Symphony Orchestra Meets ComiCon: A Review of Video Games Live

Video Games
: A Guest Blog by Jason Kallelis (Twitter – @silellak)

As a long-time video game fan, I am no stranger to hype. Ask any
avid-devourer of media, in any form – be it books, movies, television,
music, you name it – hype is both your greatest friend, and your mortal
enemy. The day always comes, however, when that hype must end – the day
you play, watch, read, or listen to the creation in question, after
months or even years of being told how life-changing the experience
would be. More often that not, you will leave at least somewhat
disappointed. There’s a lot to be said for going into something with
lowered expectations.

Having said all that, Video Games Live was about as hyped for me as
something could get. I’ve owned their CD for over a year and a half,
and while I greatly enjoyed it, it did suffer from the hype-effect I
mention earlier. Not that I don’t absolutely adore it – I do – but as
many hardcore gamers know, orchestral arrangements of video games music
aren’t a new idea. Fans have been doing it for years, to varying
degrees of success, and perhaps only half of the tracks on the CD really
stood out to me as something special. Looking back, it’s clear now
that my favorite tracks on the CD are the ones where you can hear the
audience respond to the music. After last night, I finally understood
why. It’s called Video Games Live for a very, very good reason.

What is Video Games Live? If you want the clinical definition, I’ll
give you a very-brief summary as provided by Wikipedia: "Video Games
Live (VGL) is a concert series post_date and produced by industry veterans
and video game composers Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall. The concerts
consist of segments of video game music performed by a live orchestra
with video footage and synchronized lighting and effects, as well as
several interactive segments with the audience. The segments are
conducted by Wall." Now, if you want to really know what Video Games
Live is… well, read on.

My group – an interesting mix of four hardcore video game fans, two
girlfriends, and a good friend of mine who just really enjoys the Tucson
Symphony Orchestra – arrived about an hour before the show began, and
it was immediately clear that even in just my slacks and button-down
shirt, I was overdressed. The atmosphere was something between Comic
Con – the people in costume adding special emphasis to that – and a,
well, symphony concert. There were a few low-key pre-show festivities –
a Guitar Hero competition off to the side chief among them. We noticed
from our people-watching second-floor viewpoint that the costumed folks
were being filed into the theater, and decided to make our way in as

As we had suspected, the costume-wearers were being filed in as
preparation for a costume contest, which was decided based on audience
applause. There were some fantastic costumes – my personal favorite
being Manuel "Manny" Calavera from the classic adventure game Grim
Fandango – but in the end, it came down to a lady dressed as Lightning
from Final Fantasy XIII, and a fellow dressed as Ghost from Call of
Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It was too close for me to call, but in the
end, Ghost was the audience favorite – surprising, since usually "hot
girl dressed as anything nerdy" trumps any male cos-players in the
vicinity. After the winner was announced, the two revealed they were
husband and wife – a sweet ending to the contest. The rest of the
pre-show consisted of a touching and hilarious tribute to Michael
Jackson in video game form (available on YouTube, if you’re curious) and
a just-as-hilarious live-action video of Ms. Pacman being chased
through a city by Inky, Clyde, and Sue.

Now that the audience was warmed up, the show began, with the
awe-inspiring Tucson Symphony Orchestra playing the musical tracks to a
video montage of classic games from the 80’s. Around the time the TSO
started playing the theme to Contra, of all things, I knew I was in for
something special.

At this point, writing the review becomes difficult for me, as I’m no
longer describing a chronological series of events, but an overall
experience. I realize by saying this I am undoubtedly contributing to
the very hype machine I denounced earlier, but as a lifelong gamer who
has been playing since the Atari 2600, I’m not sure there’s any other
way for me to fairly and honestly describe it. Hopefully, it will
suffice to list-off some of the moments that have stuck with me the

* Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall, the co-creators of Video Games Live.
Wall spent most of his time silently conducting, not quite
all-business but definitely the more-laid back counterpart to Tommy
Tallarico, who was the hyper-active conduit between the stage and the
audience. They both played their parts perfectly, with Tallarico on
guitar joining in with (and arguably at times overpowering) the
Orchestra during the second act of the show. That isn’t to say Wall
didn’t join in as well – one of the highlights for me was when he took a
short vacation from his conducting duties to join Tallarico on a guitar
duet for the end of the Chrono Cross segment. You know the conductor
of a show really digs the source material when he turns his back to the
orchestra and enthusiastically joins in.

* A Space Invaders contest where a contestant (who happened to have
been dressed as a Final Fantasy Moogle during the costume contest) had
to clear the first level of Space Invaders in two minutes. The catch?
All she had was a fire button, and a T-Shirt that "tracked" her position
on the stage with which to move her ship. She came close, but couldn’t
quite pull it off, and so received a bag of consolation prizes instead
of the grand prize – an arcade table-top cabinet with a built-in MAME
emulator. Our group had the opportunity to speak with her with briefly
during the intermission, and she seemed to have enjoyed the experience,
though she complained her movements on stage were quite-a-bit delayed
in-game – a fair complaint, as I’d noticed the same.

* The Chorus of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra who did a simply
remarkable job, most notably during the Civilization 4 and World of
Warcraft segments. The soloist of Civilization 4, the spectacular Chris
Hutchinson, deserves a special mention.

