“Check one, check two.”
I lean into the mic for my first sound check in virtual reality. In the outside world, my headset is picking up my voice as a few bemused developers and staff look on, but as far as I’m concerned I’m standing on stage about to rock out in front of a raucous crowd as I give the guitar solo of my dreams.
I look down and give my instrument a few strums, the virtual guitar perfectly matched to the real world one. Pressing my fingers to the colored buttons on the controller I see them illuminate in the game, helping me place my fingers in the right location.
The curtains draw, and the crowd explodes in a cacophony of fanfare as my lead vocalist turns to me and tells me to cue the drummer to start. I look back and make eye contact with him for a short while and he begins to count the band in.
In front of me is a set of screens at the base of the stage, each playing the familiar stream of color patterns that has become a staple of the Rock Band franchise – they light up as the band begins to play.
Resisting the urge to start belting out the lyrics in front of the room full of actual people, I begin to tear my way through Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way.” The notes pulsate in my ears as I feel myself slipping deeper and deeper into the immersiveness of the experience, my body beginning to move along with the music.
I found myself slip up a few times during the song, struggling to shift my fingers relatively blindly to the right buttons on the guitar – likely the result of atrophied muscle memory (this was the first time I had picked up a Rock Band guitar in years).
Getting my bearings, I raced toward the end of the song – reaching the solo at the end. Strumming wildly, I watched as fireworks spewed out of my guitar into the crowd in front of me with each stream of notes, inspiring a bit of subconscious showmanship on my part – I wondered if I might literally melt faces with this solo.
While the game is still in a “very early state” according to the developers, Rock Band VR represents the single biggest change in the franchise since its start in 2007. Not only does the game immerse you in a rock god fantasy, the game incorporates elements that make it unique to VR. For example, if you reach your guitar forward you can smack the mic stand, or even interact with your fellow band mates.
If you meander over to the bassist while laying down some tasty licks, for instance, they will start dancing with you on stage. Look down and you can see a set of modifier pedals that you can use to change your sound. Speak into your mic and hear your voice echoing through the speaker system in the room, complete with impressive spatial audio. These little things add a whole lot to the game’s immersiveness making it feel like an entirely new experience when compared to its flat-screened predecessors.
Still though, as they said – it is early.
Harmonix describes the game in its current state as “classic gameplay put into VR.”
Currently these amazing VR exclusive additions fade into the background a bit as you end up focusing heavily on the screens with the chords to track what note comes next. The good news is, this doesn’t seem like it will be the case in the final release.
“We know that when you are in there your eyes are locked to that monitor,” the team told us, “everything we are doing is working on allowing that to not be the case.”
Harmonix is looking to solve the challenge of how to take advantage of everything VR has to offer while still maintaining the essence of the game.
“This is not you scrolling through a list of songs picking one and playing,” they said, “it is more about the full experience” of being a rock god.
While I saw only one, there will be multiple venues in the final version of the game.
“We’d like you to get the whole experience,” Harmonix said, “from playing at a small club to a sold out arena.”
The company says the final version of the VR game will include a 55-to-75-song long exclusive song list, all of which are very focused on guitar; which makes sense because it is the only instrument following the title into VR.
Rock Band VR is a piece in Harmonix’s plan to discover the answer to the question “What does music mean in VR?”
Previously, the company had shown off experiments on Sony’s PSVR like their Music Visualizer and a really fun painting application called The Easel where the brushes pulsate in tune with whatever track you select. Both of these apps are more on the tech demo side, whereas Rock Band VR will be a full title, but they all represent different approaches to how music will find its way into VR. Rock Band VR may only be the beginning as well, as Harmonix teased us further saying they have one more unannounced title that they will be talking about later this year.
The team says that they will be speaking a lot more about Rock Band VR this year at E3.
Rock Band VR elevates your relationship with the music you are playing, especially because of its participatory nature. You embody your favorite artists, stepping into their world for a brief moment. That in and of itself speaks to the heart of what makes VR so incredible. The level of connection between the mapped guitar, your fingers, the music and the raucous crowd make it a deeply personal experience unlike any other I have ever had in VR.
The Rock Band franchise feels like it was always meant to be in VR – and now, nearly a decade later, it finally is on its way.