Video Games Live | 01.26.08

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As the orchestra ennobled the jingles that play as we maim, kill, fly and run through imaginary universes, the crowd erupted, time and again.

 

 

 

Fabulous Fox Theater, St. Louis

When Video Games Live co-creator Tommy Tallarico walked onstage at the St. Louis show, he crowed, "Video games are the entertainment of the twenty-first century."

He’s right, of course. A recent tally confirms that the video-game industry brings in more money annually than Hollywood. It’s hard to know how to feel about that. The child with his senses completely engaged by today’s richly realized electronic fantasies is prone to becoming addicted to the stuff, to the detriment of his body, and maybe his mind, too. How many of us have marveled at children playing video games on monitors hinged to the inside roof of mom’s SUV as the clan drives through the city? When do the family members actually talk to one another? What happens when the kid picks up a book, with its non-animated thrills, and its more rigorous system of attention?

And yet video games reek of innocent fun. For those of us who grew up playing Centipede in an arcade, or being beaten time and again by an older brother at Pitfall for the Atari 2600, or struggling to open the next level of the new Super Mario Bros. game, video habits are nostalgic gems and guilty pleasures.

As adults, we like to think we know our limits. We might knock off a few hours each day in thrall to Tetris, Warcraft or video poker, but we can handle it, dude. We know what drinking too many cocktails feels like, and we know what playing Final Fantasy 7 until five a.m. and cursing the sunrise feels like. We – most of us – know when a hobby becomes an obsession. But do we know when a hobby passes effortlessly through the mind, as cleanly as wind through a tunnel? Should we be concerned that we are spending so much time sharpening our skills at these whiz-bang, shoot-’em-up time-sucks?

The masturbatory pastime of video-gaming is perfect for our world, with its multifarious invitations to obsession, and its monitor screens facing us from every home, office, and cell phone. We say we are global, but we are worlds unto ourselves.          

That’s one of the strange vibes in the air at Video Games Live, a concert of video-game themes performed by an orchestra. More than a thousand gamers who spend their free time in solitude before the TV (or playing massively multiplayer games online) joined physically, rather than virtually, for the chance to salute their private passions en masse. And as the orchestra ennobled the jingles that play as we maim, kill, fly and run through imaginary universes, the crowd erupted, time and again. When the jumbo video screen above the stage began to play action footage from hugely popular games World of Warcraft and Halo, the crowd really went nuts.       

This was an adult audience. There was a nice showing of kids, but Video Games Live played to an overwhelmingly grown-up crowd, which was integral to appreciating the opening salvo, a montage of footage from such old-school arcade games as Pong, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Missile Command, Defender, Berzerk, Centipede, Joust, Tempest, Donkey Kong (big ovation), Frogger, Dragon’s Lair, Duck Hunt, Punch-Out!!, Gauntlet, Rastan, Outrun, Tetris, et alia. It was a fun stroll down memory lane for some, and a rude education in the primitive origins of the 8-bit world for younger types.          

It was great to hear an orchestra performing so many cute themes, one after the other. Channeling the old-fashioned bleeps of the arcade through violins, cellos, brass, percussion, woodwinds and synthesizers did not generate unintentional humor, but in fact elevated the themes. This held true for the entire evening. The orchestra lent a gravitas to every theme that wasn’t written for laughs (I’m looking at you, Mario and Luigi). Some of the jingles were revealed to be far more intricate and impressive than many of us may have ever realized. And the triumphant scores of a Final Fantasy and a God of War became swooping, thunderous things that effectively turned the theater into a classical hall. The large vocal chorus didn’t hurt, either. 

The performance of these labor-intensive scores for recent, high-concept video games was the meat of the show. A sequence of Japanese video-game music composers introduced their works in prerecorded video segments, and then the orchestra took flight as game "cinematics" and footage rolled across the screen. The crowd erupted as the theme for each game began: Metal Gear Solid, God of War, Civilization IV, Tron, Legend of Zelda, a Sonic montage, World of Warcraft, a Super Mario Bros. montage (the occasion for an extended, joyous pizzicato on the strings), Halo, and current sensation Halo 3.

Medal of Honor was accompanied not by game footage, but by a patriotic montage of black-and-white stock war footage, and the creators of Kingdom Hearts, the affable Tallarico informed us, refused to permit VGL to show the game, so a Disney movie montage was shown instead. The former was questionable, given the world’s view of our current imperialist adventure, and the latter was on the hackneyed side.

Tallarico and company do an excellent job of breaking up the long, two-and-a-half hour evening into a variety of fun performances. An audience member was pulled onstage to play a game of Space Invaders for which he had to run back and forth across the stage to move in the game. Two audience members competed in an onstage round of Frogger, which featured the orchestra changing the theme music on the fly, depending on the gamers’ progress. As one young woman came closer and closer to finishing level one, the crowd cheered her on more and more excitedly.

Martin Leung, a You Tube celebrity better known as "the blindfolded video-game pianist," played a number of themes blindfolded and not. (See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=966FyX3W6-s&feature=related). There was an audience costume contest that featured several Marios and Luigis, a number of Zeldas, the dog from Duck Hunt (complete with dead duck), and Bowser and a Piranha Plant from the Mario Bros. games. An adorable video of someone in a Ms. Pacman costume chased being chased through a city by three people in "ghost" costumes was screened (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQg7qOB5Heg). And a costumed Metal Gear Solid killer and a Halo soldier made brief appearances onstage.

Video games inspire fierce loyalties, and fans will variously wonder why there was no Golden Tee, Leisure Suit Larry, Resident Evil, Pole Position, Moon Patrol, Zaxxon, Galaga, Sinistar, Castlevania, Spy Hunter, Pac-Man, Q*bert, Dig Dug, Miner 2049er, Mortal Kombat, Tekken 3, etc., etc.; no old-school Intellivision or Atari (whither Kaboom!?); no EA Sports at all. But, as Tallarico explained to the audience, some companies simply refused permission. Also, VGL does mix up the sets, adding and dropping scores from tour to tour.

Most video games – even now, at the dawn of the massively multiplayer age – are played solo, one man on a couch, before one large screen. Video Games Live, like a convention for stamp collectors or model-train enthusiasts, gathers up a sizable group of solo hobbyists from their basements and forces a form of public interaction. And though the evening began with a tribe of pale, often overweight and overwhelmingly male guests sedately watching each other play Guitar Hero II in the theater lobby, the concert quickly took on the air of a tent revival. Whooping, interrupting the speaker with yelled jokes, wild applause and standing ovations came thick and fast. There was an atmosphere of private faiths finally, cathartically aired for all to see and share.

At the conclusion of the concert, Tallarico asked us to wave our cell phones, PSPs, and Game Boys with the screens lit up as if they were lighters. A glance back revealed a constellation of a thousand tiny monitors oscillating to and fro in the dark. | Byron Kerman

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