Video Games Live (San Jose, March 2006): Concert Report
The first of its kind to hit the United States, Video Games Live is a video game concert tour which includes the music from the best of the best video games spanning the last few generations. Game music includes the classics such as Pong and Frogger to the recent successes of World of Warcraft and Halo. The tour began in 2005, and after only two shows in Seattle and Vancouver the tour was cancelled. They have picked it up again, starting in San Jose, California, also labeled as the "birthplace of video games." To bring the Game Developers Conference to a close, the concert was held at the Civic Auditorium Friday March 24, 2006, right across from the convention center where the GDC took place. The evening's show began at 8pm, with pre-show activities in the lobby beforehand.
I arrived around 7:30pm and there was already a decent line for will call but it moved relatively quickly. Knowing that there was going to be a costume contest, I was surprised that I didn't see too many people dressed up. I did however see Samus Aran walk by, and then heard a loud plastic thunk as she walked into a pole. She had a good laugh and so did the people standing in line. The atmosphere was definitely very casual, and very different than being at any other concert. Some of the pre-show festivities included a Guitar Hero competition as well as the costume contest. There was a flood of people waiting in line to buy various paraphernalia. Items included soundtracks for some of the games that were included in the evening's show, as well as t-shirts, posters and of course programs. Normally I'd buy a bit of everything, but I exercised some self control this time and just picked up a $15 program.
The auditorium was set up in a way that the seats closest to the stage were basically on the floor of the gymnasium and our rows were marked by chalk on the floor. We were sitting on fold out chairs that were crammed pretty close together, so I'm not sure if it might have been better to get the cheap seats in the back; at least then you'd get an armrest! I had been to the auditorium before, and sat courtside to watch the San Jose Sky Rockets play their inaugural game. My friend's cousin is the owner, who coincidentally used to work for Square Enix.
At around 8pm, all the contestants of the costume contest were asked to come up on stage. There were about 20 people total and they had already picked the top four. The winner was to be chosen by the audience. There was someone dressed up as Vivi from Final Fantasy IX, which was quite an elaborate costume. At first I thought it was a child, but it turns out it was someone who was walking on their knees. The final four was a Dead or Alive girl, some guy from Guilty Gear, Samus (the same one who walked into the pole), and, of course, Vivi. Samus and Vivi were definitely the crowd favorites by the sound of the applause, but Vivi managed to come out first. He/She received an ATI video card, courtesy of 1up.com.
We were then introduced to our masters of ceremonies for the night, Tommy Tallarico. He, along with Jack Wall the conductor, are the creators of Video Games Live. Excitement filled the auditorium as the first screenshots were displayed. I was wondering how they were going to perform the non-existent soundtrack to Pong, but basically the orchestra mimicked the pong noises and this was truly your bleeps and bloops orchestra style. It was more amusing than anything, and the entire audience was laughing. Next up was a medley of all the classic arcade games. Themes included Gauntlet, Outrun, Duck Hunt, Missile Command, Donkey Kong, and many more. I tried to take pictures for each of them but there were just too many. A wave of nostalgia came over me, as I'm sure it did for most people — at least for most people over the age of twenty.
Metal Gear Solid was next on the program. I have been told that MGS had a phenomenal soundtrack, and with the footage up on the big screen and the orchestra playing an intense military-like theme, it was amazing to just sit back and listen. It was like watching a long movie trailer that was moving and powerful. It was a great piece to start with to really show the range of what an orchestra can do with our beloved video game tunes. During the performance, a man dressed in black came on stage with a machine gun and a glowing exclamation mark over his head. It drew laughter from the audience, especially since in game, when an enemy approaches, the ! will appear.
Castlevania's original theme on the Nintendo was quite catchy and sounded great live. There were some nice visuals included from the newer Castlevania games. Seeing the images up on the big screen and accompanied by the dark yet romantic music actually made me want to play it. This concert was also a great way to promote some great games that you normally wouldn't play. With the main melody dominated by the string instruments, it really gave the Castlevania theme more depth and a lot more emotion.
The following two themes were from games I haven't played just yet — God of War and Beyond Good & Evil. God of War was an epic, gladiator style theme along with fitting images. This piece really showed the flaws and limitations of watching a symphony performed on stage instead of a concert hall. Some of the performers were too close to their microphones, and on certain high notes it was almost painful to listen to. Christophe Heral's Beyond Good & Evil was different, beginning with a beautiful flute introduction with haunting vocals to back it up.
Tommy was back to introduce Michael Giacchino who has composed scores for TV shows such as Alias and Lost. He has also worked on major motion pictures such as The Incredibles and is signed up to score Mission Impossible 3. Medal of Honor was inspired by the movie Saving Private Ryan, so instead of using footage from the game, they thought it would be fitting to use World War II footage. The footage was very moving, especially seeing the images of abandoned children and crying women. It really conveyed a sense of sadness and hopelessness along with the touching arrangement.
