Distant Worlds is a musical event unlike most anything else. The music itself is adapted from either 8-bit or synth pieces, written to strengthen the emotional investment of the Final Fantasy videogame series in a massive endeavor for a sweeping, full-bodied symphony orchestra. It’s a project that not only translates the music from one medium to another, but finds new life and deeper emotion through physical instrumentation with a near-constant update to the arrangements and set list.
It makes one fall deeper in love with a game series that, at this point in its lifespan, lives off of the nostalgia and love of characters and worlds spanning three decades. With a fanbase as rich and deep as those who follow Final Fantasy, only an event like Distant Worlds has the emotional pull necessary to embed an audience directly into the world of Spira or the depths of the Shinra Corporation.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra pulled off another majestic performance, capturing the attention of a massive array of different audience members. It’s the most varied assortment of people entering the same venue I’ve ever seen: fancy dresses and suits, dress pants sitting side by side with torn jeans and t-shirts, sitting behind a couple cosplaying as Sephiroth (VII) and Yuna (X). It’s a true festivity for all involved, whether they be hardcore gamers or just simply fans of the symphony.
At the pulpit once again was Conductor Arnie Roth, leading the orchestra as he has around the world. Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of nearly all 14 games in the Final Fantasy series missed what is allegedly his first appearance in years. Without his music, the game series wouldn’t have anything near the impact that they have had over the years, regardless of story and character development, as he drove the emotion before voice over was ever dreamt of as a staple to gaming.
However, this year Nobuo became ill shortly before the show and was unable to leave Japan. A representative from Square Enix was in attendance to see the legions of fans of Uematsu came out and fill the Chicago Symphony Center in near worship.
Starting the evening was “Prelude” the official theme for Final Fantasy that has been a part of almost all of the 14 games to come capacity. The strings of a massive harp plucked the opening notes, reminiscent of the 8-bit era of sound before a full choir sang in heavenly tones. It’s a simple song, but one that is powerful enough to make an attempt to pull tears from the eye of any fan.
This year’s concert was a celebration of Final Fantasy VII, with the Remake of Final Fantasy VII having been announced just months ago and the first videos of gameplay released weeks ago. Several of the themes from VII are staples of the Distant Worlds concert series, such as the whimsical and action heavy opening song, “Bombing Mission” or “One Winged Angel”, the fan-favorite theme song to the de facto villain of the FF series, Sephiroth.
However, the focus here played heavily on the rarer songs to be played live, such as “Aerith’s Theme” or the sinister “Jenova Complete”, blasting through the concert hall to a massive screen showing scenes from Crisis Core: Final Fantasy as Zach Fair learned the truth of Sephiroth and the Jenova cells before Cloud Strife took up the mantle to fight.
“Cosmo Canyon” was premiered live for the first time as a song hand selected by Nobuo Uematsu. The brooding, atmospheric piece set the tone as the theme song for the valley that Red XIII, the red lion from VII and his father called home.
Vocalist Susan Calloway appeared on stage to sing “Dragonsong” from Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensword, the song she recorded for the game itself. She appeared briefly again for a performance of “Kiss Me Goodbye”, the only song representing Final Fantasy XII.
One stand out performance was “Vamo’ alla Flamenco” from Final Fantasy IX, a majestic piece that reflects the fanciful energy of IX the same way that Zidane Tribal and his Shakespearean-esque troupe storm into the game to steal the princess. The orchestra swayed in sound like fire, frenzied with dance paired with an incredibly difficult and impressive bit of guitarwork. Not only is it a unique piece for IX as a game, it’s a masterpiece amongst over fifteen games and three decades worth of music.
Capping off the night were highlights from one of the Final Fantasy staples: combat. The official last song was a lengthy Battle Melody for Final Fantasy I-XIV, weaving the main fighting themes from each game into one suite of coherent music. Knowing each games’ battle music, it was fascinating to see how each game was interpreted into one piece just as much as it was to see the way they blended together to make one single song. All things considered, the battle melodies are more simple and straightforward than character themes, but when written into one piece, it perfectly captured the struggle, pain and bravery that has defined the heroes of the Final Fantasy games for so long.
As an encore, the orchestra pulled “Battle on the Big Bridge”, the most famous pieces from Final Fantasy V as the heroes fought Gilgamesh. Aside from different interpretations of “Prelude” being played (usually during the credits) of most games, “Battle on the Big Bridge” is perhaps the only song that has cropped up in remastered versions across several games from time to time. Being a surprise whenever it appears during a battle, it was a fitting end to an amazing show.
Distant Worlds is one of the few things that I look forward to on a yearly basis, as much as or more so than most other festivals or expected shows. Though it rehashes several of the favorite songs, Final Fantasy boasts a massive library with some of the best written music in all of gaming. Any glimpse of a new song translated to the orchestra breathes completely new life and energy into music that has been listened to over and over again for years.
by Kyle Schultz