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Last week, the NY Times published Seth Schiesel’s effusive review of The Beatles: Rock Band. Calling the game a “transformative entertainment experience,” Schiesel argued that it “may be the most important video game yet made.”

Schiesel’s logic is sensical: the combination of Beatles + videogame gives baby boomers something concrete to share with their kids and grandkids. Harmonix, a company founded by the Gen-X kids of boomers, has done a top-notch job treating the band with honor and respect. The game’s stylized visuals and evocative instruments really do make the legendary nature of the band pop out at you.

Yet, were it not for my job as a videogame critic, I doubt ever would have chosen to play The Beatles: Rock Band. For one part, I’m tired of music games. I enjoyed the original Guitar Hero, and I played many of its predecessors and follow-ups. My house is literally littered with these games, and I can’t stomach the idea of admitting more of them in. Given the dozens of rock band derivatives out there, is my situation really that unusual? The irony seems to escape everyone’s notice: The Beatles, that ur-rock band, takes videogame form as mere derivative, as copycat act. Another plastic guitar is another plastic guitar, even if it’s supposed to be Paul McCartney’s.

For another part, how surprised should we be to learn that Harmonix’s take on the Beatles treats them as legend? In last month’s New York Times Magazine feature on the making of the game, Daniel Radosh describes the incredibly tight control the Apple Corps principals exerted over the development of the game. It’s hardly an independent take on the Beatles as musicians or as pop culture icons; rather, it’s a carefully controlled $50 million homage. Money can’t buy them love, but it sure can take care of everything else.

Here’s an alternative view to try on: The Beatles: Rock Band represents the apotheosis of boomer nostalgia. It is memory created from scratch by their children, as if to affirm, “Yes Mom, The Beatles really are the pinnacle of music and culture, just like you always suspected.” It is a game that says, implicitly, “It’s still 1969 in everyone’s heart, even if we couldn’t all be there.” It is the Greatest Generation for that generation’s children. It is a pat on the back and a knowing smile to those who gave the finger to the back-patters and knowing-smilers.

The most important game yet made? Perhaps, but not for the Beatles’ sake. Forty years after their favorite band’s last performance, boomer nostalgia is overshadowed by its consequences. As 20- and 30-somethings happily strum and tap and sing with their boomer brethren to the tune of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” perhaps the former may want to reflect on their complex relationship with the latter generation. For one part, they are our parents, or our grandparents. They are the forebearers of cultural revolution, of the very idea of the personal computer that makes this game possible to play in the first place. And then, for another part, they are our biggest consumers of healthcare. They are the only large-scale recipients of state-provided health insurance, via Medicare. They are beginning to enjoy benefits from Social Security, a system that will go into the red in another seven years or so, just as the tail end of Gen-X turns 40. Here comes the sun indeed.

So I ask: must we appreciate The Beatles? Must we reminisce with the newly aged about their privileged lives as naive youthful radicals, and then later as greedy yuppie centrists, and then finally as truculent conservative majority? Must we give them their final thrill in the medium we popularized, and which they spent decades not only failing to understand, but also deriding as useless and insolent? Must we allow them to celebrate not through change, not through novelty, but through utter sameness?

Or can we now also take a stand, fists raised, bras off, beards untrimmed, sandals afoot, and refuse? The Beatles: Rock Band is not the past in the present, but the present in the past. And it’s a past we can’t afford to pretend exists any longer. In that sense, there’s one Beatles tune we ought to revisit. Tap your plastic guitar along with me: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away / Now it looks as though they’re here to stay / Oh, I believe in yesterday.”

published September 7, 2009

Comments

  1. Kay

    Guitar Hero is my son’s favourite game.

  2. Raymond

    Wow, time to dial back the cynicism big guy. Does it feel good to disagree with everyone and be a rebel. And really you were trying way too hard to be clever for your own good. But hey if there weren’t guys like you we wouldn’t have people to ignore.

  3. Ian Bogost

    Raymond, did you notice in the tags at the top of the page, my site has a whole category for cynicism?

  4. Simon Ferrari

    This is a ridiculously tough call for me. See, I was introduced to the Beatles at the same time I was introduced to Mario Brothers. My parents worked every other day so that they wouldn’t have to pay for a babysitter, and my dad quit drinking and smoking on my first and second birthdays. Because he was suddenly in the position of needing something to do with himself while taking care of me, he coerced my grandfather into buying an NES for him. In between bouts of dancing to David Bowie and the Beatles, my dad and I played Mario together.

    The last game we ever played together was Zelda II: Adventure of Link. He simply lost interest in playing videogames himself, but he always made sure that I had at least one current console per generation. Even bigger than the fiscal commitment he displayed was the fact that he would lend time and his ear to listening to me ramble about the games I was playing. He was an assistant Scoutmaster so that he could be with me on all of my Boy Scout trips, and while teaching me to hike he would let me describe for hours the content of the MUDs I played at the time.

