Rivals puts you in the position of a music journalist working on a book about two artists who simply hate each other. It asks you to put together a timeline of the two fictional rock musicians' careers by piecing together clues from interviews, songs, and other ephemera. Inspired by classic musical rivalries like the one between Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Son Volt's Jay Farrar or the clashes between bands The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre in the documentary Dig!, Rivals is a mystery that's also trying to answer questions about what it means to be a music fan.
It's developed by Tim Sheinman, and it's a subject Sheinman knows well. He's played music and been in bands since he was a teenager, said that making this game was how he discovered what it's like to love music from the other side of the veil.
Sheinman, who wrote and played all the instruments on the songs included in Rivals, has a tendency to go on tangents when you're talking to him. He sees connections in things naturally, and when he speaks, you can see him working backwards from whatever it is you've asked to the point he really wants to make. It's easy to see why he's made two detective games. His previous game, Family, which he describes as a sibling to Rivals, is about connecting bands in a fictional English music scene.
Rivals is more concerned with the cult of personality than how a scene all fits together. Though it's clearly heavily inspired by the fall out of the breakup of seminal American rock band Uncle Tupelo, Sheinman said it's also about the tendency in creative partnerships to have people fall into complementary roles.
"I did a masters in psychology and I studied the team roles in rock bands, so I kind of earned my stripes there," he said. "I think that when you're looking at rivalries, you're often looking at the purest form of this… you've got the ideas person and you've got the person who makes it happen.
"I think in rivalries that produces this really kind of rich dynamic because it's just a really rich source of both good and bad tension," Sheinman continued. "There's so much in there between the person who's all guns blazing and the person who's trying to just sort it out and organize it."
Exploring the timeline of Steinman's fictional bands does show this breakdown. Luke Jackson is a talented, intense and earnest musician that can't seem to catch a break. Josh Moore, is an electric ideas man whose fame and critical acclaim pushes Jackson farther and farther away . Like Tweedy and Farrar, they were once in a band together but now simply can't stand each other; where Tweedy and Farrar were in Uncle Tupelo, Jackson and Moore were high schoolers when they played in Pony Parade together. After the band broke up, Jackson's initial success as a solo act overshadowed Moore's new band Powderhorn, but Moore's willingness to leave the confines of alt-country soon leads to crossover success as Jackson's career dwindles. You play as a music journalist, Lucy Bramwell, who's been working with Moore on a biography about his career and relationship with Jackson. It's your job to piece together radio interviews, voicemails, emails and at one point a running club newsletter into an accurate timeline of Moore's and Jackson's careers, trials and tribulations.
It's recognizing these bits and pieces that makes the game so exciting to me. It reminds me of some of the great rock music oral histories, like Meet Me In The Bathroom by Lizzy Goodman, which explored the evolution of New York's rock music scene in the early 2000s. To me, being a music fan has always been about the ephemera, about understanding the relationships all your favorite music has to each other through interviews, music videos, lyrics and books like the one you're piecing together in the game. Sheinman said that it's not necessarily the kind of experience he had making music. It took making this game to understand it.
"If you're a musician, you often find that you can't be a good fan," he said. "To define what being a fan is, [it] is essentially not [having] a dog in the fight in the way that most musicians do. Most musicians hate somebody who's just like them, and [people think] you should be a fan of someone who's just like you, and you gotta just be like, 'Well, you're not, because you're jealous.' …By forcing people to really read and really listen and really engage with the story, it achieves something close to what it is to be a music fan."
Sheinman said that he's more of a Jeff Tweedy fan than a Jay Farrar one, and even asked Spencer Tweedy to do a little voice work for the game, though Sheinman said that he declined. The musical pastiches in the game speak to the influence that Tweedy has had on him. They're uncanny. Sheinman said the thing that made them really hit was finding the right vocalists.
"These are both real singers: Rob Chaney and Riley Catherall," he said. "Riley's voice is right because it's got more of an Elliot Smith vibe to it. It's got a little bit more pop, it's got a bit more indie. It's got maybe a little bit of a Neutral Milk Hotel in there. Rob's is straight up and really, really redolent of someone like Jay Farrar in Son Volt."
These small musical differences are important to the game's story as well, which weaves real life musical trends and bands into the fictional lives of Jackson and Moore. In one section, you read a memo from a record label exec that's annoyed that he thought he was signing the White Stripes with Luke Jackson, but ended up with a Johnny Cash. The difference in musical styles, between a poppier indie rock and a more roots-focused folk rock, is what drives Jackson and Moore's rivalry as much as their personality clashes.
The other magical thing about these songs is that really, they're all half a song. Sheinman said that after writing and performing so many song snippets, he was too tired to even think about writing full length versions. But their length is what imparts their magic, in the same way that a cloud can become a fluffy sheep in our minds. As I play Rivals, I'm piecing together the things that made these fake bands significant in the universe they inhabit, but I'm doing it without really being able to see the full picture. It's the spaces in-between where my imagination runs wild.The snippet of Pony Parade's "Running on the Weekend" gives you a window into what that band must have been like—but I can't help but imagine the rest of the album.
"I think fandom is always about parasocial relationships with artists and stuff like that. And this is often absorbed through material. It used to be more so in the old days before Twitter, which was, we get a bit of what we hear on the radio and what we read in magazine articles and stuff and we have to collect that and kind of collate it and put it together," Sheinman said. "I still think we do that. In some ways we do that more than we've ever done before now, because we're constantly deep-diving on the internet. We've all become detectives."