The People Behind the Video Games: Tommy Tallarico

Cleaning the canopy

Tommy Tallarico

Exhibition coordinator Georgina Goodlander and curator Chris Melissinos conducted interviews with video game designers, developers, writers, and composers for the upcoming exhibition, The Art of Video Games, which opens March 16, 2012 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Clips from the interviews will be featured in the exhibition. This month, we’re featuring a portion of Chris’s interview with the founder of the exciting, immersive musical experience, Video Games Live, Tommy Tallarico.

Chris Melissinos: Why did you decide to work with music and specifically with music for video games?

Tommy Tallarico: In 1977 when I was nine years old, I saw the film Star Wars. I heard this incredible music, this symphonic music. That was the first time I really paid attention to a symphony, to an orchestra. And I said what is that? That’s what I want to do. I would read articles, no Internet back then, so I’d go to the library and get magazines and look up John Williams and read interviews. He would talk about Mozart and Beethoven. Well, who are those guys? And then I would literally sit down and listen. Once I heard Beethoven, it was just mind boggling. The music was speaking to me and it was taking me over.

We’re now seeing the same exact thing happening with video games. I played a show, and the oboe player came up to me. She’s a woman in her late forties, early fifties, and she goes, “I’ve got to tell you about my seventeen year old son. I’ve been playing in the orchestra now for over twenty years. And I’ve wanted my son to come and see me play for so long. And he’s never come to see a performance except tonight. And not only is he here tonight, but he brought all his friends along. He’s so proud of his mom who’s going to be playing the music to Halo and Metal Gear Solid.” She had tears in her eyes.

CM: Where do you draw inspiration from when composing music for video games?

TT: When I’m working on scores for games and composing music, emotion is the most important thing. I don’t want to know what level we’re in, that’s secondary to me. A lot of times people get trapped into… oh, we’re in the ice levels, so play some high tinkly bits. And, oh, it’s the lava level, make it dark. And, oh, jungle level, let’s bring up the bongos.

To me, melody is the most important thing. Once you create the melody line – and it can be five or six notes – once you have that, you can emote anything. I want to know what the emotion is. Am I being chased? Or am I chasing somebody? Am I supposed to be super happy? Or am I really sad? Am I scared? Or am I inquisitive? Am I trying to find the key? What’s that going to sound like? Because that’s going to be different than if I’m about to get jumped by a big monster. You can make the Mario melody sound scary. You can make it sound sad. You can make it sound happy and bluesy. You can make it sound big and orchestral. So to me, it’s all about the emotion. Then after that’s taken care of, if we happen to be in the jungle maybe I’ll bring in a bongo.

CM: What is the most challenging aspect of your work?

TT: Games have become so massive now, and there are so many things you can do. In the old days, it’s like, hey, we’ve got ten levels. Cool. I’ll write you ten, one minute songs. We’ll do looping songs. And we’ll do one for the menu and one for the credit screen at the end. And we need about fifty sound effects. Cool, done. You’re there. Now, you have 100 hours of game play, 25,000 lines of dialogue, 7,000 different sound effects. We’re doing things now that Beethoven and Mozart never dreamed would be possible.

We’re able to branch out interactively. I can layer different elements depending on what’s happening on screen and what the player is doing. The player becomes the conductor on stage.

The massiveness of it all is overwhelming. No time ever in the history of the world has more music been played more times than in video games right now. I’ve always said if Beethoven were alive today, he’d be a video game composer.

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