Virtual reality, songwriter edition

Chris JonesI never thought I’d find myself discussing video games in this space; I’m really more of a pinball guy, which I like to think of as an acoustic video game that you can set a drink on. Still, there’s been a development in this world I think you should know about.

Even if you’re not a gamer yourself, you’re probably familiar with some of the offerings out there. Most of them place you in some virtual reality in which you do battle with everything from terrorists to green marshmallows to an embryo in a space suit. You may gather up ammunition, candy bars, or body parts for extra credit. They range in character from the surreal to the disturbingly immoral.

A debate rages about whether or not this kind of entertainment is harming our society, but almost no one argues that it’s beneficial to society unless perhaps that it’s keeping young men (ages 10 to 52) off our streets and out of the sunlight where they could possibly suffer vitamin D toxicity.

I had to temper my own criticism of the medium, though, when I discovered a newly-released video game entitled Bluegrass Songwriter.

I was a little confused at first, because the content of the game actually contained nothing about songwriting—or even bluegrass music—at all. However, therein lies the genius of it: the game is designed to give aspiring songwriters the hard-luck life experiences necessary to write soulful songs, but in a virtual reality where no actual harm will come to you, aside from sitting around too much (and we’re told that “sitting is the new smoking”).

It’s a well-known fact that if you’ve lived a sheltered and serene existence, brought up in a loving, financially comfortable environment, where the most tragic event you can remember was the time they ran out of chocolate for the s’mores at youth camp, you may not have the necessary emotional tools to write mournful bluegrass songs. What better way to overcome this handicap than to experience tragedy and pain in the virtual setting of a video game? By the time you reach level 5 of Bluegrass Songwriter, you’ll be emotionally scarred enough (virtually) to write the next Today Has Been a Lonesome Day (or whatever the title of that song is) and mean it.

Here’s a brief description of each level of the first edition of Bluegrass Songwriter:

Level 1: “Get Out of Town”

The scene opens up with you leaving home. In the distance behind you, you can see Mom shedding a tear. She’s drunk at 10:00 a.m. (Dad is nowhere to be seen). You’re carrying nothing but a duffle bag and a guitar (the only indication that your lead character is musical at all). Your goal is to get to the Greyhound station in the worst part of town without getting jumped by muggers. You fight a few of them off, gathering up flying knives for extra points. When you reach the station, pay for your ticket, and board the bus, you seat yourself next to a very attractive fellow passenger, and you’ve made it on to the next level.

Level 2: “Bad Relationship”

You find yourself living with this same beauty you shared your bus seat with, but things have gone horribly wrong. You’re involved in a domestic squabble which turns violent. The primary objective of this level is to dodge household implements and appliances that are being hurled at you. Catching each item before it hits you will score you points. This level ends with your sweetheart walking out the door and catching a ride with a handsome stranger driving a late model sports car. She seems to know him very well. Though you’re broke and alone, you’ve made it successfully through level 2.

Level 3: “Freight Train”

Once again, you have your duffle bag and guitar, and you’re on the outskirts of town by the railroad tracks. Your goal is to hop the next freight train that comes along. This requires considerable joystick agility, plus you need to hop the right train (avoiding the “Big Black Train”). Once on, you go from car to car, trying to avoid drunk hobos who will try to bore you with their endless stories. One car seems to have bats living in it, and you catch these with a net for extra points. The train arrives somewhere coastal and warm-looking (possibly Florida), and you hop off.

Level 4: “Barroom Brawl”

In this new town you wander into the local watering hole and start drinking at the bar. You end up in a poker game in the corner (Roving Gambler is playing in the background and suddenly you realize that you’re living the song). There’s an accusation of cheating. Guns are drawn, but you’re unarmed. If you’re shot, you start the level over. If you successfully overpower the largest gambler and take his gun, you’re arrested and move on to level 5.

Level 5: “Prison Term”

This level opens with a grinning judge (why are they always smiling?) handing down your sentence. You end up doing hard time. You get extra points for avoiding fights and for making as many “little rocks out of big rocks” as possible. You’ve made it through this level when a package arrives containing a letter from your ex-girlfriend (remember her from the bus?), along with a pad of paper and a pen. You’re ready to start writing.

Apparently the same team of developers is at work on another game called Nashville Songwriter. In this one your main character will try to obtain a publishing deal, schedule writing appointments, work the room at parties, and even have your song Truck By the River demoed.

It sounds way less interesting.