    You and I are only only about a decade apart in age, but I wonder if your early gaming experiences were so different from mine that playing Beatles: Rock Band with your father (I am unaware of whether he is alive or dead) would be a betrayal to the field you’ve dedicated your life to studying. If I played this game with my father, it’d be a validation of our relationship and a small reclaiming of those early gaming experiences we shared together. This isn’t an attempt to invalidate your critique, but rather a refinement of Schiesel’s initial naive attempt to celebrate this game’s potential for intergenerational engagement.

  5. Ian Bogost

    @Simon

    I can see how your situation poses a unique perspective, and I wouldn’t deny it to you. Nothing about my critique here really has anything to do with my personal gaming experiences, nor would I consider playing it a betrayal to anything. Overall, this product feels retrograde to me, as does all Beatles worship. My dad’s from the group they call “The Silent Generation,” but my mom’s definitely a boomer. I wouldn’t speak for him, but I bet my father sees the Beatles in much the same light as I do; he would have been about my age, a bit younger, when they burst onto the US scene.

  6. Rob Zacny

    Unusual to see a game discussed for what it signifies rather than for what it is. I doubt many games could benefit from a discussion, and certainly not The Beatles: Rock Band.

    That the Boomers are the most contemptible generation in modern history is almost beyond contesting, but TB:RB is hardly an egregious example of their mythologizing. The fact remains that The Beatles were a legitimately great band and the game gives people who like music games a chance to have a new experience in a genre that sometimes seems tapped out. If this were Rock Band: Woodstock, on the other hand, then you might find me standing over a pile of controllers with can of gasoline and a Zippo.

    Furthermore, is petulance toward our predecessors the best response? If we start trying to find ways to stick it to them, then we really will have something in common with the Boomers.

    I don’t know if we “must” appreciate The Beatles: Rock Band. But I refuse to surrender parts of my culture to the Baby Boomers on the grounds that they’ve spent their lives trying to take credit for it. I’m not leasing The Beatles from them any more than I’m leasing The Rolling Stones or Bobby Kennedy. I refuse to let their legacy poison the things I have chosen to love from the past.

  7. Graham

    Games, like music, can be cultural signifiers, and The Beatles: Rock Band is doubly heavy with symbolism. I don’t necessarily disagree with some of your criticisms of the boomers, but I’m not sure its fair to criticise the game for the culture it’s celebrating or depicting, anymore than you ought to criticise, say, Vice City for its celebration of the 80s.

    Sure, Reagan was President then, but there was some good music, you know?

  8. Ian Bogost

    @Graham

    I get your point but, I’m not sure the two are comparable. Vice City is as much a send-up of the 80s as it is a celebration of them (GTA in general always redoubles earnestness with satire). In the case of The Beatles: Rock Band, however, I really think the comparison with The Greatest Generation is apt.

  9. Ian Bogost

    @Rob

    I’d argue that what a game signifies is as much what it is as anything (actually, I just did argue this last week). It’s entirely possible to accept my position here and still to celebrate the band’s musical greatness, if you’d like.

  10. Andrew Toups

    I don’t really have much to contribute to this except that I’ve been feeling the exact same way about this game, and really, the Beatles in general, and it’s a huge relief to see someone voice it so elegantly.

  11. Alan Au

    I’m in the camp that believes that The Beatles: Rock Band is the most important game yet made.

    I suppose you can complain about the cognitive dissonance between the message and the method of delivery, but I think that the game is important for the experience it provides rather than the beliefs it espouses.

  12. Ian Bogost

    @Alan

    Huh. If it’s more about experience than message, then why is this game the most important yet made? Isn’t it just another rhythm game?

  13. Scott Reed

    To what extent, though, is it meaningful to equate the Beatles’ music with the generation from which they came? As always, I’m keen on Ian’s “just-linking” (of a sort) between the game’s diegesis and its latent cultural context, but I wonder if in this case we don’t end up re-enshrining The Beatles with a signifying power they don’t necessarily have. This isn’t to say that their music is somehow inessential; just that the automatic leap between The Beatles and the context of Boomerdom may be forced at the expense of another sort of aesthetic transaction.

    The claim I look forward to testing (come Wednesday) is whether the experience of the music is somehow different: the capacity of the gameplay to remediate the music without necessarily remediating the history. (This is ultimately a flimsy rhetorical distinction, but one I’m interested in nonetheless.) Regardless of their ascendant “truculence,” I wonder about the significance of The Beatles, after all these years, having to come to ME — who knew gaming well before I knew their music. How much of it is about repackaging the 60s? How much more of it is about repackaging the present through the language of plastic guitars, now as a kind perfected commodity fetish of the “real thing”? I’m not of the 60s, and neither are my parents, really. I’ve never known The Beatles as anything other than so much plastic. And now I get some degree of playful ownership.

    Just an awkward counterpoint to the (brilliantly stated) cynicism.

