Video Games Live 2011
Even the biggest nerds I know visually trace the tip of their nose after I tell them I attended this “Video Games Music Concert,” but honestly the 200th Video Games Live (VGL) performance was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in a long time. I came in with modest expectations: expecting some amusing throwbacks and fun visuals – No. That was part of it, sure – that’s how it started out, but it wasn’t just “bleeps and bloops,” everything was performed by a full orchestra and choir – a full orchestra and choir conducted by a talented maestro, Wataru Hokoyama, whose subtle humor kept the show moving along for me. On guitar and emceeing the whole event was the ever-enthusiastic VGL founder and video game composer Tommy Tallarico. Only in games do you get so much talent and so much pure enjoyment in one place. They moved from emulated “bleeps and bloops” in the likes of Pong and Duck Hunt, to the elaborate and evocative in Halo Reach and Heroes of Might and Magic, even a Grammy-winning score from Civilization 4 – the beautiful Baba Yetu, which was really worthy of the accolade, follow the link to hear and see it.
Most people simply don’t realize the kind of detail and artistry that goes into this genre of music until you hear it without the undercutting visual stimuli. Its full of living pieces that can evolve as gameplay changes, playing one atop another to express simultaneous gameplay elements; Pieces that represent the grand, the epic, and the downright astounding. Multiple times the orchestra played live and interactive music while people played games on the big-screen. Red Dead Redemption’s score was another stand out with its multilayered, branching score in pure Western style. I began to feel these composers, some of which do make sound for movies as well, could out-perform big-budget cinema music in their sleep. It unclear to me now how I did not come to this most obvious conclusion before: great games music completely redefines the meaning of a masterpiece. Games soundtracks have to constantly and dynamically account for epic content on the level of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, for nearly every big game, for tens or HUNDREDS of hours of gameplay. That takes real talent on modern games, and often goes unrecognized.
It is video games though, and it can’t be all deep and impacting, the show was broken up by what I think everybody would expect from such an event: lyrically imagination-devoid rock songs by a group of guys in bright purple with funny hair. It was a rock band called The Megas and their music was based entirely off of the soundtracks to various Mega Man’s game. This was some good comic-relief for me, though it probably wasn’t supposed to be, it does however represent an interesting phenomenon of games music remixing by musicians in local communities which is a whole new brand of user-generated-content for games which is becoming prominent.
A definite star of the show was the amazingly talented video games pianist Martin Leung, who gained reknown on Youtube for some Mario-themed music and piano tom-foolery. Martin played a complex medley of music from the Mario games blindfolded at the show. The songs were some quick, complex pieces of music and he performed beautifully, not even a hiccup. He’s been doing it for a long time apparently, and it is a perfect fit for the show. He proceeded to play a very classical Schopen-inspired version of Zelda written for him by a professional composer, really astounding. Repeated instances of this level of skill and cross-over of media, these were the memorable attributes of the show which make me say it would have been completely enjoyable even if I wasn’t a gamer. Indeed even if I wasn’t a music lover (but I am) this show was absolutely dripping with game-antics, from clips like GTA vs Frogger and Mortal Kombat vs Donkey Kong, to an orchestra and guitarist playing the Foo Fighter’s “The Pretender” live while a kid rocks a 400,000 in Guitar Hero 3’s expert mode. Yes, the crowd did go wild.
That was the other key to this show, something nobody else can really replicate: ENERGY. Call me ignorant if you can find another way to bring together a few thousand young people, and have them going CRAZY over a symphony. Let’s be honest, even though I really like classical music, there are still few things that put me to sleep quicker than a couple hours at a live symphony. The crowd was laughing, cheering, and gave several, well-deserved standing ovations (to Martin Leung, the Guitar Hero kid, and the finale).
So the night ended with an absolutely show-stopping composition mixing Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross’s soundtracks. I’ve only put a few minutes into either of these games, but given more time I would still have failed to appreciate the musical prowess therein. The game was definitely on the whimsical side theme-wise, but this piece was absolutely stunning. The encore was a bit cliche, but nonetheless great: the whole house got out their cell phones for a light-show and disharmonious rendition of Portal’s “Still Alive.” Needless to say, I walked out with more than my money’s worth and a new found respect for games music.