Ode to Joystick: Video Game Tunes Go Classic

Ben Finckel, with his parents, plays his Nintendo DS before the start of the video game music concert.
Ben Finckel, with his parents, plays his Nintendo DS before the start of the video game music concert. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 5, 2006

You just can't leave the game at home, even when you've come to hear the 90-piece National Symphony Orchestra, backed by the Master Chorale of Washington, play the music of "Final Fantasy," "Super Mario Bros.," "Halo," "World of Warcraft," "The Legend of Zelda" . . .

"I swear, I'll turn it off when the concert starts," Ben Finckel said to his mom and dad. In typical 12-year-old fashion, he was multitasking: snacking on Goldfish crackers, chatting with a friend and playing "Tamagotchi Connection: Corner Shop" on his Nintendo DS.

The gamers, young and old, invaded Wolf Trap last night, their Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable consoles in hand. "Are they going to turn those off when the concert starts?" asked Vita Simon, a worried usher. "They're not our usual crowd here."

"Play! A Video Game Symphony" was a two-hour ode to the varied and still-obscure genre, drawing an unusually mixed crowd for the NSO. Kids dragged their parents, who were more than happy to oblige but came prepared with novels and flashlights. Parents brought their kids, who came with their Nintendos. Keith Mlynarski -- a self-described "video game music freak" -- flew all the way from Atlanta to attend his fourth "Play!" concert. He wore a blue Mega Man T-shirt and held a ticket for Row P, Seat 36, front orchestra. "I'm in heaven," said the 27-year-old.

When the theme music for "Halo" started, Filene Center was pin-drop silent. Out in the lawn, as the music for "Super Mario Bros." played, Kate Kraft said, "I am having flashbacks right now. Right when I was about 7."

Remember the "Mozart effect," the idea that classical music made you smarter? This is the video game music effect.

As the orchestra played -- the rock-and-roll-tinged number from the horror game "Silent Hill 2," the epic sound of the fantastical "World of Warcraft" -- giant projection screens showed scenes from the games.

The concert was an affirmation that games are evolving as an art form.

The brainchild of 29-year-old Jason Michael Paul, who says that he was the first kid on his block to own a Sega Genesis, "Play!" debuted in May, making stops in Chicago, Stockholm, Detroit and, most recently, Philadelphia. (Two years ago, Paul produced the first video game concert in the United States, "Dear Friends -- Music From 'Final Fantasy.' ") Paul and the show's conductor, Arnie Roth, have come up with a program that runs the gamut of game music, from "Sonic the Hedgehog" to "Metal Gear Solid." Roth, who's worked with the likes of Diana Ross, Charlotte Church and Art Garfunkel, is an outsider to games.

"If you're not a gamer, like me," Roth said, "and you're hearing this music for the first time, you'd think of it as cinematic. You'd think, this is the work of Hans Zimmer, James Horner, John Williams, the popular film composers. They're using similar techniques, same orchestrations, painting an audio landscape."

The history of game music dates back to the arcade days of the 1980s, with that nagging wocka-wocka-wocka of "Pac-Man." As in everything with games, technology led the way, and the monophonic, claustrophobic, altogether simple bloops of yesteryear's Atari games have transformed into the enveloping, more symphony-like sound of games for today's PlayStations. When you play a game from the "Final Fantasy" series on a big-screen TV -- or with headphones on your laptop -- there is no escaping the eclectic, utterly original sound of Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu, the elder statesman of video game music composition. The mere mention of his name last night drew a barrage of yelps and roars.

Music is an integral part of games. It signals changes in game levels, helps introduces characters, heightens the drama. As in Martin Scorsese's crime-ridden "Goodfellas," where the film's soundtrack comments on the unfolding scenes, the music in the violent urban game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" serves not just as backdrop but as a critical component of the gameplay. And many gamers consider the music for "Final Fantasy" -- available on iTunes -- to be the epitome, the peak, the summit. It's nearly operatic, in the Puccini sense, with love triangles, side stories and, of course, battle sequences. Every character has a leitmotif, a melody, and that sound has stayed more or less the same throughout the years, recognizable to longtime "Final Fantasy" fans.

Last night, as another "Final Fantasy" tune played, young Ben Finckel sat on the lawn enthralled, eyes pinned to the projection screen, arms folded, his Nintendo DS nowhere to be seen.

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