Things really do change. when i was in high school, I had a friend who was always listening to mix tapes of music he'd recorded from video games like Castlevania and Final Fantasy.
Back then, being a hardcore gamer was just one more thing that made you a freak. Grimy strip-mall arcades were the only public venues where fans could express their passion for gaming.
This month, two different symphonies performed theme music from video games in some of our city's swankiest venues. The first, Video Games Live, took place at Massey Hall over the Labour Day weekend as part of the Canadian National Gaming Expo. The second, Play: A Video Game Symphony, rolls into the Hummingbird Centre Saturday (September 30). These concerts may not be what you expect.
I found the music at Video Games Live at times stirring, at times bombastic, but the quality of the tunes was besides the point. It was about the circus, the ecstatic frenzy of being in a room with thousands of other people all moved by the same thing.
Inside jokes were flying from host Tommy Tallarico, who actually cut his teeth as a game composer before moving on to TV's Electric Playground, and not a single reference was lost on the crowd.
Plus, there were lasers. Lasers!
"Non-gamers need to get their heads around what kind of concert experience this is," says Arnie Roth, the conductor of Play, on the go from the gate at LaGuardia Airport. "I generally compare it to listening to beautifully crafted film-score-type music, like the best of John Williams in a beautifully orchestrated version."
After a 10-minute conversation with Roth, a Grammy Award-winning conductor known to swing a baton for the Chicagoland Pops, I'm convinced of the concert's musical legitimacy.
In Japan, where gaming is mainstream culture, orchestras have been performing complete scores from video games for 15 years. By contrast, the first in North America, Dear Friends: Music From Final Fantasy (by the producers of Play), was held in 2004.
Just this year, MTV's Video Music Awards added a category for best video game score, which, for the record, went to Jeremy Soule for his work on the megahit RPG Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
The concerts are pop performances, like the touring Lord Of The Rings symphony, and each show has a huge multimedia component. But for Roth, the multimedia isn't the main draw.
"The reality is that people are really moved by the music played by a full ensemble," he says. "Screens aren't the primary reason they're here. Hardcore fans have spent hundreds of hours of listening to these themes, always in the same format. So it's quite refreshing for them to hear it in a concert with a full orchestral dynamic palette. In some cases the arrangements differ from what they've heard before."
Roth's talk about the music to games like Final Fantasy and Halo puts me more in mind of Wagner's Ring Cycle than of the familiar bloops and bleeps, as he puts it, of Mario Brothers.
He's often asked to explain how composers from North America and Japan differ.
"Certain composers write leitmotifs in a melodic way, and others paint tones through lush landscapes or sound pictures. But they don't break down by socio-geographic lines."