I recently had the chance to make one of my life’s goals come true. But I’m getting ahead of myself! It all started with an innocuous visit to video game news blog Kotaku, where an article had just been posted talking about the concert tour Video Games Live’s 2008 tour dates. Now, usually I’d just sigh and scroll onward, cursing my backwards Midwest existence. I don’t know what strange emotion came over me (I’m told it’s called “hope”) , but I decided to read the details of the article. To my utter shock, one of the first stops would be in St. Louis! That’s like a few hours away from me! And Film Walrus lives there! HOLY SHIT!!! My excitement was tempered by the fact that the concert date was less than two weeks away, and preparations must begin to be made. I scribbled off a panicked e-mail to Film Walrus from my work computer and after a few tense days of e-mail tag, the details had been worked out and all I had to do was make the drive and somehow keep from exploding in excitement at getting to hear all my favorite video game tunes performed live! By a symphony! That I’m not imagining!!
After making the drive to St. Louis, I hung out with Film Walrus and his girlfriend and watched Glen… Or Glenda?, the legendarily awful Ed Wood “expose” of the transvestite lifestyle. Long story short: It’s a hilariously awful, misinformed piece of B-trash that everyone should see
at least once, if only for a morphine-addled Bela Lugosi mumbling wide-eyed about big green dragons that eat up little boys. Then one of Film Walrus’ friends came over and we all played a delightful board game called Princes of Florence, a European board game to see who can become the most extravagant fop in all of Italy. I could not attain such elegance. :(
Finally, Film Walrus’ little brother came to pick us up in his van and we all went to the GORGEOUS Fox Theater where the concert was taking place. The architecture was ridiculously lavish. I’ve never been in a nicer venue. (But then again, this is, like, the third or fourth concert I’ve been to. Ever.) Apparently it’s one of six theaters built from the same mold and three of the others had to be decommissioned due to how ludicrous it is to upkeep such a grand monstrosity of baroque details. When we got there a little before showtime, the pre-show convention was in full swing, but even though the attendance was through the roof, Video Games Live’s attractions were rather anemic. There was basically one Guitar Hero station, one Space Invaders cabinet, a cosplay sign-up sheet, a big semi-circle of tables that was a makeshift merchandise shop and some people aggressively handing out flyers for arcade cabinets. I attempted to see if the shop was selling any CDs of the concert, but the only CDs I saw were fairly commonly-distributed game soundtracks like Halo and Fable and Mass Effect. And although I’d been looking for an opportunity to buy Fable‘s and Mass Effect‘s music, the CDs were labeled at $20 a pop. Bullshit.
So finally we got to our seats high above the stage and the show begins and we greet our conductor. I don’t know who it is, some video game composer. I’ll call him Gordon Featherbottom. Gordon Featherbottom started by trying to get us pumped up by raising his arms, turning up the house lights and getting everyone to scream and applaud. It worked the first two times. Then he went on doing it. On and on. It was endearingly needy! The music started with some non-video game specific pieces set to classic games like Pong, Asteroids, Dragon’s Lair, Frogger, etc. It suitably got us revved up. Then our MC, TOMMY TALLARICO, showed up.
Let me tell you something about TOMMY TALLARICO. He is a video game composer largely famous for his work on Earthworm Jim. He has a legendary ego. This becomes extremely apparent when you put him on a stage in front of thousands of screaming fans. But his special shallow charm has yet to manifest. He explains the show to us and apologizes for taking three years to finally schedule a show in the Midwest. We cheer, happiness, etc.
BUT THEN! Excitement strikes as the unmistakable sound of the Metal Gear Solid codec beeps on the theater’s sound system. It’s Solid Snake! And he’s here to introduce Hideo Kojima, appearing via pre-recorded message! They do this in front of almost every musical piece, and it’s always the creator showing his appreciation for being chosen to participate and his love for videogame music. Hideo gives his spiel and a SOARING rendition of the Metal Gear Solid theme begins, complete with video of various parts of the series playing on the screen behind the symphony. It’s incredibly lovely and charming, even when a balaclava-clad soldier comes out to check a mysterious cardboard box, exclamation point and all. Yeah, it’s hokey and stagey and not exactly dignified, but it was entertaining, dammit.
