Video Games Live is a concert event put on by Tommy Tallarico. Started around 5 years ago, they have been perpetually touring putting on a show devoted to the love of Video Games and their music. The show makes use of local orchestral talent, lighting and visual effects, and video footage of the games and mixes it all together under the guidance of a talented composer such as this year’s Christopher Tin. And just to make things more interesting, the show also features talents such as Laura “Flute Link” Intravia and, of course, Tommy himself.
The really really unique and fantastic thing about VGL is that it manages to bring together and appeal to all gamers and even to non-gamers. Let’s face it, we gamers aren’t the most forgiving or friendly of communities. We’re, in a lot of ways, worse than sports fans. Our community is so polarized and divided that console preference has been known to break up friendships. Genre wars have been known to lead to aggression, flaming, trolling, and even outright violence… yet we all get together and appreciate each other’s tastes and musics at an event like VGL. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t care for Skyrim as a game or that I hated Halo. It doesn’t matter that the person next to me might hate Final Fantasy or Zelda. Everyone loves the music. All of the music. And it brings us together and helps to bind us as one community. And it helps to show people who aren’t already a part of this community that there really is a lot to offer within it.
Winnipeg is apparently not large enough to get any of the real pre-show elements, so all we pretty-much have is a Guitar Hero contest, a booth selling VGL paraphenalia, and a place to mingle with fellow Video Game fans and enjoy the cosplay. I did decide to partake of the paraphenalia and I bought the VGL ‘Level 2’ cd, which is actually a very impressive collection that I thoroughly recommend. But aside from that, the pre-show isn’t really much of a festival, more of a ‘wide open hallway with a bunch of people and some cosplayers’. Kind of disappointing, but that’s what we get. Although, Winnipegers know how to deal with free time, seeing how much time we have in the Winter to do nothing…
And just what do Winnipegers do with their free time, you ask? Cosplay! And this is the real attraction of the pre-show, at least here it is. There was a wide variety of interesting cosplays hailing from gaming, television, and anime. There were a wide array of lovely young ladies cosplaying as characters from the seductive Catherine to the refined and beautiful Princess Zelda, from the iconic Sailor Moon to the more esoteric Juliet Starling. On the other side, we had men dressed up as everything from Kingdom Hearts’s Sora to Final Fantasy 13’s Snow, from a number of different Links to even a pair of Bananas. But, probably my favourite cosplays this year were the ones worn by the younger members of the audience. This year, the kids were not afraid to be a part of the cosplay action, with quite a few younger cosplayers dressed up as everything from Master Chief to a Samurai.
Which leads us right into our cosplay contest… the main attraction of the pre-show. This year was a particularly fruitful year from the cosplay gods. We had more costumes than I’ve ever seen at VGL before, and even Tommy commented that it might be the most he’s ever seen. An impressive showing. After much applauding and cheering, the winning costumes were held by two kids dressed as Mario and Luigi, edging past Solid Snake and his box for the victory.
Highlights of the Show
Now we move onto the show itself. I wanted to start off with the good – my highlights of the show. This year’s setlist was incredible, including a variety of pieces I’d never heard at VGL before. Featuring pieces from games spanning across many genres and nearly all age groups. Family friendly titles like the independent Journey and the ubiquitous Pokemon were there, along with more mature games like Skyrim and Castlevania. Since every show has a different setlist, I won’t dwell too much on that here. But suffice it to say that with only one exception, every piece I heard at this event was absolutely fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire event. Picking a favourite would be nearly impossible with such fantastic pieces, however I have managed to narrow it down to 4: Journey, Chrono Trigger/Cross, The Tetris Opera, and Aerith’s Theme.
Yes, a Tetris Opera. They took a Russian folk song an adapted it to the tune and theme of Tetris, and it just worked perfectly. I was blown away by how gorgeous it was, and by how well it worked. I will never look at Tetris’ music the same way. Aside from that, we found out that the well known ‘Aerith’s Theme’ from Final Fantasy 7 was featured in the Top 100 Classical Music Hall of Fame lists in the UK as per Classic FM at #16 – the first time a video game track has ever featured. A fantastic feat, and an exciting piece of news and information for gaming fans to receive. Hearing Aerith’s Theme performed live like that was so moving I was nearly brought to tears.
While the Orchestra was smaller than many would’ve liked as they didn’t feature the entire Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, I felt that they did an incredible job of performing the pieces and really helped to make this such a memorable event. The choir they picked(and I’m really sorry, but I didn’t catch which choir it was) did a fantastic job at what sounded like some very difficult pieces. Many props as well must be given to Christopher Tin for doing such a fine job as conductor for this.
