For most of this week, I was pretty sick. There was an upside, though: it gave me the opportunity to stumble across one of Kyle Landry's piano marathons on Twitch. That night, he became one of the most viewed anythings on Twitch, nearly beating Counter-Strike, Hearthstone, and Dying Light.
At first, it was just idle curiosity. I was about to flop into bed and roll around in agony some more, but then I saw people tweeting about some guy playing piano on Twitch. Lots of people. So I clicked. Sure enough, it was just Landry in his room, fingers prancing across piano keys like a ballet at lightspeed, in a way that was almost as entrancing to watch as it was to hear.
Then familiar melodies started to creep in. A slow, soothing rendition of the Legend of Zelda theme. A classy take on the Pokemon battle theme. Halo. Kingdom Hearts. Final Fantasy. Obscure anime themes. They all sounded magnificent, and my slow trudge to bed was interrupted by utter transfixation.
He kept at it for hours. Plenty of people have played video game music (and other memorable tunes; I'm pretty sure people shed real tears when he trotted out a song from Toy Story) on piano, but it was something else to see it streaming. It was like watching a private concert from the front row of someone's bedroom, seated alongside thousands of chattering fans who were equally entranced.
Despite attempting something like this years ago only to have it not really take off, Landry told me that combining music and games just makes sense to him.
"Games and music have always been two of my main passions," he said via email. "I started playing the piano at the age eight, and video games at the age of five. Once I saw video game pianist Martin Leung play a Super Mario medley blindfolded around 2004, I realised playing the music from video games on the piano was totally possible. After that, I started practicing video game music on the piano vigorously, most notably, the Final Fantasy Piano Collections, and various Nintendo series."
Last time Landry tried to combine games and music in this exact way, it fizzled out, but this time the stars aligned. Viewership numbers skyrocketed. Five thousand, ten thousand, fifteen thousand. Before long, the live view count was hovering around 20,000 people, giving every stream combined for games like Hearthstone, Counter-Strike, and Dying Light a run for their money. What started as a fun little exercise for Landry — a pianist who, admittedly, already had a decently sized web following thanks to covers of things like pop songs on YouTube — became something much bigger.
Landry explained to me what happened: "The director of content marketing at Twitch joined in on my stream, and it was not to much longer until he put me straight on the front page. Suddenly I was getting messages by my moderators, explaining the situation, and a massive increase of viewers commenced. After two hours or so, we went from two hundred viewers to twenty thousand viewers! They accepted me into the partnership program that same night."
"That night was unfathomable for me," he added.
People were flocking to Landry's stream in droves. But they weren't just popping in on a whiff of novelty, cocking an eyebrow for a couple seconds, and then deciding there wasn't enough screaming or bullets or screaming bullets. They were staying for minutes, half-hours, hours. They loved it.
The overall vibe was refreshingly warm — surprisingly so given how unruly massive Twitch mobs can sometimes get. The few people who acted like jerks were quickly told to leave by other viewers, and everybody else was effusive, emotional even. Landry's playing swept them away, took them on dreamy waltzes through their fondest gaming memories. Times, places, people, characters. People were laughing, joking, sharing memories, and even crying. I know I nearly did when Landry began playing the main theme from the Studio Ghibli movie Howl's Moving Castle:
But the appeal of this thing went further than that. Before long, I noticed something: people were chatting about this piano concert like it was a video game. Every time it hit a new viewership milestone, people would frantically type out "10k hype!" or "15k hype!" Others made references to assuming control in Twitch Plays Pokemon. Some were worried Landry was gonna get swatted.
Landry, in turn, was interacting with the Twitch chat — taking requests, writing little messages on pieces of paper and showing them to everyone, trying songs he'd never done before, playing off the invisible crowd's energy. Twitch's interface — the relationship viewers share with streamers — had turned a humdrum piano playing session into something of a video game. He told me that it all just came together naturally, both in streams prior to this one and on the spot that night:
"The Twitch community KNOWS games, and they know the music all too well, so this may be the best possible audience for me," he said. "It does not come to me as a surprise that the Twitch community appreciates music to this degree. From what I've gathered over the years, hardcore video gamers regard the music of games to be just as important as the gameplay itself. When my fans use language usually reserved for games, I love it, simply because it something that I know and use myself on occasion."
There's a thing about people who play games, though. Give them control of a situation, and it will never go how you expect it to. They will always try something strange, silly, or even game-breaking. And just as Landry wove his fingers through sonic tapestries made up of motifs, themes, variations, and refrains, Twitch viewers echoed a chorus of their own: "PLAY SANDSTORM."
Darude's techno song is one of the longest running video game memes out there, often associated with highlight videos of games like League of Legends and Call of Duty (and parody videos of said highlight videos). The crowd hungered to hear the hackneyed 1999 pump-up anthem belched out of a beautiful classical instrument. They begged and pleaded after nearly every song Landry played.
So, against all odds (pianos and this song are not supposed to mix), he did it. Eventually. And it was magical:
Landry ended up playing for more than seven straight hours that night, and he nearly pulled a repeat performance the next. He told me that he's gonna have to shorten his shows runtime for his health (tendinitis is a thing, ya'll), but expect more. Landry's also helping create the soundtrack for a crowdfunded indie game called Bacon Man. He confessed to me that, occasionally, it's hard to not accidentally slip into classic video game tunes while coming up with his own.
"Sometimes when [Bacon Man developer Neal Laurenza] and I are sitting at the piano brainstorming for the soundtrack, I end up accidentally playing some Zelda, Mario, Pokemon, or Final Fantasy," he said. "It can't be helped — Koji Kondo, Junichi Masuda, and Nobuo Uematsu are HUGE inspirations for me!"
Still, I had to know: when you write original stuff but have gotten relatively famous off covers, does it ever sting to see people whoop and cheer for covers but go "meh" to music you wrote?
"My original stuff unfortunately does not tend to get as many views as my covers, but it's only natural for someone to click on a video of music that they already love rather than trying to listen to new music," he replied. "It doesn't bother me too much because it's expected, but it is a goal of mine to be a successful video game composer, so maybe one day that will change."
It will be a journey for sure, but it's one we'll get to go on with Landry — at least, in part. I can't wait to see (and hear) what comes next.