  14. Ian Bogost

    @Scott

    It’s hard for me to accept that the Beatles as a predominant musico-cultural form of the 1960s don’t have a particular signifying power among boomers, and in history generally. However, it’s not hard for me to accept that this is not the only signifying power they have. What’s interesting is that for many folks who want to disagree with me, they can’t or refuse to go in the opposite direction.

  15. Iroquois Pliskin

    Even if you grant that Beatles’ music has the sociopolitical significance you attribute to it (and I think this is debatable), to evaluate a music video game based on a series of lazy generalizations about the generation that the music putatively symbolizes is inane.

    I’m no friend of nostalgia, it leads to kitsch and bad art. And I think Schiesel is certainly overstating his case.

    However, I distrust any evaluation of a piece of art that could be made without any engagement with that work itself. Your argument is either “guitar hero bores me ergo Beatles rock band is boring” or “the boomer generation is a failure ergo beatles rock band must be stopped” Neither of these arguments is remotely interesting nor persuasive.

  16. Dakota Reese Brown

    Let’s not forget that The Beatles: Rock Band is only a few shades away from this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UuAoEW5MbI

  17. Ian Bogost

    @Iroquois

    Unfortunately, neither of those statements represents my argument. Indeed, that argument makes at least a few different points. One of those connects the curiosity of representing the indelible musical and (more importantly?) social originality of the Beatles with a totally derivative design. Another argues that the Beatles are really all about their sociopolitical context anyway (a feature whose very existence you seem to want to deny?), and I don’t want a toke of that particular doobie. Another suggests that the game itself is actually not about the Beatles’ music anyway, at least not exclusively; it is also a work of nostalgia that hopes to celebrate the Boomer Generation in the same way that Brokaw’s book did for “the Greatest Generation.”

  18. Michael Abbott

    At the risk of playing apologist for The Beatles or my generation, I’ll offer an admittedly personal response.

    The Beatles mean something beautiful and good to many of us, despite all the crap, money, and hypocrisy. Not everything about that era has been sullied, and not all of us have abandoned the simple ideology of peace and love at the center The Beatles art.

    I think I understand your objections, but your brush is terribly and, I must say, insultingly broad.

    Many of us who emerged from that time did not lead privileged lives. We did not become greedy yuppie centrists, and we do not now belong to the truculent conservative majority.

    I know you know this, and I’m sure you’re pursuing a broader, more general point here. But the truculence of your essay diminishes your argument, in my view, and ignores thousands of exceptions to the picture of a generation you paint.

    None of this has much to do with Rock Band, but neither does your post, really. So I hope you’ll forgive a bit of personal defensiveness from an ardent reader.

  19. Daniel Golding

    This is a very interesting and persuasive argument, but I think you omit the point that The Beatles appeal to a larger range than the boomers alone. If only for this we have to admit that the game was made with more than just the 60s generation in mind; there are generations and generations that have discovered The Beatles’ music in the decades after they ceased to exist. Personally, I fell in love with the band only after two of its four members had died, and I was born in 1987, which is a full seventeen years after they broke up.

    I’m no fan of music games and will not be picking up the game or probably even playing it, but you have to admit that this context with which you equate the Beatles Rock Band game with, in all likelihood, only exists for a minority percentage of players. For all others it is surely not about remembering the 60s – they weren’t even there.

  20. Will Hankinson

    When I played the Allman Bros. “Jessica” at Christmas a few years back (GH2, I think), that was the probably the first time my dad ever showed a genuine interest in a video game. By “genuine interest” I mean it started a conversation and that’s about it. Having that one song on a disc you can put on for your parents is one thing, but an entire disc is ridiculous. I think you’re spot on–Harmonix is hoping 20-somethings will buy it to impress their parents, but I don’t actually know anyone my age who likes the Beatles.

    The only upside I see to this is that next time some 50 or 60-year-old starts talking about “Murder Simulators” and GTA, I can say: “Yes, but we also have the Beatles in video game form!” I won’t have played it any more than they’ve played GTA, but how can they be against video games if there’s a Beatles game?

  21. Chris Lewis

    From my own viewpoint, at least, I think you’ve already decided that you dislike The Beatles, and that you dislike the NY Time’s over-the-top evaluation, and that you dislike Boomers as well, so here’s a game that lets you hate it so easily.

    You don’t have to appreciate the Beatles, just like my Mum doesn’t have to appreciate Grand Theft Auto IV. Providing new ways with which to engage with cultural touchstones (and, as much as you might not like it, The Beatles have influenced a lot of pop music) can only be a good thing, whether that speaks to you or not. Guitar Hero was celebrated for opening up metal music to an entirely new audience, why shouldn’t that audience also have a chance to experience any and all musical genres?

