A few months ago, a video came across my Twitter timeline, starring one of the most nightmare blunt rotations I’d ever seen: Mr. Incredible, Marlin from Finding Nemo, and Spy and Pyro from Team Fortress 2 performing “Carry On Wayward Son.” Of course, this motley crew of cartoon characters couldn’t convene in the flesh; this was a modded Guitar Hero level.
The clip sent me down a wormhole of Guitar Hero mods, in search of the most cursed groupings imaginable: Kiryu from Yakuza singing “YMCA,” Wallace and Gromit playing Steely Dan with Eli Vance from Half Life, Walter White and Saul Goodman doing “Free Bird.” Ever wanted to see CJ from GTA or Peter Griffin do System of a Down karaoke, or an oversized Thomas the Tank Engine take on “Crazy Train”? Well, now you can, even if you never wanted to.
When I first dove into the Guitar Hero mod community, I assumed it was a leftover relic from an earlier era of the internet. Guitar Hero has always carried a great deal of nostalgia for me as someone who came of age during its heyday. Though streaming was developing throughout the 2000s, it had yet to completely reshape the music industry—YouTube and Guitar Hero both first launched in 2005, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rhythm game boom sputtered out as Spotify ascended to dominance. In that pre-streaming era, Guitar Hero functioned as more than a game; it became a platform for music discovery, and a vital gateway for my own taste as a burgeoning music lover.
The branding and aesthetic might have emphasized hard rock, but Guitar Hero and Rock Band were both more musically diverse than they get credit for; 2008’s World Tour, for example, featured everything from Sublime to Willie Nelson to Linkin Park. The range of licensed music and the casual gameplay style made the Harmonix and Neversoft games a uniquely social experience, and one that’s uniquely suited to playing under the influence or in a party setting.
I played Guitar Hero before I ever smoked weed, but years later, I’d feel the nostalgic pull of the series and re-experience them as a full-time stoner. There’s the obvious enjoyment of listening to music while high, but even on a design level, Guitar Hero is uniquely suited to the aimless pleasures of a lazy Sunday afternoon. There’s no rush to get through the game, no storyline or cutscenes to pay attention to; I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve spaced out after finishing a song, my blunted mind wandering as the surprisingly soothing crowd applause plays on a loop.
The weird world of Guitar Hero mods
Fifteen years later after its release, Guitar Hero: World Tour has made an unexpected comeback, thanks to a passionate collective of modders and rhythm game devotees. Much to my surprise, all of the nearly one thousand original creations from the Guitar Hero: World Tour section of NexusMods were uploaded within the last two years—the oldest mods available, including Leon Kennedy and Master Chief, were posted in August 2021. These nightmare blunt rotations exist thanks to the fan-made Guitar Hero: World Tour - Definitive Edition mod, launched in December 2021, which transforms the 2008 game into an ultra-customizable multiplayer experience.
Even after the Guitar Hero series faded from the mainstream, the game’s modding community was kept alive by players like ExileLord, who graduated from creating custom songs for Guitar Hero 3 to hacking the game itself. Compared to the cartoonish absurdity of the GHWT Definitive Edition mod, ExileLord’s GH3+ project is more about fiddling with the original engine than adding new content to the game—his most popular YouTube video explores a bug in Guitar Hero 3 that allows you to play a song for hours on end. While previous modders mostly worked with Guitar Hero 3, the Definitive Edition team gravitated to World Tour in part because of the expanded features of the game itself.
“In terms of the Guitar Hero franchise releases on PC, Guitar Hero 3 is much more primitive,” says Dodylectable, a core member of the Definitive Edition mod team, in explaining why the group chose to work with the 2008 game. “There was a massive jump from 3 to World Tour with new features like Create-A-Rocker and Music Studio, which allows for more of the fun character stuff we have in our mod compared to GH3+.” World Tour had already upped the ante for interactivity and customization, which the Definitive Edition group simply took to the next level. To hit even higher notes (sorry), modder Zedek The Plague Doctor, reverse-engineered the game and began sharing his creations with a growing group of fellow rhythm game modders.
“I always wanted to mod Guitar Hero games because I thought they deserved custom characters, instruments, and venues, more than just custom songs or texture mods,” says Dodylectable. “Zedek told me how I could make custom character ports, and then showed me what he had in store for the Definitive Edition mod, including different GUI and instruments. I was genuinely impressed and when he asked for help in further developing the mod, I didn’t hesitate to join at all.”
The project started mostly with porting or recreating skins characters from other games: Dodylectable’s first mod, and the first publicly available GHWT mod, was a tribute to Garrett, the protagonist of the Thief series of stealth games. Because of its age, there is a limit to what modders can get out of Guitar Hero, as Dodylectable explains: “Guitar Hero runs off of a heavily modified Tony Hawk Proving Ground engine, which is reasonably restrictive compared to today’s engines like Unreal. One of my favorite characters I’ve done is Lady Dimitrescu from Resident Evil Village, who was a massive pain to port over. She crashed my game over 20 times in debugging, but it raised the bar for people to go and make high-poly model ports.”
But it’s partly the challenge that attracts Guitar Hero modders—along with the novelty and meme potential of putting your favorites in the world of a beloved game, of course. “Porting over characters from other games is mostly easy, but recreating real people requires more effort,” says Dodylectable. “My favorite in that department is actually one I designed of my real life self, which is coming with the update. I’m proud of it because it got me out of my comfort zone and got me to do a lot of things I’d never imagined doing with sculpting and texturing and making models from scratch.” Guitar Hero was already an ideal stoner game, but the World Tour mod has taken it to the next level—watching modded videos of Mark Zuckerberg jamming with anime girls is like the virtual equivalent of walking into one of those dispensaries with Rick & Morty and SpongeBob cartoons stenciled all over the walls.
The GHWT Definitive Edition team all learned about the game’s inner workings from teaching each other, and the collective is constantly updating its mod and developing new features. Their current projects include porting venues and level design from spin-offs like Guitar Hero: Van Halen and Metallica into World Tour to offer even more customizability and creative potential. The group has left the Discord door open for any other Guitar Hero enthusiasts who want to tinker with the game. Its community has grown explosively since the mod’s launch, in part because of how willingly its creators have shared their toolkit and how active they are in keeping the project alive.
The ultimate problem of a game like Guitar Hero is that it can never really capture the feeling of actually creating music. Sure, you might be able to play it, and the peripheral might be shaped like a guitar, but at the end of the day it’s basically just cosplaying someone else’s work. In its own way, the World Tour modding community captures the feeling of jamming with other musicians, in a way Guitar Hero and Rock Band could only ever emulate: Like a band in a garage, they’re a group of like-minded artists working together to invent something unpredictable and new. In true stoner fashion, Guitar Hero was meant to be enjoyed collectively, with the controller passed around like a joint in rotation, and the game’s modding community has kept that flame alive.