Game Music Saturdays: Video Game Orchestra!

Should it surprise anyone that I’m talking about this?

It’s nice living in the New England area sometimes. You receive easy access to one of the greatest orchestra in the world, the Boston Symphony Orchestra. You’re also, conveniently, given access to whatever crazy projects that the student/people at Berklee College of Music decide to craft, nuture, and expose to the world at large. Shota Nakama has done just that with the Video Game Orchestra.

I went to see the performance last night, and I wasn’t dissapointed. When you have the music of Hitoshi Sakimoto (Final Fantasy Tactics, XII, Valkyria Chronicles), Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Legend of Mana), and Kinuyo Yamashita (Castlevania, YES!) on one ticket, you’re sure to get some awesome themes and a great night. Forgive me for my lack of knowledge about Noriyuki Iwadare, as I haven’t actually finished Grandia or played Lunar, but that wasn’t a requirement in the least.

However, it’d be a bit of a misnomer to call this an “orchestra” in the traditional sense. At the very least, the first half of the concert contained more than its fair share of symphonic progressive rock rather than a traditional BSO performance. “Rockestral” is more the word. Unlike Nobuo Uematsu and the Distant Worlds concert series (which, to my recollection, is based on piano pieces for the most part), we get a “rockestral” arrangement here, with a 70 piece orchestra AND a five piece rock band.

So, how was the concert? As if I haven’t dropped any hints yet (observant reader or no), it was quite excellent, and not just because you didn’t attend (or did you?).

The concert began with everyone’s favorite Final Fantasy VII opener, “Bombing Mission”. Unlike the Black Mages version of the song, with its prog-rock epic feel, Shota goes for a straightforward translation that, while it has its own flourishes, sticks to Nobuo Uematsu’s music pretty literally. There’s a tendency to divulge into theatrics when you have such a huge production behind you, but I felt this particular version played it straight – much appreciated!

Second, we had a (really) short rendition of the Street Fighter 2 main theme. Honestly, I was surprised that nothing else from the game was played other than the theme song (which, let’s be honest, not many people even know because they’re too busy pounding quarters into the machine). Knowing that Yoko Shimomura only composed part of the soundtrack, that wouldn’t have been a possibility. Regardless, it was, like “Bombing Mission”, a true-to-form take with the addition of guitars and drums – real, rather than synthesized, instrumentation adds a LOT to these songs to the point where it feels they were composed in this way.

Next, we had “The End Begins (To Rock)” from Gerard Marino’s God of War soundtrack. To be honest, the first two pieces were a little…shall we say, “staid”. As much as they reflect the creator’s original intentions, they didn’t really mix up the melody or anything. Not having played a single God of War game yet, this was a total mystery to me.  I don’t know much about Kratos, nor about what occurs in the game. What I do know is that this theme is quite awesome! It’s original derived off a Guitar Hero version of the song, but it really captures that essence of rage that Kratos, as the God of War, represents. Having looked up the lyrics later (Patricide! Genocide! I Will Kill Him!) cleared the issue, surely! Having had no expectations beforehand, I was pleasantly surprised by this, and I could call it the first standout of the set.

Next, we had Castlevania themes – specifically, “Wicked Child” and “Vampire Killer”. I’m a fan of Bloody Tears, myself, but any Castlevania game, by default, has great music. To whit:

Just imagine that with a rock band and you’ve pretty much got it. Both songs got the rock’n’roll treatment, and that’s usually a plus. However, I find that the first four songs showed a particular problem with the arrangements: they tend to emphasize the band at the expense of the orchestra. I understand why this was done – I mean, Shota Nakama DOES play lead guitar – but the integration wasn’t as complementary as you would hope. The band’s electronic instruments, in effect, overwhelmed the orchestra entirely, and just barely edged out the small chorus for “The End Begins”/

My complaints were immediately laid apparent upon “Dearly~Hikari”, from the Kingdom Hearts series. No band here! Instead, they played it nearly exactly as it was in the game without any electronic accompaniment. My lack of love for Kingdom Hearts has been documented before, but I couldn’t deny that it was played well (as the originals had their own orchestrated versions already, it wasn’t a huge leap). “Snake Eater”, for its own part, was a James Bond song written into a Metal Gear Solid game. It’s a weird choice, honestly, but it played well enough in the theater. I just don’t understand what’s exemplary about having a women sing about eating frogs and snakes unless you’ve played the original game (which, I’ll admit, I own but haven’t played).

