Tommy Tallarico on the return of Video Games Live

Tommy Tallarico on the return of Video Games Live
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

April 30th 2014 at 10:00AM

Tommy Tallarico on the greatest honour for a game composer, bringing video game music to the mainstream and why he wants everyone to be able to afford tickets to the VGL shows

Symphonies and video games don’t go together. At least, that’s what the uninitiated believe, says Tommy Tallarico, co-founder of the world’s longest running video game concert series, and perhaps the most successful culture-clash of its kind, Video Games Live.

The 46-year-old composer has written music for more than 250 games, including Earthworm Jim, Another World and Prince of Persia.

Since VGL’s first official performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005, Tallarico and an ever-changing orchestra have toured cities from Beijing to São Paulo, racking up more than 200 concerts and performing music from dozens of composers; including Koji Kondo (Zelda), Jesper Kyd (Assassin’s Creed), Marty O’Donnell (Halo), Garry Schyman (BioShock) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy).

“I don’t do this for the money,” he said when Develop spoke to him recently. “I want everyone to be able to afford to come to this show.” The composer has an infectious passion for what he does, which he says is part of the cultural shift of games becoming more widely accepted in society for their artistic value.

After a five-year gap, Tallarico and his crew are set to play dates in London and Manchester as part of their 2014 European tour.

He tells Develop about the show’s creation, the wild reception it gets in nations where the only market for games is the black market and why he feels video game music is reaching a wider audience than ever today. Plus, he explains why it’s taken so long for Video Games Live to return to the UK and shares what the greatest thrill for a game composer is.

Why do you think something like Video Games Live needed to exist?
The reason I created Video Games Live was I wanted to prove to the world how culturally significant and artistic video games have become. I wanted to create a show for everyone – not just the hardcore gamers. I think a lot of VGL’s success is due to that kind of approach.

I started the show back in 2002, 12 years ago. But it took me three years to do the first [real] show, because everybody thought I was insane.

There had been other kinds of game concerts before. They were doing it in Japan since 1985. There was one show, a year before ours, over in Germany. But no one was using video screens and they were all very classical and traditional in nature.

And that’s why, with Video Games Live, I wanted to completely break the mould, completely go against that to say to everyone: “hey, a symphony doesn’t have to be traditional, and everybody doesn’t have to wear tuxedos or shhh people during the music”. I take the exact opposite approach.

I like to describe VGL as having all the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra but combined with the energy and excitement of a rock concert. And it’s mixed together with the cutting-edge visuals, technology, interactivity and fun that video games provide.

So not only are we helping to usher in a whole new generation of young people to appreciate the symphony and the arts, but we’re opening the eyes of all the non-gamers out there about how fantastic video games are.

Some of the best emails we get are from the non-gamers after the show. They’re the ones saying: “oh my god, I never knew that the characters were so intriguing and the music is so powerful and emotional. I get it now. Now I know why my kids are so much into video games”. And to have three or four thousand gamers all in a room together, celebrating the legitimacy of video games is a pretty powerful thing.

As great as Beethoven is, it’s been played for hundreds of years and people already respect and appreciate it. But to come out to an event where certain people may not respect and appreciate video game music, and to have it now being performed in such a fun, entertaining and exciting way that becomes a huge thing for the audience. They get into it even more so than a typical concert.

Video game music has made great strides in the last few years – it’s even played on commercial radio here in the UK. But is it still struggling to be appreciated in the mainstream? And do you think it’s been welcomed more in the US than in other places?
I really don’t think it is struggling in the mainstream. I think a lot of the people in the mainstream media don’t realise it because they don’t play games. But the reality is that video game soundtracks sell more copies than film soundtracks, by three times the amount.

You like at a site like OCRemix.org, where thousands of people around the world are remixing video game music and uploading tens of thousands of files everyday to this website. Where’s the film music version of that?

There’s a video game music convention called MagFest that has been running for ten years. Tens of thousands of people come to it. And not only is it based around video game music, but all of the video game cover bands join in and play. So every city now has a video game cover band and, again, I say to people, where’s the Raiders of the Lost Ark cover band?

So video game music, for people who grew up on them, they all understand and appreciate it. And as gaming evolves into our culture... And it’s still not 100 per cent there yet. When my generation – I mean, I’m 46-years-old, I was the first generation to grow up on video games – become grandparents, the whole world will change at that point.

So to answer your question, video game music is still underground a bit, but everybody’s underground [laughs].

You play lots of fantastic music from the likes of Command & Conquer, BioShock, Metal Gear Solid and many more during the concerts. What do some of the composers think of the show?
Here’s the great thing. I’ve been a video game composer over 25 years. For all of us composers, the reality is: what’s the real end goal? When somebody sits down to write a piece of music or anything creative – like a book or the script for a film – the end goal is to have people hear it, see it, experience it.

