers in one room is an experience unto itself. Games always have a different atmosphere when played with other people in the room, but the physical reality is usually a few people sitting around with gamepads in their hands. In Rock Band, the physical instruments, the movements they have your band making, and the noise of operating them all give the whole experience a powerful tangibility. The rock band isn't just something that exists on the screen in front of you; they're in your living room with you. There's no other experience in interactive entertainment comparable to being a guitarist timing your strums to the "taps" of the drummer next to you or seeing every player hit the "Yeah!" portion of Won't Get Fooled Again simultaneously. There is, however, more to playing with a band than just performing the same songs in the same space.
When Harmonix first managed to get a prototype of Rock Band with all its instruments up and running, they discovered that without mechanical ties between the musical ensemble, it didn't feel to them like the players were working in concert. In response, the studio set out to develop features to bring users together. At its most basic level, the game makes the band inter-reliant on each other using the crowd meter. When jamming out in the multiplayer, the total amount of juice in that meter is an average of all player contributions, but each band member also has a marker which will move up or down that pole based on their sole performance. If anyone falls to the bottom, they will temporarily drop out of the session, and as this title is so audio-driven, the absence of the drums or bass in the mix is palpable. However, if a player activates overdrive when one of their teammates is out of play, that teammate will be recuperated. It's the same idea as reviving a downed teammate in an MMO or battle royale game and comes with the same feelings of reliance on others throughout the session and relief when you're saved. It's a beautifully weird proof of how you can adapt a mechanic to your genre, even when it seems like it doesn't belong there. Although, rescuing teammates isn't something would happen in a real band.
A more realistic touch is the big rock ending, a mechanic that LoPiccolo wanted to include in Guitar Hero, even when the stars never aligned so that he could. The idea is this: Some songs end with a chance to thrash away on your instruments like an animal and all those hits feed into a points bounty. It's the cathartic, uninhibited thing you want to do with the peripherals from the moment you unbox them, but no game rewarded it until the big rock ending came along. Here's the rub though: You can only bank the points from your big rock ending if the whole band hits a short sequence of notes after that spurt of random input. If anyone misses their mark, no one gets any points, so, you need teammates you can trust to collect that prize. There's also the unison bonus, a dose of energy that fills 50% of all players' overdrive meters if everyone in the band hits every note in a unison section.
Lastly, players in a group are encouraged to co-operate because they have to activate overdrive with timing that considers how their multipliers will modify each other. You see, if you activate your overdrive in the multiplayer, then it doesn't just double your score, it doubles the whole band's, and anyone can stack their overdrive on top of yours. If two players activate it at the same time, everyone gets a 4x score boost, for three players it's 6x, and for four it's 8x. Keep in mind, that's not just multiplying the amount you can mine from each note; it's augmenting your combo multiplier. So, if you are up to a 4x multiplier on your instrument and then three people activate overdrive, that's 8x4, leading to a total 32x bonus on all the notes you hit in that period.
With that kind of advantage riding on synchronised activation of overdrive, you can't afford to pass it up, but getting all players to kick on the overdrive at the same time is a more taxing exercise than it sounds. While Guitar Hero represented energy notes as star-shaped markers on the highway that retain their lane's colour, Rock Band keeps its energy notes the same shape but has them glow white. It increases their visibility but nullifies the colour coding system; you have to be able to quickly identify which inputs you need to use based on position alone so not everyone manages to bottle the energy they're owed every time. Even more vexing is that, while the more players you have, the higher your potential score, it's also the case that the more players you have, the harder it is to coordinate everyone.
Even if you and your band are a well-oiled machine, you have to remember that every instrument has limitations as to when and how you can activate overdrive. The method of activation is, in each case, representative of the role each player would take in a real band. A real drummer has to follow the rhythm of a song, and this is represented in the mechanics by the person on drums having to wait for a fixed section before they can utilise overdrive. The guitar and bass, being instruments more suited to showboating stage antics can surge into overdrive at any time, but if you want to stack the multiplier optimally, then just like a real rock star, you'll follow the timing set out by the drummer. You must also take caution not to spark off your overdrive right before a section of the song where the guitar or bass go silent. Note that this is a trap that the drummer doesn't have to worry about falling into; guitarists/bassists get more flexibility in when they can activate, but they also run more risk. The vocalist, meanwhile, can launch overdrive during cordoned-off sections of their track, but they receive less energy than the other players and so really have to pick their big moments. Often, they can't activate in time with the instrumentalists, and this helps illustrate the divide between being a singer and being someone holding an instrument.
Keep in mind that when lining up overdrive, you don't just have to account for different band members getting the chance to activate at different times, you also have to take into account that the game doesn't give all players energy phrases at the same time and that some teammates may have missed their energy phrases. Plus, a fitting spot to leap into overdrive for you is a slow or silent moment for someone on another instrument. 100%ing a song is most of the battle, but once you've done that, improving your position on the leaderboard comes down to this synchronisation and control of overdrive, and it's an art in itself.
Speaking of art, you may also notice that Rock Band's aesthetic top layer is coming from a very different school of design than Guitar Hero's. Harmonix's original guitar game burst onto the scene coated in the occult and industrial, swinging heavy metal chains around its head, but through and through, Rock Band's fashion sense is more mature and more abstract. Designer Rob Kay explains that the guiding question when developing the game, including its art, was "is it authentic?". By changing out the colourful buttons on the guitar neck for more functional panels and modelling the controller around the dignified Fender Stratocaster, Harmonix made sure this hunk of circuits and plastic looked more like an instrument and less like a toy than ever, and the other peripherals followed suit, as did the in-game graphics. The characters on stage are no longer larger-than-life headbangers like Axel Steel and Casey Lynch; they are less caricatured. The starpower and rock meter mechanics which implied some heavy metal mysticism in their names are brought down to earth with new tags like "energy" and "crowd meter". Lastly, the UI looks less like metal album art and more tasteful. There are no more pentagrams on the note highway, lightning bolts when you gain starpower, or plumes of fire when you score a note. The play area is a simple black conveyor belt with coloured glass-like objects moving down it.
Guitar Hero's style conveyed attitude, but it also frequently led to aesthetic interference. The satanic scrawls on the fretboard and the UI that looked like it was thrown together in the back of a van were great for metal and sometimes also classic rock, but there are so many genres it would clash with, including pop rock, most alt-rock, most prog, and anything outside of the rock genre. Rock Band and other rhythm games that use an abstract interface do it to avoid that discordance. The UI doesn't assume anything about the style of the music and lets the tone and imagery of the tracks speak for themselves. This was particularly important for Harmonix when building Rock Band because more than any game they'd developed up to this point, this one was intended to be a content platform as much as a packaged experience. Stores on games consoles already sold songs for major rhythm games, but previous developers didn't have the vision for what rhythm game DLC could be that the Rock Band crew had.
Harmonix saw that no one who bought a real instrument was pinned down to learning only a select set of songs and that nobody bought a stereo or personal music device expecting the company who made it to tell them which fifty tracks they could listen to on it. People build custom collections of music, and they carry with them between equipment. Additionally, the idea of compiling the licensed soundtrack that will please all players is conceptually broken. There are as many different tastes in music as there are people, and so, for maximum audience satisfaction, you shouldn't impose a soundtrack on the users, you should let them construct their soundtrack. You must do this not just by offering a few track packs, but by releasing a library of music diverse enough to respect the varied taste in music that audiences have. Having new tracks to keep discovering is also helpful in a game where you're honing a skill by playing a lot of music; it keeps you from having to select the same tired songs repeatedly.
Harmonix released new tracks on a weekly basis, giving players a reason to keep coming back and simulating new record days. At the time of writing, they've released over 3,000 songs. Given the sheer volume of content and the passionate applause this DLC system has received, I don't think it's hyperbole to say that Harmonix was running one of the most successful games-as-a-service ventures to date and that they were doing it long before the wider industry picked up on the concept. If it weren't for Rock Band, we'd have a much less ambitious idea of how many meaningful extras you can offer alongside a game. It was also revolutionary at the time that your DLC would transfer between games.
Because the DLC was such a substantial part of Rock Band for so many players, we can't discuss the on-disc songs in the title with the same implications we'd talk about the licensed music of another game. It's worth commenting on the on-disc numbers as they're part of a shared musical experience that everyone who bought Rock Band underwent, but unlike with most other games, we cannot refer to the songs pressed into Rock Band's discs as "the Rock Band soundtrack". Every player had a soundtrack of their own. However, if we are going to comment on the on-disc music, we can see that in comparison to the tracks on Guitar Hero I and II, the songs that shipped with Rock Band get further away from the long-accepted rock canon, get a little more contemporary, and play more with genre. You have your Bon Jovi and your Kiss, but Harmonix's previous guitar game would never have leaned so hard into alternative bands like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, R.E.M., Hole, or The Smashing Pumpkins. It's a choice that within itself keeps the game from feeling like a supermarket-grade rock compilation album while still staying true to the vision of Rock Band. However, it also hints at the dizzying combination of bands and styles that players can explore via the online store.
What's impressive about Rock Band from a design perspective is that it takes all these diverse elements and mashes them together without them ever seeming dissonant. Designers creating asymmetric co-op games are often hesitant to make player roles too different from each other or to add too many classes to the system. Doing so can mean that while your players each get an experience that feels like theirs, the paths of the play don't meet in the middle as they should. But in Rock Band, the vocals, the guitar, and the drums all feel like games unto themselves and yet when played alongside each other match like pieces of a jigsaw. That's the mark of masterful design. The keyword with Rock Band is "modularity"; whether it's configuring your band setup or your soundtrack, Rock Band is not interested in dictating what you play, it metamorphises into what you want it to be. Thanks for reading.
"We had this high-level directive that the founders, Alex and Eran, had concocted to which we’ve remained true to this day, and that was to use technology to allow non-musicians to experience music. We believe music is this incredible human joy which is denied to most people because they don’t have a decade or more to put into mastering a conventional instrument. So we wanted to use technology to cut out the huge learning curve and plug people right in to the awesome experience". - Greg LoPiccolo, Project Lead on Rock Band.
