Tommy Tallarico's story is simply extraordinary. With nothing but a dream to work with videogames, he's helped change the industry. His groundbreaking work in videogame music to his controversial game reviews to the culturally significant spectacle known as Video Games Live; he has assisted in the evolution of videogames. This a portion of the interview I had with Tommy.
O.G.: I went to Video Games Live up in Austin in 2008, and it blew me away. Tell me about the idea for the show.
Tommy: When I created Video Games Live back into 2002 with my partner, and fellow video game composer Jack Wall, my goal was to show how significant and artistic video games have become. I wanted to create a show for everybody. In order to do that, I thought it was important to not only have a symphony on stage performing videogame music because the Japanese have been doing that for 20 years. We really wanted to do something that we thought was really special. In order to achieve that we wanted to combine visual and interactive elements just like a videogame. A videogame is not just about the music, it's about the graphics and the interactivity as well. We wanted to take all those things into account. The visuals, for someone who's never played a videogame; they can come to the show, follow along, and understand what's going on with the characters on-screen.
What makes Video Games Live so special is that it's not just a symphony on stage playing video game music. Everything about it is completely synchronized such as massive video screens, rock-n-roll lighting, a stage show production, special effects, and interactive elements with the crowd. I like to describe it as having all of the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra combined with the energy and excitement of a rock concert mixed together with all the cutting edge visuals, interactivity, technology, and fun that video games provide. You put all those together, and you get an experience not just for gamers, but for everybody which was the goal.
O.G.: Your story of getting in the industry is one of those stories that you would see on TV. You drove across country to California, you get hired at an instrument shop, and someone comes in and gives you a job working with videogames.
Tommy:My whole life, my two greatest loves, and passions, were videogames and music. I never thought to put the two together. When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, there was no job as a videogame composer because it didn't exist. Back when I turned 21, I got in my car and drove out to California with no job, no place to stay, no friends, and no money. The only thing I knew about California was Disneyland, Orange County, and Hollywood. I went to Disneyland, picked up a paper and there was a job for selling keyboards at a guitar shop. They gave me the job right there at the spot. For the first three weeks I was homeless, living under the pier at Huntington Beach.
First day on the job I showed up wearing a Turbografx-16 t-shirt, this was back in 1990. The first customer I waited on was a producer at a new company that opened up the road called Virgin Mastertronic which became Virgin Games and then Virgin Interactive. He saw my shirt and asked me if I knew about videogames. I proceeded to download all my knowledge onto him, and he told me to head over to Virgin and they would get me a job testing videogames. I went there the next day and got a job. It took me 3 days and I was already given a job in the industry. They made me a tester but I would bug the Vice President of the company every single day saying that whenever he needed music to let me know. I would work with the programmers and learn how to do it. They gave me a shot a couple months later with a game they were working on called Prince of Persia. That was the first score I worked on. They liked it so much that they made me the music guy and I've been doing it ever since.
O.G.: Out of all the games you've worked on, what was the one that was the most fulfilling for you?
Tommy:There are probably two favorite games that I've worked on for two different reasons. My favorite would be Earthworm Jim. It was like 10 friends all sitting in a room for a year trying to make each other laugh. Most games have a game design documents that's 500-600 pages, but we had no game design. There were no rules, no one looking over our shoulder, just us making a fun game. I think that shows in the final product. The character, the music, the graphics were all over the place, and none of it made any sense but that's what funny about it.
My second game, from a music standpoint, was a game that not many people played called Advent Rising for the Xbox. The reason I liked working on that from a musical standpoint, my whole life I wanted to write an Italian opera. Compositionally, that was the best work I've done. It was a real treat working with a full orchestra and a Mormon Tabernacle choir and the best mixers, master and engineers we had.
O.G.: How do you go about creating your music?
Tommy: Everyone approaches it very differently. I don't know how to read or write music, I just play it by ear. My family is a rock-n-roll with my cousin who is Steven Tyler from Aerosmith where I had a large amount of rock that I was listening to. Then I heard the music from Star Wars and Rocky which started me looking in orchestra music. I found out that John Williams was a fan of Beethoven, and once I started listening to Beethoven, that's what changed my life. I learned how to right symphony music by listening to Beethoven and picked apart how everything worked, figuring it out on the piano.
For me, when I sit-down and write a video game, there's a bunch of different ways to do it. Sometimes I'll play the game, sometimes I'll have a storyboard, or I'll just get a story from a designer. I try to focus on emotion and what's happening on the scene. Composers tend to focus on the environment and play to what's going on in the background. For me it's about emotion whether the character is being chased, happy, sad, or if there's something about to happen. I just sit there, look at the visuals or play the game without any sound, and I wait for stuff to come to my head, focusing on what that emotion would be at that point. I try to put myself in the character's situation in that moment. I begin playing it out on the piano, and then I got to my studio where I start layering different thing with all the instruments that I have.
O.G.: So how does a guy who makes all this video game music make a jump to be one of the faces of Tech TV?
Tommy: What happened was that Earthworm Jim had just come out, and we were showing Earthworm Jim 2 at E3. This guy, Victor Lucas, was creating this new TV show called the Electric Playground. He saw me, knew who I was, and asked me for an interview. The interview went well, and we just hit it off. He called me weeks later and told me about a pilot for a show about videogames that he was working on. He asked me if I'd like to join him because we worked together so well and I said sure. We shot the pilot and it ended up being picked up at the end of 1995. It's been on the air for 15 years now. From there, the review section was the most popular part and we made a show called Reviews on the Run, or called on G4 as Judgment Day. We had no scripts, just two friends talking about videogames. I would play up the bad cop role to Vic's good cop. It was fun and made a good combination.
