‘The Beatles: Rock Band’ screenshots courtesy of Harmonix/MTV Games.

‘The Beatles: Rock Band’ Was a Revolution for Gaming Fantasies

Seeing the very real history of the world’s biggest pop band was a greater trip than journeying through any magical realm.

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Jul 2 2017, 7:08pm

‘The Beatles: Rock Band’ screenshots courtesy of Harmonix/MTV Games.

Because of my age, I don't fantasize any more about being a dragon slayer, a super-soldier or a cowboy. I dream these days of money and respect—and if I'm feeling playful, I like to imagine meeting and working with my personal heroes.

Typically games manufacture escapist fantasy and try to sell it to me. Whether I've ever thought about it or not, games tell me I want to run away to magical realms and war. Their willingness to please, and free me from worldly pressure, is so extreme they come up with my dreams for me: games not only insist on making my fantasies tangible, but inducing them in the first place. In the accommodation of such sedulous hosts I don't even have to let my mind drift. I can outright switch it off.

2009's The Beatles: Rock Band is the occasional example of a video game that works "backwards," by adapting a dream I've had privately and providing it back to me. There is no hard-sell involved, because I've already wished, time and again, to be a musician, or rather one of The Beatles, a band so loved and respected even my spell checker knows their name.

I know their songs, I've lived in Liverpool, and I can strum a few chords on a guitar. I can taste this fantasy. But, because it's 2017, and John Lennon and George Harrison are both dead, and even after several years I still butcher the C7 with my clumsy fingers, I can never live it. The Beatles: Rock Band is as close as I can get to quenching this thirst.

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And it feels close, because it contains so many images lifted from reality. The opening cutscene traverses the Cavern and The Grapes pub, both on Liverpool's Matthew Street. St Paul's Cathedral appears in the background, The Ed Sullivan Show, Budokan. Even at its most psychedelic, this sequence includes black taxis, British street signs and of course the four Beatles themselves.

Inspired by the band's album covers and movies, it comes not from a fantasy land, but my own reality and culture. I identify with these places and people, and it instantiates my fantasy: as much as I fundamentally know I can't actually go to Skyrim or Hyrule, The Beatles: Rock Band's opening salvo of recognizable things assures me that here, in my very own world, magic happens.

On the contrary, Rock Band takes enough liberties with Beatles history that I always feel floaty and guiltless. I don't see Lennon and Paul McCartney growing apart. Their rooftop swansong concludes not with the band breaking up, and launching mediocre solo careers, but a flowery, uplifting camera sweep across London, Liverpool and the world. As much as real-life and events that actually happened color its aesthetic, The Beatles: Rock Band maintains that playing music, in the Sixties, with the biggest pop group in the world is a positively chimerical idea, and that all wonder and magnificence considered, the practicalities don't matter.

'The Beatles: Rock Band' screenshot courtesy of Harmonix/MTV Games.


Such is the essence of escapism. Opening on a vista of rainy Liverpool, The Beatles: Rock Band ends on the same city except now, seven years and 13 albums later, adorned with gigantic, blossoming flowers. It presents, within itself, a less than beautiful world, and then provides me the apparatus—i.e. The Beatles' music and success—with which to leave it.

The Beatles: Rock Band is not just an escapist game; it's a game about escaping. Between the beginning and the end, I feel like Dorothy, stepping out of sepia, into thaumaturgical Technicolor.

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I want to be rich. I want to be looked up to. I want to be remembered after I die. And I want all of these things for myself, in my own world. It's vicarious and ultimately frivolous as the next game, but the illusion provided by The Beatles: Rock Band is at least of a talent I sincerely wish I possessed. I don't care about sword-fighting or being bastard enough to survive the apocalypse, but to be able to play "Dear Prudence" on guitar and drums, and to be the first to ever do it, and to make millions from it, even a semblance of that experience fills and makes me warm.

The pleasure of The Beatles: Rock Band is equitable to the pleasure of all games. Playing as a superlative pop group, across their superlative career, it is the pleasure of feeling like the best, the winner, the most "powerful." But that power is synonymous not with destroying, looting and defeating, but creating—and creating wonderful music at that. For that reason and because, at 27, it is already too late for me to be young and gifted to the extent of the eponymous pop foursome, The Beatles: Rock Band is an escapist fantasy that's exceptionally easy to accept.

I don't just slide in a disc and get whisked away to a pre-built fantasy. I glean, for a vital moment, the actual, grey world, and then ascend from it, via the songs and talent of my avatars.

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