The fans find their way to their seats. The orchestra is tuning up. At the back of the stage, a timer counts down until showtime. Then, lights dim, fans cheer, and a video of Pong, the first video game, appears on the screen. So begins a medley of orchestrated music that initially plays the simple sounds of an old Atari game but branches off into nostalgic themes from the 80s.
This is Video Games Live, and the experience was once electrifying. I first heard of the concert series in 2005, and as soon as they became available, I purchased tickets for their November 23 performance at the Merriam Theatre in Philadelphia. I was excited as could be. I was not only a huge fan of video games, but I loved the art behind them. The opportunity to see a full orchestra performing music from the games I loved and others is an unskippable one! However, excitement turned to dismay when the show and the tour was canceled. For whatever reason, they could not secure the attendance to justify their investment, and they went back to the drawing board with advertising it better and getting the word out.
The brainchild of Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall, Video Games Live was supposed to represent the relevance of games as an art form or at least to demonstrate it is the result of forms of art put together. This was not the lynchpin of the idea behind it, though. The show was also conceived as a way to bring appreciative gamers together in one spot for one evening to enjoy a night at the theatre. After all, video games don’t present a lot of opportunities to leave the house.
The energy of the audience at one of these shows is off the charts. People are clamoring and yelling and jumping around throughout the entire performance, and Tallarico encourages them to do so. It’s made clear from the outset that this is not a typical sit-down viewing as if one was attending La Bohème. Rather the creators had every interest in riling people up. If you hear your favorite game’s music being performed, yell and scream and let everyone know you love it. There’s a spectacle to be sure. Aside from the jarring nature of an audience cheering on an orchestra replete with strings, horns, choir, and a piano, the aforementioned screen displays video footage of most of the games being played, along with a full laser light show to keep things modern. (For reasons I can probably guess, Square Enix game footage is no where to be seen, replaced with Disney character footage for Kingdom Hearts and a slideshow of static cosplay photos for Final Fantasy VII.)
I finally got to see the show when it triumphantly returned in 2008. The venue was Beacon Theatre in New York City this time, and I set out with two friends unprepared for how much fun I would have. Things are interesting right upon arrival – there’s always a costume contest, so many members of the audience are dressed up as their favorite characters. Creativity runs the gamut, but I will say that you don’t see as many of the expected sexy versions of characters as you would at a convention. Comfort when sitting down is taken into consideration, so you won’t see anything too bulky either. Audience members have the opportunity to win prizes multiple times throughout the night. Somewhere in the middle of the show, someone is tasked with playing a video game live on stage to the cheers and cajoling of the crowd. I think the first show featured Space Invaders, but later iterations always involved Guitar Hero. Suffice it to say, audience participation was another wrench in the norm for nights at the theater.
Following the initial medley, Tallarico and Wall introduce themselves and the people performing the music. Tallarico’s passion for the show cannot be beat, and he engages the audience and the people on stage with a joie de vivre that lets others know he’s in his niche up there. Wall acts as the poised foil to Tallarico’s antics but mostly because he’s conducting. He is not without humor or excitement himself. After introductions and purpose are made clear, the songs begin. They demonstrate a lot of variety for sure, but there’s nothing obscure up there. You will see Mario, Halo, and Final Fantasy. Zelda makes its presence mostly through the musical stylings of Laura Itravia, famously known as Flute Link. I will return to her in a moment, though. Like any good show, there is an intermission. During intermission, people shuffle off to the bathrooms and sign up for even more contests going on in the hallways. The end of intermission is always completed with a video of people in Pac-Man and ghost costumes staging a chase scene throughout a city.
In terms of quality, the concert excels and stands in a class by itself. You will not experience anything else like it unless you go more than once. Therein lies the rub. For a concert series devoted to both to helping gamers relive nostalgia and exposing non-gamers to a new world of culture, it plays it too safe by continuously repeating content. I’ve heard the same Pong intro four times. I’ve heard medleys for popular Mario themes four times. I’ve seen Tommy Tallarico perform electric guitar at least eight times, once each for the Halo theme and “One Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy VII, both songs of which notably do not have electric guitar in their original mixes. On that note, I’ve seen Tallarico come out four times (on encore performance only) to say, “The composer: Nobuo Uematsu. The series: Final Fantasy VII. The song: [wait for it] One. Winged. Angel!!” I’ve seen the once-popular “Mario piano guy” twice. I’ve seen Laura Intravia perform her Flute Link bit three times. Also, because she moved to New Jersey from Japan, I’ve seen Kinuyo Yamashita perform piano on a Castlevania suite twice.
Don’t get me wrong – all of these songs and performances were executed masterfully, though Tallarico’s electric guitar performances while featuring incredible talent come off as a bit vain. The orchestra is always top notch, and one must hear Intravia sing. As a vocalist, her voice is well-trained and adaptable. However, I’ve even heard her sing “Still Alive” from Portal three times. All this music is great, but is it really running the breadth of video game music culture? Just looking at my library, here are a few titles I haven’t heard music from once: Final Fantasy VIII, Flower, Myst IV, Braid, Okami, Silent Hill, and Super Meat Boy. Moreover, it should go without saying that many of the games Video Games Live does feature contain more than one song or two on their soundtracks. Every now and again, there’s something new thrown in there, including one show with emotional performances of music from Metal Gear Solid and Civilization. But for the most part, I’ve watched the same show with the same interludes and same expectations four times. Maybe it’s my own fault for attending more than once, but just as my favorite musicians release new music to generously sprinkle in their concerts, new video game music is being produced all the time.
Let’s take this further, though. What is the message to society if the show doesn’t change? You draw people in with one show as a sampler, but when they return, they’re given the same appetizer as before. Where’s the entree? I know there are many amazing songs not being played, and the audience does, too. Given the challenge to put together the music and get a multi-performance orchestra to be able to play it flawlessly, I understand if all the shows on one leg of a tour contain similar set lists. However, once that leg is over, move on. Expose the world to the full spectrum of amazing video game music out there. Where are the indies? There are games which have sold in the millions, much to the surprise of their creators, that are not being featured there. What about chip tune soundtracks? Just because it contains the stereotypical beeps and blips does not mean it doesn’t have a relevant place in the culture.
Right now, as it stands, if the performances keep going year after year without much change, it’s as if Video Games Live is inadvertently telling people video games have not changed in decades. They know it’s not true, and it stings to say that about such a precious and important concert series.
The third time I attended the show, Jack Wall was nowhere to be seen. In his place was the adorable Wataru Hokoyama, who composed the music for Afrika, which is the most obscure game I ever saw featured on the show. The next time I went, he was gone, replaced by someone who was barely mentioned beyond the introduction. It’s clear this is Tommy’s show now, so to Tommy, I address this plea: Change it up. Do it not for my sake but for the sake of video game history. You already did what nobody else thought was feasible, relevant, or profitable. Now, take it further. New music. New games. New bits. New videos. For heaven’s sake, I want to hear your own work at a show. What about “Subterranean” from Earthworm Jim 2 or “Greater Lights” from Advent Rising? (If Charlotte Martin is not available, you have the super talented Intravia to substitute.) Remember? You wrote these things!
Until then, Tommy, I bid you adieu. It was nice, but I’m a different person now. I will still talk highly of you to my friends who haven’t seen your work, but we’re through seeing each other.