    While I agree with your assertion that it is “the present in the past”, so is releasing music on iTunes, and the long tail that goes along with it. So is the re-release of books with shiny new covers. So is renting a movie that was released in the 70s. So is playing Pong as a Flash game. All of these things are positive engagements and a preservation of a culture that might otherwise be lost. We should celebrate those who venture back to see the things that influence our culture today, not lambaste them for taking an interest in the past.

    I hope that one day my grandchildren might play Grand Theft Auto IV, yet re-appropriated and represented to them in a manner so that they can engage with it too.

    And so it is with Beatles Rock Band.

    Note that:

    a) I do believe this is very different to the horrible things Courteney Love has done. This game is the wish of the surviving Beatles, and I’m sure Harrison would have enjoyed fortifying his mansion with the money.

    b) I don’t really like The Beatles. I passed up on seeing Paul McCartney for Basement Jaxx instead. But whether I like or dislike them isn’t the point!

  22. Mark J. Nelson

    I wonder if some of the commenters objecting to a focus on the game’s cultural/generational symbolism read the New York Times review that serves as the springboard for this blog post. Is The Beatles: Rock Band interesting as a game, as interactive art, as anything else of that sort? Schiesel (the NYT reviewer) doesn’t even argue that point. Instead, he argues:

    By reinterpreting an essential symbol of one generation in the medium and technology of another, The Beatles: Rock Band provides a transformative entertainment experience.

    In that sense it may be the most important video game yet made.

    Never before has a video game had such intergenerational cultural resonance.

    Perhaps Schiesel’s view of the game is wholly atypical, but if it’s typical, it’s hard not to take Ian’s point of view.

  23. Sherol

    I’m actually very happy for all the Beatles fans out there, but really, it makes sense that they need to hype it up so much. If they don’t get people excited about it, it’s not going to make a whole lot of money. They’re trying to sell a game that is geared towards the intersection of people who play video games and people who like the Beatles. It will be interesting to see how tough (or easy) the market turns out to be for that. It seems like those two communities might not overlap very well.

    I find myself underwhelmed with the Rock Band and Guitar Hero repertoires; therefore, I don’t have much interest in buying their games. With the new Beatles game, I am, again, left out in holding much appreciation for the music. Maybe when they come out with “Jazz Band Revolution”, “Gospel Music Revolution”, or “Michael Jackson Revolution,” I’ll be on the flip side :)

    I also think that rhythm games are a bit played out and maybe instead of trying to score profit from the coat tails of the next legendary pop musician, they come up with even cooler forms of rhythm play. The drum set was a step in the right direction, and we should venture forward.

  24. Ian Bogost

    @Michael

    As I said above, I wouldn’t and won’t deny anyone their love of the band. There’s nowhere in this piece where I say a single foul word about their music. But I’m not talking about the band, I’m not talking about the music, I’m talking about the game about the two. In any event, It’s impossible for me to tell you that your opinion is invalid, and I appreciate that you recognize that we can disagree without either of us being insane.

    @Will

    Good point about the rhetorical use of mentioning the game. As for nobody your age liking the Beatles, certainly based on the reactions I’m getting here and elsewhere, there do seem to be a number of teens and 20-somethings who do… the weird thing is, they seem to want to appreciate the Beatles outside of history, and weirder, they want to deny that that history even exists. The Beatles become just another shuffle mix alongside Run DMC and Linkin Park and Rihanna.

    @Chris

    There’s nothing about this piece that has anything to do with liking or disliking the Beatles’ music. But I can’t even hear the Beatles’ music, it flows right through me, and only signifies everything else.

    @Mark

    And even if Schiesel’s view is not atypical, it’s published in the NY Times. So we have to treat it in a special way.

    @Sherol

    I agree with you about the hype, but Schiesel’s review is not a press release copied into a trade mag. He really believes what he’s writing, or seems to do. As for rhythm games being played out, one of the points I tried to make but few have picked up on is the irony of the Beatles, the freaking Beatles, getting a more or less derivative game adaptation.

  25. Erik A. Hanson

    Generally, my tastes in things like music tend to mark me as older than I am, so this is an odd case for me. I was largely raised by television and games, and so my exposure to the Beatles in my youth was almost entirely due to their use in TV commercials or my occasional listen to oldies or classic-rock radio. My parents saw little reason to bring me up in the culture of their generation, as my father was the sort of nerd who preferred studies and rule books, and when it came to music would choose earlier rock and roll (Jay And The Americans) or, more commonly, marches and Broadway soundtracks. He views facial hair as a sign of incivility. My mother agreed with his views enough to marry him. While I have since grown to appreciate The Beatles musically, historically and culturally, they are not the sacred cow to me that they are for many others.

    That all said, Mark’s referral to the source in the NYT is important context for Ian’s cynicism. I think the extremes taken up by Ian and Schiesel clearly capture the outer bounds of potential for this game–either as cultural milestone or more plastic debris in the living room–and I think the truth (as usual) will end up settling somewhere between the extremes. This game was certainly intended to appeal to earlier generations and to introduce younger generations to The Beatles’ music and aesthetics (though notably not their politics). As a cultural artifact, this could prove to be an important game. What’s more, this is a game that may go a long way toward legitimizing video games in the minds of one of the last generations to grow up without them. Of course the broader cultural effects of the game are yet to be seen, but they are potentially as big as the hyperbolic NYT article would have them.