They also had, as always, their Guitar Hero contest winner get on stage and play along with the Orchestra and Tommy himself. This year it was incredible, the guy got a 99% score on expert, and it was fantastic to watch. Tommy had challenged him to get 450k score on hard but he refused and told them he’d do it on expert. He ended up absolutely demolishing the goal, getting over 500k points. In addition to that, they also had some people come up to play Smash Brothers Melee which was really cool but leads us quite nicely into my negatives…
And on the Flipside
Now, as much as I truly and utterly loved the event… there were still quite a few things that really bothered me. Probably the biggest offense was how poorly they made use of the side screens. The spot I was seated the only screen I could see was the leftmost one. Probably 90% of what I saw a closeup of Christopher Tin conducting. It was so bad that the people in the 3 rows behind me either left entirely or went to claim unused seats elsewhere. Just a horrible misuse of resources. If you have 3 screens, alternate what you show on them or at least use all 3 for gaming footage some of the time. I don’t mind seeing footage of Tommy or Laura or Christopher on screen occasionally – especially during the segments where they couldn’t show game footage – but having the screen virtually never show anything but that was just unacceptable. My wife and I basically missed out on 1/3 of the show because we couldn’t see any of the game footage. Really disappointed. And, what’s more, they did the same thing during the mini-game portions, so we couldn’t see any of the Smash Bro’s game or anything except the score on the Guitar Hero portion.
The next two major problems I had were related to Laura Intravia. Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that she’s a lovely and incredibly talented woman. She has a great singing voice, a good range, and is a very skillful flutist. But there is a point at which even a good thing can cease to be such. If I eat too much chocolate, I’m going to get sick, get cavities, etc. Well, there is a limit to how much of Laura we need in the concert. I thoroughly enjoyed most of the pieces she performed, but by the end of it I’d seen her perform so many times, and in so many different outfits(come on, do you really need to change outfits EVERY TIME you leave the stage?) that I was starting to get sick of her. The other critique relating to her is simple: Not every piece of music works on every instrument. Mario + Flute = BAD. It did not work. While she was a part of several of the highlights of the show for me… and I was very pleased with the show overall… the Mario flute piece was awful. Utterly and completely awful. It was shrill, and almost painful to listen to. Not a good mix. Definitely the lowpoint of the show.
My last points here are a little more minor. First, after having listened to Baba Yetu in it’s original form with a duet performing, hearing it performed by a soloist without that vocal counterpart just didn’t feel right. It lacks a certain heart… I wish you’d found a male soloist to perform alongside Laura for this piece to provide that much needed contrast. Secondly, and this relates to what I was saying at the start… Still Alive is not the right encore. It just didn’t work. Why? Because while it is video game music, there’s nothing particularly impressive musically about it. The entire appeal of it is a series of inside jokes and humour. If you’re not on the inside, you won’t get the references. I didn’t play Portal, but I knew the story of it and understood the references because I’ve talked to people about it. My wife on the other hand was just confused. She didn’t understand any of what was going on because she doesn’t know who GladOS is, she doesn’t know what Black Mesa is, and she didn’t get the whole point that it was a computer singing. “Still Alive” ended on a very polarizing note by making anyone who didn’t get the references feel excluded from the crowd and that is not a good way to end an event.
I really, really enjoyed my VGL experience. Sure they can still improve in some ways, and there were a few low points, but overall I feel as though VGL was a fantastic concert to attend and a truly phenomenal event. Don’t let my negatives scare you away, I promise you’ll have a good time at VGL. It’s a fantastic event, and a unique experience celebrating the beauty and art to be found in the music of Video Games. And it’s definitely the type of event you can bring a young child to – heck sitting right next to us were a guy and his son. This is an event I hope comes back to Winnipeg again, and if you’re reading this from somewhere else – don’t wait – go buy tickets to the show nearest to you and attend. I try to avoid making recommendations, but this event is one thing that I can and will recommend for everyone.
Note: I have some video footage, but I’m not sure how well it turned out yet. I also have nearly a hundred pictures I have to sort through to find the right ones. With Comic Con starting tomorrow, I don’t think it’s likely I’m going to be able to get the pictures touched up and sorted through to find the good ones to post in my gallery until next week. If the video footage turned out well, I’ll be posting that on Youtube and linking to the website. Will likely not be until next week either.