Guitar Rising: Guitar Hero Grown Up

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I was driving to the bank this morning when some really awesome piano thang was on NPR—suddenly, I began to mourn my utter lack of artistic skill. When I was but a wee Linde, I tried with limited success to pick up the guitar, the way every kid eventually picks up a guitar before abandoning it. Learning an instrument is damned difficult.

But there's a growing base of gamers looking to take their musically-inclined endeavors to the next level, and it's exactly that base that GameTank looks to exploit with Guitar Rising, aimed for a PC release late this year.

Guitar Rising employs conventions already established by the rhythm genre's lengthy history—notes flying across a bar which must be cleared by strumming an appropriate action. The key difference is that it uses actual guitars via a PC USB interface, and is therefore just as versatile as a real guitar ought to be. The game will be on hand for demonstration at GDC, and I'll definitely be looking to give it a try.

Nobody should expect a product like this one to be a stand-in for one-on-one lessons or good ol' fashioned screwing around on one's own time, but it taps into what might be a very appealing movement in gaming—challenge and competition applied as a means of motivation. Learning an instrument can be a frustrating, miserable experience when you suck as much as I do, but slap a score on it and a percentage of hit notes and I'm bound to stick with it until I actually improve.

Or, from another angle, look at it this way: make the oboe like Konami's Gradius V, and I'll slaughter that oboe with enough practice.

The makers of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, God bless 'em, never intended for their products to have an instructional angle. And why would they? Those games aren't about actually playing the guitar. The instrument is used only as a reference point, a simplified means of bridging symbolic performance—pressing five colored buttons along with a strum bar in tune with notes scrolling down the screen—with the act of rockin' out before the teeming masses. So when an uninformed somebody (your parents, your boss, your dog, whatever) asks if Guitar Hero learns you the fine art of rock, a chuckle isn't entirely unexpected.

As gaming begins to breach the realm of self-improvement (see Nintendo's Brain Age and the league of imitators it spawned), we're bound to see more and more of this kind of stuff—or so I hope. I'm much too lazy to drum up the motivation on my own, but it's that performance feedback that is so deeply ingrained in gaming's DNA that can take the work out of it, or at least make it feel a bit less like work.

I'm stoked for this product. While it's not quite the Piano Hero I had imagined this morning—complete with some badass peripheral with light-up LED keys that could get me pounding out Chopin on Expert in three months—the spirit is definitely similar. I understand that not every gamer kicks up Rock Band while harboring lofty dreams of actually learning to play the guitar, but for those few of us who do, Guitar Rising might be the start of an extremely compelling movement for us pudgy-fingered, skill-deficient musical wannabes.