We can't all be rock stars. Or can we? Why can't we all be rock stars? Who says we can't all be rock stars?
"They" say we can't all be rock stars. Who are "they"? Who knows?
Then we have the people who say they don't want to be rock stars. They say they'd rather lead a simple, calmer life.
Maybe a lot of this depends on your definition of a rock star. When some people hear the words "rock star," they immediately think of the smoke and flash of a mega-huge arena show featuring some aging five-piece band containing an entire city bus capacity of luxurious hair. They think of screaming groupies lined up along a velvet rope, or combusting fans waiting just beyond the security checkpoint at the airport. They think of internet shrines devoted even to the least incredibly popular member of the band. Maybe, sometimes, they think of the bad things, like cocaine, or dying on a toilet.
Really, though, all there is to actively being a "rock star" is that feeling Ian Brown of The Stone Roses had when he wrote the song title "I Wanna Be Adored." It's possible that you might accidentally become a rock star, in that you might find everyone around you adoring what you do. Maybe you're a rock star at something you don't like doing. Well, that doesn't work. Let's be romantic, here — it is the internet, after all — and say that, in the basic every-day-life-living sense, being a rock star implies that you "achieve the adoration and respect of others for doing something that you love doing". This is a pretty nice way to summarize it, because it also implies that "rock stars" who don't enjoy making music anymore are not, in fact, real rock stars. It's also a pretty nice summary because it allows for unspeakable thousands of grades of rock star: you can love cooking, and your husband or wife can respect and adore you because he or she loves to eat the food you make, and that's good enough to qualify you as a rock-star cook. However! We have an "if and only if," and this is where it gets tricky: if you love cooking and your husband or wife respects and adores you for cooking, this is enough to qualify you as a rock-star cook if and only if one person loving, respecting, and adoring you is enough to make you happy.
Hello. This is the sixth paragraph of this article, and the one where we'll start talking in present-tense: It's me, and I do believe this column couldn't possibly be complete without
A LONG ANECDOTE IN WHICH I COME ACROSS AS SOMETHING OF A JERK
Just imagine I'm writing all this with the following emoticon on my face: :-3
I've been in maybe four hundred and sixty-five failed bands in my life. The bands have all failed for a plethora of reasons so plentiful that we can't really blame any single one of them; what's worse, the reasons have overlapped and recurred so many times, at this point, that we can't even begin to think about blaming all of them. Maybe the solution to the riddle "why did all those bands fail?" is the same as the solution to "why are my biceps so weak?": genetics. Or maybe it's "my arms are too long." Or maybe it's just me. If we're lucky, we have less than one experience in our lives where, maybe sitting in our car, maybe stopped at a red light, maybe cruising at a hundred miles per hour down a barren highway, it dawns on us epiphany-like, and we utter with our minds' mouths the defeated mantra: "Or maybe it's just me."
It could be other peoples' fault, of course. It's always easy to blame other people, because that way you avoid the "Or maybe it's just me" moment. This is a difficult issue, and I feel like I'm making ill fun of the entire human race by not writing a two-thousand-page book in which I present a foolproof solution. For now, I'll just say that, at the end of the day, I arrived at a half-formed conclusion that my bands weren't working because we just couldn't get together a group of people with the same exact ideas, nor could we get together a single me that wasn't willing to compromise his own personal ideas. Ever since my first attempt at having a band, I have marveled at the stories of how famous and/or awesome bands got together. More often than not, they just happen to find each other. Lots of times, the guy playing drums didn't even play drums. He played guitar, and he just naturally happened to be able to play drums better than the other guitarist or bassist could. Lots of times, you have a member of the band deciding to put his own ideas on hold and "just play along" with these other goofs, because he knows that if he does that he'll possibly find financial freedom. Paying one's dues in the context of self-expression is a weird, speckled beast. Or maybe I only think this because I'm something of a jerk.
I played drums in some bands; I played bass in a couple of other bands. At the beginning, what I really wanted to do was write the songs and sing them. That's hard to do when you can't play the guitar, or as the guy who "just plays bass," or as the drummer. It's almost as hard to write a song as a nobody with a pretty average singing voice — and to convince some guitarist with years of experience writing his own songs — to try to play along to your singing as it is to drum and sing speed metal at the same time. And I don't mean with one of those headset microphones. Those suck. I mean with your head stuck at a strict angle, microphone suspended right in front of your mouth. It's weird, starting out with a band past, say, the age of eighteen. At age sixteen, you're just killing time. Why do you think so many fantastic songs have come out of young people? I used to be very quick to moan and/or groan every time someone said that rock music is an art for the young people, because it was my opinion that young people have nothing to say, and we should rather trust people with experience in the world. The problem, I suppose, is that not every world-experienced person in the world is as thoroughly, damn-near-genetically immature as I am. I sang in this hardcore band once, a long time ago, when I was a little older than eighteen, and these guys were talking about the eventual album and which labels we should "set our sights on" right from the first practice. It was creepy as hell. The band didn't work. Maybe it had something to do with my wanting some of the vocals to sound kabuki-like and ghosty, and them thinking we should just "play it straight" and sound indistinguishable from everyone else. (The second part of that sentence will be very important later.)
Well, eventually, I found that the best solution to my problem with The Things That Dumb Jerks Think, Believe, and Say was that if you eliminate the dumb jerks, eventually you don't have to hear what they're thinking or saying. A friend from one band had given me a guitar, which I hesitated to learn how to play, because of how much time I figured it would take, until I was twenty-seven years old. The longer you wait, the longer it feels like it's going to take. So one day I was at work in a Big Corporate Office, and the jerkoff who sat next to me — I mentioned him in a column before; he was the guy who started smoking on his first day in the office because everyone else smoked, and he vomited water all over the carpet outside the smoking chamber — delighted in revealing to me "The Password": this simple six-digit password would, from this day forth, be required to unlock password-protected spreadsheet files. "Okay. Uh. Thanks for that," I said to him. Then he informed me that, from this day forth, all in-office communication would need to be conducted inside password-protected spreadsheets attached to blank email messages: "for security purposes." That just about put me over the edge, man. An email popped into my inbox. It was blank. A spreadsheet (titled "spreadsheet 392", meaning that the sender of this message had literally made 392 untitled spreadsheets in his career at that office) was attached. I opened it; it asked for my password. I groaned. I entered the password. One cell squinted at me out of the upper-left corner. I could read a couple of Japanese characters in it. It didn't seem to say anything aside from "We." I stretched the cell out, revealing the full message: "We're thinking of going to the Korean place for lunch." I tell you, the second I got home, I ripped that guitar out of the closet with all the tenderness of a man removing his new wife's wedding dress once the hotel door is locked. I was like, "Enough of this shit". I was like, "Enough of this shit" every day for, like, a whole year.
Eventually I decided to convince some poor guy into pounding some drums for me. It was like walking through a revolving door; I stayed in the door, just doing dozens of hundreds of laps, while other dudes walked in and out. I realize I could have done this with a metronome. This is crucial: I liked having the human element. I ran scales with a metronome for weeks, and did all the finger exercises and what have you. I realized that I learned Japanese by just immediately forcing myself to choke down entire manga, kanji and all, until finally I understood anything; beyond finally, I understood everything. Plenty of people have called bullshit on my claim in the past. Is it really that hard to believe? Well, with the guitar, I played scales at home every night, then, on the weekends I got a friend to play drums. It was like the grown-up equivalent of playing dress-up. Well, I, anyway, wanted to actually make a real band, at some point. My fear was that if I ever invited a "real drummer" to play drums for me, he'd be so disgusted with my lack of skill that he'd just get up to "go to the bathroom" halfway through our one-hour try-out session and just go home, so eager to get away that he was willing to leave me his wallet, his phone, his bag, his whatever, right there by the drum stool. Well, I met this dude at a BORIS show. He told me he played the drums. I was like, oh, okay. He seemed like a good enough dude; I figured that's what he was. Well, it turned out he actually was a real drummer, and somehow, he didn't hate me after I plugged the guitar in and played a chord.
