Imagine you live in a future ruled by robots. It's not that hard—between Milo, Siri, and their pet AIBO, we're about halfway there already. So here you are, going about your afternoon break from work at the cyber-mill, and you stop by the "Museum of Rock And Roll."
It's an imposing metallic building, much like all buildings are in this, the Age of The Robots. Alone in the middle of the museum's cavernous atrium stands a half-stack guitar amplifier enclosed in a huge soundproof glass case, outside of which hangs a small guitar and a mounted computer monitor. You walk up to the display and put on a pair of headphones—inside this glass case, you can see that the amp is turned on, its red power light glowing with ancient, forgotten life.
(Stick with me, this is going somewhere.)
You pick up the guitar. Its idle hum is muted through the headphones, but you can still feel some faint power through the glass. You pluck at a few strings. The amp seems to respond, though its tone is filtered; distant, hushed. You fiddle with the computer screen but can't quite figure out how to turn the amp up, or to get it to make different sounds. You pluck some more, mystified by the thing in your hands. Did human beings once play these? What was their purpose?
Suddenly, a soothing voice comes over the public address system: break is over, time to return to the cyber-mill. You put down the guitar and shuffle off, back to your life of indentured robo-servitude.
So, that's pretty much what it's like to play Rocksmith.
Ubisoft's Rocksmith is a game with a great premise, and one which I grew to dislike and then genuinely loathe over time. I gave a somewhat unclear gut-check back when the game came out, saying that I was giving the game a symbolic "yes" only because I knew it would get a "no" overall. In retrospect (and after spending much more time playing the game), I can see that I should have been clearer. I'm a staunch believer in the potential for games to teach music (I learned drums in part because of Rock Band) but I can't get behind Rocksmith's approach.
A little bit about my musical background: I studied jazz saxophone at an intense music school and play a whole bunch of other instruments these days as well, including the guitar. (Here's me onstage looping a bunch of instruments at a show.) I've worked as a professional musician ever since graduating, gigging around San Francisco, composing and arranging music on commission, producing shows and recording bands, and I spent the last seven years directing a jazz ensemble at a local independent high school. Okay, musical bona-fides complete! Let's dig in.
With Rocksmith, players plug a real guitar into their console and use it to progress through a series of Guitar Hero-esque challenges, plucking the strings that correspond to a cascade of prompts on their TV. The theory is that this game will teach you to play the guitar, since it's designed around the actual instrument. The reality is that it merely demonstrates that game consoles are not up to the task of acting as dedicated amp-simulators, and that game designers do not necessarily make good music teachers.
Rocksmith's most immediate—and most problematic—issue is lag. After plugging my guitar (a G&L Telecaster) into my PS3 using Rocksmith's included USB-to-1/4" cable, I played a few notes and immediately noticed the lag between when I hit the string and when the note sounded on my TV's speakers. Lag is a common problem when playing through a cable-based audio/digital converter—the same thing will happen if you plug a mic into a computer via USB, or any other instrument. (Look to the noticeable lag in every Rock Band vocal performance for evidence of this.)
Software recording programs like Pro Tools and Logic often use what's called "low-latency monitoring" to deal with lag, which usually requires immediately flipping a dry signal back through the monitor speakers while simultaneously routing it into the recording software for processing. Rocksmith is, perhaps unsurprisingly, incapable of this trick, partly because in order to provide the guitar tones it's emulating, it has to slow down for at least a fraction of a second and process the dry audio from the guitar. I should note that lag will differ depending on your setup—I was running audio through an HDMI cable into my HDTV. Analog audio cables straight from the console probably help with this. But no matter what, there's gonna be some lag, and furthermore, I'd rather not rejigger my PS3's entire cable setup just to get the game more functional.
All that's a long way of saying that when you play a note in Rocksmith, it takes a moment for it to make a sound in the game. This is a big problem. I thought that I might get used to it—after all, I've played on plenty of recording sessions where there was some lag between what I played and what I heard through my headphones, and I've always been able to work around it. But in a game like this, responsiveness is key—in order to feel a sense of mastery over the material, it has to feel like I know precisely when my notes are registering. Due to the lag, I never did.
Rocksmith's notation focuses on the horizontal aspects of the guitar, rather than the vertical. Let me explain: Rock Band 3's pro guitar mode laid the six guitar strings out horizontally and marked frets and fingerings using a sort of modified tablature. Rocksmith lays the neck out across the bottom of the screen from left to right, and assigns colors to the various strings. It may just be because I'm used to Rock Band's method, but I don't find Rocksmith's approach to be as successful an approximation of guitar tablature.
Notes in Rocksmith are represented by colored squares that line up with the fret and string that you should be plucking. Chords are represented by translucent squares around the smaller colored squares, and various techniques demonstrated by variations in the colored squares… even when playing Rock Band, it seemed that this was not the most efficient way to learn the guitar. After all, if you're serious about learning the instrument (and a $200 game/guitar purchase suggests that you are), you're going to have to learn tablature (or even written music) at some point.
It doesn't have to be a frickin' Strobosoft, but you could at least give me a tuning needle. Hell, my iPhone has a better tuner than this.