So, as a game composer, or any composer, when you sit in your little studio, and you’re working, you’re pouring your heart into something at 4 o’clock in the morning, you’re all by yourself, in a dark, little cave. And then you upload it to an FTP site, and that’s it. It’s like putting a note in a bottle and sending it out on the ocean. There’s no connection to the people unless they start writing in on Twitter and Facebook or start a fanpage.

But to have your music performed live is really, in essence, the ultimate thing that every composer wants. They want people to hear their music.

Live music always has that special magic, that special energy. We you get four thousand people in a room together, and you’re listening and celebrating video games, and you’re listening to the music live for the first time it is magic. There’s magic that happens. And for the game composers, there’s no greater honour than to have their music played live.

We just played Monterrey, Mexico, last weekend at a 25,000-seat baseball stadium. A bunch of the composers flew down. And they were special guests for the show. There’s nothing greater than having your music performed live in front of 25,000 people. I don’t care how many awards you’ve won or how much money you made on the game, this is the pinnacle, and they all feel that way.

And what is it like trying to fit in so many amazing scores, such as Uncharted 2 and Beyond Good & Evil, into around 120-minutes?
Well, I think one of the big reasons that we’re the most successful touring video game concert ever and we’ve played the most – we’re in the Guinness Book of Records as the most performances by a video game show – is ever year I change the show. I change the set list.

So, to me, I have the greatest job in the world. Because my two greatest loves growing up were always video games and music. I never thought that I would be a video game composer, because there was no such thing as a video game composer in the 1970s [laughs].

I get to sit down with my favourite video games and my favourite people. I take a game, like Beyond Good & Evil – which is one of my personal favourite games of all-time and completely under-appreciated. [With that game, I sat down with the original score,] I took two hours worth of music and I shoehorned it into about four minutes. I took all the greatest parts and I put them together to form this medley. And I get to perform it live in front of millions of people.

So to me that’s the fun part. The most funny that I have is doing that. We do about a two-and-a-half-hour performance, which means I can play about 18-to-20 songs a night. But I’ve created over 125 segments for the show over the last 12 years. So, one year you might get Beyond Good & Evil, next year you might get Shadow of the Colossus, the year after that you get Skyrim and the year after that it’s Monkey Island... There’s so much amazing stuff to choose from that it’s really something that can continue going forever.

That’s why I think it’s become so popular, the fact that we change it every year. And one of things that we do, that I think is really important to mention, we let the audience decide the set list.

On our Facebook page, we have an event page for every show. So for the London and Manchester shows, for example, I haven’t created the set list yet. I ask people to tell us what they want to hear. Then, when the time comes to create the set list I’ll go to the Facebook events page for that show and I’ll start making a spreadsheet from [people’s choices].

I can tell you right now some of the ones we’re probably going to have in the show, because people have overwhelmingly been asking for them: Monkey Island; Skyrim, a game that I worked on; Earthworm Jim, Mega Man, Street Fighter II, Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy.

So I’ll look at that and I’ll make the set list based on it. And then I’ll throw in a couple of surprises, like a Shadow of the Colossus or Beyond Good & Evil.

The show is for the audience, right? Not for me. With some much amazing material out there, I want the audience to help decide what they really want to hear. That’s the beautiful thing. And even though there’s a 125 segments in our show, that literally span hundreds of songs, there’s still a bunch of stuff that I haven’t done yet, like Katamari Damacy, Devil May Cry, Okami, Star Fox, Phoenix Wright, Shenmue, Soulcalibur... I mean there’s so many amazing things that we haven’t got to that are still on the list.

You have some 40 tour dates planned for 2014 and 2015. That seems like a huge number, especially for a show of this kind. How do you go about organising Video Games Live? And what are your favourite places you’ve toured?
Well, we have agents in Europe, in the US, Asia and South America. They help to book the shows with the different symphonies.

Our European agents have been working on our coming European tour for about two years now. We’re doing ten or 12 places in November, and then we’re coming back to Europe in March and April [2015]. We’ll play more of Germany and places like Russia and Turkey, and then we’re off to South Africa.

As for some of the best places that we’ve played, anything south of the US border [is up there]. South America is unbelievable. Chile and Brazil are the two biggest. When we perform, it is ten thousands people screaming for three hours. The passion down there for this stuff is so great.

There’s a lot of big shows that come to places like London, LA or New York. But when you bring something like Video Games Live down to South America keep in mind that the video game companies don’t even distribute down there because of the black market. You can walk into a legitimate mall and they’ll be ten black market video game stores in there.

So when we take our show down there, everybody still plays games and everybody has access to it because it’s so cheap – because of the black market. Yet none of the game companies pay attention because they can’t make any money.

We’re also very huge in Asia. When we play in China, we’re playing to 20,000-to-30,000 people a night in massive stadiums. But South America is the biggest and best.

