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Play Myst for Me

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At the VIP reception after the Video Games Live concert at the Hollywood Bowl, some of the industry's hottest designers and composers still couldn't quite believe they had just heard the full Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra play the theme music from Myst and Halo and Tron. Oh, yes, they did. Plus the scores for Frogger and Donkey Kong. Backed by a choir.

The consensus on the terrace: It was weird but wonderful. And showed how the video game industry continues to evolve, not only as an entertainment sector offering players the chance to blast away with death rays but also as art. Video Games Live will now embark on a 22-city tour, performed by different orchestras, with a stop in the Washington area on Aug. 19 at Nissan Pavilion.

Symphonies doing "pops" performances have long made a summer staple out of the commercial compositions written for the movies. (Oscar winner John Williams's score for "Star Wars" is a Fourth of July favorite now.) But Wednesday night's well-attended show at the Hollywood Bowl appears to be the first concert tour to celebrate the music that accompanies the video games, and while it might not be Ludwig van Beethoven, the works have undeniably grown in sophistication since the olden days of arcade game soundtracks composed mostly of blurps and boings. "What impresses me is how the video game has grown up," says Stan Lee, co-creator of the comic book characters Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. "The story lines. And the music. Well, here we are, aren't we? At a concert playing video game music. Who would have predicted it?"

And a concert, we might add, that hosted a costume contest. The winner? Twenty-four-year-old Kevin Faubert of Los Angeles, a video game tester (yes, mom and dad, there is such a job) who says he spent more than 500 hours constructing his retro jetpack for his character The Fury from the game Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

The development of high-end games can now cost as much as a mainstream, studio-backed movie, says Ted Price, the president of Insomniac Games, developer of Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet & Clank. "And we've learned that the musical component is a very important part of the experience of the game, and so we spend a lot more time -- and money -- working on that."

Tim Larkin, who wrote the score for Myst, explains that the music in a game plays a similar role to the soundtrack of a movie: It's there to heighten and guide emotion, and signal scene changes (i.e., preparing for battle vs. actual battle). As the player advances through a game, the program's artificial intelligence software selects music appropriate for the action on the screen.

A cheap score could be done for $15,000, says Larkin, who got his start in the commercial music business by writing jingles for Chevron and Hershey's. But many game publishers, he says, now pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a composition, which could include -- depending on the complexity and skill levels of the game -- as much as four or five hours of original music, recorded not only by a composer sitting at a computer but also with studio musicians and singers. "The only real limit for the music is disk storage space," Larkin says.

At Video Games Live, the orchestra and the John Alexander chorus performed beneath a jumbo screen, which during the concert flashed scenes from the game whose themes were being played by the musicians in their white jackets and dresses. So there you had conductor Mark Watters waving his baton, while above his head the animated, wasp-waisted, top-heavy Lara Croft from Tomb Raider was attacked by creatures that looked like hounds from hell.

The audience obviously was composed of a lot of serious gamers, and they dug it and cheered when their favorites, like God of War, Headhunter and Metal Gear Solid, took their turn in the lineup. They went nuts for the finale, which featured composer Marty O'Donnell's rather elegant work from Halo. The concert was also attended by a sizable population of kids and teens, accompanied by parental units, and both sets seemed to have a swell time.

Overall, the compositions often sounded vaguely similar, alternately like Enya or Wagner. Either new-age-y, spooky, ethereal mellow, heavy on the string sections, or all-out mortal combat, with kettle drums beating like a racing heart and the brass players trumpeting the hunt. From the choir there was lots of aaaaa-hhhaaa Gregorian monk-type chanting in Latinesque gobbledygook.

During the show, two audience members, selected by ticket numbers, were brought to the stage to play and compete on the classic game Frogger, accompanied by the orchestra. The mom-type confessed she "had never played a video game in my life," at which point the audience booed. With the crowd following along on the jumbo screen, she scored a dismal 170 points. Next up, a 13-year-old who was introduced as "Ben from L.A." From the crowd: "Goooo Ben!" He killed. Something like 1,900 points.

Video Games Live is the brainchild of composers Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall. "Tommy and I noticed that the music in the games just kept getting better and better," says Wall, who was a producer for rock acts David Byrne and Peter Gabriel before he switched over and wrote themes for the Myst and Splinter Cell series. "And we started to see that people who played the games were really paying attention to the music, and that they were on the Internet or wherever asking where they could get ahold of a CD of the game soundtracks," which Wall described as "radio for the 21st century." So they decided to gather together the best work and take it on a national tour.

Wall says, "So it was just incredible for the audience, I think, to see their games come to life in a whole different way." So, play on, Sonic the Hedgehog and Earthworm Jim, play on.

By William Booth
Washington Post

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