Regardless of what you think of Naughty Dog’s latest offering, one of the quirkier elements of the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Last of Us is a musical mini-game, where players can use the Playstation 4’s haptic touchpad to play chords on Ellie’s guitar.
The guitar plays a crucial tonal, thematic, and plot role in the game – something I’ve spoken about in a previous article. Retrospectively, the astonishing attention to detail in the guitar animations in the early trailers for the game maybe foreshadowed the importance of the instrument. The stunning animation of each individual string as Ellie plucked it was one of the early indicators that this game would be one of the most graphically stunning of the generation. Giving the player an opportunity to interact with the guitar as a player was definitely a smart choice on Naughty Dog’s part, and no matter how much I personally disliked the game’s story, I have to admit the way they handled the player’s relationship with Ellie’s music was (mostly) artfully done. However, what Naughty Dog have done with the way they implemented the guitar was give players a musical tool, and, as other games have learned, doing that is enough to get people creating music with it.
Since the player can access a fairly wide selection of chords (for all of which, Ellie will move her hand to the actual correct position for that chord on the guitar - Naughty Dog’s notoriously obsessive attention to detail hard at work again), and with three different modes of strumming - up, down, and pluck (again all of which is modelled) it is actually possible to play a large selection of famous guitar songs using the in-game system, including Nothing Else Matters (Metallica), Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd), Creep (Radiohead), and my personal favourite if only for the irony of it: Zombie (The Cranberries). You can see KWFoxy’s and Cian Maher’s renditions to see how intricate these kinds of covers can be (KWFoxy’s Nothing Else Matters is truly quite impressive because of the rapid chord changes in the verses).
But then again, music has always found its way into games that are not, at least not primarily, about it. The moment Minecraft introduced the Note Block, musical composition in Minecraft began. These days, when redstone engineers aren’t building working computers or clones of Pokemon Red, they’re hard at work being the architects of various musical covers. Some are meme-songs, most are just popular songs that people want to take on the challenge to recreate. Then there is Super Mario Maker, where the inclusion of a note block allowed people to create entire Mario levels where the player doesn’t play but are simply dragged along whilst the game engine performs a song for them. The diversity of the music being performed using these games is also stunning, from Radioactive (Imagine Dragons) in Minecraft to the title theme from Star Wars (John Williams) in Super Mario Maker. What’s more, in a beautiful moment of musical gaming meta, you can find the Mario Bros 2 theme rendered in Minecraft, and Wet Hands from the Minecraft OST in Super Mario Maker.
So fans deciding to use game mechanics to create music within games is nothing new, no matter how primitive or complicated the systems within the game are to allow them to do so. So the emergent question is surely: why? What draws the musically inclined gamer to recreate their favourite songs and pieces within the games they love?
Well, part of it is surely a simple matter of a merger of passions: people who love music and games will naturally want to find a way to enjoy both simultaneously (I’m writing this article aren’t I?). I think another element of the appeal is an idea of recreating something complicated using a restrictive set of tools; as remarkable as these games’ musical systems are they will never be as complicated as the entirety of musical creativity that created these works in the first place. It becomes a challenge, a puzzle, to find a way to achieve that same complexity with the tools provided to them. All gamers are fundamentally attracted by the same core principle regardless of their particular preferred genre – puzzle solving. Is it any wonder then that a creative self-set challenge like this would be appealing to a musical gamer?
So The Last of Us Part II has joined together yet another passionate community of musical puzzle-solvers, wishing to pit their skills against the game mechanics to create something they love from a game they love; taking a break from the misery and violence of the post-apocalypse, players can take their eyes off of the zombies and cultists and place a potentially more ferocious opponent in their sights: that tricky chord progression from The Beatles’ Blackbird.