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Event: rePLAY: Symphony of Heroes
Venue: Sony Centre, Toronto, Ontario
For those who know me, it’s no secret how big of a gamer I am – I’ve been playing for 26 years non-stop. My brain is filled with useless video game trivia that only comes in handy when I’m playing charades with friends or passing the time with Quiz Up on my smartphone.
Being a musician and major appreciator of good music, video games have become a main source of inspiration and have created unforgettable memories. Industry greats like Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy series), Ko Otani (Shadow of the Colossus) and accomplished movie composer Harry Gregson Williams (Metal Gear Solid series) masterfully elevated the stories of some of the greatest games of our time by writing emotionally charged pieces that touch the heart and imagination of gamers the world over. Mine, obviously, included.
So, to no one’s surprise, when Jason Michael Paul Productions brought their orchestra to town to perform a selection of video game theme songs, I bought my ticket months in advance, rode the GO Train into Toronto the day of and sat in the nosebleeds uncomfortably close to strangers in our tiny seats.
The performance was enjoyable, although there were a few offbeat moments and botched notes throughout the evening. As I boarded my train back home, I began gathering my thoughts on an evening I was expecting to be nothing short of magical. Instead, what I felt was a mixed bag of good, bad and head scratching bafflement.
Journey, Mass Effect, God of War, Dragon Age, Shadow of the Colossus, Metal Gear Solid, Halo, Bioshock, Skyrim, Dear Esther
The night’s musical selection was tied together by a hero’s journey. Nigel Carrington, the voice of Dear Esther, narrated the journey between songs to give context and to tie the pieces together into a cohesive narrative. The narration was a nice touch and it was a creative way of weaving a game that’s mostly based on listening to letter fragments into the concert. Some of the context leading into the songs made sense; others were a bit of a stretch. There’s only so much you can do to mold a song’s purpose into a narrative, I suppose.
The overall selection of songs danced between sensible and strange; most of which were thankfully sensible. More than half of the games feature dragons and characters dramatically stabbing fantastical creatures in the face, but that’s O.K. As long as Call of Duty didn’t come up, I was entertained.
Personally, Metal Gear, Mass Effect and Skyrim were the highlights of the evening. My only wish and, perhaps, suggestion to any orchestra looking to perform video game music in the future would be to select pieces that better exemplify the game’s overall atmosphere and to highlight the best compositions possible. I say this because a video game’s theme song isn’t always the most memorable. For instance, Halo has an iconic theme characterized by its spacey chanting, but Shadow of the Colossus, one of my favourite games of all time that’s all about battling epic, sky-high monstrosities, has some of the most rousing battle orchestrations to grace an adventure video game. Instead, they chose the low-key and slow-moving theme song. Here’s what I would have liked to hear from Shadow of the Colossus:
I can understand potentially losing the audience by performing songs other than a game’s signature tune, but you have to give the audience something they will truly remember. Most of the songs weren’t even recognized by the audience until the game’s title and composer were displayed onscreen. I think they could have easily moved away from focusing on the theme songs by picking the best of the best. However, the audience didn’t seem too picky with the songs as long as they played something from their favourite video games.
Final Fantasy 8, Chrono Cross, Lair
Some of the evening’s pieces selected simply didn’t make sense. Final Fantasy 8 (FF8) is perhaps one of the worst and least memorable games in the series, but it was performed with the same vigor and zest as everything else. There are countless Nobuo Uematsu pieces that could have had everyone in the Sony Centre going bananas. Although, I think I know why it wasn’t so. There’s currently another orchestra touring the globe performing pieces from the Final Fantasy series with Nobuo himself in tow. Was FF8 the only score legally available to perform in the show? Were the rights extremely cheap because the game is down right awful? We all could have foregone hearing anything Final Fantasy if this was the best we could get.
Another surprise was hearing the Chrono Cross theme song over the RPG classic Chrono Trigger. I’ve played both games and only a few songs from each game stand out, but Chrono Cross? Really? Before the show even began and the seats were filling up, they played classic 8- and 16-bit songs through the theatre sound system; among them was a Chrono Trigger track. I think most of us anticipated hearing the orchestrated versions of these teases while we took our seats. Consider our assumptions wrong.