A few months after our first practice, we were on TV in France (this happens to a lot of bands who intentionally sound like shit and enjoy themselves); shortly after that, we were playing a show at The Biggest Party in Tokyo. I'd played bass or drums or sang in front of more people than that first night we played The Biggest Party in Tokyo, on many occasions. However, this was different: I was playing the guitar, and singing. And because there was no other guitarist, or no bassist, it was like, if I messed up, it would be all my fault, and if I ruled, it would be all my awesome. I mean, to clarify, there was no chance the drummer would mess up. It just isn't something he does. He's the kind of guy whom people see play drums and then casually ask him after the show if he's been shot before. You know, with a gun.
We were given a total of maybe three minutes before the set to sound check. The only decent-sized Marshall amp in the place was suffering from a blown everything; the only other guitar amp was a Roland Jazz Chorus, also known as the Worst Amp Ever. One of its speakers was so fried (in what way, I could hardly imagine) that it produced a constant grain of feedback every when nothing was plugged in. In addition, it electrocuted me when I strummed my guitar to check the tone. My two hands were dead with terrifying, funny-tasting numbness for the duration of the performance. Then we had the no-stage-monitors issue. This meant we couldn't even hear ourselves when we played. God, what a nightmare. All the lights in the place went out except the red ones pointed right at us. The lights didn't blink or strobe or anything. We just baked there like rotisserie chickens while we rocked, blind and deaf, noses pressed against a hungry black hole.
I don't know how we sounded. I couldn't tell you, because I couldn't hear shit. I guess we did okay. When each song ended, people were making noise, or at least I could almost make out people-noise over the sound of amp feedback.
Prior to this night, we'd maybe been satisfied as a group of a couple of self-styled jerks that made some noise, plucking the guitar and yodeling and banging some pots. The thing is, no human being, really, is a unique snowflake, so chances are, if we liked something, someone else likes it, too. The guy who runs these massive parties happened to like it. That's great! That's a real case of putting a nickel in the slot machine and getting a jackpot on your first pull.
People pay the yen equivalent of about fifty US dollars to get into one of these clubs. That's the price of admission to a place where everyone dresses like you (by "dresses like you" I don't mean they wear the exact same clothes; I mean that they see clothing as a way to express themselves in a unique way) and enjoys roughly the same kind of music. The real stars of these parties are the people who always show up. If I started talking about the precise degrees of coolness of the people who show up at these parties, I'd literally never be legally permitted to finish. Let's just say they're so cool that when they sleep, sheep count them. The other stars of the party are the DJs. In addition to ensuring that no conversation happens, in addition to preventing the event of someone getting laid because they have a nice personality, the DJs also put on music they like, so that people in the audience can like the music, too.
My mild case of social ineptitude maybe qualifies me to find this interesting. People seem to like only one thing more than being exposed to new music by people whose taste in music they trust, and that's songs that they already know they like. A talented DJ is able to remember what songs the audience members like, and make sure that don't play these songs all in a row, one right after another, lest everyone walk out and go home. People who go home are perfectly free to open the cupboard and just drink whiskey straight out of the bottle until they pass out; people still in the club have no right aside from the right to pay eight dollars for a drop of vodka in a bucket of water. The way it usually goes with clubs in Tokyo, where food and drink at regular convenience stores are already priced on par with world-class theme parks (we call this "finger-and-toe expensive"), is that drinks at clubs are so stupidly expensive ("arm-and-leg expensive") that you'll see a crowd of like-minded, like-fashioned kids swarmed around the convenience store across the street slamming maybe six beers each. Some people want to stay in clubs to keep drinking; some people want to stay there to listen to music. The 3,000 yen cover charge has been carefully calculated to weed out the majority of skeezes who just want to get laid (you end up with only the reasonably successful people who want to get laid (this will be important later, though I won't mention it again)). In short, as a DJ, you keep people in the club by mixing up music that people already like with music that sounds enough like the music that people already like to make them think, "Hey, I like this, too." This prevents them from leaving, which increases the probability that they'll buy another drink. The patrons' self-discovery eventually (possibly) manifests itself as profit for the establishment. We could go on to say that the next-big-things in music are calculated, manufactured, and drip-fed slowly enough to make as much money as possible in the long-term, though that would be getting into a whole other topic, and I would surely come across as sounding more like a conspiracy theorist than I mean to. For now, suffice it to say that DJs are people for whom their personal taste is their talent.
DJs can be rock stars — in Japan, at any club, no matter what kind of music is being played, like, even if it's just a guy putting a CD in and pressing play, the crowd always stands there staring at the DJ, like he's doing something fantastic. I mean, sometimes, he is. Sometimes, at some of these parties, he's just putting in a CD and pressing play. That's okay, though. Taste can be a talent. Like many talents, you can be born with it, or you can learn it. I've always felt like learning any talent is cheating. Like, the phrase "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day" has always bothered me. Why can't you build Rome in a day? Maybe it's the idea that Rome isn't just a collection of buildings, it's a collection of historical incidents and accidents that gave way to such-and-such a structure being built here instead of there. Is something really a talent if you build it out of nowhere? I've heard of people with no interest in music building up a super-competent taste and hit-of-the-party iTunes playlist composition skills simply by careful reading of blogs. Would someone ever want to be a DJ if they don't like music? I used to think the answer was "no," then I started talking to DJs, and it turns out that a lot of them just wanted to be DJs. No one ever asks me why I'm "in a band," though I suppose that's because everyone sees a guy with a guitar, making a sound with his throat like someone just jabbed a fork through his kneecap, and they think they have it all figured out. Well, seeing as I've never tried to answer that question independently of being asked, they probably know the answer as well as I do.
I'm not insinuating that I'm talented at the guitar, either, or even that I'm uncomfortable with my level of skill. I enjoy myself. The only natural, genius talent I have, really, is for throwing small objects. I'm probably an Olympic-level dart thrower. I don't know where I got this talent. I score bullseyes from down long corridors, or around corners. I occasionally wow guests by throwing the end of the mag-safe adapter at my Macbook Pro and having it stick right into the jack from maybe five feet away. Once, at this festival in rural Japan, they had this game where you could spend a hundred yen for a chance to break three balloons with three shuriken and win one of three huge, ratty Doraemon dolls. I didn't really want the ratty Doraemon. I just wanted to throw some things. Well, with three shuriken, I broke the three balloons in maybe three tenths of a second. The guy behind the counter looked at me like I'd just told him his sister was dead. "Do I get my prize?" The guy told me the polite Japanese equivalent of "find a broom closet and fuck yourself in it." I said, hey, you could at least give me my money back, then. Some guy who was slightly bigger in the chest than me stepped around the corner and pushed me once on my shoulders. I looked him in the eye; he looked away. Suddenly, both men were pretending I didn't exist. I guess I wasn't supposed to win! Probably no one was. Well, I won anyway. That's a built-in-a-day Rome kind of talent. [Shuriken pic source]
So what it boils down to is that these people, whether or not they really, truly love this music, are in this club, and have paid a finger and a toe for the privilege. It seems more than believable that no one at these parties gets laid. Maybe the real goal of walking down these stairs and standing in one of these precious, booming spaces is to simply express yourself, by which I mean "further your agenda." Maybe being in this club, tonight, is going to put your face out there. It's going to make (or keep) people aware of who you are and who you associate with. It's clique-ism, only it's more like one big clique and not everyone is friendly (only congenial) with everyone else. Someone who was at a party on Saturday night might miraculously see you on the street on Wednesday and think, "Oh, that person was at that party, and dressed like [mind's eye picture]." Or, more importantly, they might see you at the next party, and know that you wore something different last time. If you think I'm overthinking this, by the way, you might not have ever been to one of these parties. In conclusion, being at these parties is an opportunity to continue building the list of Things You Should Like. Before you confuse this with the behavior of any "hipsters," keep in mind that the people I'm talking with here and more than hipsters: they are the overlords. They decide what the hipsters like. They are the "tastemakers." Man, I hate that word. Anyway, the collective taste is made up of . . . the taste of a select few.
