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Video Game Music Gains Artistic Cachet

BOSTON — Video game music has come a long way since Pac Man. Tonight in Boston a 90-piece orchestra will take the stage to perform symphonic scores from current blockbuster titles such as “Final Fantasy,” “Myst” and “Sonic the Hedgehog.” Video game music is gaining cache as a bonafide form of art, but, as WBUR’s Andrea Shea reports, it’s also seen as a viable career path for aspiring composers.

A group of rock and classical musicians gather in a rehearsal space in Alston. Most are from the top music schools around town. One violinist has spiky, bright orange hair. The harpist wears a “Sonic the Hedgehog” t-shirt. Music Director Shota Nakama is the electric guitarist. He founded the Video Game Orchestra last year.

SHOTA NAKAMA: Whenever I talk to people about videogame music then people automatically connect to Space Invaders, Pac Man, Super Mario, like those retro sounds. Now composers can do a lot more.

Tonight’s show by the VGO, as it’s known, highlights the work of composers for games such as “Caesar” and “Final Fantasy.” It’s the kind of music Nakama grew up with in Japan. The 27 year-old says video game music is hot there, and well-respected. In the U.S. he says the music is underrated. Nakama’s mission: expose audiences to the genre.

NAKAMA: It just takes one concert to wake them up.

Using lush scores in games is an industry standard these days, according to composer Lennie Moore. Like Nakama he a graduate of Berklee College of Music. His first writing gig was for a game called “Outcast” ten years ago.

MOORE: It was one of the early live orchestra scores, it used an 80-piece orchestra and a 24-voice choir and we recorded in Moscow and it was total blast, and I fell in love with the industry.

The industry has evolved, Moore says, because both the recording and playback technologies are advanced and on par with music for films. But Moore, who’s based in Los Angeles, says video game scores present different artistic challenges.

LENNIE MOORE: I love the puzzle.

Unlike film score video game music is interactive. It changes with every move each individual player makes.

MOORE: So they could hang out in a room trying to find the secret door forever and hear the same repeating piece of music forever cause they haven’t found the door yet and the music is supposed to change when they find the door so to me the puzzle is trying to figure out really interesting ways to create adaptive music that adapts to what’s happening when the player is playing their version of the game.

But composing for that puzzle is not an easy task. Film Score students at Berklee clamored to have this new class created. It’s called “Interactive Scoring for Games.” On this day they’re playing pieces they were assigned to write for the wildly popular game, “Bioshock.” Seth Hamlin is one of them. While most of the students in the class are in their 20s, and avid gamers, he isn’t either.

SETH HAMLIN: I’m really bad at videogames but I’ve always been impressed by the spell that they cast that’s what’s intriguing about it to me.

Finding work is intriguing, too. Hamlin is 47 years old and a freelance trombonist. He says gigs have dried up with the economy, so, like all of the students in this class, Hamlin hopes to find a job in the video game industry. His professor, Michael Sweet, says the field is expanding beyond games such as World of Warcraft.

MICHAEL SWEET: There are so many opportunities for video games, it’s not just about guys in the basement playing Halo, it’s about moms and sisters are beginning to play games as well and the industry is just opening wide up which is really exciting.

So how do the video game companies find composers? Steve DiGregorio knows. He’s the Audio Director at Turbine, Entertainment in Westwood.

STEVE DIGREGORIO: Well it’s more the people find us for the most part, people are submitting stuff to us a lot, there are a couple of agents out there who specialize in doing music for games.

DiGregorio is in charge of hiring composers. Turbine makes “Dungeons and Dragons Online” and “Lord of the Rings Online.” Both feature orchestral scores. DiGregorio says there’s work for writers, but still, the market is tough.

DIGREGORIO: The North East is great for video games right now, we’ve got Harmonix, we’ve got Turbine, 38 Studios, but in terms of projects, audio budgets and stuff like that, you know, it’s going to be a challenge.

In December Turbine let go of some staff. Other video game companies have done the same, nation and world wide. Phil Elliot is Managing Editor of Gamesindustry.biz.

PHIL ELLIOT: But a lot of that is really to trim off the excess fat. The core business of videogames is actually very strong and is very likely to continue to grow slightly this year, even if it doesn’t repeat the stellar growth of last year it’s still a very strong sector.

Recent reports claim U.S. video game revenue grew by 19% in 2008 to $21 billion dollars. Even with the recession, those numbers could bode well for aspiring composers such as Shota Nakama, founder of the Video Game Orchestra. Part of his mission is to create a community of composers and musicians in the genre. He hopes they’ll network at tonight’s concert.

SHOTA NAKAMA: This is the beginning of new Era. Videogame music is great.

In fact, a bunch of video game music heroes will be in the audience, including the composers who wrote “Caesar” and “God of War.”

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