O.G.: Speaking of bad cop, there's a lot of hate on you that I found. You're kind of a major villain in the industry.
Tommy: Oh yeah. I think that some of the younger or immature hardcore gamers could not stand the fact that someone else had a different opinion than them. I don't particular like the game Animal Crossing. It's not my cup of tea. That doesn’t mean you need to hate somebody because they don't like what you like. If you kind of think about it, it's kind of racist. I used to call them "gaming racist".
O.G.: I think it's because you were the first guy that was reviewing these games, giving them bad scores, and you did it on TV to where they could see you. It gives them that image of the guy that doesn’t like what they like.
Tommy: For sure. There are haters on the internet on the internet. You know you've become popular when people on the internet hate you. I think it's fair to say that for the 10 hate mails we would get, we would also get a thousand positive emails. The positive would always outweigh the negative. Judgment Day was the #1 rated show on Tech TV for most of the time between us and Xplay so people were watching it. That was the goal of being good cop and bad cop. And you always want two different opinions on a game.
O.G.: What was the first concert for Video Games Live?
Tommy: The first show was July 6, 2005 at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA philharmonic. You have to understand, everyone thought we were completely crazy. Even the game publishers didn't believe us. I went to Square Enix and they were questioning on whether there was an audience for video game music. But as game composers, we were always receiving mail asking when are we going to do the music live. When we first did our show, over 11,000 people showed up to the surprise of everyone, except for me and Jack.
I want to make it about community. A lot of hardcore gamers are in their house all the time. So to go out to an event like this where there's a mix of hardcore, casual and those that never played games, celebrating video game music altogether is something special. That's kind of the coolness of it. Here you are sitting in a room with a couple thousand other people who are all into celebrating what you're passion or hobby is too. That's a rare thing in the videogame industry. Most of the time, videogames are played alone, with a few people or online.
I'll tell you an interesting story. Last year, a woman from the orchestra came up to me and Jack. She literally had tears coming down her eyes. She said that she had a 17 year old son who's never come to see her play. He came that night with some friends. She was saying that her son has been playing games for the last ten years, and she thought something was wrong with him. All this time, she was worried, but that night was the first time she saw her son was not different, and was the same as all the people that were there.
O.G.: With that, you have all these musicians playing classical music week in and week out, what's their reaction to playing videogame music?
Tommy: Symphonies across the world are not connecting with the younger audience. My generation, 40 and under, tend to think of symphonies as something for old people in tuxedos where no one claps, everyone is quite, and it's only for rich people. We wanted to break that mold. Orchestra and symphonies are trying to get that younger audience and that's what Video Games Live does for them. We're helping to usher in a whole new generation of people to come out and see the symphony.
Now when they first hear of Video Games Live, there's definitely some apprehension from people in the orchestra. I don’t blame them. These people have studied Stravinsky, Mozart and Beethoven their whole lives, and now they're sitting there with music that says Sonic the Hedgehog. Once they play the music, you can see their expressions change immediately and nodding their heads that this is cool music. Then once the show happens, and thousands of people are screaming as if it's the Beatles or Elvis, that's when the orchestra really goes crazy. They'll come up to us saying how they've been playing for 40 years and they have never heard a crowd react like that. What starts out at apprehension in the beginning turns into appreciation once they see the reaction it has on millions of people all over the world.
O.G.: When I went to Video Games Live, the big piece of the night is Final Fantasy 7's "One Winged Angel." With that piece, you do not have video game footage like you do all the other games. What's going on there? Is it a competitive thing?
Tommy: Yes, absolutely. Square Enix does not allow us to use video game footage because they have their concert, and they want their concert to be special. While they play 6 shows and we play 60 shows, they don't want to share the footage. We have to respect their wishes. It's too bad for the fans, but we showoff the fan art, cosplay, and more of the orchestra. I don't think it's a bad thing not to have it because it doesn't detract from the show that much. Final Fantasy music is arguably the best videogame music out there, but it's not the end-all, be-all. There's Halo, Kingdom Hearts, Mario, and Zelda that's just as much love that we do have videogame footage.
O.G.: Video Games Live was supposed to have a concert recorded for PBS this weekend, but it got delayed. What happened?
Tommy: This is going to be one of the single greatest turning points in the videogame industry. PBS is in 80 million household in North America. I think when people look back and ask when videogames became mainstream; hopefully this is one of the things people point to. There are supposed to be 55 million people watching this show this year on PBS. Most of those people watching are not gamers. This is going to show all those people how far videogames have come. How far the music has come and how powerful the community is. We signed the deal and were supposed to film it on Feb. 5th. We wanted to make sure that this was the biggest show we can do. This is not only to record for PBS, but also to record our second CD and the DVD/Blu-Ray for it.
We lost a lot of time over Christmas because a lot of people were out on holiday. Then it's the first week of January and we realized that we needed more time. We wanted to make this show great with more special effects, more special guest, and want to make this the best game concert the world has ever seen. We decided to slide it a few months; it'll be April 1st now. It's giving us enough time to create something special that's everyone is going to be really proud of. I'm hoping that this will have a major impact on non-gamers since they will be watching it. It's our one chance to prove to the world how cool videogames are.
You can listen to the full interview here.
For more info on Tommy Tallarico, go to Tallarico.com.
To find out where Video Games Live will be next, check out VideoGamesLive.com.