I don’t just like karaoke; I love it. On average, I go out and sing at least twice a week, sometimes three times a week. Singing in bars in front of people helps me conquer my ever-present fear of doing literally anything in front of people. It’s a strange sort of therapy. Twitch and Harmonix’s new karaoke-themed game, Twitch Sings, seems like it was made for me. But I have some misgivings.
Twitch Sings made its debut at TwitchCon on Friday as the first in a line of games designed specifically with Twitch in mind. I spent most of TwitchCon joking that “Twitch announced it invented karaoke,” because that’s basically what Twitch Sings is—despite a song list that has a host of startling omissions (no “Mr. Brightside,” or Queen, or “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” or Muse, or even Linkin Park?). Once you choose a song, you sing it on stream, and a Rock Band-esque pitch indicator tells you how you’re doing.
The twist is that your audience can vote on challenges in the middle of songs, and they can cheer you on with lights on an in-game stage, emotes, and even Twitch’s real-money-based “bit” currency. Each of these things prompts flashy, gratifying effects. You can also sing with people in your audience, though I wasn’t able to try out that feature, and I’m curious to see how Twitch and Harmonix will handle the inevitable latency issues. There are asynchronous duet options as well, which involve one person singing a harmony or additional parts over somebody else’s pre-recorded track.
During my demo session at TwitchCon, I ended up singing alone, with my performance broadcast to an audience of a couple hundred virtual viewers. The first thing I noticed was that I was staring at a video feed of my own face against a backdrop of stage lights and tiny audience members, though apparently there’s an option to play with an avatar representing you instead. Still, I had to sing while watching myself fidget nervously, which was distracting, to say the least. It also made me acutely aware that, well, I was being watched.
Now, karaoke is a performance. It is more about what you do and how much you commit to it than how you sound, whether you’re doing it in a tiny room surrounded by friends, or in a crowded bar surrounded by alcohol-emboldened randos. But there is a certain shamelessness to karaoke that’s hard to replicate when you’re staring at your own face. I ended up struggling to do much more than motionlessly clutch the microphone and belt increasingly strained notes as I desperately tried to will my throat to stop closing up. During an instrumental section, viewers voted to challenge me to cluck like a chicken, and let me tell you, I extremely did not do that. I felt legitimately bad about letting them down at the time, but still: nah. I hope the other challenges are better.
In short, it was not my finest performance of “Dream On” by Aerosmith, a song that was—in hindsight—way too bold of a pick for that environment. I do not remember how many times the stage lit up with effects, but I think I got at least a few courtesy cheers. And in those moments, I realized I was very glad that—to my knowledge—the game does not include a built-in booing function.
If I’d gotten to play more songs, I’m sure I would’ve acclimated, but at this point I feel like Twitch isn’t at odds with karaoke so much as Twitch Sings is only really for extremely specific kinds of karaoke singers. Basically, there are two ends of the karaoke spectrum: On one, you’ve got the guru, the master, the person who, in their mind, is auditioning for The Voice. They terrify and inspire you. You hate and revere them in equal measure. Then, on the other end, you’ve got the person with enough booze in their belly to sink several Titanics that has decided to take the stage for laughs. This person is not “good” in the traditional sense, but they go for it like only God can judge them, and “God” is just the nickname they gave to their equally drunk bro, Frank Goddard. If somebody in the crowd asked them to cluck like a chicken, they’d do an entire song in farm animal noises.
For people on both of the ends of this spectrum, I think Twitch Sings will be a solid option, although not necessarily a great one (unless the song selection vastly improves). The majority of people who do karaoke land somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, though, and I think the game will be an iffier proposition for them. Karaoke is only rarely about being so bad it’s hilarious or so good that you’re worshiped as the probable reincarnation of David Bowie. Most of the time, it’s about overcoming your fears, making noises of debatable quality, and knowing that—pretty much no matter what—a kind and supportive crowd will at least politely clap for you at the end. They might even sing along!
Karaoke is a communal activity. Its best moments emerge spontaneously, even haphazardly. I still find it terrifying to sing in front of a crowd—I’ve been doing it for years and still come away with my hands shaking like crazy every time—but it’s almost magical when you realize they’ve got your back. You hear it. You feel it. Your confidence shoots through the roof. I’m not sure how well that appeal will translate to a streaming environment. I don’t know if viewers—who are likely in their own homes and are not part of a maybe-drunken, sing-along-prone crowd—will get much out of it. And yeah, there’s gonna be an option to sing with viewers in the final version, but I don’t know if that’ll be able to match the feeling of a room- or bar-wide sing-along.
When I was singing at TwitchCon, I was aware that people were watching me, but I still felt alone and exposed. Those people were far away, and if they were singing along, I couldn’t hear them. Twitch chat was not open during my demo session, and afterward I found myself wondering what people in it had to say while I was performing. Then I realized I did not want to know. There are some very kind communities on Twitch who, I’m sure, will give streamers plenty of encouragement. I searched around for clips after my demo and found a couple streamers whose communities were absolute delights while they were trying the game out. But there are plenty of judgmental people out there, too. Imagine what people who spend their time heckling gamers who aren’t up to the standards of, say, Ninja will do to sub-par singers. Again, I’m glad Twitch Sings doesn’t seem to have a booing or heckling function built in.
As a karaoke fiend, I very much appreciate what Twitch Sings is trying to do. At its best, karaoke is one of the most earnest, supportive activities people can do together. And even when it’s not that, it can still be fun and funny. I’m glad to see Twitch and Harmonix trying to put a new, experimental spin on my favorite hobby, and I’m glad to see that some streaming audiences are embracing it. I’m just not sure it’s for me—or anyone who isn’t impervious to embarrassment. Since some Twitch streamers make their living by performing in this exact type of setting, this game could work out great for them. But it feels like it could be a daunting proposition even for some streamers, and definitely for anxious folks like me.