Sitting just outside the reach of a Nerf gun is my alpine white Gibson Les Paul Studio guitar. Its edges are darkened by sweat and dead skin seeping into the wood, and the once shiny gold pickups seem to be turning green. I’ve played this guitar for almost a decade now, and I can’t recall an object I’ve been more emotionally tethered to over the years. It’s funny to think that I could have completely overlooked something that’s so profoundly shaped my being without the help of a video game. Guitar Hero is the reason I picked up a guitar, and it’s taught me valuable lessons about approaching the instrument and turned me into a better human being – not to sound too dramatic or anything.
Way back in 2007 (the year of the pig and cake-based lies) I was in year 11 at high school. My daily regimen would consist of waking up, playing Counter-Strike, going to school, studying, wishing The Simpsons would stop getting worse and sleeping. I didn’t hold onto any dreams or grand ambitions, and my self-fulfilment was generally through video games. Geometry and trigonometry were all well and good, but headshotting some random across the map through the doors of de_dust2 with a Deagle was far more satisfying. I was also developing a liking for metal, because what 15-year old guy goes through school without being tainted by the satanic doctrine of Slayer and mosh pits? It was around this time that rhythm games were starting to take over the mainstream, and as you might have gathered, Guitar Hero ticked all the boxes for me.
Having never owned a PS2, Guitar Hero 2 was my first venture into the franchise, and boy, I ventured deep. I devoured the career mode in a matter of days, and it didn’t take long before I was shredding on expert difficulty. It was a game that wanted you to get better each time you played, taunting you with a cheeky “98% hit” reminder to push you on. Sure, Buckethead’s Jordan was outside my abilities, but I was having too much fun with everything else to care. The aesthetic, gameplay and controller all came together for an experience that was exhilarating. It was a combination of music and video games unlike any other I’d experienced before, but it was jerking off a part of my brain that I’d long enjoyed getting fiddled.
While Guitar Hero uniquely approached rhythm games, the underlying desire to get better was nothing new. I’ve always gravitated toward games that let the player become better through play, like Dark Souls and Factorio. You start unfamiliar with how anything works and stumble around until things start clicking into place. After a while, you’re not just playing the game; you’re making it work for you like a nubile contortionist yanking out whatever’s gargling behind your bookshelf. Guitar Hero let me dive deep into a world of performance and mastery, but it’s hard to come back to reality when you get this good.
I’d spend hours playing the game, and it showed when my friends and I played Guitar Hero as a party game. I’d dominate everyone to the point where my friends would yell, “Dude, just learn to play real guitar!” So, one day, I thought, “Yeah… Maybe I’ll learn drums.” I was, evidently, a fucking idiot when I was younger. I was eventually convinced that guitar was better (mainly because another one of my friends was learning drums) and asked my parents if I could buy one. My mum, a classically trained ex-WASO violinist, and my dad, a member of ye olde New Zealand pub band, The Soul Agents, humoured my request. Little did I realise that the game had entrenched a fundamental standard into my subconscious.
A lot of guitarists will cheat their way to good playing. This can come in the form of sloppy technique, inconsistencies and turning the gain up to 11 to hide the fact that you don’t deserve to use that reference. I, however, had been tempered by a video game about learning to play songs from beginning to end consistently. It’s not like I seamlessly went from Guitar Hero to an actual instrument without needing any training whatsoever, it’s just that aiming for 100% of the notes was an applicable goal. I wasn’t pleased with myself until I could nail whatever I was working on that week, and when I finally hit the mark, it was like beating a song in GH. The satisfaction came from attaining a level of discipline and control that a video game – yes, a video game – had trained me for. I felt loyalty to the brand for imparting such excellence in me, though it wasn’t a mutually beneficial relationship.
As Guitar Hero evolved and tried new things, it never ticked the boxes the same way GH2 did. Guitar Hero 3 made hitting notes more lenient for new players, and I didn’t have the money for all the plastic instruments of World Tour. It didn’t help that Rock Band was vying for a piece of the rhythm game pie, and DJ Hero wasn’t a good idea in any way whatsoever. With so many rhythm games trying to entice me with their song lists and mechanics, I eventually lost interest. I still remember seeing a trailer for Guitar Hero Live and wondering why they’d removed all the good parts of the game. I don’t shed any tears for the franchise, especially since my real guitar offered so much more than five buttons and a whammy bar.
While Guitar Hero had a significant amount of mastery in its mechanics, real guitar had so much more to delve into. Sure, both let you learn songs, but learning an instrument involves learning music theory and playing outside of an imposed framework. Going beyond playing a song in a Phrygian harmonic scale into understanding why it sounds so rad wasn’t so far removed from learning the ins and outs of Counter-Strike. You start unfamiliar with how anything works and stumble around until things start clicking into place. After a while, you’re not just playing the instrument; you’re making it work for you like a newly acquired clump of sapient hair called Phillip that enjoys Listerine a bit too much. Of course, that subconscious drive to be the very best didn’t just benefit my guitar playing.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that my love for mastery has translated into my everyday life. While it started with guitar, it’s spilled over into university, writing for GameCloud and most anything I do throughout my day. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much unemployed, single and broke (pro tip: don’t set standards too high), but I hold onto my competency and integrity like skulls hold onto brains. Games are a great way to cultivate these traits since they demand something of you, whether it’s the frame-perfect timing of Blazblue or future planning of Rimworld. I love the feeling of getting good at something, and that goes for studying at uni, learning a song on guitar or just lining up the blocks in Tetris.
Mastery is important to me in video games, music and life, and it’s all thanks to Guitar Hero. The games instilled a sense of hardcore discipline and desire for excellence that’s seeped into everything I do. While that desire for mastery is now filled by games that don’t involve dudes with extravagant mohawks shooting fire out of their codpieces, GH still holds a special place in my heart. Without a game about becoming amazing at guitar, I’d have never tried becoming amazing at guitar, and I’d have missed a whole part of my life that’s shaped me into who I am. I still seek out those games with an element of mastery to them, but it’s not just about being the best; it’s about proving to myself that I can still hit 100% of the notes.