How about the UK? The last time you performed here was 2009.
Yeah. Five years. You see, our show is such a big show, like you were saying. I mean, imagine: we have to use a different orchestra and choir every night. The setup; we have screens, video, lights, a quick track system, all the interactive stuff.

We have so little time that we have to get all that loaded up the morning of each show. We have everything set up by about 11am. We start rehearsals from about 1pm to 4pm. We have dinner. And then we do the show. And then we pack everything up and go to the next city. So we have to have everything down to a tee. If one little thing goes wrong it could have a ripple effect.

I don’t do this for the money. I made a lot of money, and still do, writing music for video games. But I want everyone to be able to afford to come to this show.

So why haven’t we been back to the UK in five years? The reason for that is if we were to come back and do a one-off show in London, think of the cost... I have a crew of eight, so just the airfare alone is $12,000. The only way we could do that – and it wouldn’t even be us, but the local promoters – is by charging ridiculous prices. £75 to £100 is where the tickets would start, because it’s just a one-off show. And I refuse to do it.

If you look at the Final Fantasy and Zelda shows, which are more traditional symphony shows, their tickets prices are twice as much as ours. So the real answer to the question about why we haven’t been back to Europe in the last five years is that the only way to do it financially, so that the ticket prices are as low as possible, is to do a big, routed tour. That’s what all the big rock bands and regular musicians do when they come to Europe.

Because we want to keep the ticket prices low. That’s my biggest thing. So when I see these other video game shows that don’t have lights and don’t have all the bells and whistles, but they’re £100-plus for tickets, it breaks my heart.

I could do that, but I don’t want to. I want a family if four to be able to come and afford the show. I don’t want them to have to pay £500 to listen to video game music. That’s obscene. So that’s our mantra.

You recently turned to Kickstarter to fund a Video Games Live project. What was the response like?
We funded our third [VGL] album. So it had nothing to do with the tour or anything like that. It’s just that record companies... I mean , they’re all going out of business, and none of them are willing to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars on recording a full symphony, 15-16 songs to release it. Especially, because their view of gamers is: “well, everybody’s just going to steal it anyway, so why should we spend all the money?”

I can understand why they feel that way. But I also know that if you give something great to gamers, and you don’t try to jack them on the pricing... Our album is 15 songs, you can get it on Amazon for $8.00, you know? There’s no reason to be greedy about it.

And to go back to what you were saying before about video games in mainstream culture and where it’s at, the Video Games Live Kickstarter album project is the third highest grossing music album project of all-time on Kickstarter. That’s out of the thousands that are up there. We raised over $280,000.

So that to me, again, says a lot. That people do care this stuff, and when you give them value for money, they’re not going to want to steal it, they’re going to want to be involved and say: “hey, I actually helped to fund and create this”. And that’s the great thing about the games industry and the fans and gamers.

Finally, what have you taken from your time working on Video Games Live? And what’s coming next?
The thing that just blows me away every time is, no matter where we play around the world, it’s so interesting to me that thousands of people come together to appreciate and celebrate not only video game music, but video games as a whole. I mean it means so much to so many people in so many different countries.

When we go to Dubai and there’s 5,000 people screaming for Metal Gear Solid. People from Saudi Arabia coming out in droves, flying in to Dubai just to see the show. It really kind of takes you back.

And why are so many people attached to video game music? Here’s my theory, and this is from being a video game composer and creating and producing this show. Video music is very different from any other music in the history of the planet, because when you play that game, you become that character, and the music becomes the soundtrack of your life.

When you’re fending off a hundred guys from attacking your village... You’re fending them off with your sword and that music is playing, that is your music. That becomes a part of you. And then, when the victory song goes off after you’ve defended them, that becomes your thing. It’s very different from watching somebody else’s sorry unfold in a movie.

Take one of the greatest modern movies, Avatar, amazing visuals and acting. Hum me the music to Avatar, though [laughs]. Right? You can’t do it, because you’re watching somebody else’s story.

But I bet [readers] could hum the music to Metal Gear Solid, Halo, Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy. This music is being pounded into your brain for hours and hours at a time. I mean, it’s like listening to your favourite album, you know, Led Zeppelin 4, the Beatles’ White Album, Van Halen, whatever it is, and listening to it on repeat for 50 hours a week. That’s what it’s like with video game music.

At no time in history has more music been played over and over than are playing in video games right now. It’s bigger than radio, it’s bigger than MTV. There are tens of millions of people listening to video music right now. It is being played more in the world today than anything else.

So when you come to a show like Video Games Live, and you see Zelda come up on screen while the music’s playing, I guarantee that you’ll be transported back to your childhood.

See more on the Video Games Live 2014/2015 tour on the official website.

UK dates include the Manchester O2 Apollo on Saturday, November 1st and the London Eventim Apollo on Sunday, November 2nd, 2014. Tickets for both concerts are on sale now, priced from £25.00.