For once, The Fat Man - one of gaming's most garrulous storytellers - holds back. "What I have to say about current game audio runs a high risk of making somebody's day worse rather than better, which runs counter to my personal goals."
Aww, c'mon. What The Fat Man thinks about game audio, people want to know. In these primordial days, the gaming equivalent of classical music's early Baroque, maybe the industry hasn't yet found its Johann Sebastian Bach; but musician and composer George "The Fat Man" Sanger stands in well for Vivaldi, say, or Telemann. Since 1983, he and his group, Team Fat, have scored over 200 computer games, including Wing Commander I and II, Loom, Master of Orion, The 7th Guest and its sequel The 11th Hour, and (lately) dozens of Indian-reservation slot machines. Sanger composed the game field's first General MIDI soundtrack, its first direct-to-MIDI live musical recording, and its first Redbook soundtrack included with the game as a separate disk. He wrote the truly remarkable treatise The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness (New Riders, 2003), which he describes as "a book about game audio wrapped in a biography wrapped in a philosophy on life."
The Fat Man knows his stuff. People listen to him.
So when George Sanger finally admits, "There is very little game audio I like to hear," that's not just a personal problem; however unwillingly he says it, it's a grave indictment.
Sure, Sanger likes Blizzard and Ensemble games, and Katamari, and Michael Land's soundtrack for The Dig - "and Guitar Hero, of course." Composers send him pieces they wrote just for him, as gifts: "Those things are great, and there are plenty," he says. "There are good sound guys and friends and musicians out there, doing good work, some dedicating their lives to this strange job. You guys need to know I have every bit of respect for you that I can muster. I love y'all.
"But for the most part, here's my problem. ... When I put a game in the machine, what I hear feels brutal and clumsy, like people trying to imitate the most intense moments in famous movie trailers or TV shows, all without the appropriate emotional subtext from a good film. It evokes in me the vision of a sound guy [who] has somehow miraculously threaded the needle and come up with something that has appeased every one of his six bosses. And then I get a vision of all the idiots on the committee.
"Game audio really strikes me as being all about somebody trying to amp me up by using superlatives and cheap tricks, and I just don't enjoy that very much. I enjoy warmth and beauty and quality and grace and finesse and style and personality, and a sense that some individual has attempted to communicate something.
"Maybe this is asking too much. Maybe I'm looking in an inappropriate place for Art. But game audio seems to have skipped from beating on log drums, right to record-company politics and robber baron aspirations. I had expected a Woodstock stage in there somewhere.
"And you know what? I know I'm not alone, and I certainly haven't given up hope."
Indeed. The Fat Man has talked this talk for well over a decade. More to the point, in all that time, in significant ways, with increasing numbers of colleagues, The Fat Man has been walking the walk.
Sanger is, in fact, tall and lean; the nickname reflects his gift for audacious self-promotion. He started writing game music back when it was (as he has put it) "considered to be at the artistic level of, say, writing the tones that tell the McDonald's workers the French fries are ready." To draw attention to the new field and to Team Fat, Sanger adopted a yee-haw Texan persona. He wore a Stetson hat and outrageous suits made by celebrated Ukrainian-American tailor Nudie Cohn. (The Fat Man tells a great "Nudie Suit" story.) In 1995, Sanger promulgated his "Manifatso." He swore that on the new frontier of game audio, Team Fat's music would be "expressive, touching, and made for the sake of the human spirit, not repetitive, imitative, mechanical by convenience, nor needlessly enslaved by styles imposed by fashion or limited machinery."