  26. David

    A couple of qualifiers upfront:

    1. I have played (and reviwed TB:RB)

    2. I was a rock critic for about 10 years, before starting to write about games.

    These two things lead me to agree with Ian, but in a slightly different flavor.

    The game itself is enjoyable, it is much more polished than previous games, and does represent some sort of miracle of of the market in that it was produced at all (Led Zepplin Rock Band, where are you?). But those things together do not really elevate this game above the franchise concept–one of Ian’s points, I think. The Beatles: Rock Band remains a sub-category of the Rock Band franchise, doing nothing to escape the category.

    Likewise, the assault on nostalgia is pretty safe. This game just shows how quickly misty-eyed memory can take hold and spin something ordinary into the extraordinary.

    What I think that this piece misses, or at least circles around but doesn’t quite engage, is why? Why do big name critics drool uncritically over this game? Why the hype? The absurd claims?

    My years of writing about rock and roll taught me that music is this thing that is difficult, if not impossible, to really theorize in any popular sense. It is a activity in search of experiential meaning. And in the absence of the experience of listening, we start to attach it to stuff–bragging about seeing a band when they were just starting, saving broken drum sticks, buying rare pressing of unreleased songs, archiving recordings of live shows, and on and on and on.

    In the past, I have said that music is just anti-intellectural–and while that’s a bit broad, it’s also about right.

    TB:RB is just another form of that fetishism that music seems to demand in the culture. It’s what happens when you try to rationalize the irrational. Whether a Beatles lunch pail or a multi million dollar videogame, the music is in search of a physical anchor, something that proves that it is there and matters. Listening to music isn’t enough, we eventually want hard copy to prove that we can like the music.

    So, TB”RB wont change the course of the music game. In a sense, it’s the end of the road. Having secured the most precious license in all of popular music, what’s left for RB to do?

    Rather than save the music game genre, or convert the boomers to gamers, I think it’s more likely that the TB”RB will be the game that killed the category.

  27. Gerard Delaney

    I want to pick up on Simon’s point about the significance of inter-generational game play. I think it might be foolish to make the claims of Schiesel because of the issues raised in the post and if this particular perception of the game is carried forward throughout the various outlets of our culture then I think we do have cause for concern. Saying that, living in Australia, the socio-economic position of the Baby Boomer generation is going to be different.

    However, I intend to purchase TB:RB as my first music game and one that I would not be sharing with my parents, therefore in a personal sense this argument will have little relation to my engagement with the game. My parents have never been strong game players but have always indulged my interest in the medium. I find it funny that the most enduring game sharing moment I have had was playing the Playstation title Driver with my Dad. This title carried with it many of the signifiers of the 70s Hard Boiled Cop films that were in part a reaction to the Summer of Love and a cultural product that my father enjoyed immensely, hence the most likely reason he gravitated towards it. The significance of this moment for me is not the culture and generation it represented but the importance imparted to me by the paternal act of sharing time. Therefore this kind of present in the past moment doesen’t feel that unique to me, and it will only be larger cultural signposts that make such a statement not the personal experience of gamers.

  28. Ed Kuehnel

    Like a lot of folks in games I joke with my Dad about begging him for quarters in the early eighties so I could play those “god damned video games”. If Boomers are tapping and humming along to Beatles Rock Band than we were right all long. Let’s agree to smile and enjoy it, but if you have to, one little “I told ya so” feels pretty good too.

  29. Daniel Golding

    @Bogost: “the weird thing is, they seem to want to appreciate the Beatles outside of history, and weirder, they want to deny that that history even exists. The Beatles become just another shuffle mix alongside Run DMC and Linkin Park and Rihanna.”

    As the most immediate commenter on this post that probably falls inline with what you’re talking about here, I feel obliged to respond.

    Those who do not appreciate The Beatles within the context you propose do not necessarily want to deny that that context exists. I want to enjoy The Beatles within my own context. I want to remember the first time I heard ‘When My Guitar Gently Weeps’, not the first time the world heard it.

  30. Iroquois Pliskin

    first some concessions: As to your point that Beatles Rockband is merely a reskinned version of Rock Band, you will get to argument from me, that’s well taken. Also, Schiesel’s hyperbole rests on the cultural significace of the product, and querying that significance is fair game in the context of your response.

    However, I fail to see how the breezy cynicism you display in this post, and its ideological free-association (the Beatles are on the hook for the collapse of Social Security? Really?), are superior to the bewitching nostalgia that you condemn.

