A week before my visit, Yoko Ono spent a day at Harmonix, tweaking. “Stop talking about the technology,” Rigopulos said she told them. “Let’s talk about the idea of what we are trying to accomplish here. John needs to own the performance, he needs to own the room. Where he’s looking and the look in his eye at every moment matters and affects people.” For the developers who were in the late stages of work and more than a little burned out, it wasn’t exactly a pleasant visit. “You can’t tell a computer, ‘Make his eyes look good,’ ” one artist pointed out to me. “You have to create a quantifiable system,” plotting “interest points” in key places and programming characters to look at those points at key times, say, at the other singer when they both lean in to the microphone, or at the camera when it passes by. Ono told me later that “John had this look that showed he was high-spirited and strong-willed,” which wasn’t coming through in the game.
Just as Giles Martin chose to walk a line between reality and fantasy when choosing and mixing the audio, Harmonix put an extraordinary amount of research toward a result that is at once meticulously detailed and purposefully ahistorical. They pored over reference books to determine which instruments the Beatles used on each song and studied photos of concert venues and their respective crowds in order to properly render 1960s fashion and hairstyles. When Olivia Harrison was worried that George looked a bit off, she invited the art team over to look through her personal photo archive — with a set of calipers. And when the designer of the guitar-shaped instrument controllers couldn’t find a high-resolution photo showing the wood grain on McCartney’s Höfner violin bass, he had the Höfner company send over a block.
Yet time and again there were places where compromise became necessary. Choosing to include “I’m Looking Through You,” a song the band never actually performed live, in the band’s Shea Stadium set meant having John play acoustic guitar on stage, even though the real concert was all electric. The later songs, set in Studio Two, essentially present as single, four-minute performances what were sometimes hours of multiple takes and overdubs, often tricked out with engineering effects. (The designers took their cue from a film the Beatles shot for the song “Hey Bulldog,” in which the actual recording session was artfully edited into a single take.) The psychedelic dreamscapes that enhance the studio period already suggest that the Beatles were travelers in an alternate space-time continuum rather than products of a particular cultural context. The blending of tiny doses of illusion into a portrayal that so adamantly declares its authenticity results in mythologizing.
McCartney said he believed this larger- and neater-than-life portrayal is the appropriate one. “I think it reflects where the Beatles are at,” he said. “We are halfway between reality and mythology.” But it is one thing to show the band playing as a seamless organism on “Hey Bulldog.” It’s slightly different to do so on “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” when Starr wasn’t even there, Harrison was fuming about being underappreciated and Lennon and McCartney were wielding their songs as weapons against each other. “This wasn’t during their happiest time,” acknowledges Chris Foster, the game’s lead designer. Again his team turned to a promotional film the Beatles themselves made, for “Revolution.” Lennon recorded the propulsive single version of the song in pointed response to the verdict by the rest of the band that his original arrangement was too slow. They filmed the song for British television, which allowed them to use prerecorded music but had rules against lip-synching. In order for Lennon to sing the first verse, he had to let McCartney take over his signature opening scream, and McCartney and Harrison chose to sing the background vocals from “the Glenn Miller version,” as it was dismissively called by Abbey Road engineers. “They worked together to make the right performance and to adapt their songs to the medium,” Foster said. “When it came time to put on a show, they put on a show.”
PEOPLE WHO PLAY Rock Band and Guitar Hero like to post videos of their efforts to YouTube. Almost inevitably, these attract comments like the following:
“pick up a real guitar”
“lets see you get a life, and actually get out of the house instead of been a loser and trying to show off with your ‘skill’ to touch plastic”
“you dont rock your a sad loser whos never gonna loose his virginity”
There is something about music video games that infuriates people. The hostility comes largely from musicians, although many people who enjoy these games are musicians themselves. Even people who are not offended by the games are frequently baffled by them. Olivia Harrison admits that her husband’s response to Rock Band probably would have been, “Why don’t they play real guitars?”
Gamers in turn are baffled by the criticism of what is, after all, “just a game.” People who play Halo or Gran Turismo are rarely asked why they don’t pick up a real gun or race real cars. You rarely hear that Monopoly is a waste of time because it doesn’t actually teach anything about buying hotels. The disparagement of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, then, suggests that music games do resemble actual performance, at least enough so that people feel the need to point out that they are not. Indeed a common defense of Rock Band is that it does teach musical fundamentals or at least inspires people to upgrade to proper instruments. MTV Games’ Paul DeGooyer likens Rock Band to the Kodaly method of music instruction, which assigned hand symbols to do-re-mi and involves using rhythmic tapping as pedagogical building blocks.
Kiri Miller, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Brown University who studies video-game music, says the two most common responses to the game are equally misguided. “Either these games are supposed to be teaching you some fabulous skill that we can celebrate or they are supposed to be having some terrible deleterious effect and turning you into some kind of automaton,” she told me. Instead of thinking of the games in relation, good or bad, to traditional performance, she finds them “compelling in and of themselves as a new form of musical experience.”
