Monday, January 28, 2008

Video Games Live - 2008.01.26

A long time ago I used to be a mildly passionate video gamer. There was a fairly direct conversion from my interest in video games into my interest in music, although I can't really explain why. I still like video games a lot, and I have fun playing them (I just recently played Portal and loved it, and I plan on covering "Still Alive", the credits song), but I just don't do it often at all. So when my brother proposed seeing Video Games Live, a performance of video game music by a 27-piece orchestra and 21-person choir with video accompaniment, I was down. We went with two other friends, one of which is an old Kansas City friend of ours who will probably write his own review. (If he does, I'll post a link to it.)

Event: Video Games Live
Venue: The Fox
City: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: January 26, 2008

I can't remember the precise setlist, and I don't know the actual names of most of the pieces, but I'll try to give a general idea:
Classic Arcade medley
Metal Gear Solid medley
God of War
Space Invaders
interactive segment
Kingdom Hearts
Myst
medley
Medal of Honor
Tron
Super Mario Bros.
Piano solo by Martin Leung
Civilization IV
Sonic the Hedgehog
medley
Frogger interactive segment
World of Warcraft
Starcraft II
Super Mario medley
The Legend of Zelda medley
Final Fantasy piano solo medley by Martin Leung
Halo medley
One-Winged Angel (from Final Fantasy VII)

Review:
The choice of material was fairly all-encompassing, spanning a number of popular franchises and big-name developers (and composers). The opening medley of classic arcade music was great – the accompanying video followed the selected games, each of which went by fairly quickly. It started hilariously: the video displayed
Pong and was performed by imitating the sound effects of the bouncing ball. Some of the games were ones I've never really played and thus didn't connect much with (Medal of Honor, God of War) but others were excellent fond remembrances for me (Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog,Super Mario Bros.).

One of my biggest complaints was the reliance on newer material. Some the games they chose were the latest in a long series, but even when they did medleys, the video footage tended to favor the newest versions (which I realize makes sense since they have the best graphics, but the older games are still worth noting). I loved the original Civilization (and what I'd played of II and III were great), but I'd never even seen the fourth, which is the one they showed. The same story goes for Warcraft and Myst (which, as my brother pointed out, they cheated on, since the footage from the original Myst was taken from the real-time 3D-rendered Real Myst instead of the still-frame original release). Also unfortunate is that Square refuses to lease their footage and thus the Kingdom Hearts segment merely featured Disney animated classics (and the Final Fantasy medley just showed real-time footage of the performer).

The video that was used alternated between gameplay footage and rendered sequences from the games, which was completely fine in concept, but had one problem: the gameplay footage was surprisingly bad. I don't mean poor quality; I mean that whoever was playing when they recorded it wasn't very good, or the editor was just mean and choose to use dozens of sequences of Sonic and other playable characters getting hit by the enemies or suffering environmental damage.

The biggest surprise of the evening was the presence of Martin Leung, the "Video Game Pianist", known for his internet video of playing the Super Mario Bros. Theme on the piano blindfolded. He came out twice during the night, although I think I'm confusing what all he played. I know he repeated his Super Mario Bros. blindfold performance (which was completely spot-on) and I believe he did a Final Fantasy medley and something else that I'm forgetting. He's incredible.

The low point was probably the host, Tommy Tallarico. He acted as if everyone in the world knew who he was, and although much of the audience apparently did, I did not. He fulfilled his required part of announcing song titles fine, but his attitude was a bit much for me. When he came out with a guitar for the Halo theme, I was prepared to be unimpressed, but he performed fine albeit at a relatively low volume, a trend that was repeated for the closer, "One-Winged Angel". I was amused by his reference to each piece as a "song", something a classical composer or music theorist would run screaming at.

There were a couple other fun bits thrown in, like a costume contest that preceded the performance. More significant were the interactive bits. First, a gamer was chosen to come on stage and play Space Invaders for a chance to win a mutli-game arcade machine. He was given a controller to shoot but had to move his body to move his in-game ship. The orchestra handled the music in tandem. He was give two minutes and nearly had it but failed. I blame a fairly poor movement response on his ship getting hit so many times. Later in the evening a woman and an older man were chosen to each play Frogger for 90 seconds, which the orchestra again accompanied (and changed parts in real-time). The man went first and played absolutely horribly (Tallarico made quite a bit of fun at his expense), but the woman played fairly well and won the challenge.

It's worth noting that the orchestra and choir were local St. Louis residents, which is rather cool. I don't know how much rehearsal time they had, but I didn't catch any wrong notes: their performances were solid. (I did spend the whole night trying to figure out who was triggering the backing percussion tracks and why they didn't just hire a third percussionist to handle the parts instead of preprogramming.) I also wonder who did the arrangements; Tallarico and the conductor, Jack Wall, both had composed some of the selections, but the majority had to be rearranged by someone. (My guess is Wall, who also doubled as a part time host when Tallarico wasn't to be found. I liked his personality much better.)

I didn't come in with any specific expectations, and in fact I didn't really know what to expect, but the two hours of entertainment were well worth the cost. I did have the unfortunate "pleasure" of sitting quite near the loudest punters in the house, which was kind of funny, but I could have done without the semi-drunken shouts. It made for a fun night and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Having some knowledge about video games is probably a prerequisite for similar such enjoyment, but since the theater was entirely filled, they have quite an audience. Power to them, I think.

Score: B+

P.S. I apologize for not posting for a month. I'm working on it.