* The appearance and performance of Martin Leung – perhaps better
known as the "Video Game Pianist" – who post_date the famous internet
video of himself playing various Mario Bros. themes blindfolded. His
performances of Mario Bros. (of course) as well as a montage of Final
Fantasy music – made all the more impressive by the camera focused on
his hands – both received standing ovations, and came close to stealing
the show. He mentioned his old piano teacher was in the audience, a
touching moment that briefly pulled back the curtain and revealed just
how much class this incredible performer possessed. I had the privilege
of shaking his hand after the show, but I don’t think his talents rubbed
off on me, sadly.

* The Legend of Zelda segment. Need I say more?

* The intermission. While of course it’s always disappointing to
take a break during the middle of the show, the "loading screen"
animation that played while we were waiting was a nice, amusing touch,
as was the nerd-centric music they played. From the Katamari Damacy to
Dragostea Din Tei by O-Zone (perhaps better known as the "Numa Numa"
song), it was quite clear they very much understood their audience.
Rounding out the intermission was a conversation one of our group had
with a lady in front of us (a friend of the Space Invaders Moogle,
actually) about an Ace Wright game she had started playing on her
Nintendo DS. Not part of the show proper, obviously, but it’s the small
things that truly define the experience.

* The audience in general had a spectacular reaction to the entire
show. As with any live performance, the performers clearly fed off the
fantastic energy in crowd, and in turn the crowd got that-much-more
fired up. As a gamer in particular, it is hard to contain your joy,
especially when the orchestra plays that one particular song, or the
screen shows that one part from that one game – you know the part I

* A Guitar Hero contest, where the winner of the pre-show Guitar Hero
competition had to play Van Halen’s "Jump!" alongside Tallarico on his
real guitar and the rest of the orchestra. The challenge was to score
200,000 points on "Hard", which the contestant scoffed at, asking the
difficulty be raised to Expert. Crowd reaction grew to a fervor as his
score approached the magic number – hampered a bit by the absolutely
insane solo towards the end of the song – and in the end, he came
incredibly close, ending the song with a score of around 175,000. It
was enough for him to win the prizes, at least.

* The video game montages that played during all of the segments.
They were generally well-edited, fit the music, and really helped
complete the atmosphere – especially if you’d played the games in
question. After the show, I overheard disappointed fans mention that
none of the Square-Enix games had any video segments, but I imagine it’s
due to legal constraints – I recall being told once that they used to
be forbidden from even saying the name of those games when playing them.
Obviously, if true, this had changed at some point prior to this show.
Also, I sort of thought all of us in the game community had come
together and agreed that the 3D Sonic the Hedgehog and 3D Castlevania
games never existed, but I’m not going to complain too much, especially
since I get the feeling those were added by the game companies in
question, rather than the VGL staff.

* The encore. Cliche, I suppose, but I’m never going to complain
about hearing One-Winged Angel from Final Fantasy VII (complete with
Tallarico headbanging along with the principle cellist) or the suite
from Castlevania. A perfect way to end the experience.

If I had any complaints about the entire experience, it would just be
that I wish they’d had time to incorporate some of the more obscure
tracks – at least relative to what they did play. But, as Tallarico
himself pointed out in the VGL forums; "Whenever we play a city for the
very first time we make sure to do all of the most popular ‘standards’
such as Mario, Zelda, FF7, Halo, Warcraft, Kingdom Hearts, Metal Gear,
Castlevania, etc." I can certainly see the logic there, and thought
that was likely the reason for the track selection, even before I
discovered his post.

The performance of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra itself truly
deserves a special mention. From my understanding – I’m not a follower
of the TSO, though now I may very well be – they rarely get more than
one or two rehearsals of a concert before their first performance, but
they nailed each and every track. I’ve already mentioned the incredible
chorus before, but to only do so once would be to downplay just how
remarkable they were. I don’t know how many gamers were in the TSO, but
if they weren’t all gamers, you’d never know it. Even the non-gamers
who accompanied our group were able to enjoy both the music and the
atmosphere, and I imagine the TSO’s flawless performance was largely

I guess it’s obvious by now, but for me, it was more than a concert
with video game music – it was a one-of-a-kind celebration, not just of
video game music, but video games, their fans, and the entire art form.
I forked out for a fifth-row ticket, thinking this would be a one-time
experience, and thus wanting it to make sure I got the most out of it.
However, if they return to Tucson next year, or the year after, I know
for a fact I will be there again – right up in the front, hoping for
perhaps some God of War or Mass Effect tracks – but mostly relishing in
the unique embracing of a culture and, yes, art form that is still
often-times viewed as something that’s "a waste of time" and "just for

Would I recommend Video Games Live to a gamer? Without question –
it’s something every gamer should experience at least once. For a
non-gamer, they certainly won’t get as much out of it, but fortunately,
music is a universal language – it speaks across culture-lines, be they
defined by geography, or by something as simple what types of media you
enjoy. One of those I attended the show with started the evening with
the mindset that video games were a "waste of time". By the end of the
evening, she not only began to consider games to be an art form, but
even felt she finally caught a glimpse of why her boyfriend held such
them in such high esteem – understanding them, and perhaps even him,
just a little better. So even if you’re lost by the inside jokes, don’t
get the costumes, and have never touched a video game controller – I
still think it’s worth going just for the music. Who knows – it might
even help you discover a love for something you never knew you had.