Posted by: seanmalstrom | September 22, 2008

Why Wii Music is Genius

Genius is never appreciated in its time.  In only a couple short years, we have seen ‘genius’ products, literally genius in every sense of the word, in the examples of Wii Sports and Wii Play taking over the gaming landscape. We are witnessing how the future absolutely scares the so called sophisticated gamer who, peacocks themselves on puffed dreams and wormy brain-clucking of every ruffled feather, do not possess the imagination to see gaming in its new forms that are blossoming across the fields of Iwata’s New World. The hardcore view the “casual” metamorphosis of the industry as a butterfly degenerating into caterpillar. The truth is the opposite: the industry’s reformatting is the ‘video game’ caterpillar ascending to the ‘digital play’ butterfly. For twenty years, this is the  metamorphosis we have been waiting for.

Whether Wii Music sells well or sells poorly is not the matter in this case. What is relevant is whether Wii Music is genius… and I assure you that it is.

What is the difference between genius and non-genius in gaming? Genius, in gaming, strives to hold up a mirror to Nature, namely Human Nature, to see a different reflection appear. Non-Genius strives to make the game shine like a finely cut stone. The genius game reflects while the non-genius attempts to be shiny. The reason why Will Wright and Shigeru Miyamoto are considered the geniuses of gaming is precisely because their games reflect something in Human Nature that games were not reflecting before. The non-genius games age rapidly and are forgotten. The genius games are timeless and given to future generations to enjoy.

The reaction to Wii Music has been exaggerated even by the hardcore standards. In the hardcore view, the game is nothing more than a ‘waggle fest’ where no one can lose. The player is never off on the rhythm. There can be no ‘failure’. Therefore, there can be no high score. Never-mind the fact that high scores became passe in the mid 1980s, and never-mind the fact that games have grown beyond the mere ‘winning and losing’ rule sets established to devour quarters. One of the most favored type of hardcore games is the JRPG which, almost entirely, requires time invested rather than skill. If levels keep going up, then eventually, one will win for the enemies keep getting weaker and weaker the longer one plays. The hardcore clamor for collectible ‘things’ have infiltrated platformers while not noticing the collectibles veer away from the arcade skill that forged the platformers in the first place. Strategy games, another of the hardcores’ favorite, are also overlooked as players love to simple ‘play them’ with micromanaging and tech tree advancing with little emphasis on ‘winning’ through the traditional means.

The sooner people accept there is no such thing as ‘video game’, the sooner they will realize the game industry is really about digital play.

What is most interesting about Wii Music’s reactions are those from musicians. Far from being critical of Wii Music, musicians praise it. And when it comes to the rhythm games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the same musicians scorn them. So what is going on here?

What is going on here is that most people do not know what music is. They consume it. They dance to it. They dream of it. They play it. But they do not generate it. And if they do, it is the mark of imitation. Keep in mind that Miyamoto’s primary profession, outside of being an artist, is a musician. Keep in mind that Nintendo has made several rhythm games already. The real question is why do people think rhythm games are music games?

Let me tell you a story in how I learned what music was. I can only play three instruments (all three are wind instruments), and I have not played them for over a decade (I decided to go a different route than the musician in life, regrettably. ) Attempting to perform a solo, a professional musician aided me. We were going in circles around the solo until the musician stopped what he was doing, looked at me, and said the following:

“You keep playing notes. You are not playing music. You are playing trying to hit notes rather than making notes to make music.” Not understanding what he was saying, he went further. “The instrument’s purpose is not to make notes. If you put fun into the horn, fun comes out of the horn.” All of a sudden, my playing became ‘spectacular’. I was focusing on playing music, not playing notes. Playing became much more fun because I was investing emotions into the instrument rather than a robotic mission of hitting notes. I was making the music produce feelings in myself and others rather than playing in the sense of not making mistakes on the notes.

This is why musicians love Wii Music while everyone else is confused about it. “You cannot mess up!” squeal the hardcore. But the purpose of music is not to play notes. Is the novelist about writing sentences and grammar? No, it is about writing stories. If it was writing, instead of music, then the rhythm games would be ‘grammar games’ set to people’s favorite stories, and an actual ‘story game’ would be what WiiMusic is where sentences and grammar are no longer ‘issues’. Imagine if acting was seen as nothing more than ‘saying lines’. How an actor would be horrified by that definition! And how guilty we would be if we believed it! Acting is far more than rote memorization. So why are ‘music’ games seen this way? It is because they are not music games at all. Even children instinctively realize this until their joy is trampled by mediocre teachers to ‘not make mistakes’ and to ‘make notes’.

