PAX Reflections: On Being a Shy Rhythm Games Enthusiast

Recently, I’ve given a lot of thought to the kinds of games I’m drawn toward as a gamer. It didn’t take long to realize I really enjoy puzzle games, racing games, and rhythm games. I also enjoy a good adventure game, but the adventure games I enjoy tend to replace grinding with puzzles. This really came home for me at PAX because the games I was most drawn toward trying out were the rhythm games.

The problem with rhythm games is that they can easily be set up as performance situations. And my stage performance days are far, far behind me. And shyness and stage fright both settled in when I was a teenager. As an adult, I was much happier if I could hide buried somewhere in a corps de ballet…which is how I kept ending up doing demi-soloist and character work.

But the FragDolls (very friendly bunch of girls I’d hoped to meet) were showing off Just Dance 2, and my inner dancer couldn’t resist. I volunteered to go up on the stage, struggled to decode some of the symbols telling us what to do, and ended up winning my little round. Trying out Dance Central on the Kinect was far less stressful. It was just a kiosk with the people in line…and Dustin with his camera. I bravely tried a dance I’d seen an earlier person do on medium, and nearly aced it. It was a lot of fun.

The difference between the two, if you’re interested, is that Just Dance 2 is on the Wii, so it uses the Wiimote to track your arm movements (thankfully, because I couldn’t get the feet right in one section), while Dance Central is on the Kinect, which has no controller and tracks your entire movement. You read that right: the Kinect has no controller. You gesture to navigate the menus and to play the game. You also have to move in a small space, because if you step out of it, the game assumes you’ve left and pauses. Both are a pretty decent workout, though.

Before PAX, I’d made it my mission to defeat the Endless Setlist on Rock Band 2 (which I did), and my roommate got it into his head that he was going to get me up on the big Rock Band stage at PAX (he failed). We had passed a Rock Band 3 stage in the Expo Hall, though, and so Saturday morning when nearly no one was around, I agreed to give it a go. We had a nearly full band (six people), and the other vocalist was really nice. The guys running the stage told us that I had the lead mic and she had the harmonies mic, and then didn’t tell us what lines to follow. We had to sort that out ourselves…standing back to back. But the crowd started growing, and my voice started shrinking. One of the guys working had to jump in and encourage me to sing louder in his own cool way. So I was fine…right up until a local news camera appeared right on the other side of my monitor. And my voice faded again, and the guy saved me again. In the middle of all this, the woman at the next booth over had noticed the vocalists were both women and got on the PA to call people over. And there was nowhere to hide.

At the end of the song, I admitted to the guy who’d been encouraging me that I do suffer from stage fright, and that was terrifying for me. So he drummed up some crowd sympathy for me, because I’d actually done fairly well despite wishing for over half the song I hadn’t had that brief moment of courage stupidity and he gave me a little keychain for hanging in there. The other vocalist and I chatted afterwards, and she was also very encouraging. But we were both concerned because we’d been handed expert parts without any say in the matter.

I had the opportunity to talk to someone at the Harmonix booth later on, and he admitted that’s a feature of the full band mode. (It’s not a “feature” if it puts you on a level you aren’t comfortable with. Just sayin’…) He also told me that RB3 will save your level so you don’t have to mess with it every single song. But I do change my level based on the song. I don’t sight read on Expert if I don’t have to. I told him that. He sputtered for a moment, and then said, “Wow. You actually have some technique.” And we chatted a bit longer before I went to find my roommate again (and to allow him to pick his jaw back up off the floor. I had no idea it was such a big deal. I thought it was just my own shaky self-confidence at play.)

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Practice Does Pay Off

Over the weekend, I sat down and beat the Endless Setlist on Rock Band 2. I’d been looking forward to attempting it as I saw myself getting closer to it, but it took me longer to do than I expected.

The problem was that there were several cities filled with songs I had no interest in singing in my way. So in the tradition of students everywhere, I avoided Rock Band 2 for a while so I wouldn’t have to deal with them. And then I decided to just play the Quickplay mode for a while for “practice”…on songs I liked singing that weren’t destined to be part of the Endless Setlist. Finally, I decided I just had to sit down and do it…mostly because I realized it would be nice to have the Endless Setlist completed before PAX.

The guys behind Rock Band 2 really had the right idea in designing those last cities, though. I spent a month’s worth of weekends singing almost nothing but the Challenging songs in the game, songs I was only too happy to avoid (because I don’t care for the groups involved, not because I found the songs difficult). By the time I sat down to work on the Endless Setlist Friday morning, I was so comfortable with those songs that hitting the end of the Endless Setlist was almost more relaxing than stressful.

If the game hadn’t forced me to keep practicing those songs, I wouldn’t have been ready to deal with them. And I wouldn’t have been able to complete the Endless Setlist. It’s a brilliant design, and it reinforces the importance of practicing even those things we’d rather just see disappear.

That Was a Small Ego Boost

As everyone knows, I spent January and February with a variety of colds, flus, and stomach bugs, and as a result struggled with my voice for those two months. The funny thing about not having your voice is that it becomes really challenging to do things you enjoy…like sing.

So, for what was probably the first time in roughly three months (actually, I think I tried to play once in February), I decided to play Rock Band. (I was in a foul mood. James was threatening me with one of my favoritest movies. And I decided to sing instead.)