The show really picked up steam with the second half’s huge medleys. It started with the Chrono Trigger main theme, which Shota arranged in a way to allow for guitar, keyboard, and violin solos, all of which amazed. Unlike the bizarre jazz-fusion version on the CT arrange disc, this version captures that adventurous essence of Chrono Trigger’s time traveling odyssey – and violins DO work in rock bands, apparently! As well, the orchestra provided a lush backdrop onto which the band painted its sounds, making both sides work together. For such a short song, it was very well done.

The Grandia medley, however, took the cake. Having only played half of Grandia, I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t for naught. Iwadare chose to arrange the themes himself for the performance, and it showed. Nearly every one hit all the emotional notes of the original with pinpoint accuracy, while also combining the band and orchestra as one unit. Of course, it’s still video game music, meaning some repetition is bound to crop up with songs meant to be played over and over again, but Iwadare’s composition made it work. Truly awesome for a first Grandia performance in America, I’d say.

Next, we had the Sakimoto medley. Sakimoto’s music always has a particular feel because he has a penchant for odd time signatures and switches – at points, it felt as if the orchestra was missing the point/counterpoint method he uses quite frequently. Still, this was a pretty amazing piece overall, if not just by the quality of the music than also the themes chosen to fill it out like “Trisection”:

I can’t really even criticize it: it worked brilliantly. Kudos to David Saluesco for a great arrangement.

Lastly, we had the one thing you can’t have a video game concert series without: some rendition of One Winged Angel…I mean, Final Fantasy Medley! But really, for whatever reason (either fan demand or some rabid devotion to FFVII, apparently everyone’s first video game), we can’t NOT have this song. Those of us familiar with it for over fifteen years will just have to get over it. Regardless, I got my dose of the Final Fantasy Main Theme, which made me happy enough. For those curious, One Winged Angel was played with the “Advent Children” version, which has some subtle differences to the one played at Distant Worlds. Not much I can say on this one – if you like it, you like it, and if you don’t, you don’t.

Lastly, as an encore, they played “Still Alive” from Portal. That was unexpected AND awesome. The same woman who sang “Snake Eater” really knocked it out of the park. No one’s going to imitate GlaDos, of course, but it was done well for the context at hand, and having everyone sing along (including myself – apparently I don’t know verse 2 that well, and nobody knows verse 3) was a joy. It’s a great encore, too – who’s going to ask for another song after that?

Overall, I’d give it a huge thumbs up – a few self-indulgent arrangements at the beginning gave way to a great variety of video game music from all over the spectrum. It’s pretty amazing that so many styles and so many different musical tricks can be used with the exact same format, but I guess it shows the variety of talents God bestows upon people with the exact same natural talents. Still, the same Spirit exists in them all – especially in believers.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all personsBut to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.

12 For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

The same concept, though not a 1:1 ratio, applies here. We’ve got such a diverse array of music in the video game realm that it astonishes me. I can look at my own “game music” collection and say that there’s something for everyone (even if it’s mostly Japanese). It’s a mixture of nostalgia and interactivity that can’t be matched.

Although I do have to ask: should game music be performed like traditional music (orchestra, rock, “rockestral”), or does it deserve to have its own concert style and voice? I wonder this, mainly because synth was such a part of its formation. Chiptune artists, of course, have picked up on this feeling, but it still falls within the realm of “electronica” for the most part. Is there no way to combine the synthesized elements of video game music without falling into familiar tropes when it comes to live performance? Who knows – a man can dream, can’t he?

Let us say that VGO is a good first step, but we can go further.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.