    Furthermore, if you are going to make an argument about a body of music that appears in a video game you should at least discuss the way that the form mediates the significance of that body of music. I would say you need to reckon at least two points: 1) music games and other electronic media tend to deracinate works of art from their original cultural milieu, which works against your point. 2) the participatory nature of music games seems to have the same effect; like other forms of performance they signal a kind of ownership over the music itself that runs counter to the passive “admiration” you critique. I think there are very good counterarguments to either of these points (espeically in this case) but I think they bear scrutiny.

  31. TJ

    If anything I think it’s the gamer generation’s way of saying to the Baby boomer’s “You have nothing left. We’ve taken it all from you. Even your beloved Beatles.”

    @Dakota Brilliant point. I was thinking the same thing.

  32. Ian Bogost

    @David

    Great comments, thanks for sharing them.

  33. Ian Bogost

    @Iroquois

    I’m suggesting that an important, and perhaps a primary way that TB:RB works is rhetorical. This argument has nothing at all to do with the function of the game. And c’mon, nowhere do I claim that the Beatles are responsible for the collapse of Social Security. You’re not giving me a fair read, nor considering the context of my response to Schiesel’s article. There are plenty of additional interpretations of the game that can start from where I end, perhaps including the ones you want to make.

  34. thesimplicity

    A few weeks ago I showed my father the trailer for Beatles Rock Band. Never in my life have I seen him so angry. It was not the reaction I was expecting… he’s a guy who plays video games more than I do and someone who has no problem throwing money towards whatever nostalgia tinged item pushed on him (I believe he owns a complete collection of John Lennon dinner plates). A video game version of the Beatles made him flip, though. His opinion: this is pandering to an audience.

    The most interesting thing I took away from this post and subsequent discussion is the varying acceptance of alternate delivery systems in music. Are things like the Beatles Rock Band and Harmonix’s upcoming Rock Band delivery network making passive listening a novelty? It seems as though a rhythm game reissue of an artist’s back catalog is becoming just as standard as a CD release.

    Personally, I am frickin’ sick of falling gem rhythm games, and not even my intense love of Abbey Road will make me drop $60 on another Rock Band title.

  35. Alan Au

    @Ian

    The reason I think that TB:RB experience is the most important yet is not because of what it provides for the players, but because of what it provides for the audience.

    I’ve had the opportunity to play the pre-release version, and the thing that impresses me about the game was the way that the audience is drawn in. I would compare it to a live concert, where the audience is clapping and singing along with the performers.

    This is a phenomenon I haven’t seen happen with other rhythm games, even those branded with specific bands. I think it specifically works with The Beatles because of how culturally pervasive they are.

    As for rhythm games in general, I’m fairly pessimistic. I still believe that TB:RB represents the pinnacle of the genre, with the implication that there’s nowhere left to go but down.

  36. Sherol

    So, I admit I’m in the camp (called out by MJN) that did not (initially) read the NYT article, but it’s still the case that this game is banking on the hype, _especially_ of the impassioned few. Schiesel needs to stir up the fans, because, I presume, that many people *like* the Beatles… but not enough to celebrate and revere the game itself.

    I do agree with Chris on letting them like what they want to like, but I also agree that to over exalt the less-than remarkable technology leaves uneasy feelings with those who are trying to advance the area. It’s sort of like that feeling some people get when they think of that one unnamed sports game that comes out every year, and how much money people spend on it. Admittedly, it’s a lot of marketing and keeping the consumers excited about the packaging instead of the product. (“$hit in a bag” is how I remember one keynote speaker putting it.)

    I also agree with Ian and go further in saying that Schiesel, if he is an utterly revering fan AND a game reviewer, should show some mixed feelings with the premier of interactively experiencing the Beatles. In his NYT article, he seems to not mind that “mechanically, it is almost identical to previous Rock Band games.”

    Still, I’m an evangelist (in some of the worst ways) and if there was to be a “Jazz Band Revolution,” I would log into my blog and exalt it to no end. Giving a game more than its due annoys me in (self-admittedly) hypocritical ways as a gamer and a listener of music, but as a musician and a researcher of games, I’d feel appropriately cheated.

    I can only hope that some day Jazz music can be afforded the hype that Schiesel gives the Beatles. I’d be honored to have that opportunity to be one of the impassioned few.

  37. brian longtin

    As a young cynic AND music lover, I’d put myself into an interesting niche of this game’s target: someone who never really listened to the Beatles. With parents not hip enough to be playing records growing up, and never having gone through a ‘Beatles phase’ as I formed my own musical tastes, I feel like I’m coming at this game from an interesting place: wanting to be educated on one of the most influential musical acts in history.

    Another option would be to buy their dozens of albums and read biographies and reviews of their music, of course. But by playing these famous songs in Rock Band, listeners like me are provided a unique way to engage with and appreciate the construction of their songs. So as a music fan, I’m looking forward to that experience and what it can teach me about why this band was such a big deal.

