Being a musician, Guitar Hero was something of a merger of passions when I discovered it in my early teens. I joined the rhythm game bandwagon with the release of Guitar Hero III for the Nintendo Wii, and it became one of my – and also my family's – favourite games.
Guitar Hero was something of a ritual in our house. At get-togethers, my brother-in-law, father, and I would take turns seeing who could get the highest score on some of our favourite rock tracks. When the later games came out with the option to form a living room band, I returned to my real-life rock roots and took up my drumsticks alongside them playing lead and bass guitar. This was the game that introduced me to Guns ‘n’ Roses, Black Sabbath, and of course: Dragonforce.
But it is safe to say that Activision's pioneering rhythm game, as with most rhythm games for that matter, have died something of a death. This isn't news; even in 2010, there were grim reports in Kotaku and others that sales of rhythm games were dropping and that the genre was approaching irrelevancy, allegedly needing to adapt to not using expensive custom plastic guitar controllers and figuring out how to work with only the standard hardware of gaming consoles of the time (anyone remember Wii Music?). This, of course, would miss the whole point; the joy of Guitar Hero is not in hitting buttons in time, but in feeling like a real rock guitarist in your own living room. So the guitar game genre is doomed, surely?
However, games with as compelling a gameplay loop as Guitar Hero tend to generate a lot of diehard fans. You have fans who are keeping the community alive through the official games, but increasingly there is growing support for a game called Clone Hero. It's a free, fan-made clone of the classic game that allows people to upload their own custom songs and play them on PC or Mac with a compatible controller. It is being chiefly developed by a user going by the name of Srylain, who has been developing Guitar Hero clones in various forms since mid-2012. Clone Hero released in 2017 but has acquired a respectable user-base quickly due to how customisable it is, the ease with which people can add their own charts (game levels), and indeed own songs.
Enter Exilelord: a man to whom the word "Machiavellian" doesn't seem to quite do justice. Don't get me wrong - I'm sure he's lovely in person - but what his creations demand of anyone brave or fool enough to attempt them is on the very limits of what is humanly and physically possible. Soulless is (or are - more on that later) a piece of music and a corresponding game level for Guitar Hero that redefines the meaning of a hard level. However, before we look at the Soullesses, we need to understand a little about the Guitar Hero community's relationship with the games' charts.
Dragonforce's Through the Fire and the Flames, while a fantastic piece of power metal music in its own right, held notoriety in pop culture for being the most difficult piece on Guitar Hero. Released as part of Guitar Hero III, I remember reaching the end of the game and seeing what could only be described as a wall of notes approaching my puny fingers. The dexterity required to perform the piece made the prospect of completing the piece without errors seem utterly impossible, even to the people who had written the chart (and the band members themselves!) – who removed the fail condition for the song in the original game (much to my relief which I attempted to limp my way through the chart). But gamers are a tenacious bunch, and, against all the odds, the impossible happened: someone performed the piece with no mistakes (referred to in the community as an "FC" or "Full Completion"). Then it happened blindfolded. Then it happened blindfolded at 125% the song's original speed. Not only were the community besting what was considered the hardest piece in the original games, but they were also now actively making it harder for themselves.
The combination of a passionate modding community, open-source clone software, and a small, dedicated group of players with finger dexterity concert pianists would kill for has proved to be a potent one, and from this came Soulless. But to describe Soulless as a single work is a little misleading. It is, in fact, a series of pieces, beginning with the original Soulless and continuing until the most recent Soulless 5. Finding when each song was released is something of a challenge as they mostly do not have official release dates (at least not the earlier ones; the later songs were so hyped, and players were so eager to get their first look at them that tracing their release is a little simpler). In short: it looks something like this:
Soulless 1 - November 2008 (coop), February 2009 (solo)
Soulless 2 (a.k.a. Mechanical Machine) - August 2009
Soulless 3 - February 2010
Soulless 4 - August 2015
Soulless 5 - July 2018
The reason for the name "Soulless" (and by extension the 2nd piece's alternate title "Mechanical Machine") was purportedly due to ExileLord claiming that he felt the patterns and the music he had created were unmusical and mechanical. His goal seemed more to be to create a dexterity challenge for the most committed of the Guitar Hero community. However, I think what Exilelord has achieved over the last decade is something very different, and that is what prompted me to write this article in the first place.
