Video games have become such a huge entertainment force to be reckoned with that almost every aspect of their development can be classified as its own art form.
Old and new school graphics have carved out a genre in the street graffiti movement. Titles like Rockstar's LA Noire and Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain used groundbreaking motion-capture technology to put real actors' movements and facial expressions into a playable video game the same way that a camera would for a traditional movie.
Even the music that punctuates and heightens the emotions of a video game is celebrated with its own medium that offers more than just cover songs of the tunes that stick in our heads and are often recycled as ringtones on smartphones. For these arrangements, musicians use the sounds from those games and even the gaming hardware to compose completely original tunes with as much melody and heart as those that are composed and recorded by a 40-piece orchestra with an egotistical musical legend at the helm.
"It's gained a whole new level of respect for what I can do and accomplish," said Raheem Jarbo who is better known under the moniker Mega Ran. "It showed me there was no limit to my creativity and imagination and that I could make original music that sounded like it could be in video games but could also be completely original."
"Mega Ran", Brent "brentalfloss" (sic) Black and Dan "Danimal Cannon" Behrens are three of the biggest names in the genre. They have huge fan bases who allow them to making a living performing at concerts and conventions and even produce and sell albums such as brentalfloss' Flossophy, Mega Ran's Black Materia and Danimal Cannon's Parallel Processing. They are also reaching the end of a long and successful Total Destruction Tour that makes a stop tonight at The Boiler Room and ends at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin.
Each perform in their own style and sub-genre of the genre ranging from the supremely silly to the super serious. Brentalfloss, a New York University grad with a master's degree in music theatre who wrote and directed one of his first shows at Dallas' Pocket Sandwich Theatre, adds witty lyrics to the instrumental soundtracks of classic games such as DuckTales, The Legend of Zelda and the Mega Man series.
Mega Ran and Danimal Cannon both turn video game sounds and songs into original hip hop and rock songs respectively, a style known as "chiptuning."
"It can be extremely limiting but it has a really, really unique sound to it," Behrens said. "It's got a lot of character that you're not going to hear anywhere else."
Black believes the video game genre works unlike ones that might be devoted to music from movies or TV shows because the theme or soundtrack to a game is able to make a stronger connection to the viewer.
"Unlike the movies, you're not passively receiving the music," Black said. "The music in a video game score is the score to your life in that game. It's the music of that journey that you took and you just happened to take it with 5 million other kids. As you're growing up, those songs stick with you in a way that a score to a film or a summer jam might not."
The same can be said for the kind of music these three try to produce for their albums, shows and YouTube channels.
"I really like to create catchy melodies that stick with people," Behrens said. "I usually start with a couple of chords and start with a guitar and translate them into something that works well on a Gameboy. It's an odd process taking it from one instrument to another and it often leads to some new musical decisions I might not have thought of before. It's an odd process but I write all my music with a controller in my hands while I'm staring at a tiny screen."
It also makes sense from a financial standpoint. Behrens has performed video game music with other rock bands such as Armcannon and they offer their own unique opportunities to create an interesting sound but he can also do the same with just a hacked Nintendo Gameboy plugged into a concert hall's sound system.
"Simplicity is something I enjoy about it and at least from that aspect, there's a lot less about it that can go wrong from a sound perspective," Behrens said. "It makes it easier for me to go and do more interesting things and go to further places, which is not something I thought of when I first started out."
They even offer a surprising method of delivering very sweet and personal songs that are more than just mental trips to fans' digital childhoods. Jarbo's most personal ballad called Dream Master, a song that utilizes audio elements from the NES game Little Nemo: The Dream Master, showed him how much potential his music could have even compared to mainstream hip hop and rap.
"I applied it to my own life," Jarbo said. "I take the story from Little Nemo and insert myself into it and talk about the things I went through. It's some tough things that I went through that are tough to talk about let alone write about but it was very cathartic. People would come up to me after my shows and say, 'That's about me.' It showed me there's a place for heartfelt moments especially in hip hop that you don't hear about a lot besides how rich or cool you are."
Black recalled his 2-2 Blues,' a lyrical retelling of the theme from the underwater levels in Super Mario Bros. that he once performed as part of Tallarico's Video Games Live tour, and his Fight for Love ballad taken from the NES game Metroid as some of his more personal works.
"I happened to be missing my girlfriend in 2011," Black said. "In my bummed out mood, I started writing these lyrics with Samus [Metroid's main character] missing somebody back home. Whenever I go serious, more often than not, it reflects on where I am in life and emotionally on that day more than lyrics that have dick and fart jokes or satirizes a game that isn't well made or has goofy elements."
Behrens' song She Will Be Remembered from his Roots album even used chiptuning to honor the memory of a friend who passed away earlier in the year.
"There's no narrative but we use music as an emotional backbone in every sort of medium that includes it like a film score that helps associate emotions with scenes and it is surprisingly powerful," he said. "If you actually analyze music on a physiological level, it's closer to a sense of touch. That's why you hear something that sounds like it's someone tickling you on the inside or something like that."
Catch Mega Ran with Danimal Cannon and BrentalFloss tonight at The Boiler Room. Tickets are just $10.
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