It’s a rare, special moment, John DeCampos explains: You’re immersed in a classic arcade game, drinking a nice, cold craft beer, when a live band across the room starts playing a high-energy, spot-on cover of a tune from the very game that’s captivated you.
This musically “Inception”-esque moment is brought to you by the great minds behind video game music festivals – annual celebrations of the obscure, but well-loved subgenre of video game music (VGM). Here in Baltimore, the Ottobar is set to host the 12th rendition of the Bit Gen Gamer Fest this Saturday, with a day packed with live music, booze and, crucially, a swath of free-to-play classic console and arcade games.
Organizers describe it as “the East Coast’s largest single-day celebration of VGM.” The sounds are diverse; while they all fall under the VGM umbrella, they span everything from chiptunes and electronic dance music to heavy metal.
“If you want to be forged in fire in the video game music scene, spend 10 hours at Bit Gen,” said DeCampos, director of the festival.
Much of the music at Bit Gen leans toward metal, DeCampos explained, because game soundtracks lend themselves well to the palm-muted “djent”-heavy style for covers. However, “there’s something for everybody,” he noted.
This year’s headliners include Georgia’s Bit Brigade, known for their “Mega Man” and “Legend of Zelda” covers, and Indiana’s Knight of the Round, which covers songs from the Final Fantasy games with a heavy mental bent. Joining them will be various local artists, including Rare Candy (for whom DeCampos drums), Random Battles and Steel Samurai, among others.
This year’s 17-band lineup is the largest in Bit Gen’s dozen years so far. DeCampos said the original Bit Gen — then dubbed “8-Bit Genocide” — was inspired by Videogame Armageddon, a VGM festival in State College, Pa. He and others held Baltimore’s first such festival in the former Station North DIY venue Load of Fun (now the BARCO-owned Motor House). The folks behind MAGFest, a much-larger three-day VGM and gaming festival hosted at Maryland’s National Harbor, eventually “adopted” Bit Gen and provided additional staff and promotional support, according to DeCampos.
“As to whether or not it was gonna work in Baltimore remained to be seen, but it worked out pretty well,” he said.
Cynthia Schatoff, bassist for Steel Samurai, described the appeal of VGM as partially “nostalgia factor” for video game lovers, and partly a style of music for all – gamers or not – to enjoy.
“If you’re listening to music for music’s sake, I think there’s a lot of great melodies in [VGM],” she said. “They get stuck in your head.”
Schatoff said she got into video games in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but didn’t begin playing the music from them until about 10 years ago. She started learning to play guitar in 2003, but switched to bass specifically for her first video game band, which she joined nine years ago. Steel Samurai, her current group, specializes in dynamic VGM arrangements, “mostly of obscure video games,” she said.
One example: “Criminal Justice System,” which covers melodies from CAPCOM’s “Ace Attorney” series:
Baltimore’s VGM scene is tight-knit, she said, with bonds forged between groups specializing in the sub-genre. Bit Gen is, therefore, a labor of communal love.
“It’s just such a joy to put on these concerts with a bunch of friends that share the same passions as you,” Schatoff said.
But that doesn’t mean it’s small, in terms of numbers. DeCampos said Baltimore’s VGM community is “crazily populated.” He noted that a third of the acts in this year’s festival are local.
While it’s certainly a niche area of the music world, Baltimore has just the right concentration of nerd culture and a strong enough DIY ethic to support its own VGM scene – and a devoted festival.
“It’s hard for me to imagine it not being in Baltimore,” Schatoff said. “It’s been here for 12 years. It seems like there’s a good DIY music scene in a way, and there’s a good bit of that culture in Baltimore. Could Bit Gen be yanked up and dropped in another city? Maybe. But Baltimore really seems to feed on it.”
Bit Gen Gamer Fest XII is scheduled for Saturday, July 29, at the Ottobar, located at 2549 N. Howard Street. Tickets $25; doors open at 3 p.m.
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