Video games are meant to be flights of fancy but, as with television, reality has become an increasingly popular concept to tap into.
Nowhere is this more evident than in music-themed video games. Titles like Guitar Hero 5, The Beatles: Rock Band and soon-to-be released DJ Hero all use real musicians, living and dead, to help create a stronger sense of realism.
But is that a good thing?
For the surviving members of The Beatles and their fans it seems to be.
The self-titled Rock Band game released to phenomenal reviews and delivered an experience that was solely devoted the band. The game, it seems, was an effort to not only give people a chance to play through their favorite Beatles hits, but to get a better sense of how The Beatles grew both as musicians and a band.
The same week that fans of the fab four were rejoicing in the singular experience of The Beatles: Rock Band, the widow, fans and bandmates of late grunge icon Kurt Cobain were up in arms over his inclusion in Guitar Hero 5.
Before the game’s release, publisher Activision told Rolling Stone magazine that Courtney Love wasn’t just integral in bringing Cobain to life in the game, she was great to work with.
But in a frenzy of late-night Twitter updates a week after the game’s release, Love denied that she was happily involved in the project, posting 214 Tweets over a six-hour period decrying the game, Cobain’s inclusion in it and most hotly the ability to have the grunge singer perform other songs.
It’s this single feature, which allows gamers to unlock Cobain and have him sing everything from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” that seems to be the most upsetting to friends, fans and family.
Some critics, too, were unhappy with it. Kotaku’s own review described the ability to reanimate the virtual corpses of Cobain and Johnny Cash and control them as marionettes in other people’s songs as tacky and crude.
Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, the two surviving members of Nirvana, released a joint statement asking Activision to alter the game to prevent the virtual Cobain from performing songs that are not his own.
“Kurt Cobain wrote songs that hold a lot of meaning to people all over the world. We feel he deserves better.”
Activision, which had initially agreed to participate in this story, declined to respond to questions about the decision to include real-world musicians in games and to say whether they would change Cobain’s inclusion in Guitar Hero 5.
The company did send a prepared statement saying that the game had the necessary licensing rights from the Cobain estate in a “written agreement signed by Courtney Love to use Kurt Cobain’s likeness as a fully playable character in Guitar Hero 5.”
While Love didn’t respond to our requests for an interview, her attorney did, saying that while there was an agreement in place, it didn’t allow the sort of treatment Cobain is getting in the game.
“Ms. Cobain is extremely upset about Activision’s use of Mr. Cobain’s likeness to sing the songs of others in its Guitar Hero game,” Keith A. Fink, Love’s attorney, told Kotaku. “Activision was granted permission by Kurt’s trust solely to use his name and likeness. Activision was not given an unbridled right to use Mr. Cobain’s name and likeness. “
“The agreement Activision has with the trust doesn’t allow them to use his likeness in ways that denigrate his image.”
Love’s response to Guitar Hero 5 is a far cry from the response The Beatles: Rock Band is getting from the family and surviving members of The Beatles.
Perhaps that’s because in the Rock Band game players can only perform as The Beatles in songs by The Beatles. The game comes with 45 tracks, and more are on the way, but they’re only going to be Beatles songs. And none of those Beatles songs work on Rock Band 2.
It’s a clear distinction that could explain Love’s emotional and slightly delayed reaction to Cobain’s use in Guitar Hero 5.
Had she seen The Beatles: Rock Band I’m sure she couldn’t help but ponder over what could have been: a video game that celebrates Kurt Cobain rather than using him. A title that expands Cobain’s audience, reminds people of his importance in the world of music and gives fans and neophytes an equal opportunity to try and understand the godfather of grunge.
In the future, game developers attracted to the allure of reality should perhaps keep in mind that what makes reality so intriguing is that it’s real, not that it’s a jumping off point for a distasteful fiction.
Brian Crecente is managing editor of Kotaku.com, a video-game Web site owned by Gawker Media. Join in the discussion at kotaku.com/tag/well-played.