    On the other hand, there’s no part of me that feels the need to pay $250 dollars for a box including a guitar ‘just like Paul had!’… and that’s the part that’s easiest to be cynical about. Selling the game as some sort of end-all-be-all Beatles experience that commands an unheard of price tag may border on ruthless on the part of someone (Apple Corps? EA?), but I sincerely believe that the Harmonix team wants to stay true to what their mission has always been, which is to give people a new way to experience music. If it happens to be your first time experiencing this music in particular, it may not be the best way, but it’s nice to have the same way perhaps a DVD with a commentary track or an annotated Shakespeare can be more instructive and illuminating if you weren’t there for the original historical moment in which the art was created.

  38. Mark J. Nelson

    Kotaku has a sarcastic take on the inter-generational bridging angle in light of the fact that apparently Paul McCartney hasn’t actually played the game: “You mean over the past 18 months nobody ever put a controller in his hand? Must be a generational thing, because if somebody was making a game based on, well, me, I’d want to at least have a go.”

    In fact, McCartney seems to echo some of the standard negative views of rhythm games, along the lines of “they’re just toys for people who can’t play real instruments”:

    My excuse is, I play guitar. I was on the real record. So the idea of pushing buttons and things in time is kind of slightly intriguing for me, but it’s actually more interesting to do a show like this.

  39. Robert Jackson

    Wow this just exploded. All over the place.

    It’s funny because i’ve just come back from a psychoanalysis and the posthuman conference, and again most cultural commentators in this conference are still viewing technolgy as general. Technology is still considered somewhat neutral, and I’d just like to remind all discussions here, that a simulation like Beatles: Rock Band is not objective in any way. There is a bias that needs to be deconstructed here with games of this magnitude.

  40. Brian Moriarty

    Believe it if you need it.

    If you don’t, just pass it on.

    - Hunter

  41. Patience Dalessi

    When the first generation of ipods came out, I remember wincing at the ads that seemed to be hailing the death of music: the (then) bone-off-white color of the expensive little artifact seemed to symbolize the terminal calcification of all our music collections as we knew them – all records and cassettes were to be digitized and destroyed; all listening was now elevated… to the background, to an effortless and near automatic level (engaged listening no longer needed). Whether or not this initial reaction was doomsaying or soothsaying (I now own an ipod), I can’t help but detect a similarly concerned tone in Ian’s post.

    “Must we give them their final thrill in the medium we popularized, and which they spent decades not only failing to understand, but also deriding as useless and insolent?”

    I love this line, and think this is one of Ian’s key points. On the one hand I hear, “Technology is better than this,” which seems to either hold high standards for what the content of games should be, and/or comes from an isolationist/protectionist perspective (“Don’t get your nostalgia mixed in with my computer science!”) On the other hand, hasn’t technology, and games in particular, been forcing into submission wholly original concepts and creations for quite some time now? Isn’t “video game” a box you check off, when you’re a marketable b(r)and, and you’ve already been transformed into a movie, coloring book, and Pez dispenser? On a more general level, isn’t pixelated avatar-ization the compromising, new (virtual) reality for everything that once or already was more dynamic, complex, and full of life?

  42. Iroquois Pliskin

    Ian,

    Look, you’re right that I was being a little unfair. It’s ungentlemanly to parody your argument. As you’ve said above your piece was not a critique of the game or the music of the Beatles so much as an overtly rhetorical riposte to Schiesel’s evocation of 60s-nostalgia.

    Still I think the issues you raise about the nature of cultural nostalgia would have been so much more interesting if you had discussed how of the mechanics of music games mediates the rhetoric of the game. (See for example chris dahlen’s review on Pitchfork, which notes that RB:B eliminates all the improvisational elements present in other RB games) But I can hardly fault you for not writing the writing the piece you didn’t set out to write.

  43. Ian Bogost

    Thanks for that, there are clearly many many things to say about this game. My take can live among them, as can yours.

  44. That Fuzzy Bastarrd

    Ian:

    Once you write: “I can’t even hear the Beatles’ music, it flows right through me, and only signifies everything else,” (up at Sept. 8, 7:43) that sort of explains everything. For those who can hear the music, the idea of getting to play along with the favorite songs of millions of people, regardless of age, is pretty exciting. But if you can’t hear the music, no wonder you’re tired of music games. It’s a little hard for me to parse what your point here really is, especially since you seem to wiggle away from any paraphrasing of it, but as far as I can tell, your case is: 1)Other music games came before RB:B, therefore RB:B is derivative and doesn’t live up to the Beatles’ originality. 2) RB:B will appeal to Boomers, but Boomers suck; ergo fug dis game.

    Point 1 is ridiculous—the music of The Beatles was always derivative; what made it interesting is how it expanded beyond it’s Chuck Berry roots while always keeping a foot in them (Sgt. Pepper’s is a boundary-pushing record, but it’s no Ummagumma, and thank Cthulhu for that!). One could rightly argue that RB:B is not as innovative as the music it contains, but at that, I shrug—Lennon’s guitar tunings weren’t all that innovative either, because they didn’t need to be, because it all worked as-is, just as RB:B does.