I was a little nervous, but I selected several songs, set it to Expert (oh, the arrogance!), and started singing. If I have a say in the matter, I always start with “Creep” and “I’m So Sick” because they’re both fairly easy and leave me in pretty good shape to sing just about anything else. I got 98% and gold stars on “Creep”. I never quite managed to open up my range on “I’m So Sick” and had to settle for a 95%.

Everything went fairly well from there, even though the controller decided to die during “Seven” which I was struggling with because I haven’t sung it in forever and I’ve never sung it on Expert. And I felt like I completely blew “Here It Goes” again, and realized I’d just set myself up to blow the next song because I was mad at myself.

I always end with “Maps” and “Time We Had”, and “Maps” was the next song up. I was mumbling to myself through the entire intro because I knew it wasn’t going to go well. When the song ended, my roommate noted I’d earned gold stars, and I asked if he saw me drop any phrases because I didn’t think I had. He didn’t think so, either. Sure enough, I’d hit 100%…

…and unlocked my Flawless Singing achievement…which I thought I’d unlocked last year the very first time I hit 100% and gold stars on “Time We Had”. David was confused, because he’s seen me do (repeatedly) what I did today. Neither of us could figure out why I was getting an achievement I’ve earned already (and reinforced several times since, mostly on “Time We Had”). My voice was dropping out during “Time We Had” this afternoon, so I had to settle for gold stars and a 99%. I was so mad at myself.

Still, though…not a bad afternoon for having been away from the game for a while.

The Actor-Turned-Writer Learns From Her Students

The problem with having no past is that you can’t just turn to someone and say, “Did I ever really act when I was dancing?”

Thanks to a number of artistic directors and choreographers, I know the answer to that question is, “Yes,” but I’d rather be able to turn to a buddy and ask.

This isn’t to revisit the old and tired road otherwise known as “I don’t have buddies”. It’s actually more of a meditation on me the actor-turned-writer.

All right, so I was more a dancer/character actor, but that had more to do with the fact that I’m shy (and therefore soft-spoken) and I really hate the sound of my own voice. It really didn’t hurt that I absolutely love to dance, too.

Because I’ve spent so much of my life in the performing arts, I suppose I take a lot of things for granted. I expect acting theory and stagecraft to be common knowledge. That’s what inspired me to write this, actually.

I had to read a passage to a student as part of a lesson on active learning, and the spontaneously selected passage was about the art of acting. I read through it twice, asking questions after each reading. The second time through, a question came up about the difference between acting for a camera and acting for the stage.

Having no particular background in either, the student decided that screen actors have to be more dramatic than stage actors. That is, that screen actors have to be more expressive in voice and movement.

I couldn’t contain my surprise. Of course, I all but grew up on a stage, too. I explained that screen actors appear closer while stage actors have to play to the back wall. Fortunately, he saw the logic in why stage actors have to be more expressive, or I might have cried.

Part of the passage also discussed the role of the actor in the performance. The actor has to take a role and bring it to life. They have to know who the character is, where he comes from, what motivates him. The actor really has to get inside the character’s head to make him believable.

I’ve said it before, but the writer is a lot like the actor. As a writer, I have to understand not just one character, but all of them. I have to be in everybody’s head. In many respects, it’s not much different than those ballets where I was almost always on the stage in various roles.

Long story short: I miss the performing arts. This isn’t a new revelation, but I really do miss it. Writing is a constant, but it’s really not a replacement for performing.

I want to audition for a community choir, but my work schedule is in the way. I don’t know how to resolve the problem.

I want to find an empty theater and play on the stage. Dance, sing, maybe rattle off a poem or two. Just explore without the pressure of an audience.

Did I ever reach beyond the proscenium?

Oh, My…I Actually Can Sing!

I’ve spent the better part of the afternoon making voice files. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do since I started that series on why voice actors amuse me. Originally, I had intended to include some voice files in one of those posts to make my point about the talent these people must possess (even if I now know that my favorite production house does not, in fact, have their actors read in isolation. Good thing, too. I’d have thrown a fit if anyone but Wayne Grayson played Michaelangelo in the new TMNT show!) This turns out to be a blessing in disguise as it turns out that my free, but barely used microphone is dying. I’ll need to find a new one if I intend to make any more voice files.

What actually led to today’s impromptu recording session was a friend’s posting of this cartoon. I read it out loud repeatedly with no troubles. The more I read it, the more I thought I wanted it laid down because it is just a fun and chalenging line to say. So, I dragged out my microphone and my headphones and recorded it. That’s when I discovered the microphone was scratchy. It’s all right. I’m not doing anything professional, semi-professional, or pseudo-professional, so I don’t necessarily have to care.

This afternoon, I tried reading a couple of passages a couple of times for comparison. One of the most important things I learned is that I release a lot of air when saying “thuh”, “puh”, and “wuh”. I’ll have to work on those. I also tried a few songs, a couple of them singing along with the song in question (by my favorite voice actor no less). I’ve never really thought much of my singing, despite my middle/high school choir teacher, despite being put in the adult choir at church when I was twelve, despite getting some really fabulous scores on my singing in various competitions. Today, I was listening to myself, something I wouldn’t do normally, but I wanted to see how bad the scratching was. It turns out that when I’m not giggling, even if my throat is full of phlegm, I sing fairly well. I was surprised. (I could hardly recognize my voice, but that’s pretty standard when my voice gets recorded.)

I have considered a time or two since moving to Seattle going to audition for a local choir. I miss performing. I’d rather dance than sing, but my ankle pretty much says I have to sing if I want to perform.