Concert Review: Video Games Live! Bonus Round

 A few weekends ago, Tommy Tallarico and his merry band of video game composers headed into Vienna, VA, to play Video Games Live! Bonus Round at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. Excitedly, Jen and I went with a couple of friends to see the show, which was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.

Disclaimer: Jen’s camera ended up breaking so I don’t have pictures from the actual show [insert here your vision of a crying man]; the ones included are from the VGL press page.

If you have never been to the Wolf Trap, it's a beautiful venue. Every time I've been I have opted to get a lawn ticket, which has been lovely simply because you can set yourself up a little picnic spot. Granted, your spot is going to be squished between all of the other picnic spots, especially if you want a good seat, but to be real, the spaces between you and your neighbors on the lawn are still larger than they would be if you sat next to them in the seated area.

Even though we were pretty far up on the lawn (which is a hill that leads down to the seating area, as you can tell from the picture), we still had a pretty great view of the symphony. Aside from experiencing this music played by a live orchestra, another main part of the VGL show is video, and while we were too high up to see the video behind the symphony itself, Wolf Trap had set up a second external screen that was large and very visible once it got a little darker outside. Deciding whether to focus on the orchestra or on the screens was a minor dilemma at times, but one that was certainly overcome by ability to bring and eat Triscuits and cheese.

As the show’s host, Tommy Tallarico, who looks and dresses like some people that I hung out with in high school, acts like a goofy, energetic kid—and I mean that all in a good way. The show, though it is based around a serious concept – the one of symphony orchestras performing music from games, those things that are often seen by people as a horrible, mind-numbing alternative to going outside –, is extremely light-hearted to the point where it is almost like an old-school game itself. Tommy bounds around on stage, hyping up the audience and shredding on his guitar, reminding us that this music, while sometimes serious, is also serious fun.

The video screens served as another reminder of that fact. They were integrated in two ways: first, by playing clips of the games from which the music came, and second, by acting as interludes between pieces, showing a bunch of goofily manufactured clips as fan service. The majority of the latter type of clips were things like “Donkey Kong vs. Mortal Kombat,” in which Scorpion replaced Mario and, instead of jumping over barrels, used his signature move to pull Donkey Kong down from the top of the screen to his doom. The funniest interlude was probably the one that featured the top ten worst voice-acting moments in gaming. It not only included some really horrible examples that I had never heard before, but it also gave high honors to two of my favorite instances in gaming: Dr. Light talking in Mega Man 8  and Chris and Jill interacting in Resident Evil (though personally I prefer this gem from Barry).

As for the music itself, the symphony played a pretty eclectic range of tunes. Starting with music from Castlevania, they covered everything from Earthworm Jim (Tallarico’s favorite) to Skyrim. Oftentimes the pieces would have some kind of element that made them unique, and not just in the way of arrangements. For example, while they arranged the iconic music from Tetris for opera singers, they also made it a point to play no video during Final Fantasy VIII’s “Liberi Fatali” so that the audience would focus its full attention on solely the music of one of Nobuo Uemastu’s masterpieces. Here's a 2008 performance of the tune:

Other pieces had non-musical ways of grasping the audience, and there are three instances that come to mind as being the most notable. First, in order to perform the music from Super Smash Bros. Melee, Tallarico chose four members from the audience to come up and play the game on the huge screens (by the way, two players chose Peach—that isn’t normal, right?). According to him, the orchestra was ready to play the music from whatever stage they happened to choose. Entertainingly, the players chose random and fought in the stage from Earthbound.

Second up was the Guitar Hero feature. Prior to the concert, VGL held a Guitar Hero tournament, and the winner of the tournament was called up on stage to perform with the orchestra. The catch was that the winner had to play a yet-unreleased song – The Pretender by The Foo Fighters – and score something like 450,000 points to win a prize. In what must have been the most crowd-pleasing moment of the show, the local champion played the tune along with Tommy on real guitar (to cover up those mistake bloops). I couldn’t imagine how awesome it must have been for him; the crowd was on edge as his score slowly climbed, and every time he got Star Power, people went nuts. Though we were not sure if he was going to make it near the end of the song, the power of repeated choruses in pop music shined as he was able to break the ceiling and then some.

Quite possibly the coolest moment of the night was when the orchestra geared up to play the music from JourneyVGL had actually flown composer Austin Wintory from Los Angeles to Virginia to conduct the NSO for one night. Not only was hearing that gorgeous music played live an awesome experience, it was extra special to have Austin there to make it happen. He was actually around after the performance, too, and I was finally able to meet him in person and shake his hand. Yes, I was a bit nervous, haha, but making quick conversation with him was thankfully – and predictably – easy. Hopefully I will be able to engage him in longer chats in the future! This is what Austin's music sounded like during the show (this video is from a performance in Austin, TX):

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Composer/arranger Laura Intravia, better known to the internet as Flute Link, performed on stage, as well. Just like in in the photo, she donned her Link outfit and played in front of the orchestra when they sounded music from The Legend of Zelda. Not shown in the photo, however, was her performance of the music from Donkey Kong Country, which was not only arranged by her, but performed by her on what I believe to be a MIDI Wind Controller (like this one—though I was not close enough that I could tell exactly).

I am very pleased to announce that the final tune of the evening was my personal favorite piece of VGM, “Time’s Scar” from Chrono Cross. Tallarico’s introduction of it revealed that it was chosen by a poll of the fans, which is great to hear as a die-hard fan of the music from that game. It unfortunately didn’t sound the best from where I was sitting, but I’m happy to let that slide, as it was just great to hear it played live by professional musicians. Not to mention, I am happy that it could be heard by a wider audience that may have never even heard of Chrono Cross or its visionary composer, Yasunori Mitsuda.

All in all, Video Games Live! was a fantastic experience that is not to be missed—make sure you check out its website to see if it's coming your way!