Next came two of very popular games, Everquest II and The Legend of Zelda, prior to Act 1's finale. Everquest II's theme was charming and fun, and the crowd really seemed to get into it. I was excited to hear the themes from Zelda, especially since the main theme goes way back to the Nintendo days. Koji Kondo has created some of the most memorable video game melodies of all time and the musical creator of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. introduced his music from a pre-recorded video. With images from all the Zelda games, it really showed the audience just how far Zelda has gone and how popular it still is. The MC came back to finally introduce Jack Wall, his partner in crime and also the conductor for the evening. The last piece before the intermission was Tron, a Disney movie made back in 1982. This was a personal favorite of Tommy's, which would probably explain why it was included in the show, together with its Kingdom Hearts II relation.
Act 2 was loading (there was a loading bar up on the screen) so we got a 20 minute break to go outside and stretch our legs. I was looking forward to the second half since I was going to find out how they were going to make Frogger an interactive performance. When everyone returned to the seats, Tommy announced that during the break they randomly chose two people from the audience and asked them to come up on stage to play Frogger. The orchestra was then going to play and change various tunes on the fly depending on how the game went. He basically described it as how rich people play their video games. The winner would receive a Ferrari laptop valued at $2500 courtesy of AMD. Everyone was rooting for the girl to win, although she had a terrible run, scoring only 860 points. The other guy scored 4620 in a minute and half which was actually a record, since the last one that was set was 3500 at a previous concert.
After that came a performance of the orchestral version of Kingdom Hearts' "Hikari." Here, instead of playing clips from the game, they played clips from various Disney movies. It was a great montage of all the classic Disney feature films, with characters that made cameo appearances in the game. The music played by the orchestra was enchanting, especially since I'm a fan of the game and the soundtrack as well. It was wonderful to hear it live.
Jack finally took the microphone to introduce the next piece which was a medley of all the Myst games. Since he was involved in Myst III and Myst IV, it was fitting that he would include it. He mentioned that Myst was the #1 best selling PC game of all time, up until The Sims at least. There were a lot of good clips from the game that were displayed during the performance. I remember playing Myst a long time ago and actually being a little scared because of the creepy music.
Whoever was controlling the DVD had a little mishap with the beginning of Sonic the Hedgehog so the orchestra had to wait until they figured it out. Once they got going, it was nice to see the many Sonic games that have been released over the past 15 years. The choir even sang "Sega" as the game loaded up on the big screen. Following this, there was another crowd favorite: World of Warcraft. I could hear people behind me discussing their characters before the concert started. World of Warcraft's performance included the opening CG sequence from the DVD that was released with the deluxe edition of the game, and the orchestra performed the score admirably.
I was hoping that there would be an orchestrated version of a Final Fantasy piece, especially since I've gone to three of the Final Fantasy concerts when Nobuo Uematsu toured the US in 2004 and 2005, but this time it was the Video Game Pianist, also known as Martin Leung who soared to Internet fame by playing a Super Mario medley blindfolded. He was to perform a medley of 10 themes from the Final Fantasy series. Martin is definitely a talented pianist, and plays with tremendous force and speed. It was a shame they didn't have a real piano for him to play on; he played on a digital instead which didn't quite have the same sound.
Tommy came out once again to talk a bit about how video games is a growing industry, and is now considered the entertainment medium of choice. He compared it to the movie industry which grew in the 1920s and 1930s. He then introduced Advent Rising, another game that he scored. The performance included the original singer Laurie Robinson. Following this, Koji Kondo was back this time to introduce Super Mario, and the orchestra played the main Super Mario theme, along with the "Water" theme as I call it and the Bowser theme. Probably known as the most recognizable video game tune ever, it was a thrill to be able to hear it performed live.
The evening was coming to an end, and it was time to announce who won the Guitar Hero challenge and to introduce Martin O'Donnell, the principle composer for Halo. Martin said a few words, mainly thanks to the fans that have made the Halo series so popular. The piece was versatile, with slow and serene sections that build into an energetic finish. I bet the members of the Symphony Silicon Valley and Chorale probably never expected to be a part of a video game concert. I'm sure they enjoyed the atmosphere because most orchestrated performances don't have audiences that hoot and holler throughout the performance.
Video game music is a growing industry as well. Music plays a huge part in my life and the experience of playing a game would not be the same if it didn't have a soundtrack to emphasize the emotional elements of the game. It's like watching a movie with no music; somehow the experience just doesn't feel complete. I have been very lucky to have been able to attend several video game concerts in the last two years. These concerts are not a rare occurrence in Japan, and thanks to people like Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall, they've worked so hard to bring that novelty to the United States, and hopefully to the rest of the world.