So here's my band, playing this show at this huge party full of the people who decide what is cool, based on the things that a select few of their hip elite have decided anyone deserves the opportunity to like. The club is equipped primarily for DJing, hence the guitar amps being in disrepair. Also, the only acceptable tom kept falling off the drum kit. The PA system worked. During our second song the hot microphone electrocuted my top lip so hard it burst and bled all over my teeth. I bet people thought that was some kind of edgy performance art. As a vegetarian who abstains from meat because I hate the taste, it felt pretty bad to have to swallow a bunch of my own blood. I couldn't spit it out — it would have ended up either on my guitar effects pedals or on the audience, and either of those destinations would have been rude.
Playing that show was much like rubbing a buzz saw frictionlessly against air in the center of a black hole. When it was over, my only impression was that we'd done a terrible job. I suppose I only thought this, selfishly, because I hadn't been able to hear my own playing or singing, which meant that the primary goal — my own entertainment — had been a failure. If I'm going to become a rock star, and if people are going to adore me for doing what I like doing, I was thinking I would have to be the type of person who needs to be able to see and hear what he is doing.
After all my equipment was put away, after friends snapped photos of me, after the next DJ had put on another hot electro hit, while the second band set up, maybe the most gorgeous girl in the entire club came up to me and nudged me with her elbow. She was about my height. She had these perfect, chiseled, model-like features. She wore a neat white one-piece dress. My god, I think she was Swedish. Her skin was so real-looking it couldn't have possibly been real. She had these bright blue eyes and this white-blonde hair. Her bangs were cut just over her eyebrows. "We have the same haircut," she said. I looked at her. I was covered with sweat. I'm pretty sure she — and anyone — could see my nipples through my thin white V-neck shirt. "Yeah, we do." My god! She was fantastic!
"Your band was really great," she said. "Oh, really? You liked it?" "Yes," she said. "When you were a baby, did your mother ever drop you down an elevator shaft?" "Are you asking me if I have some kind of mental . . . infaculty?" "I'm just joking." "Yes! I like that. A lot. You said, after the second song, 'I just started playing the guitar yesterday.' That wasn't true, was it?" The second song had contained a fairly "complicated" sounding guitar solo. "Oh. Of course not." "That's what I like! I like this kind of sense of humor." Wow! She was fantastic! Her voice, from what I could make out over the airplane volume thumping tweeting of electronic bass sounds, was like some kind of quiet music. She was quiet for a minute. "I've never seen someone play the guitar like that." That might not have been a lie; it might not have been untrue, either. How do I know where she'd been, or what she'd seen. "Thanks." "I mean it, I think you're great. You have a lot of courage, and bravery, to stand up there, all alone!" "Well, there's a drummer, too." "Oh, yes." Every exchange of this conversation had to be repeated maybe sixteen times, first at regular speaking volume, and ultimately screaming, with hand cupped to the other's ear. It amounted to me touching this girl's hair maybe five times. It was so soft. If there were fourteen of her, I'd scalp them all and make me a coat.
So, finally, she says to me, "Do you want to make out with me?"
Wow! They say that many guys start bands because it helps them get girls, more girls than they know what to do with. I'd never gotten any girls with any of my other bands. That was probably because, when I was just a singer, our band's whole schtick was being boring and ugly to the female population. (And many males, too.) As a drummer, I was mostly invisible. Well, my first night as a guy who plays a guitar solo and then continues singing a song, and I had a real, live, gorgeous girl literally asking to make out with me. How did this happen? How did my life come to this? It was a hell of a realization to have, having just arrived at my thirtieth birthday.
Did I make out with her? That's none of your damned business. Okay, actually, let's settle on the answer of "no." I knew where it would lead, and as something of a hypochondriac waiting to happen, I wasn't willing to walk that road. I spend more than enough time every day looking at my penis; I don't need obsession and fear tripling or quadrupling that. I'd never get anything done, even sleep. What are the chances, really, that a girl is both incredibly attractive and attracted to me? I almost typed "a nymphomaniac" instead of "attracted to me" in the previous sentence. That would have maybe been unfair, either to me or to nymphomaniacs. That said, what are the chances that the girl just respected me genuinely? I mean, I've respected a female musician so much before that I wanted to have sex with her probably for the rest of my life, and I wouldn't have even settled for being a man-groupie; I know I was serious, too, because hey, if anyone, I trust myself. Maybe that's different, though, because I go around wanting to have sex with girls I might not respect, all the time. I just looked out the window: One is walking down the sidewalk right now; I don't even know what she does for a living, or for fun, and I wouldn't mind intercoursing with her.
Anyway, I saw this girl, and I thought about all those things about "tastemakers" and people going to these clubs just to be seen, and hopefully looked at, or maybe even photographed, and studied. For some people, going somewhere and being seen at the height of one's attractiveness is a major hobby. For some, it really is a career. I wondered about this girl, for a couple of minutes. The rest of the night, I kept looking over at her, just to see if she was walking up to and asking any other guys to make out. I thought of that Groucho Marx quote that Woody Allen paraphrased in "Annie Hall": I wouldn't want to join any club that would have me as a member. What a miserable pile of obviousnesses I am! All my soundbites are thrice-removed from their parents. The girl came up to me ten or fifteen times throughout the night; she gave me her phone number and everything. Oh man, maybe she really did like me. Well, once she emailed me, asking what I was up to, and I replied maybe a week later, and she said she was "leaving Japan tomorrow." To where, I never found out. I wonder if it was Sweden. Every time I try to remember clearly what she looked like, my mind becomes flooded with my impression of what she would look like, a decade and change down the line: in a fur coat, wearing a deflating she-pompadour, makeup running down her cheeks, on the other side of a restaurant booth, berating me for something I'd done, snarling: "I just want the kid and my jewelry."
The kid and my jewelry! That's what this is all about! The kid and my jewelry! In case you didn't notice it yet, this piece is about what anyone wants out of anyone or anything else: happiness.
