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.”
Sanger’s image-building, and hard work, paid off. A 1997 Wired story by Gary Andrew Poole compared Sanger to another hit songwriter: “Michael Jackson has his Neverland Ranch; The Fat Man has El Rancho Gordo, a $900-a-month rented house. Michael has his glove; Fat has his thrift-store handmade Western suits inspired by the late Nudie, Elvis’s designer.” (Correction: The suits were authentic Nudie originals.) “Michael is into being white, yet he’s not; The Fat Man is into being a Texan, yet he’s a Jewish guy from Southern California. And they have each sold more than 20 million CDs.”
Today, though, you might plausibly suspect The Fat Man has departed the hardcore gaming field. His humongous list of credits includes no recent AAA titles; today’s high-flown game music composers, with websites far more polished than his own homespun page, seldom mention as influences either Team Fat or any other early game composer. The audio legacy of gaming’s early days survives mainly in that obscure offshoot of the demo scene, chiptunes.
Yet that suspicion is wrong. Sanger, shrewd self-promoter that he is, has promoted himself into a loftier sphere of action. More than a composer, The Fat Man has escalated to conference host and General Expediter of Audio Progress. For 10 years, Sanger, along with Linda Law (Mrs. Fat, in the figurative sense) and friend Teresa Avallone, has hosted the Project Bar-B-Q Annual Interactive Music Conference. Staged each October on a ranch in the hill country west of Sanger’s hometown of Austin, Texas – this year’s conference took place at the Canyon of the Eagles – Project Bar-B-Q has earned a fine reputation and, through its many workgroup reports, has shaped computer audio development. The conference website lists Bar-B-Q’s many successes.
“Teresa Avallone and I dreamed up BBQ as a way to serve the game audio community without having to be too well-behaved about it,” Sanger says. “The idea was to put a bunch of very smart guys into an informal, open situation, one that was conducive to warmth and inspiration rather than politics and competition. They could then put their brains together to solve problems that were too big for any individual to solve.”
Avallone handles logistics; Linda Law books speakers and formulates topics, and also handles legalities and finances. Sanger himself is MC and raconteur: “I give the welcoming talks, run the roundtable, touch base with everybody during meetings, that sort of thing. I set a mood in which people are ready to do the things they dreamed of when they were kids. I try to personify a spirit of effective idealism.”
Sanger believes Project Bar-B-Q has helped establish and strengthen the community of computer audio professionals. “I think a lot of our work has increased value for consumers, and reduced the likelihood of a crash or an incompatibility experience – although we still have a long way to go in that department. It’s a humbling experience to realize that Microsoft’s new program to certify computer gear as ‘High Definition Audio’ came directly from BBQ. Nobody ever was in a more powerful position to affect the industry than they are while at the conference.
“I’m proud of having participated in a positive, helpful part of the ‘coming of age’ of this industry. When I’m sitting around BBQ watching the magic happen with all those great people … I can’t even describe it. I sincerely don’t think anything could possibly be better.”
Well, we’ll see about that. In November of 2006, the Bar-B-Q team initiated a second conference, Project Horseshoe, an invitation-only think-tank for “an elite group of brilliant minds working to positively influence the art and science of game design.” As shown by the list of Horseshoe topics proposed ahead of the conference, “Horseshoe is aimed directly at solving game design’s toughest problems … which would lead to better games, a healthier industry, better quality of life, and games that are more helpful to society.”
How well did Horseshoe run in its debut year? Sanger says, “We expected a 7 out of 10, and could only envision at best a 10. We got a 12.”
Attendee Dan Cook, on Lost Garden, said of Horseshoe, “Sparks were flying. And hay. Don’t forget the hay. … It gave me faith that if you just get the brightest people of our industry off their isolated islands and give them a chance to talk, amazing ideas are inevitable. Experience shared is multiplied, not diminished.” And Raph Koster’s Horseshoe talk, “Influences,” attracted much post-conference comment.
Horseshoe had a more freewheeling, individualistic atmosphere than Bar-B-Q, Sanger says. “Nobody’s anywhere near ready to sit down and follow a formula, let alone a guy they’ve only seen succeed as a musician in games for the past 24 years. So I found I was stepping aside more often than usual, and letting Linda, the speakers, the facilitators, the other attendees, common sense and the laws of physics convince people where to direct their energies.”
Four workgroups organized at this year’s conference are reporting on new design approaches, reduction of business risk, online game design and business practices, and ways to establish legitimacy in mainstream culture. Because Project Horseshoe is a think-tank and not an industry organization, the reports include action items to be handed off to organizations such as the International Game Developers Association.
Aside from his conferences, The Fat Man still maintains a hectic schedule. Team Fat just recorded the music for the demo of a new MMOG, as well as the latest installment of the Scene-It DVD trivia games. Sanger writes slot-machine tunes for Multimedia Games and supervises the design and installation of their sound systems. He has released three CDs of his early game music through Haight-Masonic Laboratories. Sanger also travels and lectures frequently, writes for MAKE and sits on the advisory board of the Full Sail media arts college in Winter Park, Florida. And, with other Austin gaming luminaries like Richard Garriott and Warren Spector, Sanger is helping the University of Texas Center for American History establish an archive of the history of gaming.
Meanwhile, his thinking about music keeps evolving. In the past, in his book and many articles, Sanger repeatedly called on composers to strive for innovation. Today, “I’m ready to back off from using the word ‘innovation.’ The word is overused, and the act of innovating is overrated. It’s like wanting to ‘change the world.’ Well, anybody could and does change the world. But to what end? What are we going for?
“There will be plenty of innovations in future game audio. Almost all of them will be superficial – especially if they are marketed as ‘innovations,’ or worse, ‘revolutions.’ Anything, for example, that bills itself as ‘movie-like’ raises a caution flag to me. Since when is ‘movie-like’ a good thing? In the whole history of the world, nobody ever went to a movie because it was ‘movie-like.’
“I guess the thing to strive for, with or without innovation, is to do something warm and helpful and all that, and not just trying to make a buck and/or sound like somebody else. What’s needed is brave and beautiful sound that makes peoples’ lives a little nicer.”