It’s official: we had heard rumblings that game maker Harmonix was about to announce something, and it’s here. It’s a collaboration directly with the Beatles to make something that isn’t Rock Band or Guitar Hero — something completely new. And something completely new is exactly what’s needed.
Before Guitar Hero and Rock Band, before being purchased by MTV/Viacom, game developer Harmonix were a very different creative house. Co-founders Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy were MIT friends whose first project was an application that let you play guitar with a joystick. (Sounds like a research project you might read about here.) Their interactive music games were influenced by the explosion of Japanese titles like PaRappa the Rapper and Beatmania, to be sure. But part of what made FreQuency and Amplitude so important was that they offered more than just a simplified music experience. They were digitally-powered acid trips, with VJ-style video clips playing up buildings and surprisingly sophisticated interfaces that remixed the music as you played.
Make no mistake about it: Guitar Hero and Rock Band are brilliant titles with a fair dose of musical integrity in the way they abstract playing experiences for broader audiences. But there’s no question some of the original creativity — the sense that the game experience was unlike any other experience — is missing. And in this pumped-up HD age, in which surreal game experiences like intra-dimensional navigation in Portal or ambient floating cartoon paramecia in Spore, it’s hard to wonder if gamers who weren’t ready to snap up FreQuency a few years ago might be ready now.
So while rival Activision bakes a watered-down GarageBand-style app into another iteration of Guitar Hero, it’s intriguing, at least, that Harmonix is working with the Beatles. And they really are working with surviving Beatles and Beatles Significant Others: Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono Lennon, and Olivia Harrison. (Okay, I’d like to see a special Yoko-inspired game on Xbox Live Arcade.) Most interesting, producer Giles Martin, heir to production legend Sir George Martin
and producer of the Love project with Cirque due Soleil, twice a Grammy winner, and the man behind The Beatles Anthology is involved, too. (See a great story on him in Sound on Sound.)
Let’s get straight to the point: for the band that made virtual acid trips mainstream decades ago, it’s time for a new, digital trip. (They do describe it as a “journey” through the Beatles’ work, after all.) I think the Beatles make a perfect choice. I can’t count the number of people I know in music composition who were addicted to Beatles records as kids — not the Beatles’ generation, but their offspring in the 80s and 90s.
And despite the intervening decades, Yellow Submarine still looks imaginative and bizarre. If gaming can do anything, it can take music we’ve heard a zillion times and make it new. It can make our regular experience, the reality around us feel a little different. Rock Band has proven to be a trojan horse: it’s literally driven up sales of real instruments. That’s proof that making something palatable to a mass market can help get them hooked on new kinds of experiences. Can a Beatles game feel less like interactive documentary or re-hashed Guitar Hero, and more like a groovy, retro journey into the strange imagination that turned a lot of us on to recording, music, visuals, and … uh … animations of strange creatures? I think so. Can’t wait to see what comes out.
PS — I want to play as George.