The hostility that people have toward Rock Band and Guitar Hero, she adds, is an expression of schizophonic anxiety — “schizophonia” being the composer R. Murray Schafer’s word for the split between music and its source, first coined 40 years ago to explain why an earlier generation was deeply troubled by the advent of recorded music. The way people came to terms with the phenomenon of recording, Miller explains, “was to create these really sharp distinctions between the live and the recorded. So we know what’s live, and it has its particular value and authenticity; and we know what’s recorded, and it also eventually has its particular value and authenticity.” Music gaming disturbs people because it upends those distinctions by adding to recorded music “this component of physical bodily performance that we think of as being a hallmark of liveness.”
Scorn for music gaming is thus related to scorn for lip synching. Miller, who identifies the games as “rock drag,” says it’s no coincidence that so much of the online vitriol takes the form of homophobic slurs, or that Guitar Hero was mocked by “South Park” as Guitar Queer-o. “I want to be careful not to drag us too deep into the valley of queer theory,” she said, before going on to explain that the hatred of Rock Band likely has something to do with people using their bodies in a way that fails to match expectations — they’re obviously not playing music, but it sure looks and sounds as if they are — and doing so in a way that is simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and sincere. For the Beatles to embrace this transgressive and supposedly juvenile and nerdy medium in such a public way is “a benediction” that only history’s most important rock group could give, Miller says. “I fully expect it may help me get more grants.”
In trying to create a new type of musical experience, Harmonix may also end up transforming the video-game experience. In describing The Beatles: Rock Band, Josh Randall, the creative director, uses words not often associated with games: “It is subtle, and it is sweet, and it is very embracing.” Alex Rigopulos said: “This game isn’t about winning. That’s generally not done in big mainstream games.” In the original Rock Band, you play gigs to earn money to buy a tour bus, etc. The Beatles version has no such overarching goals to achieve; it is “an experiential journey,” where rewards are doled out in the form of rare photos and trivia. You also do not play as any particular character. In Rock Band and Guitar Hero, there are avatars that represent the player. If you’re playing guitar in the Beatles game, however, you’ll most likely be playing along with George one moment and John the next. This was a design necessity, but one Harmonix embraced because it kept the focus on the songs. “You’re not trying to be a Beatle,” Chris Foster, the lead designer, said. “You are experiencing this music a little bit from the inside but also still as a fan.” The game is also relatively easy, which many gamers will see as a failing. But hard-core players who scoff at the lack of fiendish solos will miss the point. It “doesn’t look very complicated, and yet you’re hearing this perfect song,” Olivia Harrison told me. The cascading notes won’t always challenge an expert’s fingers, but they may help him or her see, literally, how the Beatles arranged simple musical components into gemlike melodies.
“It seems mature, like not in a derogatory way,” added Foster, who works in an industry where “rated M for mature” usually indicates excessive gore. That’s appropriate, considering that it was the Beatles who introduced sonic and intellectual complexity to rock ’n’ roll and developed it beyond the confines of the three-minute radio hit. “This is definitely legitimate art,” Yoko Ono said of Rock Band. “A lot of artwork that I’m doing is always audience-participation.” She considers the game in the same tradition as her 1964 book, “Grapefruit,” which sought to create communal happenings through simple instructions, on the theory that art gains meaning by being shared. “A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality,” John Lennon wrote in a blurb for a later edition.
“The music itself has a very strong power,” Ono said, “but that’s not as powerful as what people put in there for themselves.”
On the other hand, it’s possible the Beatles are simply too sacred an institution to be the catalyst for this new medium to reach its full potential. Rigopulos is right when he says there are no other artists with a broad-enough appeal and a rich-enough body of work to instantly expand the audience for interactive music. Yet precisely because of that, Harmonix had to “dial back” some of the interactive elements of its previous games, he acknowledges. Unlike in Rock Band, the Beatles game will afford players no opportunities to throw in quick drum fills or guitar flourishes of their own making. Harmonix’s earliest creations were about pure improvisation, and though these were unsuccessful, Rigopulos said he didn’t believe that meant interactive music games of the future would be as constrained as they are now. “There’s a spectrum between total freedom and total limitation. It hasn’t really been explored yet.” But if Rock Band took small steps into the future of more freedom, the Beatles version takes some big ones back.
For instance, in Rock Band and Guitar Hero, being booed offstage for a bad performance is so compellingly humiliating that it does perhaps more than anything else in the games to foster the illusion of performance. The Beatles, however, cannot be booed off the stage — how preposterous would that be? — soinstead the game cuts to a “Song Failed” screen.And if a player does well, the audience does not start singing along, another powerful tool in the earlier games’ feedback system. Once the Beatles enter the studio period, there isn’t even an audience to cheer louder for a well-performed solo. Fans of music gaming may find the near absence of feedback eerie. Meanwhile, the decision to make the Beatles game a “walled garden” from which songs cannot be exported and added to a party mix alongside other Rock Band tunes violates the central shuffle-and-personalize ethos of modern music consumption.
