“Some people say video games are for kids,” said host Tommy Tallarico onstage Saturday night at Orchestra Hall. A pudgy man in front of me raised his fist and bellowed a response. “Not in my store!”
Tallarico’s next comment was a more pointed reference to the allegation most persistently and damagingly directed against interactive digital entertainment. “Some people say video games cause violence,” he said. The crowd roared an angry response. “And,” quipped Tallarico, pointing at a man in the front row, “that guy wants to kill anyone who says that!”
There was a distinct storming-the-Bastille quality to Saturday night’s sold-out program. It was the first Minnesota appearance of the five-year-old Video Games Live touring production, in which local orchestras play the music of bestselling games while clips from the games play on a screen behind the orchestra. Each performance includes, said Tallarico onstage, about 18 segments from the 30-plus he’s developed with conductor (and Video Games Live co-creator) Jack Wall. On Saturday, the highly amplified Minnesota Orchestra played music from games including Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, World of Warcraft, Castlevania, Halo, and Final Fantasy.
For a slickly-produced touring show, Video Games Live feels surprisingly fresh; it has a cracklingly anarchic feel, and not just because of the frisson resulting from an ensemble that represents one of the (albeit crumbling) pillars of “high culture” playing music from one of the more stigmatized corners of popular culture. “Video games are the entertainment of choice of the 21st century,” said Tallarico, but what makes Video Games Live so ridiculously entertaining is the kind of timelessly unapologetic showmanship that characterized 19th century vaudeville.
It might have been enough for the orchestra to simply play the games’ music, but that’s just the tip of the Video Games Live iceberg. There’s a sound and light show complete with smoke cannons and—count ’em—four disco balls; there’s a live Skype chat with Ralph Baer, inventor of a pioneering Pong-like video game; and there are characters in costume who jump across the stage. (Some audience members got in the act as well.) Martin Leung, a pianist who’s become a YouTube celebrity for his blindfolded performance of music from Super Mario Bros., appears onstage to repeat his famous trick and to play a medley of music from other games.
Most entertainingly, there are two interactive segments. In the first, a randomly-chosen audience member who happened to be my fellow Freaky Deeky cast member Caitlin Kittenface (that’s her name on Facebook, anyway) played Space Invaders by running back and forth across the stage and punching a button to fire at the descending aliens—she didn’t get them all in time to win the prize, but she explained to me later that the conductor’s height made it difficult to see the screen. In the second, a boy who had won a pre-show Guitar Hero competition took the stage to play Van Halen’s “Jump,” nailing it so handily that he threw in a few rock-star jumps just because he could.
As for the music itself—well. I do appreciate that video-game composition is rapidly rising to the level of film composition in sophistication and ambition, with the added twist that video game composers need to create modular scores to accomodate any possible sequence of events, and that like composers of film scores, video game composers are becoming marquee figures with dedicated fans of their work. At least as compiled, arranged, and performed in Video Games Live, though, the music almost exclusively trades in the ripest excesses of the late Romantic and post-Romantic era—as though Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Carl Orff all dropped E, did a couple of vodka-Red-Bulls, and had a sweaty threesome at the Burnsville FantaSuites.
But comparing The Legend of Zelda to The Magic Flute—or even Dances With Wolves—is not really the point of Video Games Live. Tallarico and Wall clearly understand that the excitement of Video Games Live lies in its open invitation for people who have spent untold hours with, and become emotionally involved in, video games (“I’ve literally cried playing this game,” my 25-year-old brother told me while the orchestra played music from Metal Gear Solid) to come together by the thousands to share an experience that otherwise is shared by only as many people as one can fit in a living room.
The crowd was certainly feeling the love. Tallarico encouraged us to clap and cheer, and with no stated prohibition on recording or photography, many patrons recorded parts of the show. Sci-fi great—and local resident—Neil Gaiman was in the audience, and when introduced by Tallarico, not only did he stand and wave, he even offered a hug to a fan (Caitlin again, having a big night) who ran up to shake his hand.
At one point, Tallarico invited everyone to hold their cell phones or hand-held video game systems aloft, and though that’s now a commonplace occurrence at concerts, in that particular context the sea of glowing screens made an unusually strong impact. From childhood, nearly every American now carries in his or her pocket at all times a device that is, in addition to other things, a video game system. The video game industry is now more lucrative than either the movie industry or the music industry individually, and in time it may top them both collectively. You don’t play video games? You mean you don’t yet. The revolution won’t be televised—it will be played.