From 2007 to 2010 we saw rhythm game studios release twenty different band-based experiences for home consoles across five franchises. The plastic instrument genre of the late 00s became so ubiquitous that it's hard to imagine a time when producing one could have been a risk. However, when Harmonix developed the original Rock Band, they were putting their necks on the line and overcoming tragically bad luck during their stint in the industry so far. By the admission of the creators of the company, it was failing for its first ten years of existence, and for about half of that, they weren't posting a profit.
Harmonix Music Systems grew out of such idyllic and quirky circumstances, you'd have thought someone had made it up. Its two founders were MIT graduates who had experimented with accessible song-creation software within the institute. Eran Egozy was a computer engineer who played music on the side while Alex Rigopulos was a music major who dabbled in programming. They set up their company with the goal of making musical performance approachable to the masses, which they first tried to do with a product called The Axe, an instrumental improvisation program which had poor longevity as a creative platform and only sold about 300 copies. But they did go on to receive a glowing reception for a motion control music experience they developed for a Disney theme park. Their starry-eyed hope on the back of this was to do the same thing for learning and recreational spaces across America, like arcades and museums. Then they worked out the eternity it takes to establish a deal with a company like Dave & Busters and realised they, once again, had to reinvent themselves. Egozy and Rigopulos then tried to apply their compositional software to the karaoke industry but found no one willing to buy.
It's at this point that you see a fundamental shift in Harmonix's creative approach. All of Egozy and Rigopulos's software up to this point had involved putting a blank sheet in front of the player and asking them to create the sound, but you're threading a tiny needle by developing a product that lets players do this in real-time. Make the tool highly manipulable with many options for the player, and you will find that it requires some learning and that not everything a user can create with it will sound pleasant; this is why we must practice instruments to get consonant, structured sound. However, if you simplify the tool so much that you eliminate the learning curve, you've probably left your audience in a very claustrophobic creative space without the freedom to stretch and pitch sound however they want. From the founders' description, we can safely assume the latter is what happened to The Axe.
Even if a company did manage to pass down a magical Yamaha that let us sound out any tune in our head with the push of a few keys, only so many of us are going to have music worth recording. I'm not writing a screed against accessible music creation software and instruments; in my mind, there's no doubt they should exist, but in general, the public gravitates towards other peoples' music instead of writing their own. For most of us, composing music would be a frustrating job that would create, at best, listenable songs, but other people have already created beautiful symphonies and sensational pop that we can pull up with trivial effort. It's also the case that once music is widely available, we can congregate around it as a culture. Everyone knows The Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter, but very few people know that guitar riff you came up with one Sunday in your garden shed. Pop culture follows the path of least resistance.
The balancing act of making your music creation suite low-entry but manipulable, and the public's predilection for popular music over amateur compositions were likely stumbling blocks for Harmonix in their infancy. This is why their karaoke project ran aground: The hobby was never about writing new tracks; it is about imitating ones that already exist. Rigopulos and Egozy were trying to give people a mixing desk when all they wanted was a microphone. This revelation reshaped Harmonix, and they would make almost every one of their future creations about the user responding to existing conceptions of how a piece of music should sound instead of providing their own suggestions on its content. And this is the mentality we usually associate with video games: The player doesn't decide which inputs are "correct"; instead, a developer sets out an objective scheme for the correct player actions and the player tries to determine what the scheme is and to conform to it. Once you have a set of rules for which moves are correct or incorrect, the player may then be scored, rewarded, and punished based on how close they got to the desired player behaviour. Rhythm games tend to do this with transparency and rigidity. There is a visual representation of the correct sequence of inputs, and we must match that sequence as closely as possible. So, that's the example that Harmonix follows.
Before embarking on their next project, the studio plucked some promising new employees from Boston's thriving game dev scene. This included various former devs of Looking Glass Studios, the minds behind Thief and System Shock. One of their more notable acquisitions from Looking Glass was Greg LoPiccolo who would go on to become project leader on Guitar Hero. With this team, Harmonix developed Frequency, a rhythm game in which notes flow down a track towards the screen, and the player must hit corresponding buttons in time to play those notes. Publishers were broadly uninterested in the title, but after calling the front switchboard of Sony Computer Entertainment America, Harmonix managed to get put directly through to Shuhei Yoshida, then head of studios. He patiently heard out their pitch, and in late 2001, Sony published Frequency for the PlayStation 2. Frequency is about as straight up-and-down as rhythm games get, but you might ask why an ailing Harmonix didn't turn to the genre sooner. You have to understand that when Rigopulos and Egozy founded the company, there was no music game format to speak of. Rigopulos explains to GameCritics.com:
"Something very significant happened around 1997. Music gaming, which previously didn't exist, came out of nowhere and exploded in Japan, starting with Parappa the Rapper, created by Matsura and published by Sony for the Playstation One. It was followed shortly after by Konami's Beatmania and Dance Dance Revolution games. The category went from not existing to something gigantic and mass-market in Japan almost overnight, and has sustained itself for more than five years as a major entertainment category over there. When we saw that happen, it really struck us that videogaming was the mass-market interactive medium, and it was the medium through which we wanted to achieve our mission of bringing the music-making experience to people who are non-musicians".
Under this philosophy, a Harmonix project turned a profit for the first time in six years, but Frequency still dwelled in the shadows of obscurity. Rigopulos put this down to the game being ugly, intimidating, and having too sheer a difficulty curve, so, Harmonix tried to filter these issues out of the mix with a sequel, Amplitude, which they released in 2003. While we wouldn't label either of these games subversive by modern standards, the studio made a subtle advancement through Frequency and Amplitude's UIs. Most early rhythm games had notes scrolling across the screen on the x or y-axis to eventually meet the area in which the player could hit them, see: Parappa, Dance Dance Revolution, and BeatMania, but Frequency and Amplitude had notes crawling along the z-axis. Their interfaces were that of the 1990 block puzzle game Klax but applied to a music system: targets were spawning in the distance and moving towards the player instead of spawning at the top of the frame and moving towards the bottom, spawning on the right and moving towards the left, or doing the inverse of either.
In the traditional rhythm game UIs, all prompts have equal screen space dedicated to them, but under Harmonix's UIs, the notes closest to the player are afforded the most visual real estate, making them easy to notice and allowing the player to judge the distance between, and to them, at a glance. At the same time, notes that are still a second or two away exist closer to the horizon, taking up less screen space so that the player knows roughly the pattern they'll have to play but aren't reading fine cues for notes which aren't immediately relevant. There's also something about the gems flying right at you which makes you feel a part of the action. Harmonix dubbed this presentation element "the note highway", and it would later facilitate the creation of their most popular games, but they were still missing a hook for the experience. The note highway is an innovative, helpful projector for desired inputs, but in Frequency and Amplitude, what you do once those inputs reach you isn't all that compelling: it's a mundane button tap. These experiences also lacked the popular music that audiences tended to rally around and were filled out with niche artists like Freezepop and Meat Beat Manifesto. In focus testing, players gave Amplitude the lowest "intent to play" rating Sony had ever seen, but after demoing it, they gave it the highest "intent to play" rating the publisher had recorded. In short, once people played the game, they were ravenous for another helping, but they didn't know they wanted to play it until they'd already done so; it was a marketer's nightmare.
Harmonix's next game would be a more direct attempt to bring interactive Japanese music media to the west and would provide tracks that people would fondly recognise on the back of a box. Getting into the music software game early had paid off: When Konami was looking for a studio to develop a karaoke video game, they picked Harmonix, as it was the only saloon in town as far as western rhythm game developers went. Harmonix would get another stab at that karaoke project, and this time, they'd bring their newfound philosophy to the task, using the software to help players imitate well-known vocalists instead of becoming composers themselves. Unlike in Frequency and Amplitude, the soundtrack for this karaoke title was not predominantly underground musicians but was graced by chart names like Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Van Halen. Although, yes, Freezepop was still there.
Karaoke Revolution, released in North America in 2003, was a money maker, and the developer would revise and retool it countless times over the following years. Other companies like Sony and Microsoft picked up and ran with the concept in titles like SingStar and Lips. SingStar arguably got one over on Karaoke Revolution, featuring some master tracks and music videos for songs while Karaoke Revolution stuck with covers of songs and virtual performers. But Harmonix's sing-a-long experience marks the first time that they lived up to their mission statement of sharing music beyond the world of musicians. They had people who never would have sung vocals or weren't the typical audience for video games picking up a microphone and belting out the classics. It's the scope of the audience and the attraction of a non-traditional demographic that are the achievements here.
As Harmonix had gotten their foot in the door with Sony, the publisher then assigned them their first explosive commercial success, but one that would complicate their vision enormously. In 2004, Harmonix and Sony released EyeToy: Antigrav, a hoverboard action game that made pioneering use of motion control but which critics regarded as little more than a novelty. In the founders' minds, this had dire implications. For almost a decade, they'd been trying to bring interactive music experiences to people, and every time they'd failed or achieved only modest progress. The one time they strayed from their company mission and made a piece of non-musical software, it had turned out to be a cash cow. So, what now? The evidence hinted that continuing to navigate by the stars of the rhythm game industry would result in, at best, barely commercially viable games that would never reach that wide an audience. But down the other path lay games that would betray their core mission and bore critics. Quoting Rigopulos in CNN Money:
"We got really gloomy. We started to wonder if everything we were trying to do was just a fool's errand. When it came to making music games, we couldn't make any money or even a return for our investors. We were paying the bills, but to go on with the business would have been a departure from the founding premise of the company. It would have been an emotionally and psychologically crushing defeat".
But their darkest night came before their brightest day. While Konami had no idea they'd done it, they had set off a chain reaction which helped Harmonix become a godly force in western rhythm games. Konami had developed and published Dance Dance Revolution, and North Californian peripheral manufacturer RedOctane got their start developing third-party dance mats for it. However, RedOctane eventually realised that their operation could be wiped out in one fell swoop if Konami stopped selling in North America, and so, they entered the publishing business.