The saddest definition for painting would be to ‘paint within the lines’. If there was a ‘painting video-game’ made, this would likely be its realization. But Mario Paint was not this, and even the Hardcore enjoyed Mario Paintbefore they lost their child like innocence to become embittered. I have never met a writer who doesn’t weep when he or she finds that people believe writing is nothing more than the ‘formulas’ and ‘grammar’ that high school english teachers inflict upon the young in ‘assignments’.

Let’s try a real world scenario. The following is Philip Glass’s “Metamorphosis One”. I chose it because it is a minimalist and simple theme that will not confuse the point. Sit up, readers, for here is the song.

Ahh, nice. Now, let us listen to another playing of “Metamorphosis One”.

Can you hear the difference? The latter is more accurate, hits all its notes within the time, but it has no feeling behind it. If robots could make music, it would sound like that. The former is faster, is not perfect, but there is feeling behind the simplistic tune. Why on Earth would anyone want to emulate the mechanical robot way of the latter when the former lets the player use his or her soul?

This raises the question, why are rhythm games popular in the first place? The reason why is because people like to think they are a ‘rock star’ in an immersive way. The music also is well loved. However, all this music is not generated by the player. Rhythm games are little more than people attempting to immerse themselves into songs they love. There is nothing wrong about this in itself. But games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band would be more accurately described as ‘music acting’ games as the player tends to act out the parts. In the same way, actors are immersed saying the lines of Shakespeare, but they are not poets or generating poetry simply by reciting Shakespeare. They are acting. Hitting inputs on plastic toy-like instruments is not generating music, it is acting as if the person is generating music. What the player is really generating is rhythm more or less.

So it is no wonder that musicians look at these rhythm games with such disappointment. Music is the most soul touching and transcending medium known to man, and such games have dulled the fantastic medium into nothing more than mechanical timed button presses. At E3 2008, MTV reported

At a Nintendo developer’s roundtable event this evening in Los Angeles, a German journalist asked Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto if it would be more appropriate to call “Wii Music,” which lacks goals and points, a “toy” rather than a “video game.”

Miyamoto replied tersely: “Yes, that’s right. And that’s why it’s more interesting than a video game.”

I hadn’t seen that side of Miyamoto before! Could it be — in this case as in so many before — that he’s right? Are we too hung up on traditional video game constraints to appreciate something more free-form?


It is more than that. What is the purpose of toys? They are the gateway to the real world. A little boy’s toy cars he races on the kitchen floor turns into real cars he races down highways. A little girl’s dolls turn into real life babies which she takes care of. For children, the toys are discarded for the real thing once they become of age. For adults, toys are used as gateways to the real world equivalent or to fill a void missing in our lives. The young man playing Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3 is not preparing to join the marines but is satisfying the same masculine craving that propels young boys to play ‘fort’ and ‘capture the flag’ on the playground. Many adults play video games because, in our corporate world, we do not get to conquer the world as our dreams and genes desire; we’re too busy earning a living. And, sure, someone will gladly point to rock stars playing Guitar Hero or marines playing Call of Duty 4 to dispute this, but you cannot deny that playing ‘capture the flag’ and ‘kill the terrorists’ in a digital game is too much different from its childhood equivalence.

We are so used to the same digital toys that, over time, we have become comforted by the sameness. But all games are digital toys. Nintendogs is a toy that leads to real dogs. No one would argue that Nintendogs replaces real dogs. Wii Sports is a toy that leads to sports. However, as the retirement homes are testament, Wii Sports gives people a shadow of that feeling of sports which they can no longer experience in their older age. Wii Fit does not replace a gym and proper dieting. But Wii Fit can certainly lead to the gym and proper dieting. Is it that far of a stretch to say that Wii Music is a toy that strives not to replace real instruments but as a gateway to them? Learning an instrument takes years of patience and relentless practice. Some of us don’t have those years left. Others don’t have the time in their lives. Wii Music is an aid to that. We should remember that the Legend of Zelda games are not substitutes for real adventures and legends. When you are old and in your rocking chair, when your grandchildren ask for your adventures, will you tell them that your adventures were in Mario, Zelda, and Metroid?  No wonder Miyamoto tells gamers to go outside.


