Guitar Hero II: Playing vs. Performing a Tune

I have been playing a Guitar Hero II lately, and I enjoy it immensely.
And yet, there is something disconcerting about the relation between the “frets” (the colored buttons) and the notes that are actually played. On an actual instrument, frets or keys really do correspond to specific notes being played – hitting the A string with your finger on the 3rd fret will consistently play a C. In Guitar Hero the relation is, well, inconsistent.
It looks like we can divide music and rhythm games into those that involve actual playing and those that are about performing.

In Donkey Konga (which I love), Taiko no Tatsujin, or Singstar, the activity of the player is consistently translated into specific sounds that are part of the music. Dance Dance Revolution, on the other hand, is about performing a choreographed sequence along with the music.

And this is where Guitar Hero II fits as well – you don’t play the music, but you perform a choreographed sequence. Performing this sequence just makes the music play correctly.

Guitar Hero‘s emphasis on performing cool/daft rock clichés does go very well with the performance aspect of the gameplay. And the emphasis on style is what Guitar Hero really adds to GuitarFreaks.

While music and rhythm games are popular, there is also a fear of music[al notation] running through them – all of them eschew common musical notation in favor of something homemade.

In Singstar, why is there no option to make the game display the tune with proper musical notation instead of the colored rectangles?

And worse, in Guitar Hero, why isn’t there an indicator for triplets? (Triplets: Think about the intro in Killing in the Name). As it is, you have to read ahead and divine from sub-pixel positions of the indicators that the note sequence coming up is actually a triplet. A triplet sign would be nice.



I can’t play by ear, but on occasion I have a flash of insight where I realize how to play part of some tune on the piano. That is always very strong – the experience of pressing keys not because they are choreographed, but because I can feel that these keys are the tune. Playing from notes is mostly a combination of those two experiences, following a choreography from the sheet, and pressing keys because those keys are the tune.

Is there something inherent in the music/rhythm genre that makes it hard to make a popular game that really could be played by ear? Singstar can be played by ear, but one with an instrument?

25 thoughts on “Guitar Hero II: Playing vs. Performing a Tune”

  1. To say it’s a “fear of music” is ridiculous… it’s a fear of musical notation, music’s not-easy-to-pick-up-and-understand UI, if you will.

  2. I have been experimenting with the formula for musical games for a while now; broadly I would say that the problem comes from the ‘rhythm-action’ formula that these games are predicated on: perform the sequence on the beat. The reason? It is easy to qualify response to rhythm since it is an objective measure – a response is either on or off the beat. A measure of creativity, which realises the true joy of music is made extremely difficult due to the subjective nature of the evaluation and so a popular game which could be played by ear cannot be made without some progress toward a solution for this metric.

    It seems to me that the frustrations you describe are a product of games which act as a simplified simulation of the learning process for an instrument, clearly progress can be made in accurately evaluating how well a player reproduces music on an instrument, but would this make a popular game, or even a game at all ?

  3. I suppose there’s a good reason why Guitar Hero‘s considered a rhythm game, and not a music game.

    I consider myself a rhythmic person, but utterly musically retarded. If Guitar Hero were designed as an accurate facsimile of playing a guitar, I would never be able to get into it.

    Instead, what Guitar Hero recreates is not playing the guitar, but rather rocking out. It promises the facsimile of an experience which must otherwise be attained after years of training.

    Would some musical consistency have negatively affected Guitar Hero? I don’t see how it could. I just suppose Harmonix was too busy coding the game’s badass-ness to think about how actual musicians might react to the game’s flippant use of the controller’s inconsistency.

  4. Obviously the game has a high level of abstraction from being a music game that makes is more of a rhythm game, and I am sure RedOctane did that to keep the game as fun as they could. However your point does raise the question of wither a real guitar and game combination could be used in an entertainment context to actually teach real guitar playing.

    I have played a piano trying to hit the right note to time on a virtual music sheet, but the lack performance feedback made the whole experience very bland.

  5. We don’t see a great deal of games trying to teach people a new skill, do we? We instead see a lot of games that teach people how to imitate that skill within the (got help me) “magic circle” of play.

