This week’s 'Playing Catch-Up', a regular column which talks to notable figures in the video game business about their notorious past and intriguing present, talks to veteran video game music composer George “The Fat Man” Sanger.
The Fat Man’s story – as far as the scope of this article is concerned – begins way back in 1983, a time many would call the “golden age” of videogames. Sanger, a lifelong musician, recognized a potential in this new medium; a potential not only for creative outlet, but for money! Sanger’s roommate hooked him up with his brother, David Warhol, a programmer of Intellivision games for Mattel. Sanger wrote the theme song to Thin Ice
-- a game about mischievous ice-skating penguins, a concept we don’t expect to see for the Xbox 360 launch – and the rest, as we often say, is history.
Sanger’s long career as a nigh-exclusive videogame composer spans well over two hundred games, spanning classics like Loom
, Wing Commander I and II
, The 7th Guest
and Maniac Mansion
; childrens’ software, including the Putt-Putt
and Pajama Sam
series by Humongous; unsavory licensing tie-ins Home Alone
, Total Recall
, and The Rocketeer
; and even a handful of games that never quite made it to market, such as an oft-forgotten platformer starring former President Bill Clinton’s cat, Socks, and Son of M.U.L.E.
, the late Dani Bunten’s highly anticipated sequel to M.U.L.E.
which, as the story goes, was cancelled when Bunten refused publisher Sega’s demands to bring the franchise “up to date” by adding guns and bombs.
Sanger’s partners and bandmates, Team Fat, formed more-or-less officially around 1992. “If you want to know what it’s like to join Team Fat,” he said during a phone interview with Gamasutra, “you watch Buckaroo Banzai
. We’re all [Jeff Goldblum character] New Jersey standing on the side with our chaps on, being asked, ‘Say, do you sing? We have an opening!’” Team Fat has essentially remained unchanged, though as Sanger says, “there’s been a lot of shift.”
Joe McDermott, formerly of the Dharma Bums, has had something of an illustrious career as a performer of childrens’ music, even scoring a number one hit on the XM Kids digital radio station. “And hey, a number one hit is a number one hit,” Sanger said. Dave Govett has become what some would consider the world’s expert on Giga Studio, the premiere software for simulating an orchestra. “Most of the people who use Giga Studio know who Dave is, he’s sort of a celebrity among them,” said Sanger. “He’s also working as a security guard. You should see him in his uniform, man!” said Sanger. “He looks like he’s been sprayed with tear gas! He’s kind of like that one guy in Pulp Fiction, The Wolf. Someone calls him, and he goes and gets the job done.”
“And then Kevin [Phelan] has always been the heart and soul of it,” he continued. "He probably got more credit than any of us for creating those FM tunes that are in hundreds of games and in Windows. He’s more of a 'why would you be working on a computer when you can be riding a horse' guy, though.”
Sanger has also published a book, The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness
. “It’s funny and wise and unexpected and weird,” he said. “It isn’t a how-to book at all, yet it eventually ambles around to telling you exactly what the principles I think lead to real deep success, rather than how many bits in a bytes, and stuff like that. It’s the study of how you can understand everything if you study really hard on one thing,” he continues, struggling to sum up his creative work into a brief description, “and the thing I dedicated myself to is videogame music. And that’s weird! When people think about The Fat Man, I want it to be an inspiration, and not the story of one more guy who found an easy way to make money.”
Sanger has also found recent success in a place many composers have yet to venture; slot machines. “It’s a huge moneymaking market,” he said. “Game designers might think it’s silly, but now they’ll know what it was like for my musical friends in ’83, and a few will go ‘my god that’s brilliant!’” And, of course, Sanger and the rest of Team Fat continue to score videogames, with a recent contribution to Elixir Studios’ bad guy simulator, Evil Genius
, and the scores to most of the successful DVD trivia games in the Scene It?
series. “There are a lot of times where an ad for games comes on the air, and I’ll just curl up on a ball and say ‘this isn’t what games were.’ For me, it’s not an industry I’m trying to crack or get into so I can have my name on the box. It’s a bunch of very very creative people who are lurking in corners, generating stuff that no marketing person could ever think of, and that no capitalist ever had the balls to invest in. Those are the guys that I got into this for, it was their games I got into this for, and those are the guys I still love to work with.”
“It’s actually taken me a little while to realize…” he pauses, carefully formulating his thoughts. “Let’s say I was a Shakespearean actor or something. There’s no reason I should be furious that someone is making Dave the Barbarian cartoons or Teletubbies, it doesn’t lower my craft or anything. So when people ask why I’m in this industry, all I can do is just show them my music. And if they get it, they get it, but if they don’t they don’t, and everything is still fine. I’m just trying to put something beautiful into these places where people spend their time.”
Team Fat and The Fat Man continue to operate out of their studio, El Rancho Gordo, in Austin, Texas. A more complete discography and general information can be found at the infamous official Fat Man website
[Frank Cifaldi is a Las Vegas-based freelance author whose credits include work for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired, and his own Lost Levels website.]