GDC 06: Music makes games go 'round

Video Game Live concert misses a few beats, but catches the essence of what games are supposed to be--fun.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--Friday marked the end of the 2006 Game Developers Conference, but some attendees had one more treat in store before the GDC closed its doors on 2006. Developers and fans alike gathered at the San Jose Civic Auditorium that night for an event filled with music from several games, in a special concert titled Video Games Live played by Symphony Silicon Valley.

Video game music is no stranger to the GDC, which devotes an entire lecture track to audio and hosts several panels and roundtables discussing the impact of music in games. Last year's GDC saw the "Dear Friends" concert kick off the conference, featuring music from the Final Fantasy franchise and in part conducted by Nobuo Uematsu, who composed much of the music from the series.

This year's concert was once again played before a sold-out audience, but it had an even more diverse focus on games. Hosted by game composer and event organizer Tommy Tallarico and conducted by co-organizer Jack Wall, the concert gathered together some of the most memorable game themes since the birth of the video game industry. Old classics like the main themes of Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda were played right alongside newer pieces like a medley from the Myst series and the Halo theme song.

Tallarico opened the event with an acknowledgment of the impact of the conference. "Tonight is a very special show, because across the street is the GDC, and I think half the video game industry is sitting right here in these seats." Then as the audience cheered, he jokingly added, "And barely any of them paid for the tickets."

The focus on games was evident even before the orchestra started playing. Concertgoers walked in through the auditorium's swinging front doors and were greeted by mascots Frogger and Sonic the Hedgehog in the lobby, posing for pictures with excited fans.

On either side of the costumed creatures were two separate competitions. One was for playing the rock-god rhythm game Guitar Heroes, where participants tried to get the highest score of the night in the game's most difficult mode. The winner of the rock-off received a limited-edition guitar for the game, signed by members of the Harmonix development team. The other was for best costume of the night, with an award given just before the concert began.

The performance got under way with a medley of classic themes, ranging the entire spectrum from arcade games like Frogger, Galaga, Outrun, Dragon's Lair, and Space Age, to old console games like Duck Hunt, Mike Tyson's Punch Out! and Ghosts 'n' Goblins. The audience applauded for the games it recognized, with the loudest showing of appreciation for classics like Tetris.

From there, the concert transitioned into different segments, sometimes showing a pretaped video clip from the composer or designer introducing his piece and at other times using the actual voice talents used to sing the original piece.

Even industry giants like Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid) and Koji Kondo (Zelda and Super Mario Brothers) contributed segments, with Kondo expressing amazement for the longevity of some of his music. "When I originally wrote the music for Super Mario Brothers, I never would have imagined that people would still want to hear it 20 years later."

The effort to include games in all aspects of the concert was visible throughout the performance, with many songs performed with cutscenes from the games projected onto a screen behind the orchestra and with a coordinated laser light show.

The organizers also chose to focus on what makes games unique--their interactive nature. After the intermission, two people randomly chosen from the audience played Frogger with the orchestra adjusting the music according to how well they were doing. "This is how really rich people play their video games, I guess," joked Tallarico, drawing a laugh from the audience, and a burst of applause.

The night had many other noteworthy moments, which covered several emotions. Here, in no particular order, are some of the highlights.

• Tallarico prefaced the Medal of Honor piece, saying, "Instead of showing actual game footage, we thought it would be cool and unique to play actual World War II footage." This choice led to a very somber mood throughout the piece, as news flashes documented the beginning of the war up to the final celebratory parades after victory and then ended with rows upon row of crosses in cemeteries. In the background, a haunting trumpet solo rose above the orchestra.

• The same idea was used with Kingdom Hearts, where instead of videos from the game, assorted clips from Disney movies were used, displaying each character that was used in Kingdom Hearts. The montage concluded with a shot from Steamboat Willy, the first cartoon starring Mickey Mouse.

• During the Metal Gear Solid performance, Solid Snake came on stage in costume, seen in silhouette. After he sneaked around on stage, search lights similar to the ones in the game caught him in their glare, and the audience laughed appreciatively as an exclamation mark appeared above his head, a clear reference to an in-game feature.

• Martin Leung, better known as the Video Game Pianist, performed a Final Fantasy medley, blending songs from many of the games in the Final Fantasy series. Selections included "To Zanarkand" from Final Fantasy X, "Aeris' Theme" and "One Winged Angel" from Final Fantasy VII, "Eyes on Me" from Final Fantasy VIII, "Terra's Theme" from Final Fantasy VI, and "Melodies of Life" from Final Fantasy IX. Though his performance wasn't flawless, he drew a standing ovation from the audience for his live solo performance.

In the end, the main strength of the concert was its entertainment, not its professional quality. The relaxed performance didn't go perfectly, with the orchestra badly missing the beginning of the Sonic segment, forcing the conductor to go back, something that is almost unheard of in professional symphonies. Various solos had mistakes, and some of the transitions were spotty at best. But these problems were only minor nuisances--the concert was fun.

Tallarico concluded the night with a look to the future. "The video game industry is growing massively right now, and we're always looking for talented people. Hopefully next year I'll see some of you over at the GDC. You can learn more in four days at GDC than four years of college." As the audience chuckled, he added, "I probably shouldn't have said that."

And then the audience filed out, with the notes of the main theme of Halo still echoing in their heads.

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