The most awkward moment of the night came during the French horn-heavy theme song of Lair. By no means is Lair a popular game, receiving low marks in most respects. Being a predominant Xbox 360 player last generation, I never went back to play it when I finally picked up a PS3 and, hence, had no clue what to expect of the soundtrack So, along with 99 per cent of the audience, I sat cluelessly debating on whether or not I should clap when the title came up onscreen. I give kudos to the one man who enthusiastically “Woo’d”, and to the couple that gave their reluctant applause. My digital top hat is off to the three of you. A strange pick for the concert? I think so.
My final gripe with the show doesn’t actually have to do with the production itself; rather, it’s with the audience. I go to quite a few comedy shows, some work conferences, and I’ve been to multiple plays too, so the venue seems to have no bearing on this, but why is everyone obsessed with filming every moment of their life? First of all, isn’t it illegal to record these things? Secondly, why would you want to film a show on your phone in mediocre quality? The entire time you’re more worried about what you’re shooting than actually being a part of the experience. You bought a ticket to see something you’re interested in, but you choose to work it as an amateur cameraman. I saw several people in my immediate vicinity – remember I’m in the nosebleeds where visual stimulation is in short supply – with their smartphones out trying to discreetly capture the show. This is a global trend that affects so many moments in life, often getting in other people’s way as well. Unplug yourself and be present, folks. The Internet doesn’t care about your uploaded point of view.
Guild Wars, Lost Odyssey, Portal, Castlevania, Kingdom Hearts
I’m going to put it out there straight away; there were no Nintendo or, by association, Sega songs to be enjoyed. They teased Zelda, a bit of Mario and even a few classic Sonic songs before the show, but not even a mention otherwise. I was pretty disappointed by that and judging by the sheer volume of Zelda t-shirts that I saw, I can safely say I wasn’t alone. Again, this might be telling of a much larger, behind-the-scenes issue. Most of the compositions selected were Sony in origin. Whether they’re licensed directly by Sony or just an exclusive on one of the Playstation consoles, the majority of the performance featured Sony properties. Considering it was held at the Sony Centre in Toronto, you have to wonder what other forces were at play here. I think Nintendo was behind this… /sarcasm
The few selections that truly baffled me didn’t seem to fit the bill and theme of the evening. I’ve logged roughly 500 hours across both Guild Wars games and although the music is pretty good, and it has dragons and monsters to stab with sharp objects, the fact that it’s a PC exclusive title puts it out of place. It didn’t get much of a response from the audience either, which points to a console-based fan base. Even though it’s not a deal breaker, the Guild Wars main theme isn’t anything to write home about. I could have done with a much better pick.
Lost Odyssey (a corridor RPG with little exploration), Castlevania (great series, but not well-known for its music) and Kingdom Hearts (loved by gamer girls everywhere for some reason) are also odd choices. I don’t remember any music from any of those titles. Lost Odyssey was scored by Nobuo Uematsu again, so I that answers that; I can’t even begin to justify Castlevania; and Kingdom Hearts got a huge ovation, so I must be missing something there. I’m sure people enjoyed those three pieces, however, I can’t help but feel there are much better pieces out of there that were overlooked.
Finally, I come to Portal. I’ve played both Portals and enjoyed them for what they are, but I’m not a big fan of puzzle games. Although, the creativity and humour kept me playing both until the credits rolled. Despite my lack of fanboyism, Portal got a huge pop from the rest of the audience when the orchestra began playing a theme song I didn’t even know Portal had. You would think I would remember if the game had one or not. Clearly, I was mistaken. I only remember “Still Alive”, which is what they could have performed, but I didn’t recognize it as such since it didn’t have GLaDOS’ vocoded voiceover. You know what, maybe I’m too hipster and just don’t “understand” pop culture. Maybe I don’t want to and will remain grumpy forever. /drops companion cube on head
The Bottom Line
My friend and I bought our tickets from Groupon for 50 per cent off the original price. Most of the people in attendance did the same thing as we observed by the amount of printed tickets in hand. Using simple math, which I’m good at, a full-price ticket in the nosebleeds must have cost $120 compared to the orchestra section (front row), which must have been a good $30 to $50 more. I’m glad I paid the $60 because I feel the live performance was worth just that. Any more and I would have felt taken advantage of. The message: If you’re a frugal gaming grump like me looking for a nerdy evening out, shop around for cheaper tickets before you commit. The savings is better spent on the expansion of your ever-growing gaming library.