Gaming Symphonies: A Reawakening

"The Musical: Majora's Mask" by YAMsgarden (yamsgarden.deviantart.com).
The holy trinity of Video Games Live, The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, and Distant Worlds: Music from FINAL FANTASY should be on every gamer’s bucket list. I’ve attended them five times, collectively, and I’d rather take an arrow to the knee than miss one of these symphonies next time they tour in my area.

Video game concerts are part performance and part classical orchestra, with a bucketful of nostalgia on the side. Large screens project scenes from a game’s key moments, synchronized to the live music. There’s dramatic lighting, occasional acting, lots of cosplay, and a surprising number of geeky marriage proposals in-between. Sometimes there’s audience participation, too. Bellowing out “One-Winged Angel” in a mass sing-along (with Nobou Uematsu leading the lyrics) may be the most unabashedly geeky thing I’ve ever done in my life (even if I was Engrishing my way through the Latin lyrics: “bells, frogs, big cher-ries, Peter Pan, magic cheese, SEH-FEE-ROTH”).

Gaming soundtracks have come a long way since the 8-bit beeps and dings. I doubt the original video game composers ever imagined their work would be performed fully orchestrated; but take a look at most acclaimed retro titles and you’ll find a composition so theoretically sound, you’d think the composers could see the future in-between the notes they penned to sheet music. At my most recent Distant Worlds concert, I heard Final Fantasy VI’s “Opera Maria and Draco” for the first time as the night’s finale. A twelve-minute opera movement, this piece was originally composed for the 1994 NES, using nothing but jangling MIDI sounds and synthetic “voices.”

It received a two-minute-long standing ovation. And an encore.

Gaming symphonies are making classical music “cool” again.

Video game concerts are re-envisioning classical music and reawakening interest in the arts. Commercially, they summon a hoard of dedicated fans from all across the country to attend a magical, three-hour evening. That eagerness not only makes these concerts enthusiastic experiences for fans of all ages and backgrounds, but it also pays venues handsomely. On average, gaming concerts make six times the income of the average classical symphony.

Over the last two years, classical symphonies have seen a steady decline (with attendance rates dropping about 2.8% annually, according to the League of American Orchestras). As someone who grew up on Beethoven and Mozart, that’s upsetting, because there is an organic power and mastery in the classical arts that modern music theory relies on. I argue that, in regards to music (or any other art form, really), rules should first be learned and mastered, then broken at every tactful occasion.

Gaming soundtracks typically “break the rules” by using looping tracks to characterize a scene (or level), rather than convey a story. Orchestras tend to arrange a series of these gaming “themes” into a single movement meant to unravel the game’s narrative to the audience. The audience is likely to wear nostalgia on their sleeves, cheering and applauding throughout the performance to show their overwhelming appreciation.

Video game concerts have their fair share of critics who fear that these geekery fests belittle the sacred importance of traditional orchestra. Though I cringe at their words, I understand their hesitation and the unease. Geeks (especially gamers) have had a connotation with basement habitation and a disconnection from society. Today, however, where nearly half of all Americans play video games on a weekly basis and gamers are an average of 35 years old, those old stereotypes are dying without re-spawns. Gaming symphonies are one of the most influential ways that geek culture is getting a level-up in the eyes of society.

Speaking to the critics, I could argue that many video game composers (Nobou Uematsu, Henry Gregson Williams, and even Hans Zimmer) are very accomplished (and steeped) in their classical music theory. I could point to the many video game soundtracks and songs that have won prestigious awards—some the first in the history of their kind (here’s looking at you, “Eyes on Me”). I could point to the Classical FM Hall of Fame (the world’s largest poll of classical music), where eleven video game compositions have, for the past five years, held their own against centuries-old sonatas and overtures (“Aerith’s Theme” made #15 this past year and is the highest-rated gaming score on the chart to date).

However, I think there’s one sucker-punch fact that critics of gaming symphonies overlook, and it’s not that gaming is a verifiable form of art or that gaming symphonies have better receptions and make higher profits than most other orchestral competitors; It’s that gaming is reawakening (in part, even keeping alive) an interest in classical music—re-introducing a revered art form in a way that speaks to the inner mind-map of the geek, especially.

For the longest time, I shunned opera, rather close-mindedly thinking it melodramatic and shrill. Final Fantasy VI’s “Opera Maria and Draco” used a familiar narrative—a “language” that I spoke—to convey the awesome power of opera to me and reveal just how much I was missing out on.

One consistency I find among us geeks, aside from our legendary persistence (my dad once encouraged me by saying, “You can do this. I’ve watched you spend eight hours learning how to beat a boss in a video game”), is our thirst for completion. We don’t just want to read The Hobbit—we want to learn to decipher ancient Germanic runes so we can translate the writing on its cover. We research references to religion, psychology, literature, mythology, and art in our favorite media because we see an opportunity to better understand our favourite stories through these subtleties.

As that bigger picture appears, the real world tends to grow a little bit bigger, too.

Geeks realize the importance of breadth—consuming a variety of genres—but more highly value depth, diving into the heart and soul of the media they love, putting piece-by-piece of the puzzle together until a bigger picture unfolds. As that bigger picture appears, the real world tends to grow a little bit bigger, too.

So it is with gaming symphonies. While they might not provide as organic of an introduction to “classical music” as their critics might like, gaming symphonies are making classical music “cool” again—and getting the whole family involved.

My dad wouldn’t touch a classical symphony with a 39½ foot pole, but I dragged both him and my mom to the Symphony of the Goddesses. “It has the energy of a rock concert,” was the first thing he said during intermission, genuinely surprised. The experience opened up a conversation about gaming, storytelling, and composition with my mom, and by the time we left the Zelda-themed symphony, I was explaining the split-timeline to her. Today, she keeps a Pandora channel that cycles classical music and gaming soundtracks, listening to it while she cooks.

Three years later, both my parents drove over two hours to attend Distant Worlds with me.

If you’re a geek who has never been to a gaming symphony, then save up your rupees, gil, or pokedollars and check a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity off your bucket list. If you’re not a geek, but looking to drastically expand your horizontals (sorry, my Laguna Loire is showing), then there are few things you can do to better understand geek culture than to dive into a gaming philharmonic. They capture and exude the energy and emotion of the geek sub-culture… and they may just make you (re-)fall in love with classical music.

Casey Covel

Casey Covel

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
An INTJ and self-proclaimed connoisseur of chocolate, tea, and sushi, Casey spends her free time cosplaying, writing, gaming, philosophizing, editing articles for Geeks Under Grace, squinting at strange words, and watching Corgi videos on the internet.
Casey Covel