    The one notable exception to this rule is the superb Bemani title ParaParaParadise. In addition to the DDR-esque modes of increasing difficulty, one mode actually helped teach you to perform the actual Para Para dances. A player could perform the actual dance routines (which involve mostly arm movements), and the game would score positively for the player’s accuracy.

    Best part of ParaParaParadise? Unlike DDR, you actually look cool doing it.

  6. Great points!

    I suppose another argument is that learning to play guitar or piano is actually very tedious at first. It’s one dreadful song after another. Who wants to do that.

    Instrument-playing games let you pretend that you are superbly skilled (i.e. rocking out) in a very short period of time.

    I haven’t tried Piano Hero, that is more like the real thing, though any sign of style is conspicuously absent.

  7. “Instrument-playing games let you pretend that you are superbly skilled (i.e. rocking out) in a very short period of time.”

    The appeal of the instrument facsimile/simulation/game relies on a compression of the learning curve, so arguably it is not just a pretence of being superbly skilled but also a satisfaction of learning something. In other words the reward of learning the instrument must also be delivered in a manor proportionate to the reduced learning curve.

    An excellent example (I believe) of this can be found in the Tony Hawks pro-skater series, you do not learn to skate in the real world, but you do learn a repertoire of dexterity which is analagous to skating in the game at a much faster rate than possible in the real world. The skill we learn as a simulacrum is still tangible.

    “Would some musical consistency have negatively affected Guitar Hero? I don?t see how it could.”

    In Guitar Hero, satisfaction flows from playing the ‘virtual guitar’ in the same way we skate the ‘virtual skateboard’ in THPS, inconsistency in the instrument reduces the ‘believability’ (if I may use such a word) of the instrument and so detracts from our feeling of learning a tangible skill.

  8. I haven’t played Singstar, but it looks very like Karaoke Revolution, which I have…and KR suffers from the same problem that Guitar Hero does. That is, they’re both fun on a certain level (GH more so), but a consistent musical notation system would have been very helpful, at least as an option. I’m constantly thrown off on KR because when a note is shown at a certain place on the staff (and by “note” I mean “line that means sing now”), I expect it to be the same actual note as it was the last time it was at that place on the staff. And it isn’t. I guess it’s just because I can read music that it bothers me, but still. That’s why it should be an option to use musical notation. And I’m not sure why that would’ve been so hard to do.

  9. While it might seem immediately logical to make this playing/performance distinction with regards to musical videogames, the division becomes murky once these same concepts are applied to non-musical games.

    The gameplay of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for instance, is all about ‘playing’ the environment and the particular spatial qualities of a level. Or rather, it is about playing a limited repertoire of movements on the part of the avatar *against* this environment. But to distinguish this instance of ‘play’ against ‘performance’ is problematic. The movements of the skater-avatar as they are played-through, are highly performative. They communicate a style and expression that is unique to the person (player) performing them at the time they are performed. Often times the pleasure of playing such games comes from the ability to perform a certain combination of stylish movements, or just out-perform another player in the room.

    Also, I don’t see how music videogames’ use of more basic, iconic musical notation has anything to do with a “fear of music”. It seems more likely this is allow non-professionals to engage playfully in the performance of music; and I doubt it has anything to do with repressed fears. If anything, it may introduce some gifted players to undertake formal musical training. ‘Singstar’ is in essence a glorified Karaoke machine, and while it might be possible to implement actual musical notation, such a modification would necessarily change the game fundamentally. Singstar as such, would then no longer be Singstar as such. (I would have thought a ludologist would be attentive to this detail!) Furthermore, a game like Guitar Hero is already limited by the game’s special guitar-controller. If actual musical notation was implemented, we would still be playing the same five notes (plus whammy) in the same physical movements.

    Given the traditional ludological position on games as games, I don’t understand why musical games, (qua games) bother you so much. It seems like this base notation of music is for you somehow ‘lower brow’ and less intellectually-rich, but when would such a musical game stop being a game and start being mere interactive notation? As for the distinction “performance/play”, it seems just another display of the ludological zeal toward vapid typologies and vacuous jargon-building that continues to clutter the serious study of videogames. That being said, I still don’t understand what a ‘ludologist’ actually believes.

  10. Eben – I don’t have anything against music games, I am a really big fan. I was just wondering why there never is anything like actual musical notation even when it would be useful, and what the relation is between playing and performing.

