Tears and Near-Death Experiences at GDC, VGL

By Thomas J. Allen and Matthew Sakey

There had to be one. On the third night of the Game Developers Conference in San Jose (March 20-24), an ambulance showed up at 3 a.m. in front of the Fairmont Hotel, the known party site for attendees of the conference – which acts as a combined class reunion, five-day job interview, celebrity meet ‘n greet and info download for game developers. Rumors swirled as people went about their business attending awards shows and even live music concerts.

The conference, known for its week-long mix of business and pleasure, had only begun. The ambulance was just the first of many shocks to come as both independent and professional game developers alike gathered to strike deals and recognize the achievements in their industry. Monday and Tuesday – open to VIPs, holders of $1,000+ Giga Passes and members of the press only, focused on major industry issues and day-long summits about game studies curricula in college, the state of mobile gaming, and the use of games-based learning.

The true conference began on Wednesday. That night’s largest special event was the Game Developers Choice Awards, organized and voted upon by members of the International Game Developers Association (www.igda.org), an industry advocacy group of nearly 10,000 game journalists, designers, programmers, artists, producers, and audio professionals.

Awards were first given out to outstanding exhibitors at the Independent Games Festival. Nominees included Dodge That Anvil, Cloud, Saints & Sinners Bowling, and Dad ‘n Me – a follow-up to last year’s beloved Alien Hominid from game studio The Behemoth. While most nominees were the result of a university team or other group, some games were actually made by one or two powerhouse individuals such as Tom Fulp, Dan Paladin, John Platte, Ernie Noa, and Will Dull. The big winner and the obvious crowd favorite was Darwinia, an eerily beautiful strategy game from British developers Introversion. Darwinia’s creators thanked the voters and proudly proclaimed their independence. “We didn’t accept any money from publishers.”

The remainder of the night was devoted to studio-produced games. 2006 will go down in history as the year one of the most important video games ever produced swept the awards. The Sony-published Shadow of the Colossus dominated the show with 5 awards for innovation, character design, game design, visual arts, and Game of the Year. The awards were accepted by famed developers Junichi Hosono, Fumito Ueda, Atsuko Fukuyama, Hitoshi Niwa, Shunpei Suzuki, Koji Hasegawa, Masanori Kajita, Hironobu Nakano, Kenji Kaido, and Yasuhide Kobayashi.

In the minds of many, Shadow of the Colossus permanently puts to bed the debate over whether or not games can be art. Inspired by the Biblical story of Nimrod, the protagonist attempts to resurrect a murdered love based on the instructions of a booming spirit voice that inhabits the temple where the beauty lies. Called upon to find and destroy 16 majestic Colossi, most of whom would dwarf King Kong, the young man demonstrates the dangerous capacity of humans to blindly do harm in the name of love without thought for consequences or morality. Playing as this driven protagonist, you are one man against these gargantuan, harmless beasts, searching for them in a vast, empty, and stunningly natural world as empty and exquisite as the Colossi themselves.

The party atmosphere was even grander on Thursday at the awards show for the Game Audio Network Guild (G.A.N.G., www.audiogang.org). Critical and fan favorite God of War, which came home empty-handed at the Choice Awards the previous night, walked away with 7 G.A.N.G. Awards, including Best Dialogue, Best Interactive Score, Best Cinematic/Cut-Scene Audio, Best Live Performance Recording, Best Sound Design, and also the night’s top two honors for Music of the Year and Audio of the Year.

Another crowd favorite was Guitar Hero. The rock sim Harmonix software has become a national sensation, and won for Most Innovative Use of Audio and Use of Licensed Music, which was performed to a standing ovation by guitar players Lyle Workman, Ken Harrill, Marcus Henderson, and Lance Taber, with Darryl C. Anders on bass, Joel Taylor on drums and Scott Dugdale on keys. The amplification was so loud that people in the front row could literally feel their jeans vibrating against their legs.

But the ballroom fell silent as Electronic Arts’ Vice President of Post Production Murray Allen was remembered, having passed away in 2005. Murray, a sound designer of the Grammy Awards telecast for 20 years, brought his talents to the game industry as a musician, producer, session player, studio owner, and studio designer. Murray was known to many audio professionals in the gaming industry, and his loss was keenly felt.

G.A.N.G. founder Tommy Tallarico commented that the majority of audio professionals in the game industry work under contract, and that despite the competition for those contracts, the audio community is more tight-knit than any other community in the industry. Most disciplines in game development have yet to form recognized guilds for its artists, programmers, producers, and designers as Hollywood has separate guilds for its directors, editors, cinematographers, art directors, and costume designers. Sound designer Aaron Cronan concurred, “Make friends now, because this industry keeps exploding and I’m afraid that once it gets too big and these guys are making ridiculous money, we might lose that vibe where we all stick together.”

Keeping in theme with the business of audio production, another key moment was the award for Jim Charne, author of the 3-part article, “The Treatment of Music in Games.” He simply stated, “I just want to do my part to make sure composers get a fair deal.” A practicing attorney, Charne has long been a supporter of the games industry and is best known for his legal advice column Famous Last Words, published at the IGDA website. In addition to the G.A.N.G. award, Charne carried home an IGDA MVP award for special services to the industry – one of only three handed out each year.

