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Is it VGM? – Guitar Hero – “Wanna Be a Guitar Hero” (Monkey Steals the Peach)

January 14, 2010

Today’s installment of “Is it VGM?” is really a question of music games in general, particularly those using licensed music. If we loosely define vgm as “music that plays in a videogame” and include pieces like “Moonlight Sonata” in our list of vgm, shouldn’t we treat the music from games like Guitar Hero the same? As a case study for this question, I present “Gonna Be a Guitar Hero” from Guitar Hero by Monkey Steals the Peach.

Guitar Hero – “Gonna Be a Guitar Hero” (Monkey Steals the Peach)

Guitar Hero and other games like it are designed to simulate playing music to give the experience of being a rock and roll star. The game is played by pressing buttons on a guitar controller that correspond with a series of notes streaming down on the screen. Songs appearing in the games are covered by the Guitar Hero music team, with each instrument recorded and encoded separately.

Now “Gonna Be a Guitar Hero” is a somewhat special case for licensed music as its lyrics in many ways refer to the game itself. However, the title does not seem to have been composed specifically for the game, but was likely the inspiration for the game’s title. (The band name, on the other hand, seems a reference to a ninja ball-grab move, whose name I would like to think is a reference to Journey to the West. But you know, peach-stealing is also something monkeys do anyway). But the question remains of whether we should approach licensed music in music games differently than we would say licensed music in film or even a game soundtrack in general.

Many vgm reviewers will tend to avoid discussing licensed music when they talk about vgm. This is understandable because there is certainly a distinct difference in composition and use of music (licensed or otherwise) in traditional videogames. After all, there is a different approach to composing a song to match the feel of a particular scene, character, or level of a game than having the composition of the song determine the kinds of gameplay (i.e. the timing of buttons). If we were to even take a vgm tune and place it within a music game (such as a Super Mario Bros. remix in Donkey Konga), it would change the way we think about and interact with the music, considering it as both a song and a “level” of gameplay rather than solely as music for a game level – a distinction that becomes clearer with Vib Ribbon, which generates the game level based on the music put in the PlayStation.

It’s also interesting to note that game developer also make a distinction between original and licensed music, with the Game Audio Network Guild giving Guitar Hero “Best Use of Licensed Music” for 2005 (the musicians who recorded Guitar Hero – a collection of five veritable guitar bandits – also performed an absolutely kick-ass rock performance on stage at the GANG Awards, a feat beaten only by Koji Kondo, the Lucasarts band, and Chris Kline’s appearance in 2008). However, game developers also recognize that it is still game audio, granting the soundtrack “Most Innovative Use of Audio” for 2005; the game also received the “Excellence in Audio” award at the Game Developers Choice Awards at GDC.

Personally, I have to say music games fall into a special category of vgm; they fall in the gray area of defining what vgm is. The fact that the music appears within the game (or at least the cover recordings) might at first seem reason enough of calling it part of a ‘video game soundtrack’ just as we did “Moonlight Sonata”. However, they are not vgm as traditionally defined – music generates gameplay rather than supporting the play experience. Thus, the potential of any song to become a track in Guitar Hero, a fact especially true of customizable soundtracks for games such as Vib Ribbon and Audiosurf, throws further curve balls into the discussion of defining what game music is where hypothetically any song can suddenly become ‘game music’ (and vgm can suddenly become the soundtracks to multiple games). Perhaps I will leave the cover recordings in as a technicality (or at least let them hover in the gray area), but otherwise the definition of the term simply becomes too broad so as to become meaningless, and so I am forced to draw a line here.

Here’s the song’s lyrics so you can sing along while pondering your own conclusion:

I’m so sick and tired of being bored,
Had it up to here with being ignored.
The kids that walk by in their tired haze,
Lookin’ for a place just to have their say:

Gonna be a guitar hero!
We finally got our way!
Gonna be a guitar hero!
Gotta get on stage today!

There’s too many players that we despise,
Gotta find a way to equalize —
Decimate the robots down on the floor:
That’s what i use star power for!

Gonna be a guitar hero!
We finally got our way!
Gonna be a guitar hero!
Gotta get on stage today!

Guitar!

Hero!

Guitar!

Gonna be a guitar hero.

And now for a rant. Some people – mostly musicians (in my eye closet Luddites) – have claimed and complained that Guitar Hero and its ilk are somehow ruining music by preventing youngsters from picking up real guitars (angst that is no doubt springing from the changing nature of musical listening and the weakness of the music industry in general). This is all so much hogwash. While the games do not teach a player to play music while simulating the illusion of playing, what Guitar Hero does for game players is introduces them to new music they may not have heard before as well as present a new and unique way of listening to music. I can personally attest to having little interest in mainstream rock music before picking up the game; the comfortability of being able to hear the music within the safety of Guitar Hero while simultaneously ‘performing’ the music allowed for a greater appreciation that would not have been possible through radio alone. Timing notes accurately gives players a sense of rhythm and notation through ‘visual listening’, and when coupled with player performance gives a sense of intimacy with the music that might otherwise be missing. Whether it gets some kid interested in picking up an instrument or not is beside the point to me – what these games do is provide greater exposure and appreciation of rock music (a fact that has been confirmed by phenomenal increases in music sales for songs included in the games). The only downside is that no compilation albums have been released combining all the music from the games in one place (something that seems to me fairly doable on iTunes).

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