To wrap up this now-lengthy personal anecdote, let me say that every "gig" I've ever gotten as a musician or as a writer or a translator or a company employee or whatever has been thanks to a friend on the inside, or thanks to the person in charge liking the band in whatever T-shirt I was wearing. They say, all the time "It's not what you know, it's who you know", and you never really think about it until there it is, right in front of you. This is how the world works. How do you achieve happiness? You satisfy yourself. In a world teeming with other people, the only way to avoid rubbing elbows too harshly is to be agreeable. I know I'm not a unique snowflake, because no one is, and I also know that Hollywood films featuring mentally handicapped protagonists tend to win best actor Oscars, so my own faults are probably useful or poignant information to someone. So it is with tentative confidence that I hypothesize that someone else out there occasionally sits back and thinks about all the girls he's ever had sex with and concludes that none of them really counted. Here's where I brandish the possibility of actually scaring myself: nothing I've accomplished in my life really feels like it is mine. Maybe my sense of self-preservation is confused with my desire for self-perfection. How will I know I've "won" the game of life? I have always wanted the terms to be simple. I find the philosophy of fitness and hygiene fascinating above anything else. I've been lifting weights pretty religiously for a couple of years now, though what is my goal? It's easier said than done: to look at myself in the mirror and know I'm done. What the hell do you do then? What's next? Music has never been a means to get laid, for me; if I have to be in a band to get laid, it feels like neither the music nor the getting laid means anything. I'd love it if my 100% ideal girl would just walk up to me in a brightly lit white room and say, staring me right in the eye, "I'd like to have sex with you now." That would be the only way it would "count." (As long as, afterward, I conducted a thorough background check and realized that she was, in fact, not a high-class prostitute sent to me as an elaborate prank.) Everything else feels like cheating. For now, though, you know what makes me happy? Running. If you run ten kilometers, it's suddenly not winter anymore. Run twelve, and it feels like spring. Run eighteen and your mind goes somewhere else; it feels like a deep, dreamless sleep on a mild summer night, pleasant and soothed by some just-inaudible sound. When you're done running, it puts everything into a different context; you can just sit on your sofa with a bottle of water in the dark and just not care about anything. Maybe that sounds pretty desolate. I don't mind it so much. I prefer it to videogames, these days.
WE ARE TALKING ABOUT VIDEOGAMES NOW
So I was playing Final Fantasy XIII for about forty hours before I just started hating video games. It just exhausted the shit out of me — in the bad way. Here's what it does:
You level up using this thing called the "Crystarium." You win "Crystal Points" at the end of every battle, and then you can slot them into nodes on the Crystarium, learning new abilities, or increasing your maximum hit points or magic attack power or physical attack power. However: the Crystarium starts out fairly small. Every time you beat a major boss, the Crystarium gets a "level up." This means you earn access to more nodes, for more upgrades. What the game is saying is, subliminal-like, that you don't have to level up your dudes any more than you're able to right now in order to beat that boss in a couple of hours. What's weirder is that, if you fight all the enemies on the way to the boss, you'll more or less have enough Crystal Points stored up to level everyone up to maximum? Why doesn't the game just level us up automatically? Because it thinks we want to open the upgrade menu and spend our points manually. When we purchase upgrades, we don't just highlight the desired upgrade and press the confirm button. We hover the cursor over the previous upgrade, press the directional pad in the direction of the next upgrade, and then hold the confirm button while a line slowly extends in the direction of the next upgrade, accelerating as it nears its goal. The game has propped up this epic-huge disingenuous facade because it thinks it makes us happy.
Entertainment is, in general, lies. You usually don't mind that what you are seeing or reading isn't real, as long as it's at least internally consistent or arrives at a satisfying conclusion. I feel that games have this immense potential for satisfying the player — because you're in control, the ultimate catharsis can be stronger than any feeling in the world. Instead, games seem to have studied too much psychology and not enough literature. I am genuinely scared of the planning documents responsible for Final Fantasy XIII's Crystarium. I am scared of the presumptions regarding humankind contained in those documents. The game's entire design document no doubt reads like a beef stew recipe. Final Fantasy XIII is a terrible liar for so many seizure-inducing reasons. Take the battle system: You can no longer just hit enemies until they die. No, you have to "break" them, using a combination of magic and physical attacks. Magic causes the break meter to build up, though it recovers too quickly to be useful, so you need to use physical attacks, which don't build the break meter — they just slow its recovery. Once an enemy is broken, you can do damage. The more you hit it, the more damage you do. A broken, lone enemy surrounded by three tenacious warriors is as good as dead. The game "lets" the player input the commands to kill the enemy, because it's "satisfying"; it's the "Yes!" moment, the moment the gorgeous girl appears before you and informs you that she would like to have sex with you now. Except you don't even get the joy of seeing the girl walk across the room: She just materializes. It feels so soulless to input all these commands to kill the monster. It's such a given. Then again, if you didn't, what would we be doing? Would there just be a "checkmate" button to press to end a battle when it was beyond the monster's hope? Remember when you were in elementary school, and you just watched a movie on the last day of school? Someone invariably asked, "If we're not going to do anything today, why wasn't yesterday the last day of school?" If thinking like that prevailed, kids would go to school one day a year, watch "The Little Mermaid," go to lunch, go to recess, watch "Beauty and the Beast," and then go back home. It's like, you know that moment in Command and Conquer when you drag the mouse and highlight your sea-storm-like cloud of tanks, scroll down the map, and then click on the enemy base? If we employed the "last day of school" kind of thinking, maybe the goal of the game would just be to have more tanks than the other guy. Just keep building tanks; first person to have twice the tanks than the other guy wins. God, that game would be boring as hell.
Final Fantasy XIII is disingenuous when it rewards you for entering menu commands carefully enough to "break" an enemy by "letting" you enter commands haphazardly to destroy the "broken" enemy. It commits the quick and dirty sin of presuming that we have nothing better to do than Play This Here Videogame, or that (crucial) we absolutely love choosing items from a menu in a game, especially when the consequences have dropped away (the enemy is impaired irreparably). To me, this feels like having no writing talent and being asked to write a column for a huge website because the editor-in-chief likes you personally. (Uhh.) When will we find a game that recreates the thrill of receiving a joyful acceptance letter six weeks after sending a short story in to a magazine unsolicited? We have so many Japanese games where you play as a guy trying to get a girl. We're always free to imagine what the guy does with the girl after he "gets" her. Some games in which girls get guys for a change have cropped up; they're useless. Where's a game that recreates the thrill and the feeling of actually finding a man who really is willing to get married and have children, who isn't just telling you what you want to hear?
The quick solution to this riddle is: These games don't need to exist. That's what real life is for.
Okay. Well, then, where's the game that lets me feel some shred of what it's like to be the confident, super-hot girl that every guy in the club is staring at?
A lot of people have asked me, lately, what I think of rhythm games. Man, what a loaded question. If I say that I don't play rhythm games, and if the person I'm talking to knows that I occasionally scrape a "real guitar" and scream in front of sometimes-annoyed, sometimes-entertained audiences, they'll immediately assume I'm being an "elitist." Whenever you refer to your alternative to someone's dear hobby as a "real" anything, you're bound to take some damage. To be honest, maybe playing a "real guitar" does have something to do with why I don't play rhythm games. Or maybe it's just that the brain stimulation affected by a rhythm game is not (at all) the kind of thing I crave. Rhythm games "reward" the player for press the arbitrarily determined buttons in perfect time to the music. Your reward at the end of a song is a number, worth bragging rights or Xbox Achievements, or the permission to play another song. Okay, sure. While I can't say that no songs on Rock Band or Guitar Hero interest me at all (I own maybe a dozen vintage AC/DC shirts from the 70s right up to 1990), I can say that, in general, it's not my kind of music. The music is too perfect, too "good"; I perfectly like making stupid, unpolished, unfinished, spontaneous, shit-like, music-like noise. I never want to make "real" music, like something they'd play on the radio. I have fun with what I do. I'm perfectly happy not making perfect music. I'm perfectly happy not being able to play any songs perfectly, even my own songs. Life is its most fun for me when it's an impossible learning process. Rock Band tells you, while you play, how many "fans" are still in the "audience." If you play supremely well, the number of "fans" inflates to well more than the capacity of the club. So that says it, then: Rock Band is insinuating that a rock and roll musician's primary goal is to Get As Many Fans As Possible.