Okay, the notation isn't great, but it's not a deal-breaker. It's when it combines with the audio lag that it becomes one. As I played, I could never tell quite how I was doing—in a change from Rock Band and Guitar Hero, the guitar in Rocksmith makes sound as you play, so I would strike the string in time with the song only to hear my note come out a fraction of a second later. It gives things an unpleasant doppler effect and leaves the game feeling imprecise. I found a workaround by splitting my signal and routing one cable to my actual guitar amp and another into the game, but even then it was hard to tell if the game's reaction was matching up with what I was hearing.
Imprecision abounds outside of proper gameplay as well—Rocksmith's tuner is hilariously forgiving, essentially telling you that you're in tune if your fifth string sounds like an "A." Dude, Rocksmith, tuning is more complicated than that! Couldn't you have included an option for a more granular tuner? It doesn't have to be a frickin' Strobosoft, but you could at least give me a tuning needle. Hell, my iPhone has a better tuner than this.
Rocksmith also commits the cardinal sin of starting out with most of its content locked. And here's where my hesitant distaste for the game bloomed into eye-rolling disdain. Rocksmith may have a deep setlist with a variety of guitar sounds and a huge number of advanced options for playing songs, but I'd never know, because they are all kept locked away until the game decides that I've earned them.
Locked content in music games has always been an annoyance—if I want to fire up the game and play the hardest, most out-of-my-league song on the disc, I damned well should be able to! But Rocksmith almost redefines the concept of locked content—as far as I can tell, you can't even adjust the difficulty of a song until the game deems you worthy. The game "reads" how you're doing and advances you accordingly.
Bullshit. When I learn music, I often like to jump in, try something that's over my head, then back up, slow down, turn on the metronome and get methodical. I don't need to be spoon-fed and I don't need to have my pacing dictated to me, so when Rocksmith has me playing, say, every fourth note of the guitar riff from the Stones' "Satisfaction," it makes me want to go Pete Townshend on my television. I understand that some beginners will need structure, but tying content to progression in this kind of game remains frustrating.
Locked content also causes Rocksmith to trip over what might have been its most fun feature—a freeplay room where players can simply rock out using all of the game's digital amps and pedals. What a cool idea! I went to this area expecting to flip through the game's various amps and effects, to compare them to the tones on my POD and the sounds I can get in Amp Farm. Oh, hang on… everything here is locked. And again I'm face to face with the often frustrating ridiculousness of video games—if Rocksmith had simply been marketed as a music teaching program, it would be unthinkable for it to hide so many options behind gamey, progression-based walls.
And that's the heart of the problem, really. Rocksmith is packaged like a music teaching tool but it still acts like a video game. Time and again it demonstrates a disconnect between the game designers who built the game and the advisors who were brought in to help with the educational components. With the right creators and integration, Rocksmith could have been a tool designed by the folks at Berklee College of Music to supplement their (terrific) online guitar lessons. But alas, no.
But more than that, Rocksmith simply lacks soul. And what's music without soul?
And here now, the inevitable Rock Band 3 comparison. There are similarities, yes, but only insofar as both games offer the ability to play a real guitar into a game console. The difference between the two games is that in Rock Band 3, the pro guitar communicates via a MIDI controller built into the guitar itself, while the Rocksmith guitar communicates via an analog signal direct from the guitar's instrument cable. It's not an insignificant distinction, in that only Rocksmith can play back the actual sound of the guitar, and you can only use your own guitar with the game.
But unfortunately, the aforementioned lag leaves Rocksmith's single innovation feeling flawed and unsatisfying. To continue the comparison and stack Rocksmith up against RB3's other options is ridiculously unbalanced—Rocksmith lacks Rock Band 3's multiple instruments, game modes, party features, vocal harmonies, campaign, pro keyboards and drums, and its incredible and still growing setlist.
But more than that, Rocksmith simply lacks soul, a quality that Rock Band has in spades. And what's music without soul? There is perhaps no better illustration of this deficit than Rocksmith's opening cinematic, which depicts a group of live-action male torsos holding Epiphone guitars and playing a generoballs rock tune in E while the camera intercuts with car-porn style closeups on other Epiphone guitars. Yeesh.
There's this awesome moment that occurs when a young musician first realizes the almost mystical power of his or her instrument. A saxophonist first blows through his horn and makes a giant, squawking note; a guitarist runs her pick down the strings, making her amp groan and hum with life. There's an immediacy to music, this primal aspect that makes it so universal and powerful. It's why we dance! When we play, we are extending ourselves into the realm of sound and feeling, and our musical instrument is the conduit to that realm.
Teaching music is a fundamentally human act, and it can only be properly done with soul and love. This joyous humanism is something that Harmonix managed to capture in Rock Band, but it's something that Ubisoft has forgotten to include in Rocksmith. Their game's experience is a hollow one, far removed from the grit and the pulse and the noise of the electric guitar.
I could voice my fear that Rocksmith is a signifier of the sterile robotic future I described in my introduction. I could shudder at the thought of the day when we teach music in the way that Rocksmith suggests: by plugging students in to game consoles and leaving them in the locked, aseptic confines of a digital rock 'n roll simulator.
But that day won't come. Music is far too mysterious and dirty and human to ever be tamed by a digital contraption, particularly not one as uninspired and ultimately forgettable as Rocksmith. Let the robots have it.