Now, since this was a largely aural experience, unfortunately I can’t put you there in my place to experience it. The videos are out there on Youtube if you look hard enough (hell, TOMMY TALLARICO himself said he was fine with it), so instead I’ll be focusing on some of the highlight, oddball moments that happened therein. Most of them having to do with a certain self-aggrandizing Italian-American musician.
Before the concert even began, there was a cosplay contest. We all had rolled our eyes. This was going to be an abomination, wholesale. And while there were quite a few lackluster creations on display on the general floor, they had done a fairly good job sifting through the human debris to get the people that put actual style and effort into their costumes put on stage. Some of the highlights included a Naked Snake, Pirahna Plant (complete with warp tube base), and a couple dressed up as Weighted Companion Cube and the protagonist from Portal. Now, they had some douchebag doing the judging. Well, maybe that’s harsh. He seemed affable enough. But he had no concept whatsoever of what was current or popular in video games. Instead of having some sort of panel choose the finalists, he just picked them on the spot. He said, “Hey, I think I know who you guys are supposed to be!” he said to a properly costumed, but uninspired, Mario Bros. who were chosen as finalists. The rest of the finalists were completely forgettable (meaning I forgot them) except for one little boy. When asked who he dressed up as, he confidently replied, “I’m BOWSER.” Now, I wish I could put little flames around the word Bowser so you could see exactly how awesome and in-character this kid sounded. He stole our hearts almost as much as the Portal duo, who were getting a lot of sympathy and outraged cries from the audience. Anyways, the contest continued on with a really lame measure of who won: audience claps. Lame, lame, lame. Maybe next time, Portal. :(
Another banner moment was during a small diversion from the music, when TOMMY TALLARICO picked someone out of the crowd to play a game of Space Invaders. He picked a real big, tall, overweight guy who looked happy as a clam to have his moment in the sun. TOMMY TALLARICO shattered it by asking him in a somewhat sarcastic voice when he got up on stage, “Geez, what’re they feedin’ you around here?” My friends and I looked at each other half-amused, half-flabbergasted at this. The poor schmuck took the not-so-gentle ribbing in stride, however. But then the other shoe dropped. He not only had to play Space Invaders, but he wouldn’t be using a controller to move. His movements onstage would be tracked somehow, so he’d have to literally run back and forth in order to move his character. This guy must’ve been floored by the situation by now. It must’ve been a dream of his to get to be up there in front of a huge crowd and play a video game for fame and prizes, but it was turning into a nightmare: being ridiculed about his weight and having to control a video game with athletics in front of a concert hall full of witnesses. Ouch. On top of that, he was told to wear this promotional t-shirt which was seventy sizes too small (we guessed this is what would be tracking the movement) and the orchestra started to play the music to the gameplay live. He had 90 seconds to beat the entire wave of invaders. He failed to. We were all there with him in spirit, though, and he got a bag full of Tokyopop manga (?!) for his trauma.
Another amusing vignette happened when they got some people up to play Frogger, backed by a live, interactive score from the symphony. So there’s this older guy (probably there with his son?) who BEGS to get to go up, so they choose him. The other player’s a woman. Now, the guy goes first. He has absolutely no idea what he’s doing, it seems. He almost instantly uses up all of his lives. People are roaring in laughter because this guy just made the biggest dunce out of himself. So of course everyone is on pins and needles: will the woman fuck it up and set back girl games by about a thousand years? No! She not only plays well, but she actually beats the level! The crowd goes wild! The ghost of Susan B. Anthony descends onto the stage and places a crown upon her head! Well, not quite, but you get the picture. Once again they both leave with bags full of Tokyopop. I’d ask for some cash, instead.