Harmonix often gets the credit for creating Guitar Hero, but it was RedOctane that approached them with the concept of a game aping GuitarFreaks for players in Europe and the states. They wanted to ferry a title in the image of Konami's guitar simulator to the west, the same way they'd helped bring over DDR, but Harmonix was initially sceptical of their pitch. RedOctane was a company with modest resources who were proposing taking on an expensive, high volume manufacturing effort, and the developer wasn't sure people were clamouring for a rock soundtrack in the mid-00s. Remember, one of the reasons Frequency and Amplitude failed to capture mainstream attention was that their music selections were too obscure, and one of the reasons Karaoke Revolution did better was that it was full of pop tracks. So, it's logical that a game where players would be headbanging to Deep Purple and Judas Priest might have felt like a step in the wrong direction in that day and age.
Whatever doubts may have crossed their mind, Harmonix agreed. RedOctane needed someone who knew software; Harmonix needed someone who knew hardware, not to mention a publisher; it was a perfect match. This time Harmonix wouldn't just be escorting Japanese rhythm trends westward, they'd do it while finding an application for the note highway. Guitar Hero provided the exciting input task that Frequency and Amplitude lacked: when a note reached the live zone of the track, the player would hold down a fret button and strum their guitar which was miles more stimulating than just pressing Triangle. Or, looked at from the other end, the note highway took the tactile satisfaction of Konami's rhythm games and paired it with a far more readable board. It also helps that the notes in Guitar Hero were chunkier, and therefore more perceptible, than those in GuitarFreaks.
I'd even say that Guitar Hero was more effective than Karaoke Revolution at realising Harmonix's mission statement. While Karaoke Revolution provided a compelling way for people to interface with the music they loved, everyone had sung along to a song before, even if they couldn't see the pitch visualised in front of them or weren't scored on it. But there wasn't any analogue for imitating the guitar parts of the songs we listened to; not unless you were one of the microscopic circle of westerners who discovered GuitarFreaks. Guitar Hero was a scintillating new way to interface with music, and a powerful demonstration of the wholly original interactions rhythm games enable.
The tactile experiences we have with games are determined in no small part by our controller. With the number of different ways you could design a controller, there are potentially more ways we could talk with video games than we could experience in our lifetime, but for reasons including practical design and cost, we get one controller per console (generally speaking). It's not an approach that we favour in software; successful designers tailor the mechanics of their games to suit the circumstances and imagine if they could do the same thing with the input hardware. Many rhythm games offer the rare chance to play a title where not only do you get bespoke software designed for a specific game experience, but you get bespoke hardware towards the same end. Basic inputs that would be unremarkable in another title become part of the fun in rhythm games, usually through physical exertion and roleplay, as we get to tap a touch-sensitive pad like a dancer or hit a fret button like a guitarist. And where Karaoke Revolution let people pretend that they were hitting the high note as Diana Ross or Madonna, Guitar Hero and its peripherals enable you to live out your dream of firing off face-melting solos as Slash or Jimmy Page.
You'll also notice that conventional controllers have to keep all buttons roughly in reach of your fingers at all times, for the sake of not being a pain to operate, but rhythm game controllers often function on the principle of rudimentary input being challenging. Someone talented enough with the instrument can quickly press all buttons, but learning to perform those inputs with a split-second's notice is half the game. Guitar Hero takes this concept further than GuitarFreaks by giving us five fret buttons where GuitarFreaks used three. You have four fingers on a hand but five buttons, so, on higher difficulties, you must move your hand, or at least a finger, up and down the guitar as new notes come into view. Through this, Guitar Hero emulates a whole activity in guitar playing that GuitarFreaks could not: Changing your fingering as the song progresses.
Harmonix also does wonders for the presentation of the guitar game. GuitarFreaks looks like someone's Winamp plugin while Guitar Hero has been sprayed and stamped with a heavy metal authenticity. It's everywhere from the graffitied note highway to the metal album fonts to the industrial combo meter. And there's a sense of an actual person behind the music. GuitarFreaks showed its note stream next to a window with video in it while Guitar Hero has its note highway fading inward from an animation of our chosen character on stage, thrashing out the song. You're playing a track both on the fretboard where you're inputting the right notes and on stage where you're shredding in front of a baying crowd.
Harmonix developed this experience in just eight months with a puny budget of $1.7 million, but when it released for the PlayStation 2 in 2005, it became a household name overnight. It took the developer a decade and countless failed experiments, but they'd finally ended up on top of the music game pyramid, and they'd done it without having to abandon their mission of placing music in the hands of regular people. Yet, as strongly as we may associate the Harmonix name with Guitar Hero, the company only got in one mainline sequel to the game before the industry noose was back around their neck. In 2006, the year that RedOctane and Harmonix would wow fans with Guitar Hero II, RedOctane was bought up by Activision and the Guitar Hero IP went with them. Meanwhile, MTV Games, an underling of Viacom, purchased Harmonix. Harmonix was now adrift in the industry; their competition was the best game they'd ever been able to create, but now with the megabucks of one of the industry's most prolific publishers behind it. Plus, they would have to compete against that rhythm genre juggernaut without their hardware manufacturer. But wait, because it gets so much worse.
When you listen to the more recent interviews with Harmonix's head honchos, there doesn't seem to have ever been a question that Rock Band would be the next game they'd make. The idea existed long before development started, and they considered making a game that simulates a full band to be the natural evolution of Guitar Hero. You can also see how Rock Band iterates on the formula behind Konami's Bemani series. Bemani was a line of instrument games that included play on vocals, guitar, and drums. Harmonix also wanted to cover all elements of the rock instrument pantheon, but unlike Konami, they were going to do it under the roof of a single game which is a hell of a task to set yourself.
With Guitar Hero, Harmonix only had to worry about the mechanics and note charts for one instrument (or two if you count bass), but Rock Band was going to drastically increase their workload by adding vocals and drums to the party, and Harmonix had never made a drum game. Additionally, they would have to manufacture both of those instruments despite never having made peripherals before, and they would have to make back the cost of all those peripherals at sale. On both the software and hardware end, they also couldn't play it too close to earlier blueprints; this was a new series, and they had to design the game and hardware from the ground up. And while Rock Band was an unknown property that a studio was building from scratch, Guitar Hero had the leg up of being an established brand, and a number of other advantages too.
Releasing in 2007, Rock Band would be competing against Activision and Neversoft's Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. Both were the kind of high ticket Autumn items financially dependent on people picking them up for the holiday season, but Guitar Hero III was getting a one month head start on Rock Band. Then there was the pricing. Anyone who had bought a previous Guitar Hero could pick up III for the price of any other AAA game because they already owned the guitar, but Rock Band was a new game that required new controllers and asked for an excruciating £180/$170 for the game/instrument bundle. Even if someone was choosing between buying Guitar Hero or Rock Band for the first time, Guitar Hero would run them about $100 less, require shorter setup, and wouldn't take up half their living room. From Reuters back in 2007:
"Game industry analysts almost uniformly predict that “Guitar Hero” will sell more copies [than Rock Band] as a result of its earlier release date and established franchise as well as its lower price (about $70; “Rock Band” costs $170) and broader availability".
When Harmonix's hardware team in China finally delivered a prototype of the Rock Band guitar to their HQ, the manufacturers were shocked to find that players would be pressing quickly and forcefully on the guitar and had not built its strum bar to endure such rigorous use. Clearly, they needed to make some big changes. Meanwhile, the folks in charge of content at Harmonix had their own problems. They would need to be pickier in their song selection for Rock Band than they were for Guitar Hero because, while you can sight read a song in Guitar Hero, Rock Band has a vocal component where players need to know songs beforehand to be able to sing along with them. As Rock Band was built to be a group experience, the studio also had to pick songs which would work well when performed alongside other players.
Expectations were high for the game after it debuted to much applause at EA's E3 press conference in 2007. It was EA doing the hosting because it would be EA distributing the game and its peripherals. The stage demo notably included a moment in which then EA Sports head Peter Moore, providing the guitar for The Hives' Main Offender, accidentally paused the game. As Rock Band approached its judgement day, EA told Harmonix that the game had more bugs in it than they'd seen in any game in late-stage development; the publisher was adamant that the developer would have to delay it. Additionally, Harmonix's content distribution model wherein players would be able to buy individual songs for their soundtrack was not something that the Xbox or PlayStation online stores could support. In the words of Egozy:
"At any moment in time, we were sort of like this close to catastrophic failure".
To get Rock Band out of the door, Harmonix's developers crunched hard, and their factories in China pumped out three million hardware bundles in the space of two months. Depending on which staff member you listen to, at the height of production, there were either 10,000 or 12,000 labourers building instruments during sixty-hour work weeks. I want to pause for a second here to acknowledge the trying work conditions that the people constructing these devices endured. It's hard enough for American software developers to secure basic worker's rights, but anyone walking a Chinese factory floor has even less chance of being treated compassionately by the western electronics companies which rely on their labour.
Moving back to Harmonix's legacy, I think that most people, if presented with the first couple of acts of this story, wouldn't guess that it ends with Rock Band being one of the most successful and acclaimed western rhythm games ever released. That Harmonix broke beyond their limitations is highly impressive. A combination of improving on Guitar Hero's ideas, a killer licensed soundtrack, and a penchant for unifying players made Rock Band 1 explode in popularity and stand as one of the most influential rhythm games ever released. It probably also helped that Harmonix had hoovered up a lot of employees who were in bands or had been in the past. The development of the game may have been hot with risk, but they probably had to take that risk to have a chance of holding their own against Guitar Hero. Yet, as much as I want to celebrate all the adversity Harmonix overcame to get to this point; it's not hard to simultaneously see their journey as a dispiriting story.
