You might not know his name, but Tommy Tallarico is probably responsible for the music in your favourite video game. RN Afternoons learns how a homeless 21 year-old became one of the biggest figures in the video game world.
Few T-shirts can possibly have changed an individual’s future as monumentally as this one.
The very first person who came into the store on my first day worked for Richard Branson, and they were starting a Virgin video game company right down the street.TOMMY TALLARICO
It’s 1989, and a 21-year-old has left his distraught parents crying on their doorstep to drive across the US and chase a dream in California.
The young man arrives on the west coast with no money, no job, no friends and nowhere to live.
It’s the sort of brazen plan that, in that particular period of history, seems to have inevitably worked out.
While living under a pier, Tommy Tallarico responded to an ad and became a keyboard salesman.
On his first day, he picked out one of his three T-shirts, featuring the then-unheralded TurboGrafx 16 console.
‘Not only was it not Pacman, but it was something very obscure,’ chuckles Tallarico.
‘The very first person who came into the store on my first day worked for Richard Branson, and they were starting a Virgin video game company right down the street.
Gameplay from Prince of Persia (1989)
‘He saw my T-shirt and was like, “Oh my god, do you know about video games?” and I was like, “I know everything about video games!”‘
He was offered a job on the spot.
‘He said, “Just play video games for us and tell us what you think of them and how we can improve them, and we’ll pay you $6 an hour.”
‘I was like, “This California is alright.”‘
Working in the video games industry wasn’t the sum of Tallarico’s ambition, though.
He desperately wanted to make music for them, and hassled the company’s vice-president to give him an opportunity.
‘Finally, when the first game we were working on internally came up, they gave me a chance.
‘It was the original Prince of Persia, and it ended up winning best music of the year award, so they made me the music guy.’
The plodding, ominous synth that Tallarico embedded under the gameplay forms a key part of the iconic game’s enduring appeal.
It also represents an important moment in the evolution of video game music, even though it was achieved within the limited technological confines of the time.
‘There was very little cartridge space because all the graphic guys took it up,’ says Tallarico. ‘We had to battle, and we were lucky if we got 30 seconds of looping music.
‘Because you had nothing, everything was based around melody, and boy that melody better have been strong, because it was going to be repeated for hours on end.’
Even now, with 100-strong orchestras at his disposal, Tallarico’s approach remains the same.
‘If you think about some of the greatest video game music ever written-Mario, Tetris, Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog-they all came from that era. They were 45-second loops, but melody was everything.’
Twenty-five years later, Tallarico enters the RN Afternoons studio as one of the most wildly popular figures in the gaming industry.
Having created music for games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater and Spiderman, he now performs video game compositions in front of fervent audiences around the world.
Using orchestras from the towns he performs in, Tallarico conducts almost 50 shows a year.
‘I wanted to prove how culturally significant and artistic video games have become as an industry,’ he says.
‘I also want to help usher in a whole new generation of young people into symphony and the arts.’