Arts and Humanities
12:00 pm
Thu November 22, 2012

The Orchestral Arcade: Video Games Live

It used to be those Wagner-filled Warner Brothers cartoons and film scores by composers like John Williams that introduced symphonic music to new audiences.  Now video games are taking that role.

The Louisville Orchestra goes into multiplayer mode this weekend with an interactive orchestral performance of music from video games. Part of the contemporary L.O. Wow! Series, the orchestra will play along with guest performers in “Video Games Live!” Saturday evening at The Palace.

Bleeps and Bloops

“Video Games Live!” creator Tommy Tallarico has composed scores for more than 250 video games. Even if you didn’t realize it, you might know his work: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Prince of Persia, Mortal Kombat Trilogy, Madden ’96. He's been in the business since the days when the technology had serious limits.

“Basically, I had bleeps and bloops to work with. But what was the most important thing back then—and still today remains—is melody,” says Tallarico. “Super Mario Brothers and Zelda, Castlevania, Tetris, all those games from the mid- Eighties, they all had melody, even though they were bleeps and bloops, they weren’t live instruments. Back then, that’s all we had.”

“For every level they’d tell you, okay, you have 45 seconds and it’s going to loop. So you’d better make something catchy and melodic or else it’s going to get annoying really quick,” he adds.

The Live Show

Video Games Live! features the orchestra playing iconic themes from vintage games like The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter as well as more modern fare like Halo and Final Fantasy. There’s even a Tetris opera.

"A lot of non-gamers come check out the show with their kids," he says. "It's not just for hard-core gamers."

Games are played live and projected onto screens—the winner of a pre-show Guitar Hero competition will play on stage during the performance.

“I describe Video Games Life as having all of the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra, but combined with the energy and excitement of a rock concert,” says Tallarico.

Because of the simple early recordings—bleeps and bloops—Tallarico re-arranged the older music for live performance.

“The hardest part is already done, the fantastic melody. So from there it’s just a matter of orchestrating it in different ways, depending on what I feel the style of music best suits it,” says Tallarico. “For example, when you think of the music to Zelda, that’s more of a traditional symphonic score. Whereas something like a Castlevania or Street Fighter or Mega Man is a little more rock and roll, so it becomes more of a rock experience with the symphony behind it.”

Beethoven Was a Gamer

Wait, a Tetris opera? Not so far-fetched, says Tallarico.

“When you think about it, a couple hundred years ago a bunch of Italians sat around a table and said how can we get people to come out to the symphony? I got an idea, let’s dress people up in costumes and let’s tell a story through the music and the words, and let’s build elaborate sets on stage. And that’s how opera was born,” he says. “We’re just using all of the things that we have at our disposal these days to bring people into the symphony. I’ve always said that if Beethoven were alive today he’d be a video game composer.”

Tallarico says people often ask him when video game music will become legitimized the way movie scores are, and he doesn’t only include his own show when pointing out that it’s already happening. The emergence of chiptune—electronic music made with vintage game console technology—and video game cover bands point to a larger cultural force at work.

“People are a lot more emotionally attached to video game music than other music for media out there. Hum me the music for ‘Avatar.’ You can’t do it. It’s not to say anything disparaging about ‘Avatar’ or its great score, but when you’re playing a video game, you become that character, so you’re not just watching someone else’s story, you become that story, and the music of the game becomes the soundtrack of your life,” he says. 

A Family Affair

There’s also the powerful lure of nostalgia. Tallarico says the average video gamer is 35 years old, and 40 percent of his audience is female. So much for the stereotype that video games are the domain of teenaged boys. Two generations now have grown up on electronic fights, puzzles and quests, and many never  stopped. And now that Generation X has kids, video games have become an intergenerational past-time. 

“You’re playing for hundreds of hours sometimes, and that music becomes a part of you,” says Tallarico.  “When you see Mario up there and you hear the music to Zelda, it might take you back to when you were 10 or 12 years old, sitting in your old living room at your old house playing with your dad for the first time.”