The very best of games don't sell an experience; they sell an identity.
I, for example, have always been a huge fan of metal. Black Sabbath is a personal favourite. Motorhead are excellent. If you asked me to name one song I could never get tired of listening to, it would be Angel Witch. This is a true fact that applies to my entire life and it has applied to my entire life from five minutes after I booted up Brutal Legend until about 48 hours after the credits rolled. And then I was done. Maybe next game I'll establish my credentials in punk.
This is interactivity's shining citadel, the glorious pulsing heart that pumps enthusiasm through the gaming body. "This is Spinal Tap" is a movie about music; "Gitaroo Man" is a game about music; "Brutal Legend" is a game where the music and you are one and the same. The dissociating mechanism of the avatar is sidelined and the subject matter is infused directly into your veins.
This is Brutal Legend. It's a conversation between friends that starts with, "Say, you like good music and good stories, right?" and ends by leaving you convinced you were there at Tampa Stadium listening to Jimmy Page pick out the opening notes of Stairway to Heaven before a crowd of fifty-six thousand fans. It transmutes you into a fan; not so much original as prototypical; a storied soldier in an army a million strong. It can do this because, for Brutal Legend, Metal is not a familiarity with the music, a love of the personalities or a fondness for minutiae but rather an attitude and a manifesto. To be Metal, says Brutal Legend, all you need is a love of good music, a commitment to personal honesty and comradeship, and a nebulous but all-encompassing willingess to rock.
This is the kind of image that revolts some people. It's farcical, in a way. I'm perfectly willing to rock through hours of Brutal Legend, throwing up defiant horns in the face of all those who defy The Metal, and then turn off the console and kick back with some Sarah McLachlan and maybe a couple of sudoku. My metal-ness is entirely confined to the period during which I'm piloting a virtual Jack Black around the inside of my 360, but for that period it is absolute and unassailable. For $60 I've bought inclusion in one of the defining musical phenomena of the last hundred years, and I've done it without having to engage in the messiness of tours, festivals, or interaction with other fans. That's a bargain, if ever I saw one.
Is it hypocrisy or genius? Does it matter? It's not that Brutal Legend is a fantasy; it's that it's such a convincing one. The world presented through the game is one littered with chrome, fire, and semi-druidic monoliths. Noble barbarians wield the power of Metal against gothic organists, glitter-encrusted groupies, and apocalyptic demon beasts. Ozzy Osbourne himself does service as the guardian of the underworld and Lemmy Kilmister tours as a taciturn biker gifted with the healing magic of bass guitar. If this is fantasy it's one that even the genuine articles enthusiastically subscribe to.
As a game, there are shortcomings here. Your lantern-jawed protagonist is regularly called upon to engage in hack-and-slash that could generously be described as shallow. There's a motor vehicle that handles less like a car and more like a bad-tempered rhino. Real time strategy is dabbled in with more enthusiasm than genuine talent, and there's collectables and sidequests that would have looked dated in the era of the Nintendo 64.
But they're not sufficiently bad to stop you playing, and that makes them good enough, because the real treat here is the world itself, and the exhilerating storytelling, scriptwriting, and soundtrack that bring it, vibrating with passion, to life. Every moment spent with the game is a revelation, whether it's hearing the serious but self-aware dialogue, discovering a new and breathtaking metal-inspired landscape, or just kicking back and listening to Black Sabbath belt out another rendition of Mr Crowley. Simply being in the game is a pleasure and even those parts of the game that are trying to kill you are affectionately letting you know that you're not just any enemy but specifically their enemy. It's like being hugged, but with teeth.
This is the awesome pinnacle of ersatz awesomeness. It's art about trash made from art. And if, at a crucial turning point in the game, a chase sequence is punctuated by Dragonforce's epic power-metal ballad Through the Fire and Flames, does it really matter if I only recognise it from Guitar Hero III?