by Dan Goldwasser
This week at the Hollywood Bowl, the national tour of "Video Games Live" kicked off with a star-studded gala in Los Angeles. Well, star-studded if you're a computer game nerd. The concert, the brain-child of game composers Tommy Tallarico (Advent Rising) and Jack Wall (Myst III: Exile), served as a celebration of the music from computer games over the years. While much of the focus was on scores created in the past few years, when orchestral recordings have become increasingly prevalent, there were certainly a few "old-school" scores played.
Before I get into the concert, I'll mention a bit about the "pre-show" activities. There is a "Meet and Greet" where many composers were on hand to talk with fans, and sign autographs. "Videotopia" was a gallery area with displays talking about the history of video games, as well as a very cool arcade area where dozens of classic arcade games were available to play (for free)! Finally, there was a costume event, where fans who dared dress up for the occasion were judged and picked for a grand prize, a PSP.
The concert itself, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with a hefty choir as well as a few overlays, was a multimedia feast. Conductor Mark Waters waved his baton beneath a large video screen, which projected images from the video games whose music was being played. Two screens on the sides showed close-ups of the orchestra, as shot by multiple cameramen around the stage. Fog machines pumped out atmosphere, and lasers and lights were timed to great effect.
Starting with, of course, "Pong", the orchestra bounced a few notes around before going into a quick montage of music (mostly classical music) set to images of early arcade games like "Asteroids", "Galaga" and "Missile Command". Tallarico and Wall came out to talk with the audience, and while they were filled with enthusiasm and excitement for the event, they were not always present to introduce the pieces as they were played. If there was a "special guest", however, they were there, front and center. Some of the guests were on stage, and others were shown via a pre-recorded video (usually from Japan, such as Koji Kondo). Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima introduced the performance of music from his game, and adding to the spectacle, live actors in full costumes were play-acting on stage. Later in the show, when Tron was played, a lightcycle came streaming across the stage!<#GOOGLEAD#>
Music performed included pieces from Everquest II (Laura Karpman), Myst III (Jack Wall), Zelda, Super Mario Brothers (Koji Kondo), Sonic the Hedgehog (Masato Nakamura), and more. Beyond Good and Evil (composed by Christophe Heral) and Headhunter (Richard Jacques) were well done as well. When Medal of Honor: Frontline came up, though, was a change of pace in that they showed the "serious side" of video games by showing archival World War II footage instead of video game footage, to make the point that in war, no side is without loss, as is the idea of the Medal of Honor: Frontline theme. Unfortunately the performance left a bit to be desired, with the female soloist straining to hit the high notes at the very opening.
That brings up an issue with the concept of this concert: some computer game scores just don't translate well to an orchestra. When you have a classic piece of music like "Super Mario Brothers", it's just not meant to be played by a 60-piece orchestra. A small bit of orchestration would have gone a long way in many of the older pieces of music; it sounded at times that the instruments were all playing the same notes, when things could have been "fuller". Wall and Tallarico were absent for many of the gaps between the cues, and we really had no idea who wrote what music - it just kept playing.
The first ever "Interactive Frogger Symphony" took place, after the intermission, where a 13-year old boy totally decimated a nice mother who admitted to never playing computer games before. The idea was simple enough: as they played the game, Mark Waters would direct the orchestra to play the music that would be accompanying it. They certainly had to be on their toes, and the audience seemed to really enjoy it.
The second half of the concert sounded different than the first. Where the orchestra was occasionally struggling with some of the cues, the second half had some obvious overlays of the original recordings. This also resulted in some odd sonic warbles when the choir was slightly off-pitch from the recording. The "Video Game Pianist" made an appearance, to play music from Final Fantasy with two soloists. This guy is amazing, in a very weird and slightly disturbing way. He plays music from computer games, and all by heart. He's actually quite fun to watch, but you can't help but wonder what drove him to this!
According to the program, Bill Brown's music from Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell were supposed to be played - but it wasn't. When I talked to Bill about this after the show, he said it was because the segments just weren't "ready" - but that they would be performed on the rest of the tour. The concert ended with a piece of music from Halo (Marty O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori), and super-guitarist Steve Vai even showed up at the end to play a bit. But he was only used for about 20-seconds, and seemed a bit confused as to what was going on.
At the end of the concert, they brought everyone out on stage, including some game creators like Nolan Bushnell (Atari), and composers whose music didn't even show up, like Christopher Stone (Dragon's Lair). In the end, the concert was a lot of fun for the fans, even if the performances were mixed at best. Still, presentation is important, and they did a good job with the lights and videos. I am sure that by the end of the tour, they will have tightened up the performances, and worked out the flow a bit better. So if you're a fan of computer games, and computer game music, then catch this concert when it comes to town!
Special thanks to Matt Velasco and Rachelle Roe at the Hollywood Bowl, Greg O'Connor-Read at Top Dollar PR, and Chad Seiter and Matthew Sheby.