On a steel horse I ride
The event at MIT — part of a lengthy “world tour” in which, for the Boston stop, the game was demoed in the back of a semi truck and featured a performance from local umpteen-lead-singer rockers Bang Camaro— is actually my second time playing Rock Band, though it is my first foray into pounding the skins (as it were). The first was a recent semi-exclusive field trip to Harmonix’s offices on Mass Ave in Central Square, during which a handful of Phoenix staffers got a chance to play the game and film ourselves doing so for a video-blog entry. The team comprised myself, Will “Not Swallows” Spitz, Carly “Not Simon” Carioli, and three members of the Phoenix’s in-house band, Hookers and Blow. The Harmonix crew let us jam — or whatever the video-game equivalent of “jamming” is — for about two hours, which easily could have turned into four or five had their security staff not thrown us out on our oh-so-ready-to-rock asses.
The Harmonix receptionist is a guy with spiky hair and piercings who looks like he is in his 30s. Above his head on the wall is a framed illustration of The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, blissfully wielding a toy instrument: “Sitar Hero.” This building once served as offices for Harvard’s Korea Institute — the Harvard logo still adorns the plastic name cards on each door.
We’re led into a large room where Rock Band is being set up for us. This is Harmonix’s sacred inner-sanctum practice space, and it’s outfitted with a gigantic plasma-screen TV, a purple futon, a bunch of Christmas lights, and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s for, we’re later told by Sean Baptiste — Harmonix’s handlebar-mustachioed director of community relations and the de-facto spokesperson for Rock Band— “when the Narragansett runs out.”
There’s also more than one Xbox 360 gaming console, and a plethora of various Rock Band instruments, including the Fender Stratocaster–style guitar controllers, complete with an additional set of buttons high on the neck so you can solo like a pro. The walls are decorated with poster-size pictures of a bass-guitar headstock (the part with the tuning pegs) and a drum kit— icons that appear in Rock Band to help you differentiate your performance from those of your teammates. And it’s Friday, all-company lunch day, so the halls smell of egg rolls and lo mein. Harmonix, it seems, has come a long way since Guitar Hero was released two years ago.
Back then, the company hadn’t yet begun its world domination in earnest. Harmonix’s then–public-relations director showed up at Phoenix HQ to drop off a copy of Guitar Hero, which was, at the time, a PlayStation-only product. Somehow, it ended up in my possession, so a friend and I decided to try it out. I had played games like Dance Dance Revolution and found them to be, for the most part, goofy — games that only made you feel like a self-conscious buffoon. The music was mostly bad, the actual gameplay mechanics induced the stuff of recurring performance-anxiety nightmares (“I have to dance? In front of people?”), and the visual presentations were overly slick and busy, as though they were trying to mimic a lame music video. So I was skeptical about Guitar Hero. While similar games were (and still are) popular, it seemed like there was no way to make them actually cool.