Harmonix had a commendable vision, not just wanting to make games that people would find fun, but going past that and trying to lend people the opportunity to create music and connect them with some of the most talented musicians who've ever lived. But more often than not they found themselves unable to realise that vision. Some of that barrier between Harmonix and their target audience was down to flawed premises in projects such as with The Axe or their karaoke plans, but even when they made the right choices as a developer, they were still often punished for them. Games like Amplitude and Guitar Hero were beaten back primarily by low marketability and competitive acquisitions, respectively, not because of anything that went wrong in the craft of these titles or because players familiar with the games didn't want them. And sure, Harmonix got their big break with Rock Band 1, but you might be surprised by how little long-term security that lent them.
We have this idea that all industries have built-in filtration mechanisms which ensure that the cream rises to the top while the dregs are sifted out. The theory goes that companies put their products and services onto the market, and if there's been no widespread adoption of them by the time they're a few items in, then it's proof that those companies have nothing to offer. They won't make a profit and will have to drop out of the industry, and so, resources are freed up for people who would make something of worth with them. If, on the other hand, the company can develop something consumers desire, then after a few years, they'll start posting a profit and remain part of the economy. But a history like Harmonix's highlights how naive this view is.
Harmonix didn't make a proper game until they'd be open for six years and they didn't make anything all that successful until they'd been in operation for almost a decade. By the time they got around to creating a work of entertainment that fulfilled their vision, they'd been open ten years. Harmonix is the kind of company that most of us would have written off in its early days; labelled as a derelict with no treasures to offer, but that couldn't have been further from the truth. And now I wonder about all the other companies which made a few mediocre to passable games and then went out of business. It feels all too possible that the industry is full of Harmonixes which didn't ever get to reach their full potential. Maybe we're just lucky this one did. Thanks for reading.
Note: The following article contains major spoilers for the Black Mirror game Bandersnatch, some spoilers for other Black Mirror episodes, some discussion of mental illness, and brief mentions of domestic violence.
Too much of the criticism of Black Mirror's Bandersnatch has been from people who appear somewhat perplexed by the whole experiment, and I think those reactions have arisen from many critics and audience members who have their expertise in TV now straining to assess a video game. You have commentators acting like Black Mirror just invented the concept of forking interactive fiction even when this story is about the adaptation of a choose-your-own-adventure book from the 80s. You have people explaining why branching narratives can never be affecting when Telltale proved the opposite back in 2012, and you have armchair pundits speaking about Bandersnatch as if it's the first piece of media to comment on choice-driven stories when the original Stanley Parable released in 2011.
We must appreciate that Bandersnatch is many peoples' first time shaking hands with a piece of media that asks them to map out the channels and tributaries of a plot in motion. Frankly, it's something to celebrate. The most influential legacy of the game will probably be that it was a branching narrative title situated on a mainstream media platform. It's comparable to a work of modern art in a town square; it's not likely to be the piece that's going to demolish the boundaries of the medium, but it does let the average person get in touch with the art form. That being said, it is frustrating to see those people in that public square jumping to conclusions about the whole medium based on an example or two, or arrogantly trying to deliver some final word on the form before reading the first word. This isn't me saying that I have all the answers on interactive fiction, but it is me saying that before people speak on the pivots and twists of story-centric video games, they should read what other hard-working critics have written about them over the years.
Of course, some would argue that Black Mirror, as a show, has nothing of worth to offer anyone, but there are thoughtful criticisms of the series' unfiltered techno-cynicism, and then there are reductions of it to a braindead "Phones make people into zombies" rhetoric. Whatever you want to say about Black Mirror, its points are more specific and varied than that. Every episode has a moral, and it's rare that it repeats the same moral twice. Fifteen Million Merits opines that in a world of commodities, even rebellion against that economic order will be commoditised; White Bear suggests that even if a criminal has committed a revolting transgression, that torture of them is still immoral; and Men Against Fire speculates that the future of military technology is in psychologically controlling our troops as much as it is working out how to kill the enemy. In fact, I don't think Bandersnatch's problem is that its commentary is vapid or uninspired; it's the opposite: That there's a lot of different observations pinging off the walls of the game, but very few of them combine to make an overall "point".
Like an idiot, I will now attempt to summarise a branching plot game with at least fourteen endings. If you feel you have a thorough understanding of Bandersnatch, scroll down to the "Subtext" section. Bandersnatch centres on Stefan Butler, a reclusive but keen young man who wants to adapt the choose-your-own-adventure book Bandersnatch into a video game, the likes of which has never been seen before. We can choose whether he does this at home or at the flourishing game studio Tuckersoft, working alongside his hero Colin Ritman. If Stefan does buckle down at Tuckersoft, he finishes the game promptly, but his vision dwarfs what the technology of the era is capable of, and his game fails to achieve critical success. But, as with all endings in this game, the player can rewind from it to make different choices. The characters seem to covertly acknowledge this mechanic, with Colin telling Stefan "wrong choice" when he decides to work for Tuckersoft, our protagonist being able to predict events early in the game if the player loops over, and a TV reviewer saying that Stefan "has to try again" if his game fails to impress.
If we go back and make Stefan program the game at home, he becomes isolated, his development hitches, and he enters a state of mental deterioration. He visits his therapist, Dr. Haynes, to whom he explains that the impulse to say "No" to Tuckersoft came out of nowhere and that he feels like someone is watching him. We can also decide whether Stefan discusses his mother with Haynes. If he does, we learn that one day when Stefan was a toddler, his father hid his beloved plush rabbit, believing it was too childish for him. The next day, Stefan was due to take a train journey with his mother but held her up by looking for the rabbit. She ended up taking a later train and taking it without Stefan; it derailed, killing her, a tragedy for which Stefan now feels responsible. Haynes tells him that his guilt is irrational and that the past is immutable; it's something we have to accept.
Stefan works at home for a while longer but becomes frustrated as Bandersnatch glitches and fractures. At this fork, we may have him throw coffee over his computer, spoiling his work and ending the game, or we may have him yell at his father, causing his Dad to take Stefan back to Haynes. Outside her office, Stefan spies Colin walking down the street, and we can have our protagonist run after him or carry on to his doctor. If Stefan follows Colin, then he tells him about the development hole he's fallen into, and Colin takes him back to his flat. His mentor doses him with LSD and uncorks a conspiratorial rant.
That rant includes the opinion that mirrors let you travel through time, and that the fabric of the universe, or at least, his and Stefan's universe, is a network of parallel timelines. There is, according to him, a source code for reality which determines what choices are available to people. In his paranoid fervour, Colin takes Stefan out onto the balcony and asks him which one of the two of them should jump. Obviously, us having Stefan jump will terminate the story and cause Tuckersoft to publish Bandersnatch in its unfinished state. Should we pick Colin to jump, Stefan wakes up in his Dad's car again, right outside his therapist's office. He tells the doctor that time is looping over and that someone else is making his choices for him. Haynes ups his medication, and if the player has avoided listening to Colin's lecture, Stefan can take the pills, leading him to publish an even worse version of Bandersnatch than if he'd created it in-studio. The critic says it looks as though he made it on autopilot. If Stefan did listen to Colin's ramblings, our only choice is how he destroys his pills. Off his medication, Stefan fails to deliver his code to the studio by his deadline because he attempts to add in a quest based around government black ops.
He then continues researching Jerome F. Davies, the author of Bandersnatch, finding that Davies' mind came apart at the seams as he tried to finish his book and that he developed the same beliefs about free will that Colin later did. Davies believed that his wife was spiking his drinks with a psychotropic drug and killed her, painting the walls of their home with a glyph of branching lines. As Stefan becomes paranoid about the TV relaying Jerome's beliefs and sees his game locking up again, we may choose for him to look at an old photo of his family together or to read a book on adventure game design called "Look Door, Get Key". The former skips the plot ahead, while the latter leads to him breaking into his Dad's safe, following the command in the textbook's title. What happens in the safe scene depends on what code we put into the vault's keypad.
One path involves Stefan taking his childhood plush from the office, going back in time, and placing it under his bed so that he will find as a child. His mother then asks him whether he will go on the train journey with her, and if we pick "Yes", Stefan also dies in the train accident. It's effectively a suicide by temporal displacement. We then cut to Haynes' office where it's revealed that everything we've seen since Stefan last left was in his head and that he has died in real-life after expiring in the flashback. Another of the paths involves Stefan discovering that he is a subject of a psychological experiment on trauma conducted by his ostensible father called P.A.C.S. Other endings to the safe scene include Davies or the fictional demon Pax attacking Stefan. At the end of the P.A.C.S., Davies, and Pax endings, Stefan wakes up.
After another failure to get the title screen of Bandersnatch to load, the interface asks us how we want Stefan to destroy his computer, but whatever we pick, he manages to resist the impulse to do so. Believing someone is watching him, our protagonist asks us to give him a sign that we're there.
If we didn't encounter the P.A.C.S. documents, then we may tell Stefan that he is a character in a piece of interactive fiction on Netflix. Stefan returns to Haynes to relay this and Haynes rationalises that if he was a puppet created for other peoples' entertainment, then he would be in more exciting circumstances. The scene forces us to raise the excitement level by having the encounter turn into a kung-fu fight scene between Stefan and Haynes. If we have Stefan fight her, his father drags him out of the facility as he yells, implying that he hit a harmless Haynes in a fit of delusion. If we have him try to jump out the window, he finds it glued shut, and the camera pulls back to show that he is an actor in a TV show who falsely believes he is the character himself.
If the player did encounter the P.A.C.S documents, then they may inform Stefan about the experiment. Stefan accuses his father of drugging him, recording him, and hiding messages on his computer. He then kills him and in a shaken state tries to call Haynes. One of the branches here leads Stefan to believe that Haynes was secretly communicating her phone number to him, but even if Stefan calls her, her receptionist tells him that the doctor is absent. Either way, he buries his father in the garden, next door's dog finds the body, and he goes to jail. From his cell, he watches a review of Bandersnatch which the critic regards as a malfunctioning novelty.
