Life on the Fringe

In Pursuit of a Dream

Like Squall from Final Fantasy VIII, only without the scar. And he's better looking. And he's a thousand times nicer.

by Patrick King

Okay, well, maybe he's not really too much like Squall. That's not the point, in any case.

Considering how much I went on about video game music last month, I thought I had successfully purged any inclination to write about it for a while. However, at this year's Kunicon St. Louis, I met someone who made that impossible.

The sold-out crowds at the Dear Friends (Final Fantasy) concert showed me that I'm not the only geeky guy out there who gets a kick out of video game music. I bought a rather fancy Yamaha keyboard in the 90's just so I could play some of the tunes myself, in fact. With some software and a Creative Labs sound card, I found I was able to make music that sounded just as good if not better than (well, instrument-wise, at least - I'm not claiming musical talents) the originals.

Sadly, in my college dorm, I ran out of space for my keyboard, so I put it up, setting aside the sequencing of my own MIDI tracks for higher education. After all, while I enjoy game music, I was in college to learn how to program games - my focus was not on the aural aspects of game development.

I took some Japanese, studied quite a bit of English, but my core curriculum was primarily concerned with computer science and math. I figured that combination gave me my best shot at getting into the video game industry.

And then, I met Michael Gluck.

Michael's not quite done with college - he's majoring in Marketing and Japanese - but he's already interned at EA, working on localizations of various games for the publishing powerhouse. Perhaps I should have shifted my own focus, after all.

Yet Michael is far more than just a budding game developer. I met him at Kunicon when he noticed I was wearing my Dear Friends shirt. He was cosplaying as Squall - nothing too unexpected at an anime con - but he was clearly excited about the fact that I had made it to the concert this past February. At first, I thought he was just a really energetic fan, but then he told me he saw the first show in LA, when he was at E3.

This comment took me aback. E3? He was actually at E3? Later, during the con's opening ceremonies, he was seated up front in the area designated for special guests and members of the press, and I was lucky enough to nab a spot next to him. Even after he asked me if I was coming to his concert the next day, I still didn't put two and two together. Luckily, Lauren (my fiancée/photographer - she's talented) actually read the con's program, and she helped me figure everything out.

Life on the Fringe

Clearly (to Lauren), this was Piano Squall, in person.

Charging only the cost of his expenses - food, travel, and accommodations - Michael travels to various cons around the country, performing his own arrangements of classic video game and anime music on piano. While he holds the music of Nobuo Uematsu dearest to his heart (I believe the same can be said for any game music aficionado), the performance that fans were treated to here in St. Louis consisted of such gems as "Cruel Angel's Thesis" (the main theme from Evangelion), Koji Kondo's timeless Zelda theme, some tunes from Yasunori Mitsuda's work on Chrono Trigger, and a piece from the freshly released PS2 RPG, Xenosaga II.

We made sure to get to his show early, and it was a good thing that we did. Roughly 1,500 people were in attendance to hear Michael play - quite a feat for a first-time convention like Kunicon. It's possible that some people came to Kunicon just to see Piano Squall. A quick look at his website (http://www.pianosquall.com), shows a sizable and devoted collection of fans, and as Michael said himself, "There are people on [the site's message] boards who have followed me across the country just to see one concert." Incidentally, the site contains video footage of his shows (much of which was captured by another aspiring artist, filmographer Jamal "Jay" Joseph), sheet music and MIDI files of Michael's arrangements, and (perhaps best of all) mp3 recordings of some of his favorite Final Fantasy pieces - performed by himself.

It is equally likely that many people showed up simply because they liked the idea of hearing game music performed live. Uematsu's "Dear Friends" concert series has been consistently selling out, after all.

However, I'd wager a good number of the attendees (including myself, Lauren, and my sister, Danielle) made it a point to see Michael play because we had a chance to talk to him beforehand. Spend five minutes with Michael, and it's not hard to discover how incredibly nice he is. It wasn't surprising to discover that he puts on shows for charities - where the admission fee is payable in canned goods for donation to worthy causes. In Final Fantasy VIII, Squall was a bit of a jerk. In this sense, Michael makes a terrible Squall; he's just too kind to play the taciturn character. He's outgoing, friendly, and sincerely appreciates his patrons. Michael's passion is clear in both his on- and off-stage behavior, though his love for music shines particularly bright when he's in front of a crowd.

Without a doubt, women have little trouble seeing how cute he is, as well - explaining another draw for no small portion of his dedicated fanbase.

The current game-playing/anime-loving population seems at times to be filled with more than its share of unjustifiably angry fans. For proof, check out any given forum with flame wars sparked by an argument over which system is superior to its peers.

Life on the Fringe

Michael, thankfully, is not one of them. A true fan of video games, while many of his current favorite titles are on the PS2 (he's an RPG addict, of course), his love of the industry goes back respectably far. As he told me, "I've been a gamer since the day I could physically hold a controller in two hands, but it wasn't until I played my first RPG, Final Fantasy 4, that I fell in love with video games."

Though his dream of working in the game industry came true last year when he was accepted into EA's internship program, his work there isn't the only job he's worked on that's related to gaming. More recently, he wrote the soundtrack for a small start-up group (funded by MIT, no less) called CycleScore (http://www.cyclescore.com). They've developed a nifty game that uses an exercise bike as an input device. In their game, also entitled CycleScore, the player's behavior on the bike directly influences the events transpiring on the accompanying monitor. Personally, I think it would be fantastic if more games contained more of a physical element to them - just think of the shape that we gamers would be in if each title offered a workout!

I was talking to Michael after the con (instant messaging is a wonderful thing) about his plans for the future - whether he would only be happy designing games, or if writing music for other people was enough. He answered, "My ambition is to create games, create music, create things that make people happy."

He continued, "With music, I'll take any chance I can get to make people happy. You know, you hear Uematsu's music - you were at that concert, same as I was - you saw the crowd. I mean, everyone in that room was charged - by what? This one man's music. It gets me to the piano everyday, and it's an endless source of motivation. If I had just a fraction of the power to make people happy - the way that Uematsu can - I would consider my entire life a success - that's all I want."

I have to say that Michael's passion inspired me, reaffirming my desire to enter the game industry. Truthfully, after meeting Piano Squall, I'm also interested in seeing just how far he can go. He's off to a great start, but he has the potential to go extremely far, and it would make me happy to see him achieve the sort of success he desires.

For readers who are interested in hearing Michael perform, I highly recommend checking out any con that is able to host him. A schedule of his upcoming shows can be found on his website. With his talent, I wouldn't be surprised to see him featured at Anime Central, eventually. For the time being, considering how much fun he had at St. Louis's Kunicon, it's a safe bet that he'll appear at Kunicons in the future. In the meantime, take a tour of his website and download some of his neat stuff - it's all free. That way, you'll at least get a hint of how cool he is.

And if you think you may be interested in hearing piano arrangements of other Final Fantasy music, then I'd also suggest tracking down the various "Piano Collections" albums that have been released over the years. I recently ordered a pile of them from Animenation (they've been reprinted a few times over the years), and they're very much worth a listen.

I've talked about game music quite often lately, but somehow, I suspect I'll have more to discuss in the future. Wouldn't that be great?

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