Student musicians take arcade games to the next level
PROFILE. Ask anyone from the video game generation to hum the song from an old game like Super Mario Bros., and they’ll be able to do it instantly. It may have been a decade or two since they’ve played a certain title, but the music remains just as memorable as the game play. That’s an emotional, and nostalgic response that the Video Game Orchestra, and its creator Shota Nakama are going for.
For a few years now bands like the Minibosses have been tapping into this phenomenon with an indie rock based approach to video game music, but the Berklee College of Music affiliated VGO, with a 45-piece chamber orchestra, five-piece rock band, and 40-plus member choir have exploded that concept onto a much larger scale.
“There are a few professional video game orchestras existing,” says Nakama, a native of Japan, who organized the VGO with classmates Simon Lee and Kian How, “but we do more contemporary music, so we added rock band and choir to the chamber orchestra so we can play any sound. It actually blends quite well.”
It’s a result that he credits to the performers’ passion for the material. “If you go and talk to any orchestra, most students, they hate being in the orchestra. They are either doing it for scholarship purposes, or they’re just there not liking the music as much. With video game music, people like it and they want to be there.”
The orchestra’s repertoire is comprised of 25 songs and counting.
But there is a big difference between those old eight-bit songs and the more complex music of today’s video games. The VGO also performs music from more cinematic titles like God of War and Silent Hill that border on the traditional film score territory.
Nakama says it’s not quite the same as film music, where you are more restricted.
“You have to be syncing the music with the picture. The nature of video games are, you don’t know if a player is going to spend two hours in the same space, so it has to be melodic and memorable. You have to entertain people, or they get bored.”
The same rules apply at an orchestra performance. In order to remedy that boredom factor, the VGO will show clips from various games while they are performing, aiming for a more immersive game play experience than you might expect from an orchestra.
“Entertainment is the biggest part,” he says. “In a lot of classical orchestra performances you go in the room and sit down and are as quiet as possible and focus on every note they play. But that’s not really what we want. We want to entertain people, to give a great show. We want people to say ‘what we paid was worth it.’”
And to hopefully not hit the reset button.
Exactly what games will the VGO be covering?
“From Final Fantasy, Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog," says Nakama, "pretty much everyone knows what we are playing. It’s a nostalgic moment like when you were a little kid and playing those games and feeling great.”
The Video Game Orchestra
Tomorrow, 8:15 p.m.
Berklee Performance Center
136 Mass. Ave., Boston
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