Review – Play!: A Video Game Symphony

Last week my buddy, Tony, called me and told me that I should drive my unemployed butt to Salt Lake City to go see a concert with him. As an added bonus, he had already bought my ticket and was willing to part with it for the awesome price of free if I could make the trip. The concert is a traveling event called Play!: A Video Game Symphony. Play! started in 2006 and the name of the concert pretty much says it all, a full symphony orchestra, accompanied by a choir, playing some of the best video game scores in existence. Of course I made the trip!

The vast majority of symphonies I have been to (and oddly enough, that has been quite a few) tended to be stuffy events that required me to shower, do my hair, and dress nicely. Too much work. Play! is a concert for video game nerds by video game (and orchestra) nerds. Therefore, hygiene was optional and costumes were encouraged. You know you are at a badass concert when a girl dressed like Mario occasionally interrupts your field of vision and the visage of a red hat bobbing back and forth to the music reminds you that this is not your ordinary night at the theater.

Speaking of theater, there are three movie screens floating above the orchestra. While the musicians do their thing, video from the game is played on the screens. While the score from The Legend of Zelda played, clips were shown from the multitude of Zelda games produced over the years. These videos were a great way of enhancing the performance because you could tell that the people that made them loved the games they were collecting the clips from. During the Zelda score, the audience got to see Easter eggs that were sprinkled throughout the games like Link getting swarmed by chickens after hitting one too many times and meeting a man in a cave named Error.

During these scenes, the audience cheered and laughed, definitely not appropriate behavior for a typical symphony but hey, this was not your typical symphony. Another funny moment came at the beginning of the Castlevania suite when a text box from Castlevania II came up and displayed the famous line, “What a horrible night to have a curse.” Everyone in the hall started cheering and then the music started up.

Play! takes music from a wide breadth of games. The concert Tony and I attended included scores from the Sonic games, Halo, Chrono Trigger and Cross, WoW, the Super Mario games, the Zelda games, the Battlefield games, Shenmue (which was awesome), Castlevania, and Lost Odyssey. While they were not performed that night, Play! also has compositions taken from Commodore 64 games, Simcity 4, Warhammer Online, Guild Wars, Silent Hill, and others. Notably absent from those lists are the musical scores from the Final Fantasy series. This is because Final Fantasy has its own concert series; in the past this has been called Dear Friends but the name changes with every tour.

While I am not usually a fan of concerts, I really enjoyed Play!. The meshing of the music with the video sequences was great, but the real joy in the experience was derived from the audience and the overall vibe of the event. As the conductor announced the next few songs they would be playing, the audience cheered and clapped. In each city that Play! goes to, that city’s orchestra is employed to play the music. You could tell that the Salt Lake Symphony Orchestra was not used to people cheering and yelling as solos were performed and music was announced. I think the orchestra enjoyed the experience as much as the fans because they were laughing and grinning as the audience laughed and applauded the performance.

During the Castlevania intro when, “What a horrible night to have a curse,” was displayed and the audience went crazy, you could see several members of the orchestra lean over in their chairs to glance up at the screen to see what all the fuss was about. When the first chair violinist looked up and realized he had absolutely no clue what that line meant, he very slightly shook his head with a grin and started playing. While he didn’t understand the context, I think he felt that it meant something to quite a few people in the audience and that the music, while not the most amazing musical arrangement of all time, was very special to those listening. I was happy to see so many members of the orchestra look like they were enjoying the experience and the music they were playing.

In closing, Play!: A Video Game Symphony was a great experience. While I may not play as many video games as I used to, I still love being part of that geeky culture and the concert made me feel like I was still very much a part of the community. Everyone in that hall knew almost all of the music that was being played and you could feel the anticipation the audience had for certain songs. Tony loves all things Chrono and when the Chrono suite was played he was giddy. It was cool to see people react like that to music that they originally heard come out of a crappy 8 or 16 bit audio processor.

For me, the Shenmue, Halo, and Zelda scores were the pinnacles of the evening. Zelda especially had an effect on me which, when I realized how much that music moved me, I also realized it was because I have heard those few opening bars of that game since I was six or seven. I imagine almost everyone in the hall that night had a similar experience. The pieces we were hearing weren’t radio hits that we enjoyed for two weeks in 1996, they were tunes we had grown accustomed to over years. The music from these games had become part of our lives.

If Play! sounds like something you would be interested in attending, the next concert is toward the end of April in Eugene, Oregon. For you East Coasters that may be a bit of a trip, but I am contemplating trying to make it there and being part of it all again. More information and tour dates can be found at the Play! website here.

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13 years ago

I think this may have come to Baltimore at some point, but these kinds of things pass me by.

On one hand, I’m heartened at the idea that this music is able to bring people together to laugh and cheer and have a good time. On the other, I still kind of think it would be nice if they all came to the event wearing a decent pair of slacks and shoes.

13 years ago

I had a remarkably similar experience when I went to Video Games Live in 2008 ( http://videogameslive.com/ ) which is much the same idea. Orchestra, choir, arrangements of video game tracks, screens, and all.

Play! does sound more genuine in the sense that it focuses on the symphony; VG Live had a host, some less symphonic remixes, some special sections (a guitar hero competition, for example) and some bits that were obviously sponsored. It seemed almost more a spectacle than a concert.

Yet I enjoyed it for much the same reasons you liked Play!. I got to hear a bunch of tracks that I’d grown up with, in a similarly-minded crowd where I could simply enjoy them and be as loud as I wanted. I had the same experience with the symphony; they weren’t used to such an enthusiastic audience.

Play! does sound like it has a better overall lineup, though. In Play!’s lineup, I can only not name Apidya, and the only games I wouldn’t enjoy would be Daytona USA, Prey, Chronicles of Riddick and Guild Wars (Stella Deus and Actraiser? Hell yeah!). VG Live has many of the same classics, but it also has a bunch of stuff that doesn’t belong; Tomb Raider? Harry Potter the game? Crysis? They only play 10-12 segments in a concert, and we got Lair, WoW, Advent Rising and Harry Potter in ours. I would’ve loved to get Chrono Cross, Sonic, or Shenmue.

On the plus side, it was funny when they announced Lair would be the next segment and the entire audience groaned at once.

13 years ago

I went to Video Games Live earlier this year and it was a fun experience but not a great one. They put a big emphasis on making a visual show out of it, which is okay to an extent but I felt it was overly distracting. So much attention was focused on their giant projection of random video game clips that it detracted from the experience. Other than being clips from the games the music was from there wasn’t much rhyme or reason to them, so they were just randomly taken from trailers. Most of the time I couldn’t even see the people playing the music. When I go to see a live show I go to see the people playing, not some trailers I could watch on Youtube. The fact that they freely showed dumb internet forum jokes and memes didn’t make the visuals any more likable either.

It was really great to hear the music played in a setting like that, but I only half felt like I went to an actual concert. If it was supposed to be a celebration of video game culture then it didn’t make it look very good.

13 years ago

I would love to attend something like this, but they’re seldom in Europe let alone the UK.