guitar_hero_3.jpg [Save the Robot is a new, biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]

Like a lot of music fans, it didn’t take me long to smell something fishy about the latest installment of the Guitar Hero empire. In Guitar Hero III, you’re still playing a cartoonish aspirant to the dream of rock ‘n roll stardom – except in this one, the scenario feels off.

In the first venue, you’re playing a party in someone’s backyard. If you rock hard enough to score an encore, you notice that the crowd is roaring, and then you look over the fence and you see – a cop car! Someone called the cops! Except they’re clapping too! You’re such a hit that even the police don’t have the heart to stop the show. The long-fought war between the pigs and the kids has finally ended.

This was the first in a series of wrong notes that left me with a clammy, phony feeling by the end of the career mode – so phony in fact, that by the time I went to hell and fought the devil in a guitar duel, I could only shrug. Yes, the game is knuckleheaded. But does anyone care?

I know I do. I love pop culture. I'm a committed, committable, always-strung-out culture junkie. Old media or new, comics, TV, books, film, and naturally, music – I need it all, constantly, and the stranger and fringier, the better. Name a film you just saw, and I’ll say the director’s older stuff was better. Tell me about a cult horror flick, and I’ll tell you the one you really need to see. And namedrop your favorite new record, and I’ll say, “Yeah – I liked that stuff better when Bowie/Reed/Eno was doing it.” Sure, I don’t always know what I’m talking about – but I sound like I do.

And that’s half the fun of pop culture: it feels exclusive, in an inclusive way. You get the thrill of catching onto something that millions of other people already knew about. It’s edgy, political and sexualized – but not in a creepy, Second Life-kinda way. It matures you and jades you. It teaches girls about boys and the other way 'round. Sometimes it just plain blows your mind.

Pop culture is "hip." And while games are great, hip is something they ain't.

As much as I love games, I’ve never quite been able to swallow that they belong on the same shelf as the rest of it. It’s not that games have to be brilliant or serious; not all pop culture is “smart.” It’s not that games don’t already tell stories; most of the XBox 360 games I’ve played are full of stories. I usually skip them. And it’s not that games can’t, to use the old benchmark, make you cry. Games make us cry all the time. The Library section of Halo makes me cry. Slamming my knee into a table makes me cry, too. Shouldn’t we aim a little higher?

Cartoonist Chris Ware once cracked that to most people, comic book stores are one step above porno shops. In fact, comic stores are still a step above your local GameStop, because most of them have a section for people like Chris Ware – or say, Alan Moore. Which reminds me: did you know that they’re making a movie of Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ post-modern superhero classic/cold war allegory/nihilistic mind-screw Watchmen? Well, check this out: did you know director Zack Snyder’s also talking about making a video game of it? If it’s going to be anything like the movie tie-ins I’ve been reviewing all year, then I’m begging you, Moore, please call on that pagan snake god I’ve heard you worship and damn the whole dev team to hell before that turkey hits beta. I don’t want to see Rorschach’s combo moves. I don’t want to pick up the 20 smiley face pins hidden on each map. In fact, if Snyder and colleagues think anybody in that story would make a good playable character, then they read a different graphic novel than the one that still keeps me up at night.

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Notice how blithely I assume that a Watchmen game would stink. But obviously, not all games play to the lowest common denominator. Portal, for example, is my game of the year with a bullet – because it never took short cuts, never got lazy, never winked or made excuses. It was subversive, hilarious, and horrifying. Even BioShock fell apart at the end, but Portal was always a step ahead of me, and that’s why I loved it.

It’s pretty apt to think about this in the context of Guitar Hero, because you could argue the series thrives on its gameplay alone. As long as we get to mash the pretty-colored buttons, what else counts? But to think that way ignores the series’ real appeal – and how well it’s nailed its cultural moment.

Every few years since the ’70s, somebody stands up and says that rock is dead – and then some new phenom comes along to resurrect it. But in the ‘00s, after a decade of grunge wore it out, the final nails in its coffin came in the form of a wave of retro-rockers: The Strokes, The White Stripes, and all the other The ____ bands that plagued the US and the UK, who embraced rock by slavishly sticking to its formula. Their success all but proved that rock had nowhere else to go. Finally, we had proof that honest-to-God, traditional blues-rooted rock and roll was a museum piece – and sure, it’s the most fun exhibit in the museum, but it’s in a glass box and it doesn’t have much room to grow.

Throw in the fact that the music biz is dying, CD sales keep falling, and so forth, and it’s clear that the mid-‘00s were the perfect time for people to strap on silly toy guitars and play “Freebird” in front of their PlayStations. Because while people have always played air guitar or sung along holding a hairbrush, there’s something especially right about doing it with Guitar Hero II – and something especially nostalgic about playing through its classic zero-to-hero rock star story, right when that story has become a thing of the past. It’s not that Guitar Hero II was cool, so much as that rock music itself has rapidly lost its cool. In other words, the Guitar Hero series proves once and for all that if a group of boarding school snots like the Strokes can come along and pretend to make rock music, then dammit, anyone can.

But Guitar Hero III has no message, no heart, and no edge. It doesn’t make knowing winks about old Boston rock clubs or out-of-town gig traditions; it’s more like a fratboy yell. And it’s time we raise the bar. If games are going to grow as a genre, some of them have to step up and function as pop culture. We can still have the Tetris’s and the Madden’s and Mario’s, but we need a few games that play to our wits and savvy, and know they’re in on the joke. Because it’s not enough to treat games as a sport, a business, an academic pursuit, or a great way to pass time and kill people. Someday, they’re going to have to be cool.

[Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for Pitchforkmedia.com, and blogs at savetherobot.wordpress.com. Contact him at chris at savetherobot dot com.]