Sunday, August 8, 2010

Concert Review: Video Games Live Indy 2010

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of making it up to Indianapolis for Gen Con Indy, one of the largest annual gaming conventions in the world. Although the entire convention was an absolute blast (look for a post in the near future with details), the pinnacle of the convention was almost certainly Video Games Live. Video Games Live, founded by composers Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall, is (to quote the website) "a concert event put on by the video game industry to help encourage and support the culture and art that video games have become." In essence, it's a group of touring video game musicians who work with local professional orchestras to put on a massive multimedia-filled performance of video game music.

Video Games Live at Gen Con was hosted at the Conseco Fieldhouse, a large arena typically reserved for sporting events. My friends and I were able to get "cheap seat" tickets for $15 a pop, which was amazing considering where our seats turned out to be -- we were literally right in front of the stage (albeit a bit far) with a perfect view of the orchestra. Epic success.

After a costume contest, Video Games Live kicked into gear with the "Classic Arcade Medley," a collection of tunes from popular arcade games of yore, including such hits as Pong, Space Invaders, Outrun, and Tetris. Tommy took the stage and introduced the next selection, from an obscure Japanese game called Afrika that probably 1% of the audience had ever heard of. I'm happy that Afrika was included in the program; the music was the perfect sort of majestic, and I'm always a fan of less popular video games getting some recognition. My one complaint about the Afrika performance was actually the choice of video; the music was much too grand for some of the boring menu-navigating scenes that somehow made their way into the montage.

The next three selections were Shadow of the Colossus, Assassin's Creed, and God of War, all solid arrangements that I enjoyed despite my lack of familiarity with the material. The next event was one pretty unique to Video Games Live; two contestants came on stage to play Frogger while the orchestra played along in real-time. The audience support for the players was phenomenal, with countless cheers echoing across the stadium as the contestants steered their frogs to the other side of the level.

Act I ended with a beautiful selection from Final Fantasy VIII as well as three Blizzard tunes, two from World of Warcraft and one from Starcraft. The first Warcraft piece was a particularly haunting vocal tune called "Lament of the Highborn," performed by vocalist Laura Intravia (more on her later). The two following pieces were good, but neither struck me as much as did "Lament of the Highborn." In all honesty, I wouldn't have minded so much had some of the Blizzard tracks been replaced with tunes from other games; three Blizzard pieces seemed overkill to me when there are so many other great video game pieces out there to be enjoyed.

The second half of the show opened up with two Koji Kondo medleys, Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Brothers. While I thought the Zelda arrangement was phenomenal, I do wish the Super Mario Brothers arrangement had been a bit more imaginative. It's a great (and's been circulating around the Web for a while) arrangement, but especially for a track that's been as done to death as the classic Mario theme, I wish they'd been able to explore the themes a bit more and/or work in the wealth of other Mario music out there.

The next performance was centered around Laura Intravia, this time arriving on stage with a flute and dressed as her alter ego "Flute Link." Her performance was of one of her own arrangements, a Legend of Zelda flute duet set above some techno-y background music. The performance was as interesting to watch as to listen to, with Laura acting increasingly irritated with Navi (the second flute part) floating over her shoulder and culminating in poor Navi being thrown across the stage. I managed to snap a photo with the talented Laura after the show (she's the one on the left, of course).

After Laura's performance, one of the more unique aspects of Video Games Live took the stage. A gentleman who'd won the earlier Guitar Hero competition was invited on the stage, and Tommy went to fetch his electric guitar. The contest winner was presented with another challenge: earn 250,000 points on the Guitar Hero: Van Halen song "Jump" on Hard while Tommy and the orchestra played along in real time. Of course, the contestant and audience demanded Expert instead. Again, the audience support during the performance was amazing, with a veritable explosion of cheers as the contestant finally broke 250,000 in the last few seconds in the song. Definitely one of the most entertaining acts.

Tommy and guitar remained on stage for the next few acts, which included medleys of Mega Man and Halo as well as the renowned Final Fantasy VII piece "One Winged Angel" (which the audience predicted even before Tommy announced the title). All were very well-arranged, although I do think Tommy's heavy electric guitar sound distracted from the music a bit, particularly for the Halo medley. After a false "show end" and a bizarre interlude of a Mass Effect "Vigil" recording, Tommy and Emmanuel returned to the stage to put on a rockin' Castlevania arrangement. Another false ending and singing "Happy Birthday" to Laura later (yep, it was her birthday xD), Tommy announced the real finale: Chrono Trigger.

The Chrono Trigger finale was definitely my favorite selection of the evening. Although I wasn't familiar with the original source material, the brilliant acoustic arrangement was gorgeous (especially considering its 16-bit origins), and the orchestra played with great passion. My lackluster recording below captures only a fraction of its beauty, but it is nonetheless a great fraction.

Overall, the show was wonderful, and it was great to be able to meet the composers/conductors/musicians after the show, as well. Most of my issues stem from my own unfamiliarity with the source material as well as the fact that I'd seen Video Games Live once before and was familiar with many of the selections. I do wish they'd chosen to showcase more obscure-game music like Afrika's, but I also understand the need to play pieces like Halo and "One Winged Angel" for the numerous fans of those popular games. All things considered, I still had a blast, and I'm sure those in the audience more familiar with the source material would have enjoyed it even more. Whether or not you've already seen it before, Video Games Live comes highly recommended. :)



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