Whether or not Stefan discovered the P.A.C.S. documents, we may have his computer display Davies' branching glyph, prompting him to attack his father in the same way Davies butchered his wife. The game asks us to choose whether Stefan goes through with it or backs off, but attempting to stop him from killing his father only causes the UI to prompt us with the same choice again. Stefan then queries us over whether he should bury his father's body or chop it into pieces. If Stefan does the latter, he enters a creepily serene state in which he finishes Bandersnatch in a perfect condition and explains that he fixed the game by eradicating player choice. The authorities pulp Bandersnatch after they find out his dark secret, but in the modern day, the developer Pearl Ritman revives it as the Netflix game we're playing. The ending implies that some curse of the game brings her under the player's control.
If we tell Stefan to bury his father's body instead of dicing it, his boss at Tuckersoft, Mohan Thakur calls him up and asks him whether he will have the game finished by his new deadline. The branches of the game fan out here, but they all lead to someone finding out about Stefan killing his father. In many of the endings, Stefan also murders Thakur, Colin, or Colin's wife Kitty when they come to his house to investigate. He gets arrested, and Tuckersoft cancels Bandersnatch.
We have a natural prejudice to believe that because Bandersnatch writer Charlie Brooker made his name as a TV writer and critic, that any interactive narrative he'd design would have a claustrophobic possibility space and only a passing awareness of video games. Brooker bucks those expectations, creating an authentic story with a vast network of branches. Some angry commenters argue that all the endings are the same, but read back through that plot summary and tell me Bandersnatch doesn't have several unique termination points. Stefan publishing his game under Tuckersoft, him dying on the train with his Mum, him realising he's an actor in a TV show, him fighting his therapist believing he's an avatar on Netflix, him killing his Dad thinking he's part of P.A.C.S., etc. These are, in each case, original plot points.
Some endings do touch up narrative columns you may have seen before with smaller brushstrokes, but the argument that Brooker wrote a single conclusion for the events of the story holds no water. Despite coming from creators of TV shows, Bandersnatch's story is more divergent than that of many video games, but this is part of why the experience is inconsistent. That inconsistency exists not just in its plot but also its morals, and the two are inseparable. When a piece of media expresses an underlying message, it's almost always communicated through how the characters interact with each other and the world around them. For example, in The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the message that we shouldn't raise false alarms is expressed through the protagonist repeatedly doing that and the negative consequence for his actions. Remove those actions or remove the punishment he receives and you remove the moral. If the townsfolk did help him when the real wolf arrived, the moral of the story would change to being that you can trick people into thinking there's danger as much as you like, and there will be no reprisals. Or, say the boy managed to scare off the wolf by himself; it's now a parable about how he never needed the help of other people to defend the sheep anyway.
In most interactive narratives, we can choose the actions of our character, but the reality they inhabit is concrete. Characters beyond the protagonist may act to change the course of the plot, but past events, other characters' actions, and the rules of the world are not open for the player to debate. An atypical aspect of Bandersnatch is that our choices can mould Stefan's reality. This is not necessarily because we have the power to shape his world's history and boundaries, but we do have the capability to reconfigure Stefan's perception of them.
When he approaches his father's safe, depending on the options we receive, we can choose whether the whole story since he left Haynes was in his head, or whether he progressed. Or we might be able to pick whether he's attacked in a dream by a demon or a developer. When he enters a paranoid fit and asks "Who's there?", we can decide whether he believes he's in a show on a streaming service, an experiment in childhood trauma, or branching realities where his destiny is to murder. Again, the options are dependent on which switches in the story we've flicked before that scene, but Stefan's window to reality is as volatile as his computer program. You'll notice that during his LSD trip, he presses his stares at the cover of Philip K. Dick's novel Ubik, another story which questions the existence of a singular or reliable reality. But when we can remix the world at a moment's notice, the concepts of stakes, set-up, and payoff start to melt away.
This remodelling of the story also leads to thematic changes similar to those we saw in our Boy Who Cried Wolf example. Bandersnatch starts as self-aware stroll through the simulated development of an 80s adventure game, but once we've discovered that we can reset time and we hear Haynes tell Stefan that he can't change the past, the narrative is reframed as an exploration of what we might do if we could go back in time to erase our mistakes. Then, if we hear Colin's paranoid conspiracy theories, Bandersnatch appears to confront us as an expression of the horrors of determinism or a description of multiverse theory through the medium of choice-based adventure. In the second session with Haynes, it appears that Brooker is talking to the way that player agency may invalidate character agency. He also draws our attention to the necessity of the fourth wall. Main characters in games are frequently empowered and actualised through the agency the player lends them, but if they knew that they were just a peripheral for the player to act through, their sense of self and agency would be radically diminished, as it is for Stefan.
While Stefan would seem to be doomed to this ludic slavery, we can have him take the higher dosage of pills that Haynes has given him, and it works to cure him. The fact that he stopped believing the user was controlling him after taking anti-psychotics and that the game ends there strongly suggests that the player control was all in his head, and if there was no diegetic player manipulation, then this can't be a story about it. Any of the effects and consequences we would have previously attributed to player agency or the multiverse, we must now attribute to Stefan's illness. Him dying on the train is complicated enough that I'm not going to touch the subtext of it, but feel free to fill in your interpretations on your worksheets.
If we get down to the hand-to-combat with Stefan's therapist, then there's some commentary in there about the emptiness and inconsistency inherent in media giving into audiences' most immediate impulses. Although, the ending in which Stefan is dragged out of her office suggests that the plot events reinforcing that idea didn't happen, meaning that we have to discard ideas about Netflix and alternate realities. The path on which Stefan kills his father for making him the subject of P.A.C.S. also hints at him being detached from reality; his father genuinely doesn't seem to understand what Stefan is talking about when he brings up the study, and the boy barely gives him a chance to respond before killing him. The endings in which we show Stefan the branching path symbol, and he imitates Davies' crimes, suggest a danger in idolising toxic heroes and depict the most extreme adverse effects that media can have on us. The endgame of this path is engraved with a straightforward "murderers never prosper" motto.
There's a lot of prose out there which achieves depth by exploring many different concepts at once, but that's not what Bandersnatch is doing. Instead, what we see here is a narrative in which the driving ideas are ephemeral and discardable. As the themes and point of the story can change every ten minutes, that story appears to us like chunks of a lot of different scripts glued together instead of one continuous script. It's, to some degree, intentional, as the game has us hopping across Colin's multiversal branches, but at a point, you feel like Bandersnatch should decide whether it wants to explore topics or just disorient because it can't do both at the same time.
There's a lot of hasty online invective right now talking about how Bandersnatch is irrefutable proof that player choice ruins narrative, but there are games similar to this one that have managed to handle the pressure of player input with more poise. The Stanley Parable shows a better delivery vector for the kind of messaging that Bandersnatch is trying to put across, even if the two games' philosophical commentary only partially overlaps. The Stanley Parable has many branches with many lessons to teach, but it more or less ensures that once you've committed to one branch, the remaining narrative will be dedicated to a single idea. It's also rare to catch that game making a point that it then goes back on or trying to fuse so many comments into one of its branches that neither the player nor the writer can examine them at length.
However, the narrative flowchart that makes up Bandersnatch is generally more complicated than that of The Stanley Parable. Plus, it has a lot of side sections full of commentary that then slot back into the main path, and there are interpretations of the story which tell you that even when you reset from a side path, the events from it still happened; this is what Colin and Stefan believe. All these plot lines with contradicting concepts about the characters and universe feed into each other, and they begin to invalidate each other, reducing the plot to a confusing, unfocused sludge.
You can conceive of a player having a relatively short session of Bandersnatch which produces a non-contradictory narrative with clear messaging. However, most players are going to take a winding path through the story with detours which give them a whole lot more context and subtext that they're going to apply to everything past then. Bandersnatch's problem, far from lacking divergence, is that its B-roads and cul de sacs are so divergent that they resist merging into a singular work. The kung-fu ending is correct that bowing to whatever spontaneous whims the player may have for the story at any one time leads to a jarring and nonsensical narrative, but in this narrative, the changing of commentary and world rules happens just as spontaneously to suit the writer's whims.
Now, just because the game can't commit to all of the ideas it entertains, that doesn't mean that it can't commit to some of them. Remember those players complaining that the endings were too homogenous? The playthroughs they describe have something in common. Some players just haven't explored the timeline that methodically, but others kept banging away at menu options until they crash-landed at the bottom of the Glyph Branch and just kept running into the same few flavours of "You killed your Dad, you are arrested for murder" until they got bored. When we analyse an interactive medium, we have to look at not just the events that unfold out of our control, as we would with non-interactive media; we also have to break down what kinds of interactions the work invites.
There is one concept that I described earlier that the game does hold tight to from beginning to end. The development of the in-game Bandersnatch might seem like nothing more than a yardarm from which to hang Stefan's loss of control and psychological breakdown, but the game goes to great lengths to show how the conditions he develops the title under affect the product. In fact, almost all endings tell us the state of Bandersnatch at the close of the story, complete with a review score, and sometimes it turns out better than others, inviting us to use it as a measuring stick by which to gauge how "good" our ending was. We're not forced to do that; we can also decide that our character's health and wellbeing matter more. However, it's common for players to look for quantitative metrics of success, and to seek out perfection; to ask "What if I just did it a little differently next time?". Bandersnatch's audience is explicitly encouraged to think this way by Colin and Stefan's nudges to circle back around to the front of the ride on the first failure or two. Of course, if you go as far as killing your father in trying to develop that game, you probably now feel like you're in too deep to back out and must frantically find some mythical means to get away with murder.