    Point 2 is just dopey generational whining, driven by bad writing (I assume that “they” in paragraph 7 refers to “the newly aged”, not the Beatles, but you seem to be making that deliberately confusing). Much as Boomer nostalgia irritates this here Gen-X’er, generational generalizing is far more intellectually degrading. As far as I can tell, you’re basically irritated that someone made a game with the intent of it being enjoyed by those darn Boomers, or possibly you’re annoyed that The Beatles are getting a game dedicated to them as though they were an important band or somethin’; neither is a particularly valuable or serious argument.

    Again, if I’m missing something, please let me know what. But please don’t just say I’m missing the point without clarifying what point I’m missing, as the above sure is what I’m seeing right now.

  45. Ian Bogost

    Hi Fuzzy, I’m sorry in advance, because I suspect you won’t find this comment any more clarifying.

    Obviously I can hear music of many kinds. But the Beatles are a special case. I can surely imagine that other people hear the Beatles, but I only hear them as signifiers of their cultural moment. This is a valid way of encountering them.

    This piece is a response to Schiesel’s review, which celebrates the game as a nostalgic wonder tour of the golden-new. The Beatles’ music defined the times, and it’s impossible for me to think the Beatles without the 1960s. But Schiesel’s take on the game strips that context, replacing it with pure wonder, pure sun for all to bask in. I find that approach perverse and appalling.

    I think what you’re missing is the willingness to read and consider what I’ve written here as an earnest argument that you can easily disagree with even as you understand it. Searching for “correctness” seems a strange folly indeed.

  46. Robin

    The Beatles Rock Band obviously generates a lot of hype but doesn’t have any greater significance for games or culture. It will be remembered as a good money spinner for the teetering stack of rights-holders involved, but in the long run only a tiny minority of already heavily invested Beatles fans are going to care.

    It’s difficult to get angry about one game’s idolisation of The Beatles when thousands of games have been so thoroughly creatively and developmentally handicapped by seeking to emulate (their similarly popular contemporary) Tolkien.

  47. Jeenho

    Dude, what is wrong with you? You sound angry your (grand)parents didn’t hug you enough that you have so much grudge against them or something. If it’s the video game that does bring the generations of a family together, then let them have a good time, cuz video game used to be a medium that divides generations. It’s like saying when the whole family is playing Monopoly together in a living room and having fun, we should criticize the greedy capitalism metaphor. or Wii was a treachery cuz it wasn’t a “true” gamer’s console but an easy toy for beginners to video game. what are you trying to accomplish besides some attention? failure at cynical and “unique” attempt. I would like a more insightful review next time, Thanks.

  48. Mixmastermind

    As an 18 year-old, I respectfully disagree with most of your article, Mr. Bogost. I’m a fan of the Beatles because they made some amazing music in their time, and I’m a fan of the game because it pays them respect.

    I played the game over the course of two nights with my mother, who is fairly conservative and finds most of the values of baby boomers annoying, and we both had a blast, because The Beatles are capable of crossing over barriers of belief and age.

    Is it the most important game ever? No, don’t be silly. Is it a really fun game? Yes.

    Also, if you’re tired of music games, stop buying them. I realize that’s your job, but the problem with music games is that you burn out on them quickly. Until TB:RB I hadn’t bought a music game since Rock Band 2. I haven’t bought any Guitar Hero since Guitar Hero 2.

  49. Mark J. Nelson

    A friend pointed me to a 1980 interview in which John Lennon expresses some vaguely similar sentiment: that the Beatles were a cultural product of their time, and people should stop being caught up in the nostalgia. Among other comments,

    LENNON: We tuned in to the message. That’s all. I don’t mean to belittle the Beatles when I say they weren’t this, they weren’t that. I’m just trying not to overblow their importance as separate from society. And I don’t think they were more important than Glenn Miller or Woody Herman or Bessie Smith. It was our generation, that’s all. It was Sixties music.

    LENNON: I never went to high school reunions. My thing is, Out of sight, out of mind. That’s my attitude toward life. So I don’t have any romanticism about any part of my past. I think of it only inasmuch as it gave me pleasure or helped me grow psychologically. That is the only thing that interests me about yesterday. I don’t believe in yesterday, by the way. You know I don’t believe in yesterday. I am only interested in what I am doing now.

  50. Miranda

    Intersting interview, Mark. But Lennon was possibly the most nostalgic man of The Beatles. Lots of the things he said in interviews an image he would sell for the press and fans. Himself couldn’t fathom to hear anyone talking shit about The Beatles only himself (and Yoko). He asked to his aunt send him his school uniforms and notebooks and once employeed a great Beatles fan only to talk about the band. Also he had a huge collection of Beatles outakes, bootlegs and memorablia.