As my anticipation for Guitar Hero World Tour, what will be my single biggest gaming purchase this year, grows I can't help but also grow more excited about Wii Music. Wii Music is the game that most of the gaming industry doesn't understand or know how to talk about. Like the other phenomenons that fly under the same series (Wii Sports, Wii Play, and Wii Fit) Wii Music is designed in a way that is very different from the popular examples in related genres. Wii Music is designed as a true music game.
I've been playing music for a very long time now; piano for over 13 years and violin for over 11 years. Though I've participated in contests, orchestras, and solo performances with both of these instruments and written several compositions, I come to understand music as something that a musician can't help but make. It's something different from the theory, correctly played notes, and one's experience with an instrument. My experience with the cello, harmonica, guitar, bass, and drums aren't nearly as extensive as with my primary 2 instruments. But in my experience, I've found that I can make music with anything that makes noise or can produce note tones.
It's interesting when you think about how the source of my expression for playing video games, painting, drawing, sculpting, writing, and playing music comes from the same play. In each art form each in their different ways, every move/strategy/brush stroke/word/note is made in attempt to communicate something whether individually or as part of a bigger phrase. My piano teachers over the years never taught me to play music, but they always commented on how I had "it." Random audience members from concerts would always go out of their way to specifically compliment my playing. Playing notes is something entirely different from playing music. This is something that has come naturally to me.
In one of my English class back in High School, the teacher had a small toyish ukulele. Everyday, I would go to class early and practice on this plastic like instrument that was always out of tune. After a few attempts, I was able to play the Super Mario Brothers main theme with some cool ornamentation too. After I nailed Mario, I worked out a unique composition in the style of classic guitar music. Though the strings were in a different tuning every day, I was able to get consistent results. The more work I put into this "toy" the more musical range I discovered and the more my playing sounded like authentic music. Because of experiences like this, I never underestimate the ability for strange even toy instruments to make music. Music is something I will always strive to produce because it's in my and it must be expressed. For this reason, the 50 or so instruments that come packed into Wii Music excite me just as much or more so than Guitar Hero World Tour. How else would I be able to play 50 musical instruments to create music even if they're "toys?"
Wii Music is a game made by the same company and the same genius designer that has made the world's greatest video games. The same mind that created Mario and Zelda is now looking at looking at creating a game entirely around the function of creating music. Using the modern advances in technology and game design, Miyamoto is attempting with Wii Music to make a game about making music with simulated instruments as opposed to hitting buttons to a fixed rhythm on a plastic instrument/video game controller. Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Donkey Konga, and all the other music-rhythm games may be nice games, but as a musician I know that there really isn't any musicality in the gameplay. At some point, not being able to play my own notes to my own rhythms makes me realize I'm stuck in a game that's more linear than even the most basic 2D platformers. In other words, music rhythm games generally have one way to play and one way only which severely limits the possibility for musical expression.
As a violin teacher, I'm working with a student who has been playing the violin for 3 years having started in middle school. She told me she wants to play with more confidence and energy but is unsure how to do so. The only way to play with more energy, I explained, is to put more energy into your playing. Every time she tries, she reverts to the ways she's comfortable playing; more reserved and somewhat vapid. Even this student musician playing a real instrument holds back her own musicality because she's afraid to mimic me or the other violinists. She has created too many psychological barriers against herself.
Most musical instruments are physical machines that produce sound entirely through mechanical means. Imitating and even exaggerating the physical motions of real musicians goes a long way in developing the techniques needed to play like a professional. This is why Wii Music's motion controls are genius.
The psychological barriers many develop when playing on a real instrument wouldn't exist in Wii Music because it's perceived as a video game; a toy meant to be played. The psychological barrier that stems from the perception that a musical instrument is a very expensive object that must be taken very seriously would never developer around such a game for the Wii. Furthermore, because the player is playing "air instruments" there's a natural tendency to exaggerate one's motions. In a strange way, the inherent design of Wii Music can bring musicians and non-musicians alike closer to physically playing more like professional musicians.
Some people are upset with how Wii Music makes it impossible to play bad notes or lose like in a traditional video game. Somehow, these people have drawn the conclusion that real music is legitimized only because of the possibility that the performer could have played wrong notes or failed in some way. Even with the structure Wii Music puts players in, it is still quite possible to play some horrible sounding music. Remember E3 08? The performers on stage played a Mario tune that sounded terrible. That alone should convince anyone that there's enough room in Wii Music to fail or succeed in varying degrees. Because musical expression is at the center of Wii Music's design, the success of a performance is subjective. I doubt there will be a percentage score given to players at the end of each song.
The Variations. Skip to 1:00
I think Wii Music has enormous potential. Because instead of accurately performing actions in time with a score, gameplay is about enjoying limitless possibilities all of which are correct.
Just listen to theme and variation between these recordings of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
When I first listened to these three videos, the first thing I said was, "wow... that's music!"
Wii Music is a game that will fill a unique space in the gaming industry. It's for people who want to know what it's like to play music, to play music in a group, and even do a little composing without the expensive price tag of buying a musical instrument/lessons or working through the steep learning curve of music theory. Wii Music is also for musicians who want to play around with instruments they can't get their hands on or can't afford. With around 50 musical instruments in Wii Music, there's bound to be something you've never seen/touched/played that you would like to. In other words, Wii Music is for everyone. Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Elite Beat Agents, Donkey Konga, DDR, PaRappa The Rapper, and Guitaroo Man players shouldn't feel threatened or challenged in any way. Wii Music seems to be in a genre of it's own.
In the meantime check out these two Wii Music links.
- Why Wii Music is Genius by Seanmalstrom: Though I would argue against some of his extreme statements his intent is in the right direction.
- Iwata Asks Wii Music: Only the first volume is available at this time.