“Dude, shut up for a second. This is my jam!”
That was the warning a guy in front of me issued to his friend as the somber, monklike chanting from the Halo soundtrack reverberated across the Hollywood Bowl. Unable to wait for a more upbeat moment in the score, he immediately raised his devil horns and proceeded to rock — hard. Dundrearies blowing in the gentle breeze, he periodically yelled, “Chief, fucking the Chief!” When Steve Vai wandered out onstage to rip brief guitar solo, he looked as though he might have crapped his pants. Not Steve Vai — the guy in front of me.
The fact that music from Halo — or any other video game, for that matter — could today be considered anyone’s “jam” speaks volumes. It’s also presumably the reason why Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall — two veteran video-game composers — decided it was safe (and economically feasible) to launch “Video Games Live,” a series of orchestral concerts featuring video-game music that kicked off last Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl.
Indeed, as games have continued to gravitate toward the cinematic, it seems only natural that their accompanying music would also appropriate the bombast and overwrought emotion of modern film scores. And given that it’s become increasingly difficult to differentiate between Hans Zimmer’s latest movie score and, say, music from EverQuest, it really was only a matter of time before video-game music got its day to shine. Live.
From the looks of it, Tallarico and Wall’s bet paid off. A massive set list featuring music from popular titles like Medal of Honor, Tomb Raider, Myst, Zelda and Castlevania (followed by endless series of ©’s, T’s and ®’s) brought throngs of gaming geeks, as well as a few bewildered season-ticket holders, to the Bowl.
“We’re just pulling in,” a middle-aged guy with flecks of gray hair had announced to someone on his cell phone as our shuttle bus arrived. “You want us to meet you where? Right. The Nintendo Bongo Hut. Got it.”
Upon exiting the bus, I discovered that this bongo wasn’t so much a hut, but rather two Nissan Armadas with chromed-out rims and the word “Nintendo” spray-painted across their flanks. Each of these immense SUVs housed GameCubes in the rear hatch and Nintendo DSs mounted to the front side panels. Before the concert (perhaps to get their gaming juices flowing), crowds busied themselves playing Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Mario Kart and Mario Tennis, as the occasional real-life mustachioed Luigi or fay Link weaved his way through the group — apparently the remnants of a previous costume contest.
When the show officially launched, it did so with what turned out to be one of the more enjoyable sequences — a kind of freestyle homage to classic gaming. As footage from Pong, Centipede and Space Invaders flickered on a large screen above, the L.A. Philharmonic played a medley of brief vignettes from pieces such as Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.Unfortunately, when the piece ended, so did most of the fun. “Video Games Live” then turned into what was essentially one long orgy of disjointed video-game “cut scenes” set to live music, with a few laser lights for good measure.
At one point early in the show, Tallarico meandered onstage and dutifully announced “video-game music is not just bleeps and bloops anymore.” But as the night progressed, you began to realize that the appeal of at least the early video-game music resided precisely in all those hokey synthesized sounds. Adding the refinement and sophistication of a full orchestra to, say, Sonic the Hedgehog really did nothing but rob the original music of any quirkiness and charm it once possessed.
“Man, when I think of video games, the first thing that comes to mind is red wine,” a guy waiting in line for a $9 sandwich told his buddy.
And he was right. The whole setting — the wine and cheese, the picnic baskets — seemed contradictory, even profane, when measured against the real reason we had actually come here. Yes, games today may be much more graphically rich and sophisticated, but isn’t the gaming experience still about pizza and highly caffeinated sodas, about stained sweatpants and that weird sensation of beaded sweat pouring down your armpits during moments of intense game play?
There were, thankfully, a few brief flashes of redemption that came midway through the show, such as when a 13-year-old boy named Ben faced off against a middle-aged female opponent in an interactive Frogger contest. Again, the orchestra improvised a jaunty tune based on what the two contestants were doing in the game. A guy sitting in the row next to mine, after learning the woman had played only one video game her whole life, yelled, “Search and destroy, Ben. Stretch out with your feelings and bring that frog home, man.” Final score: Ben — 1,900, middle-aged woman — 130.
“So what do you want to do now?” a kid asked his friend as we wound our way down the Bowl’s pathway after the concert.
“I don’t know. How about we go home and play some video games?”