The High Score: Video Game Music and The Symphony


A Video Game Live Performance. Photo courtesy of Tommy Tallarico.

Written By: Jennifer Smith

Perhaps one of the most recognizable musical phrases in the world, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 starts with a simple but distinctive motif. From disco tributes to a nod in The Simpsons, the pervasive opening has been referenced countless times in popular culture since its premiere in 1808.

Although Super Mario Bros. has only been on the scene since 1985, the first six notes of the calypso-inspired theme by Koji Kondo might be just as recognizable, according to video game composer Tommy Tallarico, whose past credits include such games as Prince of Persia, the Mortal Kombat trilogy, Pac-Man World, and Tony Hawk Pro Skater.

Tallarico recently traveled to Washington D.C. to take part in an exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, called “The Art of Video Games,” which examines the niche video games have carved out in fine art and popular culture alike.

It just goes to show how far video games have come when a place like the Smithsonian is even recognizing it, says Tallarico.

“People are going to be humming the Mario brothers’ theme a hundred years from now,” he continues. “It’s like Beethoven’s 9th. Not in the same style, of course.”

In short measure, ever-evolving technology has transformed video game scores from a few monophonic voices to full scores featuring sweeping symphonic arrangements. As interest in video game music began to crescendo, Tallarico developed a concert series called Video Games Live along with co-creator Jack Wall as an ode to how those classic tunes have embedded themselves into our culture.

Official logo for Video Games Live.

“Video game music becomes a soundtrack of your life,” Tallarico says. “ When you’re playing that character, you’re making the decisions. [Video game music] isn’t background music or incidental music, like they call it in films. I like to call it foreground music. We drive the action because games are about interactivity.”

Taking a cue from the interactive aspects of gameplay, Video Games Live pairs some of the gaming world’s most beloved tunes with a full symphony orchestra and choir, adding in video and social elements to mirror the feel of playing a game.

For example, a Video Games Live performance might pick an audience member to come on stage and control a character on a screen through their motions while the orchestra plays along. Based on how the “character” plays the game, the orchestra changes the music on the fly. Audience members may also text in requests from their phones and track those stats from a screen on stage. Some shows have featured live Skype interviews with video game designers and composers, says Tallarico.

“It’s not just a symphony on stage playing video game music,” Tallarico continues. “It’s really a complete multimedia, interactive experience just like a video game.”

Celebrating video games with a big, orchestral production touches on two important points in video game music history: one being the change in technology that allowed for better production values and the other being the change in budgets that allowed for bigger productions.

“The majority of video game music back in the ’70s and ’80s was very simplistic, very repetitive, and I’ll even go on record saying a lot of it was annoying,” Tallarico says. “But that being said, some of the greatest video game music came out of that era because when you only had so little space, so little time, and so little technology, all you had to focus on was melody.”

The big change in technology came in the mid-’90s when video games went from cartridges to CD-ROM, says Tallarico, who was also the first person to use a live guitar on a video game soundtrack in 1993. Although the new format allowed composers to incorporate more instruments, the budgets allocated towards video game production still held many composers back.

Even the biggest game in the mid-’90s would stick to a million dollar budget for the entire game. It wasn’t till the end of the 20th century that the budgets got to a place where half a million dollars could go towards the score alone.

“I always say as a game composer, let’s never forget our roots. “ Tallarico says. “Always remember that melody is the most important thing. I like to think back to those old days when I only had three or four notes because it was all about creating a strong melody. Sometimes we can get caught up in all the production, choirs, mixing boards, orchestras …”

When it comes to composing video game scores today, there are very few limitations and rules, and that’s what makes the process distinctive from other types of composing, at least for Tallarico.

“There’s no genre of music even,” he continues. “What’s video game music? The freedom is unbelievable, and that’s why you see all these film composers now doing video game music.”

Although video game scores are becoming more cinematic in sound, the interactivity of the medium requires them to be far more versatile. Unlike film scores, where the composer is confined to decorating a linear piece of script, such as, “one minute and forty eight seconds of music has to do this because Darth Vader walks through the door,” video game composers operate under a completely different process, Tallarico says.

For one, video games these days have so many different scenarios and each requires a certain musical feel. Whereas a film score might have 60-90 minutes of music, a video game score might have four or five hours because of all the different scenarios.

However, in the case of films, the music is the last thing to get done and often under tight deadlines. Video games are in production for about a year and a half to two years, and during that time period, a designer might give a composer a storyboard, a finished level, a spreadsheet of scenarios, etc. In which case, the composer is free to tweak and revisit as production goes along.

Even though the constant adoption of new technology within the gaming realm forces video game developers to press “reset” every few years, composers still play on the melodic sensibilities that have allowed a few notes at a time to become staples within cultural history.

“If Beethoven were alive today, he’d be a video game composer,” Tallarico says. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Video Games Live will be touring throughout the United States over the next year. For more, you can check out their official website and watch a trailer for the concert series below:

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