A classical-music concert is crashed by a man who rappels onto the stage carrying a machine gun. Another man — this one in a ski mask — spots him, and a large exclamation point lights up over his head. Behind them, the conductor of the orchestra keeps waving his arms in rhythm, and the show goes on.
This was the spectacle of Video Games Live, a touring concert of video game music that kicked off last week at Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl. The concert featured the L.A. Philharmonic running through a set list that ranged from "Pong" to "Halo." Performances were accompanied by lasers and lights, along with big-screen projections of video game footage and live-action segments, like the rappelling number, which was used to amp up a segment on "Metal Gear Solid."
"I've been waiting for this my entire life," said Tommy Tallarico, 37, a video game composer with 15 years of experience and, with composer Jack Wall, a co-founder of the concert series. "It's time for video game music to rise up and take over the world."
Concerts for video game music, once unheard of, have become a minor trend thanks to this summer's Video Games Live tour and a series of American concerts dedicated to the music of "Final Fantasy" composer Nobuo Uematsu that have been running since May of last year. It's a sign, perhaps, that video game music is coming of age.
"I get people still sending me tapes in the mail of beep-beep-boop-boop," said game designer Dave Perry, whose résumé includes "Earthworm Jim" and "Enter the Matrix." "They think we're playing 'Pac-Man' today. What you've got to realize is no, no, no, we're using the same orchestra James Horner would use to make 'Titanic.' "
The music might be good, but would notoriously homebound gamers want to go out and hear it? And might the CD-based PlayStation era have turned gamers more on to the licensed tracks from mega-hits like "Madden" and "Grand Theft Auto" than jingles from the oldies and scores from new titles? "The first thing I wanted to know is how many people would show up at a concert like this," said "Metal Gear Solid" designer Hideo Kojima, who attended the event in Los Angeles.
An estimated 10,000 people, many of them teens and pre-teens with their parents, showed up for the Hollywood Bowl.
"I think something like this would normally be categorized as sort of like a nerd event, but it's clearly not," said Elijah Wood, who provided a sprinkling of star power along with Stan Lee and Gary Coleman. Wood, who helped debut the Xbox 360 on MTV in May (see "New Xbox To Be Unveiled By Elijah Wood, Serenaded By Killers"), said he was most excited to catch some "Super Mario" music. "The L.A. Philharmonic and classic video game scores? I'm excited."
The orchestral scope of game music was in evidence at the Video Games Live concert, as the Philharmonic delivered rousing renditions of the themes from "Zelda" and "Halo." That isn't to say there weren't beeps and boops; the concert opened with a montage of classic arcade games which played on a large screen as the orchestra strummed notes, first to sound out the ball from the music-free "Pong," and then for the music of "Asteroids" and beyond.
Tallarico said he first had dreams of an event like this when he was 10 and thought it was just a matter of time before the medium would command the respect for a full-scale concert. He said a video game concert couldn't have happened five years ago. Games weren't big enough.
Today, in one sign that game music is making it big, Billboard's top 10 ring tones include the likes of 50 Cent and Mariah Carey. But the longest running track on the list, at 38 weeks — 17 weeks longer than its closest competitor — is the "Super Mario Bros" theme by Koji Kondo.
"This is something you dream about as a composer," said Gerard Marino, who composed music for the PlayStation 2 hit "God of War." "You think one day in the distant future I'll achieve a Hollywood Bowl concert with the L.A. Phil."
Tallarico hoped the concert would highlight one of the key aspects of video game music: its interactivity. That's the key quality composers need to accommodate when making workable video game music. "Our biggest challenge is trying to come up with music that we know at any point can branch to something else," he said. While a film composer might need to score a scene of one set length and tone (a 10-minute car chase, for example), a game composer needs to allow for scenes that can change in mood and duration at unpredictable moments depending on what the player does. The "Metal Gear" set, he said, was designed to show this off, as the orchestra switched styles while the actors onstage changed what they were doing.
Just as the Video Games Live concert is raising awareness of games, some of the attending composers said they hoped it might reignite enthusiasm for classical concerts. "The 20-and-under crowd has stopped going to symphonies," Tallarico said. "They've stopped going to see Stravinsky and Mozart. What a great way to introduce themselves to orchestra."
Conversely, video game music is already rising in popularity with classical musicians. "I think it's the next place classical music is going," said Laura Karpman, who composed music for "EverQuest II." "I think it's very relevant."
For some, there was hope that concerts such as Video Games Live could help buff gaming's sometimes tarnished image. "Gamers are getting hit left and right for violent content, for sexual content and people are just attacking games," said "God of War" designer David Jaffe. "I think it's nice to have a counterpunch to that. It's like, games aren't just about violence. They're about great music and art and imagination and all kinds of amazing talent coming together and creating interactive experiences."