By Leigh Alexander. It may be the Summer of Gaming here at Kotaku, but for many Brooklyn neighborhoods, the season's long, hot days mean just one thing: weeks of non-stop band shows. No, not Rock Band — real bands. Is there common ground?
Lingering sunlight and mild evening temperatures on weeknights make great excuses to drag happy hour till midnight - who needs sleep? On the weekends, practically the entire neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Bushwick and Greenpoint take to the streets for block parties, backyard barbecues, rooftop shows and packed loft parties held unglamorously without air conditioning. No matter where Brooklyn's denizens are getting their Summer on, one common thread ties it all together: music.
Hitting the neighbourhood for sweltering, sun-drenched shows feels worlds away from indoor gaming time, and watching rock bands feels so different from playing band games that I decided to try an experiment in bringing the two worlds together. My plan? To grab one of the most celebrated party bands I know and force them to play Rock Band with me.
Can one of ChangeUp Mag's top contenders for "New York's Best Party Band" outdo me on the plastic guitar? Would they enjoy the game? And finally, we strive to answer the long-running question: is playing Rock Band anything like being in a real band?
I knew right away whom to consult for my experiment. Local act GunFight! maintains a high reputation as one of the area's best party bands. Anyone who's attended one of their densely-packed, yet still-intimate, performances can see why. There's something infectious about the group's unmistakable blend of hard metallic rock with country-twang — "post-country," as it's been called — that transforms even the most heat-wilted and booze-dazed party crowds into rowdy, cheering dancers.
Know when you're on a real good streak at Rock Band and the crowd's going wild? Yeah, it's like that. And just like group-play band games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, GunFight!'s built its reputation on crowd-pleasing good times. Local experts Jezebel Music has called them "rootsy but fresh," and challenges "anyone who cares to think they can party harder than the four Bushwick boys."
Those four boys: frontman Drew Mintz, guitarist Bill Dvorak, bassist Anthony Aquilino (known to appear in his underwear on special occasions) and drummer Dominic Turi, himself a frequent rooftop party host, possessed a healthy dose of scepticism that there could be much common ground between music video games and, y'know, real bands.
But one sunny Summer Sunday evening, between an all-day waterfront show and a Lower East Side show by the shoegazey Quiet Loudly (bassist Aquilino's other project), I accomplished no mean feat: Herding all four of the famous GunFight! boys indoors for some Rock Band.
While Aquilino says his brother could "write the bible" on band games, he himself has only played a few times, and the rest of the band even less. But all of GunFight has some gaming love: Dvorak fondly recalls Metal Gear Solid, Aquilino played Final Fantasy games, and Mintz says he played innumerable hours of SimCity.
All the guys remember playing hours of Goldeneye with friends in the college dorms, and Mintz says he once saved up all of his coins in a green Crayola bank to get himself a Game Boy. He not only has plenty of memories of Monkey Island and other adventures, but says the game he's most looking forward to is Uncharted 2. Maybe there's some commonality between the band and the video game scene after all.
"This is kind of like our real practices," quipped Mintz warily, when I encountered my customary difficulty in trying to untangle the instrument wires and connect them all - and when guitarist Dvorak was a hair too sauced to realise he wasn't helping the effort by strumming the plastic guitar all over the menu screen.
My expectations for how the band would take to Rock Band were initially low, especially when the microphone kept disconnecting, preventing an experiment in how Mintz's signature howling vocals might translate to the game. As the Rock Band quartet lost Dvorak's attention in favour of the Persona 4 stuffed toy he found in my living room, I helpfully set all the other instruments to "easy' and hoped for the best.
Stunningly, after only a couple of songs, Aquilino and drummer Turi were playing like pros. "Will it mess up your article if I turn it up to hard?" Turi looked over his shoulder to ask, twirling the sticks.
Before long, the two were in sync to skyrocketing scores - yes, Turi was better on the drums in just a few minutes than I am after months of consistent, albeit casual practice. And Aquilino moved with the bass the same way he does with a real one. You should have seen their unison bonuses.