But by far, the most outrageous part of the concert was TOMMY TALLARICO himself. This man… I’m not sure egotistical is a word strong enough. I have a feeling TOMMY TALLARICO‘s version of the world is nothing but swimsuit models and explosions and Q*Bert. He’s a legend in his own mind. He is what happens to a man who has his every dream fulfilled. He has nothing to prove to anyone, in his opinion. His persona was just so… GRANDIOSE. I think he’s waited his entire life to be on a stage surrounded by a sold-out audience screaming at him. And he has a completely bizarre charisma and fame in the video game world. Guys were yelling about how much he rocked. Women screamed about how they wanted his baby… literally. And he wasn’t even fucking performing, aside from a few songs at the end. Oh, and let me tell you about that. Something that sums up his character so much is when he looked over at a stagehand and said, “Dude, could you get me my Spider-Man guitar?” And he totally meant it. He has a Spider-Man guitar. A Spider-Man guitar that he wails on like he thinks he’s Van Halen while a guy in a poorly modded paintball outfit designed to resemble Master Chief runs out waving a flag and the frat guy a few rows in front of us howls like he just achieved his first orgasm. Oh, and he got the celloist to to headbang. While she was playing. And she had long hair, too! Film Walrus and I were just waiting for tragedy to strike.
But, man, that Halo suite went on FOREVER. And the audience was so ANNOYING. There’s a point where enthusiasm turns into fratboy douchebaggery, and that’s when I can’t hear the fucking music. And the encore was disappointing. Especially the way TOMMY TALLARICO hyped it up right before revealing what it was. “THE COMPANY: SQUARESOFT!” Thunderous applause and Film Walrus and I look at each other excitedly. “THE COMPOSER: NOBUO UEMATSU!” Instantly our smiles turn to frowns and I groan at having to listen to another one of his middle-of-the-road compositions. Then the bombshell hits. “THE SONG: ONE! WINGED! ANGELLLL!!!!!!!!!!” The place erupts like someone suddenly yelled “FREE PUSSY IN THE LOBBY.” My face is stone. Maaaaaan. Aren’t there ENOUGH orchestrations of that song? What about the ending theme from FFVI? Or, SHIT, FFVIII?!!?!?!? Ugh. I hate you, video gaming populace.
Overall, though, the experience was top-notch. Some really great stuff was played. My personal favorite was the Sonic the Hedgehog suite. But I’d have to say objectively that the best stuff they played was Civilization IV. They even got a really good lead singer out to belt out the solo parts in Swahili. And judging by some of the tapings of other live performances of it, we dodged a bullet in that our singer didn’t trip over the words. Looking through some of the recordings of it just now, it must be one of their most difficult pieces to perform, since it’s hardly ever consistent. The most forgettable pieces were either Medal of Honor or Myst. Neither really sticks in my mind. Medal of Honor was doubly lame for the WWII footage played during it. Yeah, it was respectful and everything… but lame and boring.
The most fantastically entertaining parts of the show, though, were provided by the cult favorite, The Video Game Pianist. Not only could this guy make a fine living out of being a regular ol’ pianist, but he has decided to grace fandom with his talent by specializing in video game tunes! Now, you may be thinking “What’s so special about that?!” Well, for one he plays blindfolded. Which is a neat trick, but a lot of pianists can do that. But this guy also works in the actual fucking sound effects, like the coins and 1ups and even the fucking pause jingle from Mario in real time. He also did a real good, inclusive Final Fantasy medley, but… okay, it just irks me when people don’t include FFXII, all right? So FUCKING sue me.
And afterwards we all went to a greasy diner with a bathroom that was somehow physically DYING, and retired to Film Walrus apartment where I played a lovely role playing card game that I again lost by a humiliating margin. All in all a fun time was had and I’d totally go to another Video Games Live concert if the set was revised a bit. I don’t know if I want more or less TOMMY TALLARICO, though.