There's nothing atypical about the end state of his game if you choose to work at Tuckersoft. Its designer has this highly ambitious vision that needs to be ruthlessly scaled back because of the realities of development. He wants as many branching paths in his game as this doorstop of a choose-your-own-adventure book has, but Thakur explains why it's not possible: He only has 48 KB of memory to work in. The ending in which Stefan receives a 5/5 review for the game seems implausible and possibly part of a delusional post-murder fantasy because there's no way you would have fit a whole Middle Earth on a ROM cart in 1984. If he works in-house at Tuckersoft, he can put out a disappointing, pint-sized adaptation of Bandersnatch, but most peoples' first games aren't going to set the world on fire. We, like he, are likely to decide that we're not content with this, and so we have him develop the title at home, away from the support of Tuckersoft, which turns out to be a much worse idea.
Working from home can be isolating, and newer developers may underestimate the degree of support that they can get from being in proximity to a team of creators and having a publisher close at hand. Stefan is living in a pre-internet era, so when he locks himself in his bedroom, he is completely alone. Cut off from industry support and human contact, he drives himself mad trying to produce a game that can even boot. For whatever damage it may do to a consistent sense of character, plot, and theming, this is where the looping narrative comes into its own. After seeing scenes so many times over and watching the story be framed in so many different contexts, the sense of an order of events or a concrete reality vanishes, and this effect is only as potent as it is because of the interactivity of Bandersnatch.
Now, we as players are entering Stefan's mindset of dissociation. Dissociation is a psychological response to trauma and stress; the mind disconnects from reality as the emotional pressure of it pushes the sufferer to breaking point. It should come as no great shock that Stefan is at risk from this symptom; the game starts as he is approaching the traumatic anniversary of his mother's death, and if we have him develop Bandersnatch at home, then his job and the working conditions we've chosen for him are going to cause him to boil over with anxiety. The game also finds a way to implant the same delusions in us that it has in Stefan. You wouldn't have much luck convincing most mentally healthy people that an unseen gamer controls their decisions or that mirrors enable you to go back in time, but we are willing to entertain this breed of ideas in fiction. So it's easy for us to believe, like Stefan, that he is part of a predetermined reality where an invisible audience is monitoring and controlling his thoughts and actions.
Note that severe and bizarre delusions often involve the subject believing they have access to some privileged stream of information. Truths about the universe have been revealed to them by aliens or the voice of god or messages from the television. There's a reason that no one else can "know" what they "know". We also think we have privileged streams of information playing Bandersnatch through the previous timelines and self-aware references the game makes. We're taught to look for self-referential content early on as the game proudly gestures towards previous Black Mirror episodes like Metalhead and Nosedive. Like someone plagued by delusions, we begin to believe we're receiving secret messages from Colin or Jerome Davies and we twist tidbits of conversation to fit our model of the world. When our colleague said "wrong choice", he didn't mean that we were making a bad professional decision, he was telling us to go back in time and take the other branch of the time stream. When we learn about the demon Pax, that's not a character in a book, that's referring to the psychological study that our Dad has been conducting on us since birth. And only we can know these things because we can see the world from an outside perspective and loop our choices over. Of course, if you believed these things or said them to anyone in the real world, you'd be paranoid and quite possibly sick; you'd be like Stefan.
In Stefan's mind, he needs to be able to turn back time. He blames himself for his mother's death, and he wants to be able to change the past. A cosmic monkey paw grants his wish only for him to find, like many fictional time travellers, that even if he could change the past, the complex overlapping factors of his history mean that he'd likely make things worse. He's certainly not going to get anything productive done in his highly agitated state. Of course, we, like the protagonist, are given multiple chances to put a stop to the unravelling of his mind. We get two chances to destroy his computer, we can choose to visit the therapist and have him take his pills, or we can just stop playing, but we, like Stefan, may become fixated on changing the past and perfecting Bandersnatch, or eventually, just getting out of trouble. Even when the tools at our disposal are shown to be ruinous and toxic, we can't walk away. This protagonist's sickness and isolation fuel his obsession with the game and his conspiracy theories, and as he focuses more on the game and those delusions, his sickness and isolation only inflame further. The only "good" choice is to break the cycle. Else, you become like those people who are convinced the endings are all the same because they followed the flowchart all the way down to the bottom and trapped themselves in an endless loop of murdering their Dad and being arrested for it. What these players perceived as the inevitable product of the narrative was a product of their iterative, perfectionist approach to the game.
Bandersnatch is, on the whole, emotion over thought, and that means it's not as deep as some Black Mirror episodes, but it does make it an unparalleled simulation of delusion and disassociation. It's also surprisingly brave for a game introducing the concept of branching narratives to many members of the public for the first time to not simply reward their interaction with those branches. This game could have been a proof-of-concept; a program that showed the potential balance of agency and cohesion possible in interactive narratives and that showcased them as a platform for empowerment fantasies. It's in classic Black Mirror fashion that Bandersnatch does the opposite. It is a game where the obsession with control and choice is shown to be a blight on your life and where some fantasies are shown to be nothing more than self-destructive illness. Thanks for reading.
My whole life, I've loved zoos; they're places that let you bask in the seemingly limitless colour and variety of the animal kingdom. There are almost no environments on Earth which are inhospitable, and evolution has ingenious means for adapting organisms to both extreme and forgiving biomes. Zoos not only let us peek in on those organisms but also break down the barriers between those environments. You can be standing by a rock pool watching penguins squawk and swim, walk a short distance and see zebra grazing on the plains, and then, a few minutes later, witness chimpanzees swinging from the treetops. 2001's Zoo Tycoon provides the fantasy of constructing that pageant of flora and fauna for other people.
What's impressive about Zoo Tycoon is not just the splash it made in the business management genre, but also that it was able to make such waves when it was the first project undertaken by developer Blue Fang Games. Although, you've no doubt recognised that the concepts that would eventually converge in Zoo Tycoon were being fleshed out by the industry long before 2001. In fact, there have been so many fingers in the business sim pie that tracing back the influences and history behind Zoo Tycoon is no mean feat. Just based on their titles, release dates, and pitches, we might conclude that Zoo Tycoon was springboarding off of the success of Chris Sawyer's Rollercoaster Tycoon from 1999, and it was, but that game took lessons from Bullfrog's 1994 simulator, Theme Park.
Rollercoaster Tycoon was also a continuation of the style Sawyer had established with his 1994 sim Transport Tycoon which probably wouldn't exist if MicroProse had not released Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon in 1990. Railroad Tycoon likely wouldn't have hit PCs in its final form if it weren't for co-designer Bruce Shelley also having worked on the beloved 1986 board game 1830: The Game of Railroads and Robber Barons, created by Avalon Hill. It was also inspired by 1989's SimCity from Maxis which grew out of the map editor from Brøderbund's Raid on Bungeling Bay, released in 1984. Will Wright, the designer of SimCity, took inspiration from the 1965 short story by Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad, and from the theory of systems dynamics which was developed throughout the 90s and late 80s by systems scientist Jay Wright Forrester.
Zoo Tycoon was also not the first zoo management game. As best I can tell, that was 1993's DinoPark Tycoon from Manley & Associates. You'd think DinoPark Tycoon was inspired by Spielberg's film adaptation of the 1990 Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park, but considering that it came out the same year as the film, it's possible that this game was taking cues directly from the Crichton book or even that its premise was unrelated to both. You could also unearth some light ecosystem management elements in Maxis's SimPark in 1996 and SimSafari in 1998, as well as Viridis Corporation's Eco East Africa in 1995. My point is that with such a rich taxonomy behind it, Zoo Tycoon wasn't groundbreaking, it was just another iteration in an evolutionary line that had existed for years. However, in some senses, this makes its success even more impressive. When there was a whole ecosystem of management strategy games out there, Blue Fang's brainchild still managed to make a name for itself, and that happened because of the game's tight feedback loops, the way its settings characterised its animals, and because it let us get so deep into the particulars of building parks. There's a lot of material in Zoo Tycoon's gene pool which got it to that point, but if we want to keep it manageable, we can view it as a synthesis of theme park games like Rollercoaster Tycoon and the earlier zoo sim DinoPark Tycoon.
From DinoPark Tycoon it takes the capacity for audiences to add animals, fence types, and terrain to zoos, as well as the task of organising the finances and staff surrounding the attractions. But DinoPark Tycoon didn't allow for freeform building and only gave players pre-drawn enclosure spaces which they could wrap up in a handful of skins. The experience also frequently required players to cut away to other menus to maintain the park, making the pacing of the game choppy. It was sims like Rollercoaster Tycoon which introduced the concept of the player deciding where the paths and attractions in the park should be situated and which allowed us to manage them under a single UI, allowing for more seamless interaction. Zoo Tycoon takes the immersive elements and breadth of customisation we saw in Rollercoaster Tycoon and its ilk and applies it to the subject matter and some of the base mechanics in DinoPark Tycoon.
In Zoo Tycoon, as in most financial management games, we affect the world primarily through the placement of objects. This means we care for animals mostly through installing environmental features in their enclosures as opposed to micromanaging their diet as we do in DinoPark Tycoon or getting hands-on with them as in Nintendogs. Because the game places such a weight on building out the animals' homes, the difference between a mediocre zoo and an award-winning one is often how suitable the enclosures are for their occupants. It's that we get to design those exhibits instead of just plonking down prefab attractions which makes Zoo Tycoon stand head and shoulders above so many of its peers. In 1994's Theme Park, you can place down teacup rides or bouncy castles, but every one of them is identical; for the most part, your rides look the same as the rides in your friends' games. In Zoo Tycoon, the shape of the pen, every square of the internal terrain, the number and names of the animals in the enclosures, and the trees and rocks in the habitats are all down to the person holding the mouse. This wasn't an entirely foreign concept: Rollercoaster Tycoon and Theme Park did let you lay custom paths for rollercoaster tracks, but Zoo Tycoon was an amusement park game where two parks could look different in a way that hadn't been possible in the sims before it.
