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Hands-On: Rocksmith 2014 Initial Impressions

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Posted on November 8, 2013 AT 10:47pm

More Than a Feeling

You often hear that children are better, faster learners than adults. This is a scientifically proven fact, and not one I intend to contest. But I think, through playing Rocksmith 2014 Edition, I have a better understanding of how and why that is.

One part, for sure, is that, as children, we’re information sponges. Learning is fun because it betters us, informs us, colors in the world a little more. At a certain age,  learning just feels like catch-up, and no matter how hard you try and how much time and effort you put into learning, someone or something that you hold up as a standard will intentionally or unintentionally make you feel like there’s no hope. Part of this—a large part—is directly the result of impatience. And that’s the thing I think that we, as children, or children in general, have over us adults: patience.

When I’m playing Rocksmith, there, in the moment, I am easily agitated, quickly frustrated. I suspect the culprit is the part of Rocksmith that is a videogame. Irrationally, I expect to be able to pick up the rhythm-matching like I’ve been doing it my whole life—like I’m able to learn to many other games in one sitting. Playing a guitar, of course, is vastly more complex, and that’s what Rocksmith is doing: teaching me to play guitar. But when I step back and return to Rocksmith after a day or two, or—as is the case with these impressions—just over a week, I’m somewhat amazed at the progress I’ve made in such a short time. I yearn for the unawareness mixed with patience that children have. If I had that, I think this would be one of the most thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying experiences involving a musical instrument and a videogame in my life.

I’m no stranger to musical instruments. When still in elementary school, I elected to learn the baritone horn. (“Elected” is a fuzzy word, in my case, because I was told that no one had signed up for this massive instrument, and after only being shown the mouthpiece, agreed to it. It’s important to know that I’m the tallest, biggest adult, and as a kid, I was downright puny. Curled up, I was the size of a baritone horn.) I later switched to trombone, a fairly analogous, lateral move. Sometime during high school, I taught myself guitar, but mainly by playing by imperfect ear and ham-fisted understanding of tablature. I don’t know where this places me on the beginner/novice/whatever spectrum, and for that very reason, I decided to approach Rocksmith 2014 as someone completely clueless about guitars and music.

It’s been a very, very slow start. But I like where things are going.

I spent the first week with Rocksmith avoiding any direct attempts to learn songs, instead opting to go through its tutorial lessons on basic guitar use—hammer-ons, pull-offs, chords, and that sort of stuff. I’d repeat the lessons once or twice a week, and I’d occasionally noodle around in a track or two—which, at this stage, was as basic as the lowest setting on any Guitar Hero or Rock Band jam. We’re talking single notes representing complex chords, lots of pauses. Alien territory, for sure. Part of me wanted to ramp up the difficulty so that it seemed more familiar, but the experiment I’m determined to stay committing to is using Rocksmith 2014 as a learning tool, starting from the ground up, and making logical steps forward in my efforts to accomplish Ubisoft’s 60-day challenge (self-explanatory: two months, learn guitar well enough).

Honestly, I’m not quite sure how to communicate—at this stage—Rocksmith 2014’s efficacy. Not in specifics, at least. Things that might seem like a good idea might prove useless to me in the future, and things that seem really silly—like some of the “Guitarcade” minigames that mix, say, playing a platformer with performing guitar fundamentals (make a character climb higher and higher by performing bends in succession, for example)—might prove super effective.

So, instead, I’ll just draw a road map. In roughly a week’s time, I went from having super-sensitive fingers that stumbled across the fret board and a pick hand that couldn’t navigate the six strings without visual reference, to having fingertips that physically feel tougher and a strumming hand that finds the right string like it’s second nature. I’ve managed to learn, I’d say, half of one song completely. Wonkily worded, I know. What I mean is that there are parts of the songs I’ve nailed down (chorus, verse) and parts that still elude me (bridge, solo).

Part of my budding mastery over this track, of course, has to do with how aggressively I’ve been playing it and playing it and playing it and playing it (for the purposes of these initial impressions), but I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad approach. Whenever I’ve felt like breaking up the monotony by exploring other songs—particularly tracks I’m more familiar with as a listener—I feel a great deal more confident while performing them on the fly. I honestly feel that learning these songs, that learning the guitar, is becoming easier for me.

And that’s what I mean when I say that, in a weird way, Rocksmith 2014 has caused me to think about learning as a child versus learning as an adult. The first few days with the game (learning tool, really—I think I want to start calling it that to not diminish its scope by merely referring to it as a “videogame”), I wanted to quit out of impatience. Because I couldn’t magically play a song first try, the world-weary adult Chris wanted out. But I stuck with it, and now I can safely say progress has been made. When I look back at this past week in retrospect, I see how much patience and hunger lend themselves to learning. I can’t imagine backing down now. There’s only room for improvement, and I think that Rocksmith 2014 can be the guide, the digital guitar teacher, that gets me to a place where I’m playing the instrument plugged into an amp, not my Xbox 360.

I’ll be reporting in again two weeks from now, again two weeks after that, and one final time after 60 days with the game. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but honestly, that I’m this smitten within just a week of spending an hour a day with Rocksmith 2014 makes me feel pretty certain that it’s something special, and something worth seriously considering if you’re keen on learning the guitar. We’ll see—time will tell.

Chris Holzworth, News Editor
Chris Holzworth has wanted to write about games all his life. He first cut his teeth writing for enthusiast sites such as RPGFan, and after writing for just about every other enthusiast website he could came across, wound up as EGM's east coast news correspondent (read: editorial intern) before relocating to LA to serve as news editor. You can follow his rants about storytelling on Twitter @manadrive.[Meet the rest of the crew]

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