They say not everyone can be a rock star in real life — not everyone can get everyone to love them, adore them, and/or respect them. Why not? Why can't everyone be respected for doing what they like? Because there are many jobs that no one wants to do; some political machine invented words like "circle-jerk" to describe, among maybe one other thing (involving penises), the situation that results from a bunch of people doing what they like and respect about each other, to make some people feel hesitant and ashamed to pursue a career vocally butchering opera and instead spend their life picking up trash from the side of the road.
In other words, maybe the maybe-Swedish girl, that night, wasn't high, or even drunk — maybe she really was attracted to me; maybe, above anything, even looks, she respected a man who did whatever the hell he wanted and wasn't ashamed of making mistakes or being stupid. Maybe she was one in a billion.
We've established, in previous columns, that I don't like being told what to do; I also don't like being told how well I'm doing something. I hesitate to talk about this in too much detail, because this whole house of cards would fall apart pretty quickly if I did that. Suffice it to say that, when I finish playing Rage Against the Machine's "Bulls on Parade" in Guitar Hero III and the game tells me I got such-and-such a score, I feel kind of sad, and hurt. I can play the song on a real guitar, while singing it, while my drummer pounds the drums, in front of five or six friends in our studio on a weekend, and it either rocks or it doesn't. The thing is, when you take away the loudness of a real live guitar and real drums, when it's just a bunch of lights on a TV screen, you can't in good conscience just throw up a screen at the end that says "You rock" or "You don't rock." The player needs constructive criticism, and that means numbers. I think about Final Fantasy XIII's battle system again, just now: Typical enemies have millions of hit points, and just when you get the monster into a cinematic, terrible, tragic position and your dudes close in on it, numbers just fly out every which way. You see the shit out of those numbers. Huge, five-digit numbers. Any point when these numbers would come out is a point when the enemy is definitely going to die. The developers must have realized that, over the years, some junk has accumulated on the curb of the minds of gamerkind, that we equate big numbers with big thrills, and so they implement a big-numbers-heavy battle system so as to "refresh" the player. "Refresh" is the word they always use in Japanese marketing. It's like, the more "refreshing" you make a game, the less it feels like you're really involved, or doing anything: the more tenuous your connection to the fantastic on-screen action begins to feel. What's next, then? I wonder when Sony or Nintendo or Microsoft reveal a controller that must be placed on a soft carpet and manipulated using Q-tips held by tweezers.
Another paragraph, a similar idea: recently, Jack White of The White Stripes joined the growing list of popular musicians expressing some degree of dislike for rhythm games. His opinion was that it's "sad" that "this" is how kids are learning about music. I remember the comments on the Kotaku post that quoted Jack White's sadness. They were eviscerating. I think maybe 65% of them immediately called Jack White a hack who writes shitty music so he should just die already.
On the one hand, I can understand why people like or even love playing rhythm games; on the other hand, I can understand why someone like Jack White would find them sad. Jack White has been playing the guitar since childhood; for him, spending maybe eight hours a day practicing scales, doing finger exercises, or playing along to his favorite songs, feeling his skill rise day by day, was a powerful period of self-discovery. Realizing that you're moving into the period wherein you can write your own songs is an even more powerful creative feeling. Every song you write is better than the last one, for a while, and you don't need numbers to tell you you're getting better. You just feel it. For Jack White, going to shows, meeting bands, deciding what music he liked best, deciding what kind of musician he was going to become, practicing the guitar, and writing songs was no doubt such a thoroughly rewarding, immeasurably enthralling many-years-long period in his life that he probably would die of sadness right then and there if he imagined growing up human any other way.
This is where someone says "Not everyone is creative." Okay, that's true. However, I don't understand when someone like Jack White says that there are better ways to learn about music, and everyone immediately uses words like "arrogant" to describe this "get a real guitar" attitude. How is it arrogant? Think about it. Maybe not everyone is creative, sure. Though I consider it world-lovingly humble and modest of someone like Jack White to suggest that anyone can pick up a real guitar and enjoy music as much as he does. Sure, maybe he's ignorant of How Much Fun it is, really, to play Guitar Hero, though that's understandable. He's very busy playing two-minute squealy pitch-shifted guitar solos in front of capacity crowds at medium-sized arenas or large ballrooms, or buying vintage Sears-Roebuck guitar amplifiers on eBay. What Jack White is saying, however implicitly, is that you can be like him, and that maybe Guitar Hero isn't the way to do it. Of course, here's where I'm going to get comments from people who say "I started playing Real Guitar after playing and enjoying Guitar Hero, so fuck you/" In what way fuck me? I don't think this is worth a fuck-you. All I'm saying is that people like Jack White have probably not studied Guitar Hero, nor — and this is crucial — was Guitar Hero the thing that introduced him, personally, to rock music. I think he's speaking "against" Guitar Hero with the best intentions. Again, he doesn't have the time to research and understand Guitar Hero — he's too busy getting his effects pedals painstakingly copper-coated so as to prevent signal loss (and also look awesome). Here's the more important thing, though, and it's harder to articulate with mathematics: You look at a person playing Guitar Hero — or, better yet, a group of people playing Rock Band — and by the gods they look like a bunch of jerks. I was working in an office a couple years ago where this group of guys would play Rock Band every day at lunch. The guy playing the guitar would stand, leaning forward a bit, eyes leveled with the giant HDTV, head unmoving. The "bassist" sat on a nearby loveseat, alone, which technically makes it just a double-sized chair. The drummer throne was perched right in front of the television. In dead silence, they click-click-clicked through every musical number, six eyes dead fixated on the TV screen. None of their bodies or heads moved; nary a twitch crossed their faces: They'd learned to not twitch, or else miss a button-press cue. What perplexed me most was how low they kept the television volume. You could hardly hear the music. Also, they never used a vocalist. Maybe it was out of respect for the rest of the office, or maybe it was because they found the music distracted them from the task of pressing the buttons with perfect timing. From across the office, the clicks of the guitars and the sticks against the drum rims could have been a hobo doing his "laundry." What are you looking at, when you look at people doing this? People playing a videogame, that's what. Do these people like music? I'd seen all of their iTunes shares. One of them had the entire discography of Primus, for fuck's sake. It's pretty apparent that these guys actively hated music, and wished music was dead. Why were they playing Rock Band? Because it was The Current Big Thing? Because Everyone Was Talking About It? I'm pretty sure these guys weren't trend-followers; you could tell so much from their clothes. No; it might be because, more than their prowess as music-listening-and-appreciation-assistance devices, Rock Band and the like are excellent at providing instant feedback. When you mess something up, you understand immediately. There's never a "why did that guy shoot me?" or "how could that guy see me?" or "who shot me?" It's always: "I didn't press the blue button immediately as the blue icon overlapped the little line."
The punishment for failing at a rhythm game is the immediate termination of the performance. Maybe that's what bothers me more than anything else. In real life, the show goes on. With a real guitar, you just play as much as you want. Of course, you don't get a computer read-out telling you how much you're improving, if at all. You have to have discipline. Games of any kind seldom require discipline. Every time they do, it's something like Demon's Souls, where half the people insist the game is too hard and give up.
