The story of Kurt Cobain is a tragic one. The young lefty who led the band Nirvana to international fame is presently among the most infamous figures in modern music. The enigmatic musician is as renowned for his grunge music as he is for his complicated drug habit and untimely suicide at twenty-seven years old. Still, among fans, Cobain is held among the greatest musicians of all time. It was this fame and popularity that led to Activision pushing for his inclusion in Guitar Hero 5, purportedly the result of years of negotiation. However, in the time since a Guitar Hero 5 trailer boasting a playable Cobain debuted, controversy has surrounded his likeness’ presence in the game. Now, the issue is generating attention from the mainstream media, with news pundits adding their input alongside a disgruntled Courtney Love.
The controversy surrounding Cobain’s likeness is complicated, rooted in precedence, morality and disdain. When the trailer was first released, Cobain was shown playing Smells Like Teen Spirit and Lithium, a duo of songs by Nirvana that were included in the Guitar Hero 5 set list. While dabbling with the game’s band selection screen, though, one can select Cobain to either sing or play guitar (not both) in any of the hundreds of playable songs in Guitar Hero 5. In addition to singing any song, Cobain adopts a stock set of mannerisms while performing. The end result allows things like Cobain smiling and bouncing while belting out Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf, dancing during Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music or even playing drums. The option is also there for four Cobains to appear on stage at a time, playing each of the instruments. To top all of this off, the advertised versions of Smells Like Teen Spirit and Lithium featuring Cobain playing guitar while singing can only be had in career mode, with quickplay and online play of the songs appearing as any other song.
To keep things in context, I’ve done some research, both by playing with and reading about other real-life artists who have appeared in various installments of the Guitar Hero series. Even before the series began including real characters, they used characters loosely based on real life individuals. Clive Winston, for example, is a blend of George Harrison and John Lennon from The Beatles while Xavier Stone is sometimes made to look like Jimi Hendrix. In addition, the cast of Rock Band features a great many lookalikes, including knockoffs of deceased musicians like Duane Allman and Freddy Mercury. With Guitar Hero 3 and, more prominently, Guitar Hero: World Tour, real-life artists appearing in-game, even ones not directly associated with their band or group like Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, became commonplace. One such artist being the late Jimi Hendrix, whose appearance in the game stirred up, at most, an unnoticeable level of trouble. Additionally, Guitar Hero 5 features Johnny Cash, who died in 2003. Much Like Cobain, he has a special sequence when playing his one song in the game, Ring of Fire, but can be used to play any instrument in any song. There has been no backlash to his appearance in the game.
This outrage is entirely centered on Cobain, and reasons are aplenty. One reason, which is sound despite the lack of attention paid, is that Kobain is by no means a role model. Guitar Hero, in most ways, is a truly “all-ages” game and promoting awareness of a man whose drug abuse may have led to a depression and suicide to children is undeniably controversial. Meanwhile, many who remain subscribed to the conspiracy theory that Cobain was murdered oppose Courtney Love’s further profiteering on everything related to him, which would inevitably drag Love’s ongoing drug issues into the discussion. The most popular reason, however, is an inferred opposition that Cobain would have had to his presence in the game, if he were still alive. Cobain’s suicide note alluded to disillusionment with fame and music and as such, it can be easily inferred that he would not have approved of his image’s proliferation into video games. Additionally, more than a few musicians have expressed a distaste for music games. Prince refused an offer from Activison to have his music appear in Guitar Hero and, more recently, Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman recently scoffed at music titles. Cobain hypothetically sharing this sentiment is not unfathomable.
So what does this editor think? Initially, I was fine with Cobain’s inclusion in the game, with the assumption that he would be available for use in the same way Zakk Wylde was in Guitar Hero: World Tour…in that he appeared by default in any affiliated songs, but could still be used universally as a guitarist. This, however, has proven not to be the case. The complaint of both Love and the surviving Nirvana members, however, is Cobain’s availability in any song. This would have been foolhardy on Love’s part, given the way World Tour and Guitar Hero 3 allowed their “real” playable characters to be used on any song. However, Guitar Hero 5’s pre-scripted sequences certainly do a disservice to Cobain’s stage persona, which lacked the goofy giddiness he is prescribed in-game. Additionally, I don’t think heeding perceived wishes of Cobain he made moments before his death is a great argument against this. Technically, if you’re going to be serious about his “final wishes,” you’re going to stop listening to his music in the first place.
The reason I’m now opposed to his appearance in the game is how they mishandled his likeness. Specifically, Cobain is completely separated from all of Nirvana’s downloadable and importable songs. Two of the regrettably few songs that can be imported from World Tour and Smash Hits to Guitar Hero 5 are from Nirvana (About A Girl and Heart-Shaped Box, respectively). There are, to date, two Nirvana track packs totaling six songs. There are a grand total of ten Nirvana songs that can be played in Guitar Hero 5, and only two have Cobain usable. That, my friends, ain’t right. Nirvana is probably the biggest band to regularly support music titles. Guitar Hero 2, World Tour, Guitar Hero 5, and both installments of the Rock Band series have at least one song from Nirvana. Between the two series, there are nineteen songs from Nirvana available today and, at least for Rock Band, there are more on the way. Nirvana is probably the most supportive group of music games, and Activision couldn’t even go through the effort to incorporate Cobain into his own songs.
Obviously, Activision didn’t set out to do a disservice to Cobain. The bottom line here is a perfect storm of high expectations and designer laziness creating a huge PR nightmare. Ultimately, the game’s sales won’t be hurt by this. Guitar Hero 5 has already turned four-hundred thousand units across all four consoles, and will hit two million units in all likelihood. Still, many are rightly irked by this. But nothing is going to come of it.