Hits and ‘Myst’: Game music takes the stage

January 25, 2008 at 3:28 am

Tim Barker

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

Diane Ceccarini doesn’t know a Tron from a Halo.

Yet on Saturday, she’ll join 26 other local musicians at the Fox Theatre for an orchestral concert based on the music of those and other video games. They’ll be playing some of the genre’s best-known tunes, including “One-Winged Angel” from “Final Fantasy,” “Cinematic Suite” from “World of Warcraft” and “Simple & Clean” from “Kingdom Hearts.”

None of them mean anything to the keyboardist, whose game play is limited to the occasional Internet freebie. “I’ve never even bought a video game,” Ceccarini said.

Yet this is an industry whose contribution to the world of music grows every year. Long gone are the days of the simple, hypnotically repetitive theme music of games like “Super Mario Brothers.” Today’s big-budget productions are accompanied by musical scores rivaling those found in motion pictures.

Saturday’s Video Games Live concert, which also features the 24-member Coventry Choir from Manchester United Methodist Church, is one more example of this evolution.

The show, owned by Mystical Stone Entertainment of Orange County, Calif., has been expanding rapidly since an initial stumble in 2005, when a successful debut was followed by numerous cancellations — including one in St. Louis — after promoters tried to grow too fast. The show rebounded last year with 29 performances.

Organizers, who rely on local musicians and choirs, are shooting for 60 concerts this year and 100 in 2009. With more than 125,000 tickets sold to date, they’ve played Spain, New Zealand, South Korea and have a March date at a bullfighting stadium in Mexico.

The concert features almost two dozen musical segments — accompanied by synchronized special effects and video — from popular games of recent years, including “Metal Gear Solid,” “Halo” and “Final Fantasy.” But it’s not just the new stuff.

“We give a nod to the classics,” said executive producer Tommy Tallarico, rattling off a list of old-school games, including “Pac-Man,” “Donkey Kong” and yes, the grandfather of them all, “Pong.”

Tallarico has written game music for nearly two decades, working on more than 275 titles, including “Prince of Persia,” “Disney’s Aladdin” and “Madden NFL.”

He remembers the dark, early days when it was a composer’s responsibility to fill a 45-second loop with catchy bleeps and bloops. That changed in the mid-’90s when game cartridges — with their limited storage space — were replaced by compact discs. Game developers, and their musical counterparts, suddenly had a lot more space to play with.

“You’re coming from a place where the music was just an afterthought,” said Gary Rudman, president of GTR Consulting, which does market research for game companies.

Some game makers were quick to embrace new opportunities. In 1996, for example, id Software hired Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails to write music for its hit “Quake.” But in recent years, a strong musical score has become more necessity than luxury. Gamers simply expect good music.

Developers have responded with a two-pronged approach, using both licensed and original songs.

“They are trying to make more of a movie soundtrack experience out of it,” said Libe Goad, editor of GameDaily.com.

Much of the original music tends to be instrumental in nature, similar to the underlying musical scores of motion pictures. They’re often more subtle and used to establish tone throughout the plot.

Licensed music typically represents a more expensive route, especially if developers use songs from top artists. Among the best known in this group are the “Grand Theft Auto,” “Tony Hawk” and “Madden NFL” franchises.

It’s not uncommon for popular bands to approach game developers, said Steve Schnur, worldwide head of music for Electronic Arts, which produces “Madden.”

Such was the case for the 2005 installment of “Madden NFL,” which featured the first public release of the title track of Green Day’s Grammy-winning album “American Idiot.” But Schnur said Electronic Arts also considers itself a platform for young people to find music from little-known bands, much in the way that MTV was before it moved away from pure music programming.

“We have become, I don’t like to say the next MTV, but dare I say, the new generation’s MTV,” Schnur said. “Let this be the place where they discover what’s new.”

With such a heavy emphasis on the music, it follows that the soundtracks of many popular games can be purchased from music stores and online retailers like Amazon.com, or downloaded from the iTunes Store.

But video game-based soundtracks have a long way to go before they rival the commercial success of those from movies. The top movie albums — “The Bodyguard,” “Saturday Night Fever” and “Purple Rain,” for example — have sales figures in the millions, while top game soundtracks rarely top 100,000.

One of the most significant obstacles is the fact that movies, in general, have larger audiences. That disparity is one of the reasons Goad and others don’t believe game-based music will ever mount a serious challenge.

“You don’t see a lot of average gamers going out and picking up video game soundtracks,” she said. “That’s really for the hard-core gamers.”

Gamers like Geoff Wilson, a computer network technician at the Fox, whose own music collection includes almost a dozen game soundtracks.

Like a lot of gamers, Wilson considers music to be an integral piece of the experience, not unlike the way people associate music with movies. Think, for example, of the foreboding theme music of “Jaws.”

“It goes back to an emotional connection playing the game,” Wilson said. “It sets the whole mood.”

But while game music might appeal most strongly to gamers, the producer of Video Games Live says it is only a matter of time before a game manages a major breakthrough.

“We just haven’t had that one where everyone — whether you are a gamer or not — has to go out and get it,” Tallarico said.

 

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