I saw something on Youtube a couple years ago, where some kid was playing the hardest song on Guitar Hero perfectly on the Ellen Degeneres show. The first thing I thought was, "Ellen Degeneres has a show?" The second thing I thought was that it's a little weird, and a little funny, and a little sad that everyone is squealing with delight that a twelve-year-old kid is so good at playing a videogame. That's what twelve-year-old kids do: They play videogames. We should get the world's fastest-flossing dental hygienist on there and see how many people scream, clap, and implode. The "real idea" here has little to do with hating on Guitar Hero: It's that maybe we shouldn't celebrate skill at videogames in general in precisely this way. Or maybe it's something else: What if this kid on the Ellen show had been playing Counterstrike, just sniping guys left and right, with the speed of a real virtuoso? The answer is: Half the people in the audience wouldn't know what they're looking at.
One of the comments on this video literally says "who cares if you can play a real guitar? give the kid a break". First of all, the person playing the real guitar cares if they can play the real guitar. Do you care that this kid can play a fake guitar? That's an inflammatory choice of words. Second of all, give the kid a break for what? Who's not giving him a break? Ellen gave him a break; the studio audience gave him a break. He's got his fair deal of breaks. Why should we give him another? Third, and most importantly: I said that if the kid had been sniping dudes in Counterstrike with a level of skill exceeding maybe 99% of Counterstrike players, people in the audience would have no idea what was going on. Right? Well, do they have any idea what the hell is going on on the Guitar Hero screen? All they see is little colored icons streaming by and then disappearing. Do they know that the icon disappearing means the button was pressed with precision? Maybe the perfection of the timing doesn't immediately register to the person who's not holding the controller. Also, does the entire audience know that if the player makes too many mistakes, the song stops? Maybe they don't understand that cardinal rule. They can, however, see the words "AWESOME" and "YOU ROCK" on the screen: This means, to the casual observer, that the player must be doing something right. So, what if we hid the TV screen image from them? We'd have a cute little kid holding a plastic guitar and twitching his fingers while exuberant (obnoxious (terrible)) music blares on in the background. He's not even jumping up and down. Isn't that what kids do when they play games? He's not even smiling! Is he even having fun? Well, maybe he's not having fun; is he happy? Maybe. Happiness isn't always about fun. What would the audience think, in this case? I mean, without the huge clumps of exploding, disappearing colored icons on the screen behind him, would they know that what this kid was doing was highly technical, and difficult? I love using variations of this metaphor: If these people were lying on a gurney in a hospital with a knife sticking out of their chest, would they feel more or less secure that the doctor was remaining calm, and not screaming out complicated names of medicines, dosage amounts, or indecipherable acronyms like the doctors do on "ER"? Also, why does this kid get more applause than this kid who can really play a real guitar amazingly well? (Like, uhh, I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to be able to play that rhythm part and sing the melody at the same time.) ((Another note: I was really surprised that this kid got famous in the US! I was trying to find a video of him playing guitar with Japanese guitarist Chabo, and then I accidentally realized, while searching for "Ellen Guitar Hero Kid," that this kid, too, had been on Ellen; it was too good a connection to pass up.))
The ladies in the studio audience, in other words, must not be fans of screaming metal music so much as they are fans of people who are good at doing things objectively well. Like, declaring that Real Guitar Hero Kid "great" at what he does requires one to declare one's own subjective opinion in music valuable. In addition to indicating (maybe naively) that our modern world just might have conditioned the common man to believe that subjectivity is shameful, I guess what I'm trying to say is that I feel like Guitar Hero isn't really "about" the music.
(Brutal Legend is a game that's "about the music" without also being a game where all you do is press buttons in time to music. I'm pretty sure that someone like Jack White would see something like Brutal Legend and not insist that it's a bad way to learn about music. It's a fantastic way to learn about music. Hopefully, the sequel will be better as a game, and won't keep teaching me new abilities every five god damn minutes.)
Rhythm games are not primarily about music: They are about doing something right and being told you're doing it right. I can totally, absolutely get behind that sort of thing. I use the word "crunch" a lot, in my "line of work," to describe the feeling in a game where you know you're doing something right, doing something wrong, or just plain doing something. God Hand has tons of crunch. Most games these days don't have any. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are games made up of about 99% crunch. You know exactly what you're doing in a Guitar Hero game: You're pressing a button at the right time, and the game tells you that you're awesome because of it. I guess there's nothing wrong with that. Maybe it's like Brain Training: You answer these simple math problems every day, the game assesses your speed, tells you if you're getting better or not, and before you know it, real world applications bubble to the surface: You find you're getting better at typing, your night vision has increased, you've stopped forgetting your car keys, who knows. The simple "Yes!" feedback of these games provides us with the experience Getting Better At Something; it can't be long before we become Better People because of them, and it can't be too far after that that we find ourselves literally and figuratively happy.
So, Christmas Day, there I was in my parents' house, and my little brother was playing DJ Hero on a large CRT television. He had the DJ controller on the floor, and was hunched over it, scratching at the turntable and clicking on the buttons, the TV volume depressingly low. I thought about Konami's Pop'n'Music, the most abstract rhythm game out there, in that it just uses buttons, which are meant to be pressed in time to lights that are furiously streaming down the screen. The Pop'n'Music machine in the arcade closest to my first apartment in Tokyo (where I went to play Virtua Fighter IV or Street Fighter III) had broken speakers, so the volume was so terribly low that you could barely hear it even if you were playing. The way those machines are set up, you can't really hear the music unless you're standing close enough to play, anyway. So for a skeeze standing ten feet back watching a couple of bouncy schoolgirls having fun, the on-screen action looks ridiculous; the clacking of the big, hollow, candy-like, palm-smashed buttons hardly makes sense in the context of the flashing on the screen. For years I was scared to touch Pop'n'Music, because it looked so complicated. I later realized that Pop'n'Music was Konami's way of bringing Dance Dance Revolution to the people who didn't want to get too much exercise. I like to think that I'm pretty immune to the "Damn Kids" syndrome; I think that I'll grow up as an embracer of new technology, for example. Back then, though, Pop'n'Music really got at me. It was weird enough to see two kids playing it, clapping each other on the shoulder with every smashing success, though watching some older guy play it alone with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth was really depressing. What's the use of a rhythm game if you can't even pretend to be holding a guitar? What's the use of a rhythm game where you're not even dancing? At the end of the day, it's not a rhythm game: It's a pleasure-enforcing device. I realized, back with Pop'n'Music, that I was being much like your parents when they call your music "noise": All your parents can hear, when you listen to music up in your room, is the sound of the lowest part of the bass guitar traveling through the floor. Maybe, if they could hear the rest, they'd be willing to acknowledge its artistry.
In case you skipped the bastard-like personal anecdote that preceded the part where I started talking about video games, let me summarize for you: I commented naively and at length on the socio-political-economic ramifications of the diorama of humanity present inside a super-trendy club, confronting head-on the question "do people really only like what they're told to like?" and coming away with the conclusion "well, kinda." I was selected to play a rock and roll show at this super-trendy club party event on the basis of my being an agreeable person, the same way I am selected by editors-in-chief to write magazine or web columns. I don't hate music: I just love music in a tough way. I scrape and scream. I enjoy looseness and stupidity. Yet, somehow, at the end of my set, a woman who was obviously a Swedish fashion model literally asked me, in so many words, to make out with her. I faced a scary question: Was this woman attracted to me, my "music", or the fact that someone in charge of this event had been so bold and confident in his taste as to choose me as one of only two live musical acts to perform during the entire eight-hour event? There exists maybe a one in a hundred chance that this woman was immensely, real-ly, sexually attracted to the idea of a man doing whatever he wanted and not caring what other people thought. Maybe she thought I was an artist. My final conclusion is that people in clubs don't just like what they're told to like, they like what other people like them like, and they pay a high cover charge to get inside this place where they're sure they'll find other people like them, who like them because they're like them. It's all very sketchy. In the real world, more often than not, we do not find ourselves with a situation wherein we press a button and immediately receive feedback of the black-or-white yes-or-no variety. Do people like me? isn't as efficient a question as How do I feel? Do I feel happy? What does all this have to do with video games? Absolutely everything.