    I agree that it becomes murky if you try to extend the distinction beyond music games, but then why would you?

  11. I can think of many instances in which both concepts of play and performance would be useful in videogames that are not, de facto, music games. Is it not natural to assume there is also play and performance at work in racing games, skateboarding games, action/adventure games, FPSs, etc.? If this is the case it would be problematic to have two different sets of meanings for these concepts. (I.e., it is different to play and perform music than to play and perform videogames; the meaning is fundamentally changed in each act)

    I would think that the playing of music games shares something with the playing of non-musical games, and that our understanding of ‘play’ and ‘performance’ in both cases should be essentially similar. As you have pointed out in previous writing, all games and game genres are marked by unique temporal structures, so wouldn’t all games share in having this rhythmic, musical quality? Could the feeling of a gamer toward a well-known course in a racing-game be compared to the feeling of an opera aficionado towards an intimately known adagio?

    Whatever the consensus is on ‘play and performance’ in music games, I would submit that their essential meanings should be *harmonious* with their applications to other videogames and game genres.

  12. I am finding it very difficult to decide where a rhythm-action game (like GH2)
    fits into either play or performance as regards music; instinctively, I feel that play in a musical game would involve exploration of music (for example: Simtunes or Electroplankton) and that performance would involve showcasing the virtuosity learned through play. The rhythm-action mechanic cannot satisfy the experience of musical play because of the rigid nature of repeating onscreen sequences and the mechanic barely satisfies the experience of performance, since virtuosity is measured in how succesfully the player can repeat onscreen sequences, rather than in the true sense of the word.

    I would argue that the ability to perform is more prevalent in other forms of game in which we engage in a simulacrum of a real-world activity (racing, skateboarding, FPS) and think that improvement of a game like GH2 would not come from enhanced notation, so much as enhanced opportunities to be expressive in performance.

  13. I think Gazz’s chronology of play –> performance is definetely helpful here. The concept of performance is usefully tied to the notion of a learned skill. (No matter how asinine or rythmically uncomplex) The need for there to be some mode of expression is likewise crucial, otherwise our concept of performance risks becoming the same as a simple recital or routine. A musician who plays the work of another musician can’t help but place their own unique signature on the work, likewise for a translator of a novel or an actor performing in a play.

    Something that I find interesting about notions of performance and gameplay is how previously, ‘performance’ implied a performance in front of some kind of audience. But with videogames this need for an audience is suspect; the player’s own performance is being streamed back at them real-time as feedback in a kind of cybernetic circuit. So even though there is still a tendency to perform for others, and for a virtuoso to desire an audience, there is no need for an other audience in order for there to be performance. With many kinds of digital media, not just videogames, we perform ourselves back to ourselves continually, in a kind of ongoing ‘play’ of identity.

    If play –> performance –> play… does this just keep going? Are they just two sides of the same coin, or opposing poles in a spiralling dialectic?

  14. Also, previously when I wrote:

    “…our understanding of ?play? and ?performance? in both cases should be essentially similar.”

    what I should have written was:

    “…our understanding of both ‘play’ and ‘performance’ in either case should be essentially similar.”

    (I don’t want to be misconstrued as believing that the two are essentially the same.)

  15. You’re also all missing out on a crucial aspect of Singstar, DDR, Guitar Hero et al. and that’s being in the ‘audience’. DDR and their ilk are in particular voyeuristic as games. The performative aspect really isn’t a part of it when you are the player – at least in the early stages of learning the game – you spend all your time looking at the arrows and desperately trying to keep up. Fortunately this isn’t boring for the spectators because it is hilarious to watch and you want to have a go afterwards. The same is true for Guitar Hero.

    That’s not to say the other comments aren’t valid (though I don’t agree with the ‘fear of music’ – it’s more about compressed learning curve), but this is a crucial aspect.

    Just to be clear – there is a difference between performing and spectating in these games. I don’t think players really perform that much to the others – I think it’s more about building up your skill. The performance is almost a by-product, but that is nevertheless entertaining to watch.

    Also, it largely depends on what skill level you set the game on. On Pro (I assume it’s Pro in English, I played it in German) you really have to play most of the notes. On the simple level it’s pretty much just muting the guitar track on and off.

