The ultimate connector

Music and games come together on screen on stereo and on board

The combination of music and gameplay can be traced back to the era of Mozart who was credited with the creation of a Musikalisches Würfelspiel (or musical dice game) in 1792. However old Wolfgang Amadeus could not have foreseen the level of innovation or widespread popularity that musical games have achieved today as evidenced by the Guitar Hero series its inevitable evolution Rock Band or the innovative locally made board game BANDthology.

The seed for the latter was planted several years ago as film sound department colleagues Cal Wilson and Joe Major passed the time between shots asking questions back and forth over their headsets such as “can you name three songs with love in the title?” From here Wilson and Major decided to transform their hobby into a home version with the help of their wives Sharon and Angela and BANDthology was born.

“We had several different prototypes that we went through and just kept adding stuff to it” says Sharon. “We took our time to make it just right. It’s definitely been a labour of love.”

The game includes components such as the “open-ended” questions (e.g. name a band song and album with a colour in their title) along with true-or-false questions multiple choices fill-in-the-blanks and word scrambles. Players may also end up having to perform an “audition” à la charades.

Plenty of attention has been given to the details as the trivia touches on music from all genres and the game has been designed to look like a musician’s road case. The object of BANDthology is to be the first player to win six musicians and form a super group.

“The game can be played by anyone because every person has a different catalogue of music that lives in their head” Wilson explains. “You certainly don’t have to be a musician either. People play the game and immediately start singing humming and laughing because what you find is that interest in music is the ultimate connector.”

This opinion seems to be shared by the video game industry. Titles such as Guitar Hero (which recently released its third instalment) Nintendo’s Donkey Konga (in which gamers beat along to songs on a bongo drum) and Rock Band (which allows several players to keep time on different “instrument” controllers) have become some of the most popular of the last few years. The gameplay ideas in these titles are not new however as they follow in the tradition of rhythm-based arcade games such as Dance Dance Revolution (originally introduced in Japan in 1998) which was released as a home version in North America in 2001. DDR was followed up with instrument-based arcade machines such as GuitarFreaks and DrumMania in the early 2000s which provide a clear lineage for Guitar Hero and its ilk.

Nowadays music has invaded gaming culture on both this level and in the soundtracking of titles with artists such as Calgary’s The Browns being paid big bucks for the use of their songs. The band’s “American Werewolf in Calgary” appears on Tony Hawk’s Underground . Additionally the soundtracks for games such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and NBA 2K6 were translated into reasonably successful albums.

Nonetheless not everyone has been won over by the music game phenomenon. Meg Anderson manager of Calgary’s Revolution Games and Music says she doesn’t think of games such as Guitar Hero or Rock Band as much more than a gimmicky trend.

“I don’t personally find them terribly interesting but I suspect that’s because I’m not as interested in competing within that context” she says. “A lot of people seem to find they’re really good for group games competitions parties that kind of thing and honestly I’m more of a solo gamer.”

Cam Lorentzon video game fan and multi-instrumentalist for the Calgary band The Drug Store Cowboys tends to agree preferring games with a more escapist bent.

“My problem with Guitar Hero is that if you’re going to play that game you might as well just buy a guitar” he says. “For an actual musician it’s almost like a step down. I far prefer the real thing over a video game and I’m more into RPGs [role playing games] like Final Fantasy .”

Anderson is not a musician herself but does have an opinion on how playing an instrument may affect your success or opinion of musical game play. “What I have heard in relation to musicians playing Guitar Hero is that fairly frequently people have very specific habits involved with actually playing their instrument that are not carried over to the game” she says. “For example if you’re not playing on every beat or playing in a particular way it can become detracting or a bit difficult.

“On the converse side musicians might be more used to staying on beat or more aware of melody than a person who wasn’t involved in playing music. It’s very individually interpretive though and being a musician could hamper just as much as it could help.”

That said Anderson and Lorentzon both see the appeal of games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band as they offer an accessible and unique premise.

“If you don’t play an instrument I can see why it would be appealing” says Lorentzon. “You don’t need musical talent practice or training. You can just pick it up and feel like you’re doing the real thing.”

“Honestly I suspect it has a lot to do with popular music” Anderson offers. “When people find out that there’s a game that allows you to compete with friends listen to music that you like and fool around with different controllers it’s just such a different experience. [Music games] have an entirely different kind of premise from first-person shooters or RPGs.”

So what about music-based board games such as BANDthology?

“I don’t play games like that very often but when I do they’re pretty fun” says Lorentzon. “The problem for me is that I never remember song names just the tune in my head. I’d say ‘is that the one that goes doot-doot-do-doot-do?’ I’m not very articulate about that kind of thing.”

With its open-ended play BANDthology might be the perfect game for people like Lorentzon. Either way its creators are certainly excited to strike while the iron’s hot. “I think people have always been interested in music but today more than ever music is part of our consciousness” says Wilson. “Whether it’s due to games TV or downloading pretty much everyone has an interest these days and it makes excellent timing for us.”