I've seen people bemoan rhythm games because "you can't get laid because of Guitar Hero." What the fuck does that mean? Do they think that playing a real guitar gets you laid automatically, accidentally? If enough people think that, it's going to be true. As I tangentially explored in the above paragraph, being in a real band doesn't always get you laid: It usually has something to do with layer upon layer of context. You know what does get you laid? Being a generally nice guy who genuinely wants to get married and have kids. Though it only gets you laid with one woman. How about this: You can also get laid for working in the same Burger King as a girl you like, while also not being a jerk. We live in an American-like world where the prevailing dream is to be like Superman, and have everything handed to you, or to be like Spider-Man, and suffer an accident that makes you mathematically better at something than everyone else. We all would love to win the lottery (let's forget about income taxes for a minute). As a man, I would love to simply stand in a white, brightly lit room in plain clothes and be so striking that my ideal woman, who was gorgeous and who would never age, who I would respect, who would respect me, would walk up and suggest bluntly that we begin an association which would never end. This probably won't happen.
An ancient Chinese philosopher often talked about fighting cocks (by which I mean roosters that are trained to kill one another in the name of gambling). He said that the perfect fighting cock wasn't the one that could kill its opponent with one beak-thrust — it was the fighting cock that could, when uncovered at the start of a fight, give its opponent an instant, fatal heart attack, simply by standing still, as though "carved out of wood."
As a student of Chinese literature, as a fan of noise rock, and as an attempted second-degree artist, I have often fallen back on my impression of the fighting cock carved out of wood. I have always been more a fan of "sound" than of "structure" in music. Though I could scarcely start to put it into words, I think maybe that if I were to play a single chord that sounded so fantastic the entire audience burst into tears of joy, I could put the guitar down and give up forever. I've never seen this done; I've only ever almost seen it done.
The thing is, real life very seldom presents us carved-out-of-wood fighting cock scenarios. Video games, however, give us plenty. The carved-out-of-wood player of Guitar Hero will nail every note with perfect timing, and score a 100% on the hardest difficulty session. However, yelling into the face of a computer's impression of an interesting combination of buttons representative of a pop rock song isn't as rewarding on human levels as, say, scoring perfect, happy victories against opponents in Street Fighter III until they tear the arcade down around you because it's the end of the world, god damn it, and everything must go.
The preceding 45,000 words is why I believe fighting games are potentially the best interactive entertainment medium in existence.
Likewise, the best sport is boxing. Or tennis, if you don't like punching.
THE HAPPY BUTTON
Just like that, we've arrived at the thing I would like to talk about with you today.
At a Taito Station arcade in Shinjuku, which is an abominably busy part of Tokyo, which is the biggest city by far in the country of Japan, you can find a machine called "The Happy Button." The Happy Button is a product of the Taito Corporation, manufactured in 2008 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Space Invaders, the product that put the company on the map. The Happy Button isn't a game, really. It's just a machine. [Happy Button pic source]
The screen attached to The Happy Button only shows a few lines of large-LED red-on-black text. The Happy Button itself is big, round, plastic, candy-like. It's like a Pop'n'Music button: Dome-shaped, it fits roughly into your palm. It glows warmly. Press it once, and the game begins.
The game is free to play for any passerby.
When you press the button, the display screen tells you that you will have ten seconds to press the button as many times as you can. Each press produces a maybe-random Space Invaders sound effect. You press the button as many times as you can. At the end of ten seconds, it tells you how many times you pressed the button. You remember the number, maybe carry it around on a slip of paper in the wallet of your mind, everywhere you go, for the next couple of days. Maybe, at the end of that couple of days, you see The Happy Button again, and you play it again.
Some people have techniques involving detailed descriptions of wrist and finger positions for pressing The Happy Button. Originally, it was just a rumor that, if you pressed the button a hundred times in ten seconds, you'd get to hear happy music. It quickly became not a rumor anymore. Lots of people found out how to press the button a hundred times in ten seconds.
This is crucial: at the end of a Happy Button session, the game shows you a leader board. Uniquely, it shows you your position (let's say, 35), your score (let's say 95), and the two scores above (let's say 98) and below (let's say 92) you. Then it shows you the top score (let's say 256 (hey, there are some psychos out there)).
According to Taito's Happy Button development team, happiness is knowing that you're better at something than someone else, knowing that someone else is better than you at something, and then knowing how much better it's possible to get.
The Happy Button shares similarities with Hudson's Shooting Watch, originally released in 1987. The Shooting Watch resembles the right half of a Famicom game pad. You press the buttons, and it tells you how quickly you pressed them. The goal is, maybe, to prove that you can press buttons faster than your friends can press buttons (or, at least, almost as fast as the revered Takahashi Meijin could press buttons (which was: fast enough to break a watermelon with his thumbnail)). I think all of the kids old enough to have played with the Shooting Watch in elementary school grew up to work in my office. The Shooting Watch is neat, and its plastic is very delicious to the touch, though there's no ceremony to it. Here: witness a Shooting Watch virtuoso:
Seriously, what the fuck was that?
What makes The Happy Button better? Production values.
The Happy Button is maybe a response to the trends in casual-friendly games. It's the bare minimum game design needed to make people feel like they're part of something. Guitar Hero is maybe just a little bit more than the bare minimum. What The Happy Button has, at least, is amazingly frictive, high-fidelity sound effects every time you so much as touch that button, and a lovable plastic texture that feels at home in the palm of your hand. This is possibly enough to make people happy. Someone should make a rhythm game that just uses one button. Well, there's Taiko Drum Master, which just uses the one drum, though you have three general ways to hit that drum. Still, Taiko Drum Master is probably the most casual of Japanese rhythm games. Couples play it on dates. It's often positioned outside the arcade, so girls don't have to complain about cigarette smoke. I think something like Taiko Drum Master with just one input could possibly explode in the West the way that Guitar Hero put Konami's original Guitar Freaks to shame.
Well, The Happy Button sucks, now. They done fucked it up. It's now called "Happy Button 2," and it's two players. I must have watched fifteen couples play it today, on my way to see a movie ("The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," if you're curious). I couldn't tell what the hell was going on. They've attached something of a carnival-game-like swing-the-hammer-ring-the-bell-win-a-prize-like power-meter thing to it. It's like, sometimes, if one side is winning and he or she "accidentally" presses the button while the glowing power meter is overlapping the Space Invader character at the top of the meter, all of his points will transfer over to the other side. What is that, really? Is that necessary? It's weird. It's now not just a Happy Button. It's a maybe-happy button. As in, you have a chance to be happy if you play it. Or your friend beats you, and you feel mildly disappointed; only in the context of losing can we criticize the "gameplay" of Happy Button: "All you're doing is mashing a button. This is stupid."
