When I first tried Rock Band VR, an Oculus Rift adaptation of Harmonix Music Studios’ long-running rhythm series, the game exemplified a certain kind of VR prototype. It was the awkward hybrid of traditional mechanics and immersive environments, a good idea struggling to find its footing in a new medium. You could put on a headset that let you look anywhere, but you’d spend most of your time staring at a line of notes.
But in the few months since then, it’s undergone a radical transformation. The version of Rock Band VR that’s being shown at this weekend’s PAX convention doesn’t play like any previous game in the series. It’s not a surefire success, nor a guaranteed killer app for VR. It’s not even finished.
Even in this still early state, though, it’s the kind of thing that helps show us where virtual reality might be going. Also, it’s a lot of fun.
Like the earlier version I saw, this iteration of Rock Band VR works with existing Rock Band guitars. It tracks your guitar’s motion with one Oculus Touch controller, which sticks snugly in a mount screwed to the headstock. It even looks fairly similar, with graphics that are just good enough to not be distracting. But back in March, VR itself was the most novel addition to Rock Band VR. If you got past the eye-activated fireworks and motion-tracked guitar, you were still trying to precisely hit sequences of buttons on the right beats, with the occasional creative flourish via effects pedal or whammy bar. As Harmonix explained to us back then, this was a stopgap.
The current Rock Band VR expands on a freestyle system found in Rock Band 4, where the game would adapt guitar solos (or entire songs) to match what players were doing. Instead of individual notes rolling down a conveyor belt, Rock Band VR gives you chords to hit at particular points in a track. Between these, you can do pretty much whatever you want. A song can sound better or worse, depending on how well you establish a rhythm. But unlike in past games, the audience won’t boo you if you struggle, and you’ll never fail a song.
The specifics can be a little tough to explain in text, but roughly, here’s how it works. Once you’ve selected a song and appeared on stage, you’ll see a white line floating above the crowd, representing the entire track you’re about to play. The line is broken into sections like verse, chorus, and bridge, and studded with colored spots representing chords. When a chord is coming up, its structure will appear as a flashing, buzzing pattern of dots on the guitar’s headstock. While the chords keep you on your toes, there’s no need to constantly watch any one area, freeing you to look around the crowd, at other band members, or down at your guitar. It’s a lot more natural than the old note highway, even if it’s still disorienting to not see your fingers on the frets.
Still, as a skeleton for Rock Band VR, it’s a little bare. There were only a few chord changes per section in my demo songs, and none were difficult to hit. As in the earlier demo, there are gaze-activated pedals, but they’re relatively minor additions. The real challenges are a series of song-specific goals listed next to those pedals. These could be as simple as playing a verse with a certain rhythm, or as quirky as headbanging during a particular section. Body language didn’t matter much in my demo, but the fact that VR can track your head and instrument movement is one of the most intriguing elements of the game. In a later version, Harmonix suggests, you might be asked to do things like pull your guitar up and play it behind your head.
Granted, this sounds like a great way to break your headset, your guitar, or both. But it could help replace some of the gameplay that Harmonix has removed. Rock Band VR, at least in demo form, is far looser and less mechanically demanding than its predecessors. Harmonix suggests high-level players will try a song over and over while figuring out what rhythms and chords fit best, and I certainly enjoyed playing in the metaphorical shallow end of the pool. Not being able to fail, however, made it harder to see how I might improve. There are score bonuses for playing various song patterns in Rock Band VR, but you seem to figure the best ones out through trial and error, and there’s no feedback as obvious as the blunt pass/fail mechanic.
Instead of technical mastery, what Rock Band VR immediately offers is an experience. It encourages you not to seek perfection, but to relax and explore — sometimes literally, since you’re able to teleport to different locations around the stage and cozy up to your bandmates. Like Activision’s recent reboot of Guitar Hero, it’s a first-person experience of being a rock star, with VR instead of live-action video.
In a way, though, Rock Band VR seems to be going in two directions at once. In previous games, the guitar hero fantasy has never really been about external validation like digital bandmates or virtual fans. It’s about the sleight-of-hand that swaps out an extremely difficult task (becoming a guitar virtuoso) for one that’s significantly less difficult, but still challenging. When you finished a song and the crowd cheered, you felt like you’d really earned it.
The promise of VR, as we often talk about it today, is that you no longer need sleight-of-hand — you’ll be so immersed that you’ll really believe you’re a rock star surrounded by screaming fans, without having to bother with learning fake guitar. The casual side of Rock Band VR, focused on making sure players can soak in the world without worrying about what they’re doing there, seems to reflect this.
On the other end of the spectrum, the skills that Harmonix says really good players will develop are starting to sound more and more like the actual challenge of learning an instrument. This has always been a direction people speculated the series might go, but VR also seems to push video games to blend more closely with reality. When a platform makes abstract, stylized shortcuts like the note highway unworkable, what’s left except systems that — with enough high-tech equipment — could work on a real, physical stage? Could Rock Band, with VR and its knack for realism, transition from rock star simulator to rock star trainer?
Both these approaches could fail: being simply "immersed" gets old quickly, and at a certain point, you might as well literally learn the guitar. But they could also revive a genre that remains largely on life support, and take the Rock Band series in directions it’s never gone.
Disclosure: Harmonix creative director Matt Boch, who has worked on Rock Band VR, is currently a visiting professor at NYU’s Game Center alongside my husband.