If this were all there was to Wii Music, we could already declare it a genius product. However, Miyamoto goes much further. The Wii line of games, from Wii Play, Wii Sports, and Wii Fit, share a same thread of genius interwoven into the products’ success. The games all are about ‘We’, the connections between people. This is confused with the ‘party game’. The ‘party games’ are simply games people play together such as Karaoke or Rock Band. During the party game, the players generally do not interact with one another. It is a multiplayer single player game if such a phrase makes sense. The ‘We’ line of games are not about people playing games together but about the interactions the people have together. This same phenomenon is present in MMORPGs. Sure, people can play the MMORPG as a single player game in multiplayer but that is not the MMORPG experience. A game like World of Warcraft’s gameplay is not far advanced from a real-time Dragon Quest I simplicity. The ‘fun’ in the game is about the interactions between people. It is the guilds, the helping one another, and general cheering of one another that makes the game fun beyond its rote ‘simplicity’ (and yet many people never get tired of World of Warcraft). A game like Wii Sports is more of a family game than a ‘party’ game. We have become so accustomed to the label ‘Wii’ that we think of the system and not the word ‘we’ which is why it was named. It is ‘We Sports’. It is ‘We Play’. It is ‘We Fit’. It is not about one person. It is about everyone. Not everyone as in ‘more demographics’ but in the entire household, not playing at different times, but enjoying the experience together. Not a single person experience. Not multiple single person experiences. And not multiple single person experiences at the same time. It is a ‘together’ experience which is something truly new in gaming.

Wii Music is really ‘We Music’. Above, I hoped to illustrate the difference between music and rhythm. Next time you watch an orchestra, watch the players carefully, and you will notice they are not just ‘making notes’, they are rocking, swaying, doing all the things your orchestra and band directors told you not to do, for they are generating music, not notes. This making ‘music’, not notes, is, in its essence, is a musical conversation. Many people, when playing an instrument alone, free from the judgement of critical ears, play as they like, as they desire, outside how they ‘should’. Experience has shown me that when such a talented young person is placed in front of others, he or she clams up and begins putting out ‘notes’. It matches the monotone of an actor, with stage-fright, suddenly saying ‘lines’ and not ‘acting’.

The genius of Wii Music is having those musical conversations between other people. Few people learn how to play an instrument. Fewer people learn how to play music on the instrument as opposed to notes. And even fewer know the joy of having musical conversations with other like-minded on the same song.

So when you hear that Wii Music has dog barks or other crazy instruments, and you cannot ‘mess up’ on the song, remember that the ‘game’ is about having musical conversations with other people. It is also unlocking that musical creativity in ourselves. People ask, “Why is Miyamoto swaying with the music? The controller movements don’t alter the song!” Look at a professional musician play. He or she is swaying with the music. What Miyamoto is striving to do with Wii Music cannot be replicated with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. How can one feel as if he or she is generating music by being limited to a button press? Rhythm, yes, but music? No. One needs to move with the music to get the full effect.

Wii Music is not about the music coming from the speakers. It is about the music coming from the player. In this regard, Wii Music becomes a digital mirror. When a musician peers into the glass, a musician peers out. When enthusiasm is poured into the game, enthusiasm comes back out, much like a real instrument, or pen, or paintbrush. When an ass looks into the mirror, do not be surprised to see an ass staring back.

After a history of successes that stretch before most gamers were born, it fascinates me that gamers still think they know more about making games than Shigeru Miyamoto.

You said you wanted games that aren’t sequels. You’re getting them.

You said you wanted games that create experiences never before seen. You’re getting them.

You said you wanted motion controls to be used to make games never possible on previous systems. You’re getting them.

Whether Wii Music is a success in sales or not does not dispute the fact that the game is a work of genius. It is reflecting something no game has before.

The hardcore will not like this conclusion, but truth must be told or else we become guilty of self-censure: Wii Music is the closest video game ever to become ‘art’. History will judge Wii Music favorably even if the historians don’t.



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