Video Games Live: A Truly Unique Experience

VGLI think of myself as something of a Renaissance man. I have a lot of diverse and weird interests, but one of my biggest passions is music. So, naturally, when two of my friends invited me to a concert which combined my interest in video games with my passion for music, I jumped at the chance to go. I first saw Video Games Live (VGL) at the Strathmore in Maryland back in April 2012, and it was an experience like no other.

At its core, Video Games Live consists of a touring band that teams up with local symphony orchestras and performs a two and a half-hour extravaganza. The concerts incorporate many different genres of both music and video games into their repertoire. The setlists include modern games such as Civilization IV, World of Warcraft, God of War, and Kingdom Hearts, which you’d expect given that these games have professionally-recorded and often orchestral soundtracks. But the concert also includes classic games from the eras where “video game music” consisted of beeps, bloops, or 8- or 16-bit sounds. The concert started with a “classic games medley,” where the first notes played were the beeps of Pong. Other classic game series that VGL paid homage to are Metroid (YES!), Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, Street Fighter, and Portal.

VGL is the brainchild of video game composer Tommy Tallarico (fun fact: Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, is Tallarico’s cousin), who teamed up with conductor Jack Wall to create the show. Tallarico wanted to combine the elegance of a symphony, the energy of a rock concert, and the interactivity of video games. VGL does this successfully, as it is less of a concert and more of an event. The music is only one part of the experience. A fantastic light show surrounds the audience, and scenes from the games whose music is being performed are projected on a giant screen at the front of the stage. The screen would also show little interludes between songs, with videos such as a live-action rendition of Pac-Man, or “the ten worst video game titles.” There are even chances for audience participation. During the concert I saw, two audience members were invited to play Frogger on the big screen while the orchestra accompanied them, and tailored their music to what was happening in the game. VGL also has an extensive pre-show, where concertgoers can play video games on sophisticated screens, or game companies can advertise. There are also contests such as a Guitar Hero contest (where the winner gets to perform with the orchestra, trying to obtain a target score), and a costume contest.

VGL creator Tommy Tallarico
VGL creator Tommy Tallarico

Why am I going on and on about a concert I attended four years ago? Well, mostly because I saw VGL for a second time on February 20 in Richmond. The Richmond Center Stage was nowhere as big of a venue as the Strathmore, so they cut out most of the preshow and didn’t do a lot of the more interactive elements (this could also be due to the fact that the show had previously been postponed due to inclement weather).

At the second show, though, what struck me most was the audience. The great thing about VGL is that even if you’ve never played any of the games (which, in my case, is true of a good amount of the games that I listed above), you can still enjoy the show. The Richmond show had a wide range of audience members, from my parents down to little kids.   Some of the attendees were the usual symphony crowd, while several others probably would have been much more likely to attend an event like Dragon Con than to ever be caught dead at the symphony. Tallarico and the show’s creators do a good job of attracting this wide audience. For instance, they showed classic Disney scenes set to their respective characters’ music from Kingdom Hearts, which the everyone from the hardcore gamers down to the senior citizens cheered. VGL is definitely a way for the symphony to stay mainstream for a new generation, and to help people gain appreciation for video games as an art form.

If you have any interest in video games or music, I highly recommend you check out a show. If you can’t, VGL sells a DVD and has recorded four albums. A fifth, Level 5, is currently accepting pledges on Kickstarter for its recording and the filming of a “making of” documentary video. It has already funded, but is attempting to reach some stretch goals to add additional tracks to the album. Take a listen to some of their work and if you like what you hear, consider shooting them some money. They offer a ridiculous amount of rewards at every donation level, so that should be some additional motivation, if you need it.

This is just a small sampling of the multifaceted VGL experience, as the orchestra plays along with scenes from Tetris.
This is just a small sampling of the multifaceted VGL experience, as the orchestra plays along with scenes from Tetris.
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