The thing is, once you attach the concept of "losing" to the single-button game, you stand a chance of making someone less happy than they were when they started playing. In my last several columns, I have attempted to elevate the game Canabalt to sainthood because I like it so much. I still play it, every now and then. It's a game about jumping. It has one input: That input makes you jump. You feel happy every time you succeed at making a jump. You feel more happy as you make more jumps in a row. Eventually you lose, because it's not possible to win. You get a number at the end. I like the game because it somewhat seamlessly blends narrative context and game-playing into one spiritually simple experience that is most objectively classifiable as a game. What's more, you can't imagine playing it with two players. What would the point of that be? You pass the iPhone around, and you compare scores, is what you do. You click the Twitter button if you get a particularly awesome score. Some people don't like the volatility of the game, how the game changes every time you play, meaning your score doesn't go up every time you play. I also understand, the more I use Canabalt as a conversational ice-breaker at parties or rock and roll shows, that the narrative context gets to people; they get to feeling sorry for the little guy outrunning the unseen, probably-terrible threat. There are infinitely many types of two types of people in the world, though most of them are either This Type or That Type. In this case, there are the type of people who feel so sorry and depressed about simulated death that they would stop playing, and there are the people who accept the fact that death is inevitable, and try again and again just to try to let this little guy live a little bit longer. For the latter type of people, the chance of improving alone is the root of happiness. By now it should look like I'm trying to make every type of person in the world out to be some kind of weirdo. That's okay. We're all pretty weird, to each other.
Maybe the world economies would crumble if our entertainments stopped encouraging growth, improvement, or skill. Maybe we'd all turn into hippies if the chairman of Coca-Cola got up in front of a press conference and said, "You know, guys, we're closing up shop. Just start drinking water." Would that be so bad? I've used this excellent straw-man argument before: If everyone in the world were an all-day-meditating, own-crops-growing zen buddhist monk praying for peace, there would be no war. I've dipped tentatively into a lot of philosophy, and I've always considered sentiments like that to be something of a tiny baby elephant in the room. Why can't we be happy all the time? Why can't everything be love and peace? Why must we have shadow to lend context to light? Why must we have failure to lend context to success? Why can't everyone just give up all at once? I don't know.
Despite all of everything, I really love these little "Media Art Toys" from Yudo Entertainment. If you have an iPhone, check out "Tangible Groove Pad" or "Matrix Music Pad." "Matrix Music Pad" has the honor of having been #1 on the iPhone App Store, though "Tangible Groove Pad" is better. (It's like a sequel; it has more features, and is even easier to rock with.) If you have two fingers, a line-out cable, and a decent stereo system, you can be the life of a party with one of these things. You just move your fingers around and make music. You can get very, very good at it, though unlike a real instrument, you're pretty good not two seconds into your first experience. You don't even need a living room full of dudes or a hi-fi to have fun with this thing, either. You can put on headphones and just ride the bus.
These sorts of applications are something of a miracle; it used to be, if you wanted to practice music on the bus, you'd have to listen to your Walkman and make funny hand positions, or else grip a Shredneck and employ hell of brain power in engaging your imagination while you increase your sweep-picking score. Still, for increasing the number of clean arpeggio sweeps you can do between metronome clicks, nothing beats having a guitar plugged into an amplifier, some overdrive, and an actual metronome. The Shredneck is only ever a transitory tool; more of an imagination toy, something to do with your hands, than anything else. Now, look at this: a performance-quality musical instrument right there in your hand. You can even compose your own songs with it, right there on the bus. That's pretty fantastic. This is the sort of thing that's going to eventually edge out rhythm games, and I'm not saying this because I own a real guitar. I'm not hating on people who play rhythm games; I'm just optimistic that the joy of playing something like "Tangible Groove Pad" will gradually seep into the mainstream (as it's already doing in the newer Guitar Hero games), and the joy of expression will overcome the joy of rote memorization.
Too bad Wii Music doesn't sound good enough / have good enough songs in it.
Confession: I sometimes pick up Taiko Drum Master sticks in arcades when I walk by; I pound the life out of the drum. It gives me some degree of pleasure, and I don't even have to put any money into the machine. The sticks feel nice; the feedback of stick against drum is very real and present. Every few hits I clack the sticks together with ferocity. I don't even ever wonder if anyone is watching.
Did you know, by the way, that one of the reasons karaoke games are never popular in Japan is because the rights pricing structure is so insane because — way back in the early eighties — record executives didn't want their songs going into karaoke machines for less than a certain absurd royalty amount per play because they feared an ultimate loss of money: They feared that if you let people sing along to music, and if you were even so kind as to remind them of the words, then their friends might utter deadly words such as "You know, you sing this song better than the actual pop star does," and that would just make the marketing machine look evil, and superficial.
This is what Japanese music was like, back in the early days of karaoke, by the way:
Watch the girl on the right, at the very end. God, I love this stuff.
As it is now, at least rhythm games are better than massively multiplayer online role-playing games. In rhythm games, your ultimate "number" goes up as you get better; in an MMORPG, your number goes up as you spend more time with it. People will say that they play MMORPGs for the social element, though can't you also, say, go indulge yourself in the local rock and roll scene for something like that? One morning, long ago, when the world was still young, I slept in a girl-I-might-have-loved's bed and listened to the songs of nightingales. It turned out there was no mathematical reason to them. One nightingale would chirp once; the next would chirp twice; the first would then chirp three times. This built up until they were chirping seven times. Then they'd start over: The other nightingale, the one who hadn't initiated the song, would chirp once, prompting the first nightingale to chirp twice. I was in a weird mood, so this managed to make me feel a little sad: All they can do is say "I'm over here" "I'm over here" "I'm over here." "I exist"; "I exist, too". The human equivalent of this would be combat in any MMORPG, a rhythm game where your score increases procedurally every time you repeat a song, whether you're getting better or not, or a sixteen-hundred-message-long two-way Gmail conversation where every message contains only the text "sup."
This feels related, at this very moment: Did you know that, in Dragon Quest V for the Super Famicom, the first time you play the slot machine in the first area with a slot machine, you win? You don't get a jackpot, or anything. You just win a little bit. Isn't that cute? In the real world, if some casino had a slot machine like that, and word got out, people would be lining up. The casino would be cleaned out in fifteen minutes (assuming that the slot machine had a direct link to some money reservoir (yes, I know how slot machines work, okay; god, I'm just trying to be hypothetical)). What Dragon Quest realizes is that games don't lose when the player wins. I like that idea. Why, then, in the remake of Dragon Quest V for the Nintendo DS, do the slot machines not let you win on the first pull? It's because, between 1991 and now, in some subtle and drastic way, culture has changed. Right now, the games that convey culture do so with all the panache of a guy posting "Thanks for the add" on your Myspace wall. We need more things that, like Tangible Groove Pad, are like getting Facebook-poked by someone you know pretty well and just haven't talked to in a short while. Some day soon after that, we'll have a whole cornucopia of games that are as heart-warming as when someone on your chat list opens a message window when your status is set to "busy" and then enters one character of text (maybe an "A", maybe an "H") and leaves it there, unsent. You look at your buddy list, you see the little pencil / word-bubble icon, and you know that someone is thinking about you. (Or that they're a psycho. (Or both.)) Maybe we'll be happy then. (Or maybe not. (Probably not.))
tim rogers is the editor-in-chief of action button dot net; friend his band on myspace (and if you're in tokyo, come see us live any sunday afternoon in koenji); follow his twitter; mail him at 108 (at) action button (dot net) if you have something fun (or not) to say! I welcome suggestions of topics, whether via email or in comments, and I enjoy reading questions / arguments that give me ideas to expand on in future columns.
And if you're in Tokyo, my band plays shows all the time; just email me for details. If you come see us, we will totally hang out afterward. Just, whatever you do, don't watch us on Youtube. We're a lot better in person!
Illustration by Harvey James. Buy your Tim Rogers dartboard cover, and many other neat items!