  16. Hi, I work at Harmonix and just found this blog. Probably it’s too late for anyone to notice this comment…

    In response to “I just suppose Harmonix was too busy coding the game?s badass-ness to think about how actual musicians might react to the game?s flippant use of the controller?s inconsistency.”:

    A lot of us here are actual musicians. Some people here basically sight-read the notes (just reactively press the buttons at the right time), but a lot of us (especially me) “read ahead”, trying to grasp the rhythm of a whole measure at once, and ever since our first game Frequency in 2001 we’ve tried to serve both crowds. One issue is that people in the first group can get intimidated if there’s a lot of stuff on screen that is just there to help the second group.

    You will notice that even though there’s no actual musical notation (and I think putting music notation in Guitar Hero would have been a big mistake, even if it would have been great for me personally), we mark bar lines, beat lines, and even half-beat (eighth note) lines, which is way beyond what most rhythm games do.

    I totally agree that triplets are hard to parse, especially when a line switches between duple and triple (I think Frankstein in particular has that problem). We tried a couple of ways to make the rhythm more clear but nothing stuck.

  17. Thanks for the details!
    Was it considered to allow a special mode with proper musical notation, or was there fear that non-musicians would be turned away if they saw that the game could be played in that way?

  18. It wasn’t seriously considered. For one thing, it wouldn’t really be akin to any sort of real guitar notation (either a treble clef or tablature); it would have to be more like the way you notate a percussion part, with each line representing a different thing to hit (frets in this case).

    Much more importantly, the opportunity cost would have been enormous. The programming team on Guitar Hero was very small, and we already were forced to cut important features (such as practice mode, which only made it in in Guitar Hero 2) to get the game out on time. But even for someone like me, who can sight-read musical notation more easily than a scrolling 3D track with colored gems, I think it would have detracted from the feeling of ROCK that Guitar Hero is all about.

    Now that I think about it, The Axe (our first product, a PC “game” in which you could improvise musical parts over backing tracks using a joystick instead of an instrument) did have a mode in which you could see the musical notation representing the part you were generating. It was kind of cool but I think most people preferred the other modes.

  19. I know loads of guitarists who know zip about tabs or music theory, play beautifully, and have picked up all their songs and riffs watching other guys play. Youtube is so great for this, means you can check out without going out, and replay.

  20. Another thing to think about, quite simply, is that the interface doesn’t really support the concept of true musical notation. The controller only has 5 buttons for fretwork and one “string” to strum. If the game were trying to approximate real musical notation, the controls would be pretty complicated.

    It’s simple, effective, and fun the way it is.

    I love playing my guitar, much to the chagrin of my roommates and neighbors. (I’ve been playing for slightly less than two years now).

    There’s a few things that I feel playing the game has helped with, however, it’s certainly helped me with the consistency of my strumming rhythm, and I think it’s been a help with my fretwork, since it’s helped me learn to move my left hand faster and helped strengthen my pinky and ring finger a bit.

  21. I would argue that the game interface is simply a different representation of standard music notation that is more engaging to the player. Most youths are either intimidated by traditional notation and instruction and consequently loose interest all together (c.f. Goolsby, 1999) or the absence of contemporary music leaves youths bored (c.f. Green, 2006).

    My own research is showing that youths are developing and/or building on their rhythmic intuitions (for more info on musical intuitions, see any of Jeanne Bambergers work). Also, the issue of motivation is also key to the importance of the game. From a cognitive (self) standpoint, games like Guitar Hero/Rock Band, have a tremendous impact on a players self-efficacy with it’s development of mastery skills (mimicking the actions of a musician), vicarious experiences (watching others succeed), encouragement from others, and physical affective states; all main points for developing efficacious individuals. From a social-cognitive perspective (the group), players, through legitimate peripheral participation, engage in a way that makes them feel as if they are learning to become a rock star.

    I’m not suggesting that these games replace practices in classrooms or private lesson studios. However, these games could be an influential tool in getting youth more interested in music.

  22. Mike,

    Thanks for the comment. I am not familiar with music pedagogy, but I will look at the reference you listed.

    As for your first point, about it simply being a different representation than standard music notation, don’t you think it is also a fundamentally incomplete representation?

    Guitar Hero only features five fret positions, which are then reused for different notes. In that sense, it does not really function as a system for musical notation?

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