Guitar Hero was not the first great rhythm game. It wasn’t even Harmonix’s first great rhythm game, or the first guitar-based rhythm game. But it was the first rhythm game to harness the transformative power of music in a way that everybody could understand. In its later iterations, Guitar Hero went on to make the previously Japanese-dominated domain of music gaming inseparable from western gaming tastes, and completely redefine gaming’s relationship with the music industry.
In November 2005, however, it was just a brilliant but impractical rhythm-action game with an experimental peripheral, so weird that it struggled to find investors. Acclaim passed up on the opportunity to publish it – a decision that puts it almost on a par with the literary publishers that turned down Harry Potter – and it was only RedOctane’s tenacious fundraising that made it possible at all. The concept of a rock rhythm game as a surprise success seems incongruous now, but Guitar Hero was born into the same obscurity as Harmonix’s previous passion projects, Frequency and Amplitude. Why did this game – in theory just as niche – blow the world away?
Guitar Hero has a closer relationship with Harmonix’s earlier work than it first appears. Like Frequency, it translates music into patterns of coloured gems that speak directly to the reflexes. It plays the same tricks with your brain chemistry, channelling the human mind’s love of pattern recognition into a single, focused task that makes it forget everything else around it but sequences of light and sound. Guitar Hero’s note charts are a language that every brain can learn to speak. Its divine inspiration – the idea that turned it from niche twitch-gaming thrill into universal living-room entertainment – was to marry that established, chemical rhythm-action kick with the primal emotional response of rock music.
The game taps into one of the most popular fantasies in the western world: what person growing up filling their ears with The Beatles or Queen or Metallica has never wished to be a rock star? Its tracklist doesn’t just speak to a certain generation or taste, it speaks to anyone who has ever loved rock music in any form, from Black Sabbath to Sum 41. It encompasses such a broad and accessible range of music that practically anybody who plays it will already have emotional associations with at least a few of the songs but be completely unfamiliar with many of the others, turning its setlists into journeys of musical discovery as well as exhilarating reflex tests.