Part of what we're looking for when we pick up one of these object-placement simulators is a model-building kit. In Railroad Tycoon, we're making a model railway, and in Cities Skylines, we're building a model city, but we're doing it without needing the expertise and resources that constructing actual models requires. Developers can also simulate more moving parts in video games than you'd get with real-world miniatures, although it varies a little by the theme of the game. For example, there are moving trains in Railroad Tycoon, but you can also buy miniature electromechanical trains to set up in your home. With a game like Rollercoaster Tycoon, its rollercoasters do have equivalents in real-world miniatures, but they're not widely available, and you're not going to be able to simulate a park of fully-animated guests with the fidelity that a video game can. As a virtual model-building kit, Zoo Tycoon excels because of how detailed your model can be, and when you can paint in more detail, you can start stamping on the many differences that turn a model into your model. Additionally, creating animals that animate as naturally as those in Zoo Tycoon would be impossible with real-world miniatures. On the game design side, while you may be able to place down decorative items like rocks and trees in other games, Zoo Tycoon gives you a mechanical reason to do so.
Most gameplay systems treat decorative items as functionally useless. They may be pleasant for the player to look at or help them to customise their world, but NPCs don't generally react to them. In Zoo Tycoon, these aesthetic objects are everything. They can make the human parkgoers a little happier, and vitally, they're what help animals to feel at home. By rewarding us for laying down habitats that animals will respond positively to, the design pushes us to build an environment that's pretty and appropriate to the animals we're exhibiting. Like many classic games of its stripe, Zoo Tycoon comes down at the sweet spot between using constructive tools to give us creative freedom and using mechanics to provide a guiding hand in that creation.
Over time, those mechanics give you the odd sense that the guests and the animals in these zoos are not all that different, precisely because we're placing down objects to keep both of them satisfied, and in the case of the parkgoers, to keep them opening their wallets. And there is a lot of overlap between the needs of the guests and the needs of the animals; for example, they both need us to supply them with food, and both respond to the aesthetics of their environment. We might view the guests as somehow above the animals because they're people like us, but under the mechanics, both humans and animals are part of a carefully-controlled system used to elevate their mood and leverage them for profit. On which note, as your zoo is a business venture, it's possible to play this game in a style where you care about guest happiness or your income above all else, and therefore, commoditise your animals, but Zoo Tycoon also suggests that zoos bring out an unusual economic symbiosis between humans and animals. Guests pay to see the fauna, and that income is then reinvested to purchase more animals and keep existing residents of the zoo relaxed and comfortable, which makes guests happier, which means more spending, and so on.
Zoo Tycoon can sometimes be a little cold in its reduction of animals to monetary investments and its generating of creatures with algorithmic names like "Giraffe 4", but unlike management games more focused on formal systems, it gives you no brownie points for lining your pockets at the expense of anyone's happiness, human or not. The guests empathise with the animals and will storm out if they find you're mistreating them, and the inter-reliance between guest happiness, animal happiness, and revenue means that neglecting your animals creates a net negative and that pure profiteers don't get ahead. Although, while such a system does encourage the player to nurture customers and animals, it's arguable that it also miseducates them about how much unethical behaviour a zoo can get away with. In this fiction, guests can read the mood of animals on-sight and are always outraged to find those animals are miserable. Additionally, animal suppliers will always meet your sustained mistreatment of animals with an embargo until you return your zoo to an acceptable state. But in the real world, it's sometimes the case that zoo patrons don't know or don't care about such mistreatment or that there is no inspection body limiting cruel zoos from obtaining animals. There are plenty ofdocumentedinstances of zoos holding animals in abhorrent conditions without having to shut down. Just a heads up, you may find the content behind those links distressing.
Under other circumstances, I also might accuse Zoo Tycoon of being reductionist about its characters' psychology, but it has a decent excuse. The central characters in this game are the animals, and their wellbeing is reduced to their fullness, their health, and whether or not they feel at home. While other games in this genre often apply this limited palette of emotions to humans and end up with portraits of people that are too rudimentary to be believable or fully empathetic, it works for these more emotionally simplistic creatures. It's also true that the humans in the game base their happiness on just a few uncomplicated factors; however, the game doesn't have to model every aspect of your visitors' lives, it just needs to emulate the elements of them that are relevant to their experience as zoogoers.
But at a certain point, the lines that provide you feedback on your animals and patrons go dead, interrupting your emotional connection with them. For example, picturesque scenery is something the guests' value, but no meter tells you how agreeable they find your zoo's appearance which also means you have to make educated guesses about how well you've beautified the environment. Similarly, trying to get to a 100% happiness rating on an animal is an agitating process. Zookeepers will recommend specific changes to enclosures up until an animal has a happiness rating of roughly 90%. After that, there are plenty of actions you can take to make those exhibits more comfortable for their occupants, but it becomes a guessing game of working out how many rocks or pieces of foliage they want or what percentage of their enclosure should be which terrain type. The game accuses you of being an imperfect manager when really, it's taking away the management tools which put you inside peoples' and animals' heads.
The first expansion to Zoo Tycoon, Dinosaur Digs, released in 2002. While its dinosaurs are functionally regular animals with more 0s on their price tags, that's perfect for anyone who built a highly lucrative park in the original experience and then had nowhere to put their hundreds of thousands of spare dollars. Games often have to make the items in their expansion packs more expensive as they are targeted at players who've gotten beyond the vanilla experience's endgame, but expansions frequently struggle to provide explanations for why the items in them are more expensive than those in the base catalogues. Dinosaur Digs gets it right; it's believable that raising these ancient lizards from the dead and keeping them alive would drastically increase expenditure.
It's the same thing that happened in Jurassic Park, and the inspiration from that film is highly evident here. Not just in this expansion's premise of a dinosaur zoo, but also in the set decoration that includes the flaming torches and electric fences from Spielberg's mythical island, as well as the frequent reminders that the reversal of the dinosaurs' extinction is a product of radical scientific breakthroughs. You don't take care of these beasts with zookeepers; you assign scientists to them who come complete with the compulsory lab coat and clipboard. There's even a whole research track just for unlocking new forms of care for the t-rex. This research path, the t-rex's exceptionally high price, and the animal's unparalleled aggression make sure that, as in Jurassic Park, it's presented as the headline act. This does come with the disadvantage of the endgame taking you by the hand and leading you back to the same animal every time, whereas the base game put most animals on equal footing and gave you a variety of late-game purchases you could make. On the other hand, it makes the t-rex as imposing in the mechanics as it is physically.
Another commonality between Jurassic Park and Dinosaur Digs is that both pieces of media build towards a couple of key moments: The hatching of the dinosaur egg and the calamitous breakout. All dinosaurs in this add-on start life as eggs, making their true arrival not when you pick them out of the shop but when they crack out of their shell. That hatching becomes its own event which draws no small amount of attention. You'll also find that you need electric fences to contain these temperamental beasts; the expansion borrows a trick from the film by signalling the danger the dinosaurs pose through the locktight measures required to hold them. Before you've even added a dinosaur to their cage, the sparking iron bars of their exhibit walls let you know something ferocious is on its way.
Where Dinosaur Digs begins to deviate from Jurassic Park is that not everything on its manifest is a prehistoric lizard. The developers retain some of the bedrock game's commitment to broad representation of the animal kingdom through including not just one clade of extinct beings, but also sabre-toothed tigers, plesiosaurs, and plenty of other long-dead wonders. That you can successfully acquire all these prehistorical marvels and keep them captive also constitutes a philosophical disagreement between Dinosaur Digs and Jurassic Park. In the latter, it's only through self-serving hubris that the managers of the park believe that they can keep these monsters under lock and key, but in this expansion, it's not a fantasy, it's an attainable goal. What's more, while the breakouts in Jurassic Park constituted the deal knell of the zoo, in Dinosaur Digs, you can swiftly mitigate the effects of an allosaurus escape here, or a velociraptor running wild there. Have the rescue team capture the animal and repair the fence and your zoo's reputation will heal back up well in time for the next financial quarter. This expansion says a dinosaur gaining free reign of your pathways may sound scary, but what theme park hasn't had one or two customers eaten alive? It's a logical contrivance to an extent that you don't see in the vanilla game and what really stops me suspending my disbelief is the way that you have to combat against dinosaurs making a bid for freedom, in the first place.
Ideally, any weak fences on the prehistorical animal exhibits would be promptly patched up by a maintenance worker, but while you can assign a zookeeper to take care of specific enclosures, you can't do the same thing with the employees in charge of repair. You'll also find they won't automatically snap-to after realising an electrified fence has rusted and weakened; they'll complete any number of trivial jobs before mending worn-out fences on dinosaur exhibits. Expansion packs for games where we are reliant on AI cannot simply provide us new missions; they also have to ensure that their AI is smart enough to aid us in those missions, and our repair people in Zoo Tycoon are not. While they're distracted with shoring up the fence on your anteater exhibit, there might be a stegosaurus somewhere ready to bust through their corroded enclosure wall.
Consequently, you start looking for exploits that help you keep your dinosaurs contained for when your employees can't. One solution is to surround their cages with a moat, making these unusual high voltage castles. The logic is, if you can break these animals' pathing, you can thwart their escape attempts. But this is unsightly and slows down maintenance workers who have to now run inside of cages to bolster their failing walls. If you have the budget for it, a superior solution is to create two layers of fencing around your more fearsome beasts. Because the game world is made up of tiles, and you can place a fence piece on the edge of any tile, you can, for example, install a wall on the left edge of one square, and a wall on right edge of the square to the left of it, letting you stack two lines of fencing into the same space. As it's unlikely that both fence segments will degrade at the same time, it's improbable that a double-wrapped dinosaur will ever get an escape window.
It's a disappointment that these exploits are possible but even more so that they're necessary. Securing your dinosaurs takes you out of the headspace of a zoo director because you're no longer thinking about a world of concession stands, foliage, and ticket prices; you're thinking about one of conflicting AI and pathing. You're forced to speak to the game as a running program and not as a camera trained on a theme park. Yet, seen as a video game first, Dinosaur Digs is somewhat taking Zoo Tycoon back to its roots, converting it into a spiritual successor for DinoPark Tycoon.
