Six Things My Family Taught Me About The Beatles: Rock Band
The Beatles: Rock Band (TB: RB) is notable in the history of gaming for a few reasons. It's the first time the Fab Four's music has been featured in a videogame, for instance. And it's the first music game to allow for three-part harmonies, to my knowledge. For me, though, the game is historic for a unique reason. The Beatles: Rock Band will always be the first game that both my mother and my mother-in-law expressed genuine interest in playing without any prodding from me.
Understand, when family members from my parents' generation or higher talk with me about videogames, it's usually with a polite but shallow curiosity. They're interested in games as far as they're interested in what I do for a living, but aside from the rare casual game like Peggle or FreeCell, they're not clamoring to play any of the latest releases. So I was quite surprised when I got not one, but two requests to bring The Beatles: Rock Band along with me when I travelled home for the Jewish holidays a few weeks ago -- to my parents' in Maryland for Rosh Hashanah and to my in-laws' in Philadelphia for Yom Kippur 10 days later.
Always eager to share my passion, I packed up the roughly seven million individual pieces required to play a full game of TB:RB and hauled them all across the Northeast. In between many large holiday meals, some horrible college football games and countless reminiscences with family and friends, we managed to squeeze in a few hours of good Beatles-based rocking across both sides of the family. Below are just a few of the things that I learned about my family, videogames, the Beatles and Rock Band itself during those all-too-short play sessions.
1. Wireless controllers aren't all they're cracked up to be.
Yeah, nobody likes tripping on cords, and the wireless-controller revolution has made most gamers' rooms much less cluttered. But going wireless has its own headaches, as I first found when trying to sync my wireless instruments with my sister's Xbox 360 at my parents' house in Maryland. While the system eventually recognized my wireless guitar after a few tries, it simply refused to acknowledge that there was a working wireless Rock Band 2 drum set sitting RIGHT THERE NOT TWO FEET AWAY IT'S RIGHT THERE SEE THE BLINKING LIGHTS IT'S TRYING TO GET YOUR ATTENTION JUST SYNC UP WHY OH WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME YOU STUPID PIECE OF ARRRRRRRGH! Not that I'm bitter.
The wireless problems continued at my in-laws' in Philly. This time the problems were partially caused by my own stupidity, as I'd left the charging cable for my wireless controller's Play & Charge Kit at home, hundreds of miles away in Pittsburgh. Usually I'd be able to just pop in a couple of AA batteries, but using the Play & Charge Kit means removing the little plastic holder that would let those standard batteries make contact with the controller's internal electronics. Without a charged controller, we were unable to log in with a singer, even though a wired USB microphone was plugged in (and working just fine, I might add).
A quick trip to a nearby GameStop for a replacement Play & Charge Kit eventually solved this problem (don't worry, I needed a new one anyway). That said, I can't recall ever having any similar problems with previous console generations, where all my controllers had cords and simply worked when connected to the system. You know what they say: "You can't have 'plug-and-play' simplicity without the 'plug' part."
OK, no one has ever said that. But they should. Because it's true!
2. The Beatles are lying about their lyrics.
At least, that's what my mother is now convinced of, after playing through the vocal part for dozens of songs in TB:RB. I'll admit, we were both a little surprised when we sang along with "Come Together" and saw that the whispered refrain between verses was not a meaningless "Shoop shoop" but rather the words "Shoot me," according to the game. This definitely changed the meaning of the song, although not in an altogether surprising way, considering that this is from the group that recorded "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."
But what really got the conspiracy theorizing going for my mom were the lyrics during the fadeout on "I Am the Walrus." The game officially lists the harmonized refrain as a mix between "Got one got one everybody's got one" and "Oompah oompah stick it up your jumper." My mother, however, promptly ignored these on-screen prompts and went with the lyrics she'd been singing for more than 40 years: "Smoke pot smoke pot everybody smoke pot." (I should probably add here that my mother's interpretation had my 15-year-old, guitar-playing sister practically doubled over in laughter.)
When I challenged my mother's interpretation of the lyrics after the song was over, she was still incredulous. "Stick it up your jumper? Are we really supposed to buy that? They're singing about pot!" When I mentioned that the game was approved by the Beatles and/or their widows, and that this probably meant the lyrics had to be officially vetted by the foursome, she scoffed. "I was alive during the '60s. Believe me, they were singing about drugs."
Speaking of drug references in Beatles lyrics, my wife's response to the lyric about the "flowers that grow so incredibly high" in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was the totally deadpan "the flowers probably weren't the only things that were growing incredibly high when that song was written." HEY-OOOOOOO!
3. Rock Band needs an ungraded singing mode.
While my mother was eager to sing along with her favorite Beatles songs, she refused to try the guitar. Conversely, at my in-laws', I had no trouble finding guitarists but lots of trouble convincing anyone to use the microphone. Despite the fact that at least five family members literally grew up singing along to this music, convincing someone to actually take up the singing part was like pulling teeth.
