Grand Theft Auto V is a nothing short of a sensation. The release of a new GTA game has always been a big deal, but nothing has ever been quite this big. It’s not just that the game made more than $1 billion in its first three days, more than any entertainment launch in the history of ever, or that yesterday's launch of its online multiplayer mode (fittingly titled Grand Theft Auto Online) has been rocky at best due to the massive numbers of people attempting to play it crashing servers; it’s that the game has reached far beyond its initial medium. Grand Theft Auto V is not just a videogame anymore.
Last night at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City, the 51st New York Film Festival put on a concert, “Live From Los Santos: The Music of Grand Theft Auto V.” For those not acquainted with the Grand Theft Auto V soundtrack, it's been broken up into three volumes: “Original Music,” “The Score,” and “The Soundtrack.” The first and last have more traditional songs, the type one might expect to see at a concert. But this was not the focus of the concert. Instead, the acts of Tangerine Dream, Woody Jackson, and the Alchemist with Oh No performed a series of songs from the game’s score in front of a massive projected screen playing footage from the game.
It’s a fascinating decision, and a really strange one. A good score adds a little something to the mix but is never overbearing. It’s never the point. It’s not catchy or distracting. Not only that, but Grand Theft Auto V’s score is referred to as “dynamic” because it adjusts itself to the game’s environment at a given moment (more intense scene? The score will reflect that). So not only is this a concert of background music, it’s a concert of background music that is intended to change in response to a player’s experience. An actual concert at an actual concert venue (or in this case, a church, which is fabulously ironic given the religious furor over the violence and sex happy Grand Theft Auto series) is hardly the best way to experience this music.
It’s interesting to see how film festivals, often considered a bastion of cinematic quality, have taken to videogames in recent years. At the Tribeca Film Festival back in April, footage from the Quantic Dream’s PlayStation 3-exclusive Beyond: Two Souls, which will be released on October 8, was screened along with a behind-the-scenes talk featuring some of its creators, including game director David Cage. Cage’s work, which includes the critically-acclaimed Heavy Rain and the polarizing Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit in Europe), has always been notable for the way it borrows from film. Beyond: Two Souls goes even further, borrowing two Hollywood actors, Willem DaFoe and Ellen Page, to play its leads. At last year’s New York Asian Film Festival, a special anniversary screening of Infernal Affairs and its sequel was followed by a panel discussion with the developers of Sleeping Dogs -- a game inspired by the film.
But neither of those games received the attention from their festivals that GTA V has gotten from the NYFF. The concert was just one piece of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s ode to the game in its "Convergence" slate. Also featured were two panels: one focused on world-building featuring members of developer Rockstar Games’ creative team (“Los Santos and Blaine County: The World of Grand Theft Auto V”) and the other was a discussion follow-up to the concert, “NYFF Live: The Music of Grand Theft Auto V,” with Rockstar’s Music Supervisor, Ivan Pavlovich, on hand with members of the bands that played. These things, alongside a party celebration for the game, made up a serious commitment to this product by a festival that generally focuses on a different medium entirely. It’s a big deal when mediums collide like this, and it makes sense that Grand Theft Auto V would be the game to make it happen.
As for the concert… it wasn’t great. Each individual piece of music was pretty repetitive (as scores tend to be) and attempting to mix the 20+ performers must have been a logistical nightmare. I have a tendency to watch the drummers because they are generally more active than other band members, and that was just as true here, but when I was watching one of the four (!) percussionists hit a cymbal without hearing its impact, it was an odd moment. And it happened constantly during the 75-minute runtime. The whole thing was filmed, though, so I wonder if there will be some better sound mixing after the fact. It was cool to witness what really was big moment for video games (I don’t believe there has ever been a concert devoted to a single game before, the awesome Video Games Live series notwithstanding), but the game that broke all of those records really did deserve better.