Zoo Tycoon's second and final expansion, Marine Mania, released the same year as Dinosaur Digs, 2002. Unlike Dinosaur Digs which imagines the places a zoo might go with futuristic technology at its disposal, Marine Mania covers an area of present zoos that the experience previously overlooked: subaquatic animals. Think dolphins, whales, manta rays, etc. Even more than the previous expansion, this package is about content over mechanics. There's no equivalent of the dino rescue team or the eggs this time around, and every routine you go through to care for these ocean lifeforms is one you go through for the terrestrial animals with the additions that sometimes you need to set up deeper tanks or water filters. These tanks tend to blur together visually, all being medium blue voids, just with different plants and rocks at their beds. This graphical homogeneity wasn't a problem with the exhibits before this expansion.
However, even if most glass enclosures look like most other glass enclosures, they appear, oddly, as more alien than even the prehistoric exhibits. Your pens for mammals, dinosaurs, and birds at least have land and trees which isn't the case for the Marine Mania exhibits. Yet, as you can find in Dinosaur Digs, the mechanical similarity between these expansion animals and those in the base game leaves all your zoo's residents united under the banner of a basic set of natural desires. Everyone, from gorillas to triceratops to sea turtles needs food, shelter, and the right habitat. The marine animals' tanks also function as the first three-dimensional exhibits in the game, and as you can adjust the height of them, you see more variation in the elevation of your zoo.
Marine Mania and Dinosaur Digs both use their mechanics in service of generating one big, flashy event in the park. For Dinosaur Digs that was the potential dinosaur breakout with all its associated panic and carnage, but that expansion motivated players to ensure that they never witnessed its big spectacle. Marine Mania encourages you towards its showcase events: the aquatic shows. You can place show tanks right up against regular water exhibits, buy some seating, draft up a list of tricks, and periodically, your animals and marine specialists will put on a little theatre. It's a well-meaning but imperfect addition. The fence breaches in Dinosaur Digs were uncommon enough that when one happened, you were fixated, but the water shows in Marine Mania are designed to cycle around every few minutes, and when the same breaching and diving animations play out day after day, it's only compelling for so long. Having said that, the shows add a new dimension to your animals' relationship to your zoo. Guests will point and coo for any lion equally, but they'll treat the orca that can balance a ball on its nose as more of a curiosity than the orca that can't. And you no longer have to release animals into an enclosure and just let them go about their business; you can now direct some of their behaviours to a financial and aesthetic end.
The Zoo Tycoon expansions build new wings onto the base experience's zoo director roleplay instead of transforming it at its foundation. But for what it's worth, we can treasure each new animal the expansions add beyond them just being more entries in a spreadsheet. While expansions in other games often add objects, missions, and areas to for us to discard once we've consumed them, the animals of Zoo Tycoon retain a sentimental value that gear or maps from other games don't usually do. A lot of that is down to us being able to track these representations of animals back to creatures in the real world which have qualities of personhood that swords or combat units typically don't. And that's a big part of what makes Zoo Tycoon work: We tend to get more attached to living things than we do to inanimate objects or faceless employees. The game takes the long-running history of business sims and introduces to it these pets which blur the line between attraction and living organism, and which require that we build highly detailed environments to keep them happy. Those environments create a developed image of a natural place, and because no two of us are going to fill out settings in the same way, we all get unique parks that we have a sense of ownership over. This was, at the time, rare in the genre. Thanks for reading.
Note: The following article contains mild spoilers for all games mentioned.
Every year I publish a GotY piece which looks not at the best games that came out in the last twelve months, but at my favourite games that I played for the first time. The rationale? New games are expensive and older games deserve more love. Here are my top ten plays from 2018:
Agents of Mayhem
This entry is as much a surprise to me as anyone. You can compare Agents of Mayhem to Volition's previous work and find it doesn't have the affable cheekiness of Saint's or the wanton destruction of Crackdown, but allow it to stand as its own entity and you will see an ARPG that controls with grace and eschews the standard clutter of the genre. It has feather-light platforming, a moratorium on tedious micromanagement, and distinctly flavours its characters through imbuing them not just with unique stats but also unique firing models. Agents gives the FPS-RPG genre a shot in the arm at the moment when it's most sorely needed.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit
While the other Life is Strange games ride atop steadily advancing narratives, Captain Spirit isn't as much an evolving story as a character portrait. Its single location and ninety-minute runtime allow it to focus acutely on the fragile companionship between father Charles and son Chris. It remembers how, for an imaginative child, even a mundane home is a universe of possibilities, and it understands with disturbing clarity the duality of many alcoholics: friendly and supportive sober, belligerent and selfish a few cans in.
I loved Injustice 1 for its larger-than-life fighting game interpretation of DC Comics' most stylish characters. Matches oozed spectacle without losing the player agency in a stew of cinematics, and the game remained open to casual fans without its accessibility diluting its depth. Injustice 2 takes that original experience and appends to it extensive tutorials that demystify its play, and progression and equipment systems that multiply its longevity many times over. When playing fighting titles, I often hit a wall where I'm not sure how to squeeze more time out of them without surrendering myself to the unforgiving bloodbath of online play, but in Injustice 2, the multiverse and its sundry rewards keep me enthusiastically returning for battle after battle.
2018 was not a good year for retro video game content. Nintendo swung a wrecking ball through decades of interactive entertainment history with their legal action against various ROM archives and the PlayStation Classic ironically turned out not to include many of the beloved system's essential releases. It's not all bad news, however, because this year, we got Jazztronauts, a zany serving platter for the years of Garry's Mod user content stashed in the Steam Workshop. The old G-Mod community maps may be crude or even technically unstable in places, but in their wonkiness and rough edges there is an earnestness and charm, and without Jazztronauts' random map retriever and thin overlay of objectives, I might never otherwise have been able to connect with them. Also, the game stars a decadent cello-playing cat who will talk to you about Percy Shelley and Michelangelo, so there's that.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm
The original Life is Strange had a contagious empathy for the struggling teenagers at its heart. It didn't see the drama of their lives as the product of comical angst but of real emotion often stemming from family dysfunction, the death of loved ones, and uncertainty about the future. Before the Storm has the same outlook, and like its predecessor, plays intelligently with imagery and inspirations, and puts aside time for serene reflection on its events. However, where Dontnod's freshman entry into the series derailed itself with its surrealist and high concept ambitions, Before the Storm tells a more even and coherent tale. It also doesn't let its status as a prequel prevent it from hiding a few surprises up its sleeve. A game about fraught family ties and processing tragedy, we could do with a few more Before the Storms out there.
Something that real-world relationships and a lot of video games have in common is that they both force us to make decisions about where we dedicate our effort, time, and attention. The Novelist exploits that link, taking the form of a branching narrative game that delights in and frets over the little things; through frequently pushing you to choose who within a family you accommodate and who you neglect, its ludonarrative churns with emotions of pride and guilt. The Novelist reminds us that seeing everyday family decisions as trivial is ignorant as our small decisions about our domestic dynamics add up to decide the big things like whose career takes off or whether a child develops into a confident, complete adult. Perhaps more than any other game to date, it intimately understands the compromise and sacrifice inherent to partnership and parenthood.
Prey is a masterpiece of environmental art that approaches the dystopian majesty of Bioshock. When so many video game settings feel like barely-disguised combat arenas, it's uncanny to see one that feels as lived-in, and as organic, as that of Talos I. You become utterly convinced that this space was designed for habitation, office work, and engineering as opposed to alien extermination which means that when extraterrestrial shadows come to infest the corridors of this neoliberal space wreck, they appear as manifestations of a realistic corporate environment. Offices become traps, coworkers become unrecognisable ghouls, and the labourers pay the price for the executives' transgressions. The first few hours of Prey are a devious mind game, while the last fifteen see the upgrade system bloom with a brilliance you would never expect going in. Each new ability you gain has multiple applications in the play creating a sprawling plethora of player choices that can only be compared to the original Deus Ex.
There's something gratifying in the ridiculous premise of SUPERHOT. With the same intonation that someone might ask "Why can't they make the whole plane out of the black box?", SUPERHOT asks "Why can't they make the whole shooter out of bullet time?". Because its developers give you regular pauses in the pandemonium with which you can survey your surroundings and weigh up your options, SUPERHOT becomes a game of planning and deliberate movement. It makes you think about confronting opponents so fundamentally unlike any other FPS that going back to one afterwards requires some recalibration. But then this is a game about the rewiring of minds, bearing an insidiously understated parable about toxicity and the erasure of individuality in the internet's darkest corners. Its bold and stylish use of colour doesn't hurt it either.
These days, an increasing number of publishers are lowering perfectly decent series into this big business acid vat where their unique characteristics and voices are dissolved so that they can emerge as broadly marketable action media products. It was therefore uplifting to see Ubisoft do the opposite with Watch_Dogs. This sequel ditches its father's sterile city, faceless protagonist, tacked-on hacking, and fear of political commentary. In their place, we get a San Francisco buzzing with street culture, an infectiously upbeat frontman, crafty stealth play, and a middle finger to America's technologically-enabled tyrants. It's the optimistic cyberpunk crime game you never knew you needed.
What Remains of Edith Finch
There's been no shortage of accolades for games that can make their audiences cry, and not without some reason, but there's a difference between a game that's superficially emotional and one that moves you because it's speaking truthfully to pain and loss as we experience it. What Remains of Edith Finch is part of the latter class: it's a story about facing the hard truths of family, fiction, and death. It stirs sorrow in you not just by having overwhelming tragedies befall its characters but also through framing all of them delicately and remaining sympathetic to everyone involved in its dramas. It lets you armour yourself in its delightful and imaginative montages and then forces you to discard them right when you most want to cling to some protection from the despair. But if you can make that sacrifice, you can reach one of the most touching and philosophically sound endings in the medium.
That's it for the year. Just a quick note: I would have considered Toby Fox's Deltarune for this list, but as it's labelled the first episode in a series, I'm not treating it as a full game. Honourable mentions go to Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, From Ivan, ISLANDS: Non-Places, SHENZHEN I/O, and VA-11 HALL-A. Thanks for reading.