Part of this reluctance no doubt had to do with apprehension over having one's voice amplified through the TV speakers. But part of it, I think, had to do with the promise that the game would not only amplify one's vocal performance but also grade it. No matter how many times I stressed that the Easy difficulty level was incredibly lenient, and that the "no-fail" mode ensured even awful singing wouldn't ruin the game for anyone, no one seemed willing to put their voice up for criticism by a cold, unfeeling machine. My usually voice-shy wife even sang for a few songs, just to show her family how non-threatening the grading was. No dice.
But even though no one was eager to sing into the microphone, many of the spectators still wanted karaoke-style lyrics to help them sing along to themselves. This was enough motivation to get one of my wife's aunts to log in as a singer so that the lyrics would scroll across the screen to jog everyone's memories. But when we forced a microphone into her hand, she wound up using it only intermittently. Half the time, the microphone would hang awkwardly at her side, and only during the chorus and refrains did she seem confident enough to bring the mic to her lips. Her final score was made meaningless by these constant gaps in actual singing into the mic.
Based on this limited, one-family sample, I have a suggestion for Harmonix's next Rock Band game: a pure karaoke mode. In this mode, the lyrics would still show up in time with the music, and the microphone could be used to sing along, but the game would silence its inner critic and just become a mindless karaoke machine. I believe Harmonix's original Karaoke Revolution series had this feature. It's time it came back for Rock Band.
4. You don't need to play well to enjoy the game
Over the years, I've encouraged quite a few of my non-gaming friends to take up the plastic guitars in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, asking them to try it, just once, to see if they'd enjoy it. Some of them -- mostly those with previous musical experience -- grasp the basic concept and are able to plunk along decently enough in Easy mode after a small window of experimentation. My father-in-law fell into this camp. Other new players just can't seem to get the hang of coordinating the fret buttons on the one hand with the rhythmic strumming on the other. My mother-in-law fell into this second group.
It's a shame, because she was definitely eager to try the game out, and seemed to understand how to play. In practice, she just couldn't quite master the precise timing and finger movement needed to match the on-screen prompts. She accompanied her first few virtual guitar performances with lots of head-shaking and nervous laughter as she put up scores in the 30- to 40-percent range.
After valiantly trying and largely failing to improve on a few songs before dinner, I figured my mother-in-law would take the position of my other friends without a knack for the game: "All right, I tried it; I couldn't get it; I'll just watch from now on." So I was pleasantly surprised the next day when, as we were returning from the break-fast meal at a cousin's house, she piped up with a request: "Maybe when we get back, we can play some more Beatles."
Maybe it was the power and appeal of the Beatles music. Maybe it was the company and a chance to connect with family through the game. Maybe it was a simple determination to get better. Whatever it was, I was impressed that my mother-in-law was willing to face the game again, after struggling so much on her first attempt. And the determination definitely paid off; on the final song we played before retiring to bed, she finally broke the 60-percent scoring barrier -- a passing grade! She's not going to be competing in the World Series of Gaming any time soon, but what does that matter when you're having so much fun?
5. My dad can sleep through anything
While I knew we were never going to convince my dad to actually play TB: RB along with us -- this despite his love for classic pop music and his experience as a singer and accordion player in his youth -- he did reluctantly agree to watch the rest of the family play. He was quiet in his recliner as we struggled to set the game up (See No. 1, above). When we finally played through our first song, I was eager to gauge his reaction to the game, even as a spectator. But when I looked over, he was already fast asleep. He couldn't even make it through one song!
Through the rest of the night, the TV remained cranked up to near-deafening levels, and my mom and I continued to belt out the tunes at relatively high volume, but my dad continued to doze on his recliner, just a few feet away. I wasn't that surprised, since I share the genetic ability to fall asleep in practically any situation. But I was still mildly impressed that he could stay unconscious through a din that threatened to wake the dead. I was also impressed that, despite MTV's marketing, there was apparently as least one a Baby Boomer who was utterly uninterested in the merger between the Beatles and videogames. Way to prove 'em wrong, Dad!
6. Everything is better when your family is cheering you on
When we started playing TB:RB at my in-laws', just before the pre-fast dinner, it was just me, my wife and her parents. By the time dinner was ready, though, we'd accumulated a small audience of aunts, uncles, grandparents and others watching the proceedings. Without fail, at the end of every song, every one of these spectators would burst into applause and cheers, regardless of the quality of our actual performance.
I've had people applaud me after rhythm-game performances before, but it's usually polite, ironic applause -- the kind you give grudgingly when you realize you just spent five minutes watching someone master a fake instrument or do an awkward pantomime of dance. At my in-laws', though, the quality of the applause was different. It was infused with interest in the novelty of the game, with enthusiasm for the performance, and with love for the performers. The difference was incalculable.
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