Screencap of a Soulless chart
A glance over the comment section of the early youtube videos released of the songs gives a picture as to Exilelord's opinions and potential motivations for writing these pieces. Exilelord, like many early YouTubers, was very active in the comments sections on his first videos. We see from the comments that at the time of writing he was about to go to college, which puts him at about 17-18 years old. It is very clear that he knew more than most about the Guitar Hero community at the time, the best players, and some of the technical aspects of the game. His comments are usually replies to individuals asking him questions directly. (This isn't obvious at first glance, but you can see this using the Wayback Machine, just in case you're interested to remember what old Youtube looked like. To use it go to the WBM website and enter any URL you want to see an archived version of, for instance).
One comment, in particular, might show one of the reasons ExileLord put out the original Soulless songs:
Even if people do get much better with a reference to people's skill right now, the obscurity of the song will likely keep most people away from it. People will remember a song like Jordan but this will probably be forgotten. Also, the hardest part in this song, the super x, isn't a pattern progression found in any song. The only pattern comparable is in xepher which still hasn't been fc'd (the whole song).
I also believe that the skills of people are slowing down due to easier games.
It shows that ExileLord is of the opinion that games of this type were getting simpler and that players were becoming less skilful because of it. It also shows that he wasn't going out of his way to gain the kind of status he has done for it. The Soullesses seem to be about putting out a challenge, not to a specific person or even to be known as being the new hardest piece for Guitar Hero, but a general challenge of what could be done by the community. Many of the comments reveal that one of the features of these songs is that they usually introduce some new pattern of notes that haven't appeared in charts before, offering seasoned veterans of the game a new technical hurdle to conquer.
He also pushes the game itself to the limits. Guitar Hero III had a cap on how many notes could exist within a single chart: 4000. It is no coincidence at all that Soulless 3's note count totals 3999. His technical knowledge of the game and how it works inwardly is a crucial part of ExileLord's identity within the community. Aside from being the creator of these notoriously tricky songs, he is primarily known as a modder and is credited with creating the mod that removed some of these hard caps on both note count and song length. This renown for technical knowledge of how the program operated led to him being signed on as a developer for Clone Hero later on.
So Soulless is a technical challenge for both player and game. However, it is also arguable that it forms something grander than that. One Reddit user (scree44s) describes why they think the series has garnered such infamy:
Every guitar hero game had it's hard song that people wanted to master, 3 had ttfaf, 6 had speeding, and black widow. I think the reason these songs are so influential was because, at its core, pc gh and console gh are completely different games, and each game requires a hard song that seems completable, but maybe not FC-able. To further push its difficulty, A new one comes out every so often that is more difficult then the last, keeping the interest from the community high. Ultimately garnering a larger crowd reaction with every iteration
ExileLord, in continuing to put out these notoriously difficult songs over the years, has effectively helped to increase the visibility of the community as people come to see increasingly challenging songs being performed. As people unfamiliar with the community are brought in by these videos, they may develop an interest in other performances by community members, or develop an interest in the game themselves.
So Soulless can be seen as serving a number of functions. It was a technical challenge to its players and the software it was designed to run on but also helped to create and sustain a community. ExileLord himself expressed concern about the fate of the Guitar Hero community dying out as this comment from 2013 shows:
GHP isn't even the best player anymore. However, since you're talking about him as if he can fc this, I doubt you're even familiar at all with the Guitar Hero community honestly. He has had three years to work on this song and he hasn't managed a technical fc. Only one person, 0000DD has managed to hit the "Murderous Solo" in this song.
This doesn't really matter much though because the Guitar Hero community is essentially dead and no one is going to be attempting to fc this song for a while.
I am pleased to say that ExileLord was proven wrong in this statement, in fact, it was likely a self-defeating prophecy. YouTubers and live streamers including Jasonparadise and Acai are continuing to put out entertaining and mesmerising performances using the software he is helping to develop, and his songs maintain a level of reverence within the community not only for their difficulty but what they represent – the pinnacle of achievement for people who have often dedicated their life to becoming really good at a game that many of us had largely forgotten about. They are a testament to the skill, reflexes, and manual dexterity that videogames can train, and the love and respect shown towards these songs, and to their creator, are some of the greatest examples of online communities at their best.
But I am far from done looking at these pieces. Here we looked at some of the ways in which a group of fans created a musical/gaming community through music, challenge, and shared passion. Next, I want to focus on the pieces themselves and how the music of Soulless changed over time, over software, and over Guitar Hero's evolution.