Two hours earlier, I bought Rock Band.
The box was heavy. Lighter than I expected, but still heavy. The edges of the cardboard dug deep into the flesh in my arms. This was way more work than I thought it would be. No video game was worth this effort. Surely.
Would I make it through customs with this unwieldy box of plastic? I couldn’t say for sure. I stood in Las Vegas Airport, minutes from check in, sweat dabbing, dribbling down on my forehead, tension in my gut. What am I supposed to do with this thing? Can I even leave the country with it? Is this legal? Technically no. Actually, I don’t know… I wrapped the box in two plastic bags and sealed it with tape to secure its safe passage across the pacific.
Finally, check in. No questions asked. The box and my luggage securely checked to Sydney. 20 minutes later I would be stopped and searched in customs. For some fucked up reason they would find traces of dynamite in my carry-on luggage — no biggie — my brand new copy of Rock Band was already trundling its way to the plane that would carry me home.
In 16 hours I would be a fully fledged, virtual Rock Star. In my own mind. Eyes closed, teeth biting my lower lip in a weird pleasure as I clumsily clicked my way through the solo in Detroit Rock City
Months before, I was lucky enough to see Rock Band early, in the form of a trailer.
Fresh faced 20-somethings rocking out to ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ in a sanitised white room. It looked ludicrous: catalogue models pretending to be rock stars in their tight fitted jeans and Colgate smiles. I also fell completely in love with it.
In love with the idea of it. Of taking the base concept of Guitar Hero and creating something ‘grander’. The progress mirrored that of the bedroom strummer. As a surly teenager you buy a guitar and practice alone in your room but what you really dream of is playing in a band, in front of thousands of screaming fans. In that sense Guitar Hero was just prologue, Rock Band was the real deal.
The launch of Rock Band in Australia may have been one of the most brutally mismanaged things I’ve ever witnessed in my time as a game journalist — hence the stressful episode in Las Vegas airport. By the time Rock Band was officially launched locally, I had been playing my imported version for a year. In that time EA had squandered a 12 month advantage and Activision was already playing catch up with Guitar Hero World Tour: featuring better instruments and a brand name that resonated more powerfully with mainstream punters.
But Rock Band was always the better game, it made the process of playing together as a band more seamless. Developers Harmonix had a better handle on song choice, what worked, what didn’t work. For the better part of a year it was the centre piece of my apartment. ‘You have to play this,’ my wife — a non-gamer — would say to absolutely every single person who walked through our front door.
Every single party. Every time a family member came for dinner. Any excuse. It’s possible that I spent more time playing Rock Band and its subsequent iterations than any other video game released this generation. The game was a constant in my life. Sometimes it was just something we did whilst other events were happening: BBQs, birthday celebrations. At other times it was the absolute reason for the party to begin with. ‘Come to our place,’ we’d say. ‘We have the Queen track pack’.
I can’t say for sure but, all up, I think I had around 500 Rock Band tracks in my collection. The ability to import tracks from previous games in the series — in addition to discs like LEGO Rock Band, Rock Band AC/DC — stole a significant chunk of my PS3 hard drive. Combine this with an unhealthy addiction to the Rock Band store and you have a ludicrously sizeable collection of tracks. It was almost impossible to manage. My HDD held an ungodly amount of music, to the point where people could shout out, ‘hey, does it have [insert song name here]?’ and I could usually answer in the affirmative.
Rock Band was — I’d argue — the greatest party game ever conceived. Part jukebox, part karaoke. A novelty to those playing for the first time, a well-balanced game worthy of mastery in the hands of experts. I played Rock Band alone. I practiced and learned like I would with any other game of note, but playing as part of a group? That provided genuine, joyous synergy. In many ways Rock Band was a finally tuned co-operative experience. You could have a novice drummer on easy, battering away out of time. If he failed miserably he could be rescued by the dextrous guitarist playing on expert. It felt good to rescue your fellow player and it felt good to be rescued — back into the fray with a glorious chance at redemption.
It was a game, it was a performance. A chance to bond over a shared love of music. A chance to talk about music, interact with music, remember your old favourites, introduce old or new songs to different generations. Rock Band was more than a game, it was a shared cultural experience. When you played Rock Band you were singing songs around a campfire. It was a seamless, perfect extension of that communal feeling expressed in video game form. It was, to coin a phrase, fucking awesome.
But it will be forgotten. I all but guarantee it. In 2013, as we make way for a new wave of technology, Rock Band is already a relic. In both the metaphorical and literal sense it is gathering dust. A drumkit lies unplugged in the basement/garage/spare room of almost every gamer and it’s difficult to see a future in which it can be resurrected.
It will be forgotten. Games like Red Dead Redemption, Super Mario Galaxy and Dark Souls will top the lists of games released in the last decade. We’ll reminisce about Mass Effect, BioShock, Grand Theft Auto V, The Last of Us. We’ll talk about those moments. Those singular, traditional video game ‘moments’. We’ll lionise them and we will ignore games like Rock Band.
Because Rock Band has a legacy forged in plastic. Its forebears were fads like Dance Dance Revolution and Drum Mania. Even at its peak no-one never really believed it was a genre that could permeate or sustain itself. In that sense Rock Band always felt disposable. As though it was designed and built to be forgotten.
And, make no mistake: we will forget. We’ll forget that, for an entire generation, we were all goddamn rock stars.