Nowhere was the importance of the audio community more apparent than on the last night of the conference at the sold-out Video Games Live (VGL) Concert in the San Jose Civic Auditorium. Conducted by award-winning composer Jack Wall, the concert featured a 39-piece orchestra with 16 voice choir, light show, and animated video supporting the rhythm and emotion of the music from game composers, including Golden Globe-nominee Harry Gregson-Williams, Emmy-winner Michael Giacchino, Tim Larkin, and Nintendo’s Koji Kondo of Mario and Zelda fame.

Special attention was paid to the synchronization of video to audio, as the first live medley showed off tunes covering a 30-year history of video games. As each piece of 8-bit scaffolding fell in the images from Donkey Kong, the music fell beat-by-beat on cue. As tetrad pieces plummeted ever more quickly in Tetris, the orchestra played faster and faster. Throughout the night, warriors’ swords and whips crashed and cracked in sync to the crash of cymbals in a video of the beloved Castlevania series that dazzled the audience. Music was pensive as animated fighters circled each other, evaluating their next moves. A steady gong sound reverberated through the auditorium as the video pulled back from Kratos, hero of God of War, sitting motionless upon his throne on Mount Olympus. Flutes in the orchestra matched the elfin boy named Link, hero of countless Legend of Zelda titles, playing his flute on screen. As the opening of Beyond Good & Evil played on screen, the audience watched a girl doing tai chi on a cliff, set at VGL to serene music reminiscent of Vivaldi. Then… BOOM! Action-packed music and visuals took center-stage. Games were brought to pounding life with recreations of their own musical scores, and those who have played and loved games their entire lives were helpless to do more than sit enthralled, grinning from ear to ear as the music, each note more familiar than the last, pummeled the audience.

The event was interactive in every sense of the word. Before the concert, fan applause determined the winner of a video game costume contest: a pointy-hatted magician costume for the character Vivi from Final Fantasy IX. Two audience members participated in an “interactive symphony” where they competed by playing Frogger. The orchestra changed the music on the fly, as the players calculatingly hopped their frogs through street traffic, to the river, leaping on turtles and logs as they floated by, hoping to cross to the far shore before being squashed or carried off screen. Music played the whole time, hilariously egging the players on if they waited too long to dodge intimidating obstacles, and well-timed tubas accented every brave jump, reacting live to the player’s movement.

The power of the game industry was realized once again during the presentation of music from Medal of Honor, a World War II game originally from Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks company. The orchestra played to a larger-than-life montage of old black-and-white wartime footage. The personal imagery evoked the feeling of remembering a lost loved one. In the audience, a man in the very front row, section 102, seat 2, had a beer in one hand and wiped a tear away with the other as he watched a soldier kissing his crying wife good-bye with no time for words. During the intermission (in which a gamelike load screen ticked down the time to “load” Act II), the man would not give his name but freely admitted the effect of the images paired with the video game music, serving as a transcendent symbol of the power inside one auditorium.

The night continued to celebrate the passion for game music. The Sega logo, so often accompanied in its games with a voice-over singing the company’s two-syllable name, was voiced here by the choir, causing a charmed laugh from the audience.

Further emphasizing the family appeal of the event, the performance of the music from the Disney-themed Kingdom Hearts was particularly inspired. After a montage of many sad-faced animal Disney characters, the music made a turn for the regal just as the Great Stag from Bambi strode on-screen. Shortly thereafter, several crescendos accompanied stags clashing horns, the dragon form of sorceress Malificent scorching the prince, Aladdin swinging like Tarzan and grabbing Abu the monkey out of danger in the nick of time, and Monstro the Whale slamming his colossal jaws together and causing a tidal wave.

Music from the bestselling Myst series was also played. One theme, recently used by Spielberg in the trailer for the film Munich, appeared prominently in the medley. The music grew and grew as mystical mechanical forces and heavy machinery of unknown origin moved, spun, glided, and transformed on the screen, like a window into a secret civilization where not a soul can be found among the machines in yet another stunning video game landscape with natural beauty.

Video game pianist Martin Leung, who became famous for playing blindfolded on his web site, made sure he could see the keys this time with a solo keyboard performance of a Final Fantasy medley. From the Final Fantasy overture, to the Aeris theme, to the Squall/Rinoa love song, to the theme of the Virgin Mary-like Terra, Leung tied them all together and received a long standing ovation.

As co-founder Tommy Tallarico came on stage to announce, “We’ve come to the end of the show,” the adult audience groaned with disappointment before being presented with one last performance. After that, the man with a beer and a tear disappeared forever. There had to be one. He was the one that symbolized the meaning of the night and the importance of the game development community.

But in terms of tears and shocked souls, he was not the only one. Like so many games gone unrecognized by the public for their artistry, there must be many more out there that simply haven’t been “called out.” Events like Video Games Live, marking the close of another Game Developers Conference, provided a singular moment in time to recognize the mastery involved in taking video game art and commerce to where it is today.

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