And while Harmonix sells most Rock Band downloads in the form of individual songs completely removed from the context of their original release, the downloadable Beatles music will be presented in the form of the band’s complete albums (although people will still be able to buy individual songs from the records). The first three albums scheduled for release are “Rubber Soul,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road.” The Beatles’ music may be best served by the philosophy of its own era, when artists constructed and controlled packages of music designed to be experienced in a precise way. But surely the promise of interactive music is that listeners — participants — will be able to add their own personalities to their favorite songs, adjusting and improvising on themes created by the musicians. If interactive music is to truly evolve, it may require more adventurous artists willing to set their songs free and embrace the consequences.
PAUL MCCARTNEY WAS cutting it close. It was the day before the E3 video-game convention in Los Angeles in June, and MTV Games was planning to kick off the festivities by unveiling The Beatles: Rock Band with a surprise appearance by all four shareholders. On the concrete loading dock behind the stage at a football stadium done up in the glowing green circles of the Xbox 360, everyone waited. It was 10:15 a.m., and someone had just heard from someone else that McCartney was on his way and would be there for his cue at 10:30. Alex Rigopulos spoke quietly with Giles Martin. Dhani Harrison greeted a succession of people, bowing slightly as he shook hands. Yoko Ono arrived, and Olivia Harrison welcomed her with a hug.
Inside his trailer, Ringo Starr sat quietly with his legs crossed in front of a makeup mirror. “It took me a while to understand downloading,” he said. “The last record was a wristband.” (His 2008 album, “Liverpool 8,” was released in the unlikely format of a USB drive that doubles as a bracelet, as well as on CD and MP3.) “The game is the biggest thing in the world right now, they tell me.”
Peering over his rectangular tinted glasses, Starr admitted that he’d tried to play Rock Band only once: “It’s impossible. I cannot watch the line going down and play at the same time.” The problem, he suggested, is that he’s a musician. People who like Rock Band, “they’re playing a game, they’re not making music. The music is already made.” The game, it seemed, perplexed him a little. “The kids are getting really great at this game,” he said, “but they couldn’t suddenly go and play the Staples Center.”
At 10:25, McCartney drove up behind the wheel of a blue Corvette. He put his arm around Ono and walked with her toward the stage. Inside the hall, MTV’s Van Toffler called out Dhani Harrison, then Olivia Harrison and Ono, and then, after they waved to the audience and retreated, he introduced McCartney and Starr, who danced onto the stage to the tune of “All You Need Is Love.”
In front of the crowd, Starr turned to McCartney. “So what do you think of the game?”
“I love it.”
“You love it?”
“O.K.” Starr turned forward again and took a deep, theatrical bow. “Thank you!”
The audience roared. The entire appearance lasted 75 seconds.
When it was over, McCartney returned to his trailer for a cup of tea with soy milk and sugar. At 67, McCartney, even up close, is still unmistakably the cute one. He smiled, the lines around his eyes crinkling, and unbuttoned his jacket as he sat down. Like Starr, he volunteered that he can’t play his own game, but he suspects that if it had been around when he was a kid, he would have liked it.
Would he have liked it too much? I asked. If his drive to play rock ’n’ roll had been satiated by a 1950s Guitar Hero, would the world have been robbed of the Beatles? “I don’t think so,” he said, shaking his head. “Knowing me and knowing my ambition.” He thought for a bit, then added that any kid who is going to become a musician anyway won’t decide to stop with a game. “They’ll get the Beatles down, but then if they’re that into music, they’ll just hook up with friends, like they do, and say, let’s try to write one of our own. I think that’ll always happen.”
The teacup clattered quietly on its saucer, and McCartney thought about the changes he’d seen in the music world. “There were no cassette recorders” when he and Lennon first started writing songs, he noted. “We just had to remember it. Then suddenly there were cassettes, then we were working on four track instead of two track, then you got off tape, then you’ve got stereo — which we thought just made it twice as loud. We thought that was a really brilliant move.” After the Beatles came CDs, digital downloads and now video games. “I don’t really think there’s any difference. At the base of it all, there’s the song. At the base of it, there’s the music.”
And the future? “In 10 years’ time you’ll be standing there, and you will be Paul McCartney. You know that, don’t you?” He made a sound like a “Star Trek” transporter. “You’ll have a holographic case, and it will just encase you, and you will be Paul McCartney.” He paused and then said, “God knows what that will mean for me.” Then he added slyly, “I’ll be the guy on the original record.”
Daniel Radosh is a contributing editor at The Week and the author of “Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture.” This is his first feature article for the magazine.