"I wanna be a rock 'n' roll star." Surely there is hardly an American -- indeed, a citizen of the Free World -- who hasn't thought that, from time to time. And since games are what let us play out our fantasies, it's a wish that's obviously a strong one to build games on.
Yet the single mainstream title that succeeds in addressing this fantasy is a simple beat-matching game with a fancy UI device -- Guitar Hero. It's an excellent game in its own limited purview, to be sure--but its limitations illuminate the intellectual bankruptcy of mainstream games.
Why intellectually bankrupt? Because the fantasy of "being a rock 'n' roll star" has little to nothing to do with the fantasy of playing a guitar; it has to do with having an impact on culture, with a lifestyle of travel and excitement, with rebelling against the conventions of the dreary suburban existence most of us face daily, of being adulated and admired. Yes, you have to work to strum those strings effectively, but that's the craft part; we don't long to be brilliant craftsmen, we long to be stars.
Kudos Rock Legends is interesting precisely because it approaches the issue from a very different standpoint. Essentially an elaboration of the dynamic first explored in Cliff Harris's excellent Kudos, a "life sim" in which you're a poorly educated English chav trying to survive in a world that pays the poorly educated poorly (and striving to gain the skills to do better), in Rock Legends, you begin as an indifferently-skilled musician trying to put together a band of the similarly-skilled, starting as a low-paid cover band, and eventually building your audience and your repertoire until you're a Billboard-topping mega-act.
As with Kudos, it's a game of resource management, in which your chief resource is time, which you can spend practicing, writing songs, doing promotion, trying to book gigs at local venues, and so on. Two minigames -- a stripped-down beat-matching game you play to improve your own and your fellow musicians' musical skills, and a "song-writing" game which is a sort of TCG in which you gain new "cards" by absorbing musical influences--intersperse with the main game, in which you try to keep your musicians sane, fruitfully collaborative, and productive.
In other words, as a simulation of what it's like actually to be a rock 'n' roll striver (if not yet a star), Kudos Rock Legends is a far better, and in many ways far more interesting game, than Guitar Hero. The original Kudos (and Cliff Harris's previous and very different game, Democracy) are perhaps better games qua games -- more challenging and more original in design terms -- yet Rock Legends also illuminates, in a way, what the conventional industry has lost by its relentless drive to the lowest common denominator, and to "twitch" over strategy.
Yet as much as I like this game, I can't help observing that the designer clearly pulled his punches in order to make it acceptable to the "casual game" channels likeliest to make a sales success of a game of this type. One of the stats you have to manage in play is the fatigue of yourself and your fellow band members; too much rocking out in too short a period of time breeds burn-out. There are a number of actions you can take to reduce fatigue, including hanging out and sucking back a few brews, but the single most effective action (and most costly in monetary terms) is to spend a day at a spa.
A spa? Excuse me? A fucking spa? Are these middle-aged women in me fockin' band?
How do real rock stars deal with stress, eh?
We know that answer surely. Heroin. Groupies. Ludes. More groupies. X. And groupies.
In other words, in the absurdly infantile market conditions faced by games today, Rock Legends is commercially acceptable only because it sanitizes the rock experience by severing its connections to sex and drugs, which in the cliche, are part of an inevitable trio.
Just as Rock Legends is a chastening reminder of what mainstream gaming lacks, it's also a chastening reminder of the limitations that even indie games face. And produces, in the end, mostly a wistful hope that one day, game developers can experience a commercial environment that at least isn't any more restrictive than that faced by, say, novelists or film makers.