The band also seemed in good spirits, having enjoyed Rock Band far more than they expected to. And so was I — with no musical inclination of my own, playing Rock Band with GunFight! is about as close as I'll ever get to the guitar-god fantasy current band games thrive on promising. I still played fake-guitar better (of course), but the fun of Rock Band is about the group experience, not competition - and there, we began to uncover real layers of commonality between bands and band video games (aside from the fact that Aquilino likes to play both real and plastic instruments in his underwear).
During our session, I was able to find an unlikely parallel between the game we played and the music GunFight! Performs. I feel the same surge of joy as when I'm playing fake guitar well. The band tells me that the strong community vibe their music encourages has a lot to do with its country influences. "There's something very universal about country music," says Aquilino. "There's an appeal that speaks to us as Americans, since country music is really one of America's main contributions to music."
It's this universality that appeals to Mintz, too. The boys said that, being a less-technical musical form, country music is also more accessible. "People who weren't trained musicians taught themselves to play," he said. "It's kind of like a working class form of music that is just something that appeals to everybody who's ever been miserable at their day job."
A musical form with a low barrier to entry that people use to enjoy community and a sense of escape from the mundane world? Sounds a lot like Rock Band. I'm certainly not miserable at my day job, but like all gamers, I had to teach myself to play those music games – and aren't they credited with being less "technical" than more complex next-gen titles, thereby inviting new audiences in? The idea of "accessibility" is as essential to music's appeal as it is to games, I realised. While GunFight!'s lifestyle — band shows all weekend, parties all night — may seem like a world separate from my living room video game performances, it looks like we're drawn to our respective pastimes for similar reasons.
GunFight! couldn't agree, though, that the core experience of playing band games necessarily correlates to the act of playing music. But Aquilino conceded that the games offer some positives for music: "It puts music in the hands of people who might not ever think about playing otherwise," he suggested.
"The pictorial representation of music is not necessarily accurate to the way one would think when they're playing an instrument," added Mintz. "And when we play, it's a very physical process — I don't think you necessarily get that playing a video game."
But aren't I going to be a little better a guitar thanks to Guitar Hero and Rock Band than I would have otherwise been? "It's not even relevant," said Turi flatly. Having played with the fake instruments, the entire band agreed the skillset doesn't translate at all. We got more beer, and the drummer decided to console me for my lack of musicality by discovering my nail polish and painting my left foot pink and my right foot blue.
"I can't even make a power chord with that thing," complained Dvorak of the plastic guitar. "And I've never played a set where I hit the 'right' note and was then rewarded with so many cheers and points." Although among us Bill was the one by far who'd had the most to drink, he raised the most salient point – performing is a fluid, responsive thing, not something to be done "right" or "wrong," or "win" or "lose."
"You're missing the creative experience," Aquilino tells me. But when I told the band about the newly-announced feature that will allow bands like theirs to upload their own tracks to play and sell on the Rock Band Network, they seemed a little more interested. "That's really cool," he said. "That's probably adapting it more to further introduce people to the process of being in a band, that maybe would never pick up an instrument otherwise."
Overall, GunFight! had fun with Rock Band. And for this gamer? I love getting out into their world every weekend for the summer music season, and I wish more gamers would go out and try real music. The sun's been good for me. And the band seemed to enjoy their visit to "our" world of games – in fact, when Dvorak asserted he'd rather play Mortal Kombat than Rock Band, our visit devolved into a discussion on fighting game supremacy between MK and Street Fighter. They may not be pure gamers, but GunFight! understands that this is an important topic. Given that it was such a successful ambassadorship, I asked the guys if they'd consider having regular Rock Band parties.
"Only if it was naked," says Dvorak.
"You might want to cover your consoles in plastic," warned Turi.
"I just want them to bring back SimCity," said Mintz.
Said Dvorak, "That hasn't gone anywhere."
[Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]