Pac-Man’s death sound is one of the most iconic noises in gaming history. It’s instantly recognisable, yet also defies description. I suggested ‘eiweiweiweiweiw-wuh-wuh’ to the team at TheGamer, only for ‘eep’, ‘ip’, ‘wah-wah’, and ‘wepwep’ to be thrown up as alternatives to my ‘wuh-wuh’ – the ‘eiweiweiweiweiw’, despite its own ridiculousness, was unanimously accepted. While I could probably write an entire article about different ways the noise can be spelt, given how stupid ‘eiweiweiweiweiw’ looks, what I want to talk about instead is the musicality of the noise, and why it feels like the most musical sound in gaming.
There are many better, more complex soundtracks than Pac-Man. The majority of its most well-known sounds come from how popular the game itself is, the little rhythms being drilled into our collective skulls like quotes from a cheesy movie we’ve seen dozens of times. That’s not the case with the death sound though; I think its memorability comes less from Pac-Man’s godlike status in the gaming canon, and more from the noise itself.
I’ve heard the noise hundreds of times before, both in Pac-Man and in popular culture, but it wasn’t until recently that I realised exactly how musical it was. After writing an article last week all about the need for an Alt Z shooter game, I started relistening to my Alt Z playlists, including Olivia O’Brien’s Now. That’s technically electropop, but let’s not quibble. The song starts with the Pac-Man death sound, before O’Brien launches into her chorus of how we could be in love right nownownow if I didn’t fuck up right nownownow, and its interesting to see how seamlessly the simplistic Pac-Man sounds slots into 2020 electropop. If it wasn’t for how unmistakably recognisable the ‘eiweiweiweiweiw’ tune is, I’d probably just have thought it was a regular part of the music.
It’s not just Now that utilises the musicality of Pac-Man’s demise though. The Gorillaz song Pac-Man uses several sounds from the game, including ‘eiweiweiweiweiw-wuh-wuh’, as part of a song about the game itself and how its repetition and depressive nostalgia are a metaphor for modern life. Meanwhile, Run The Jewels’ Early uses the cartoonish sound to juxtapose the casual callousness of police brutality in the USA. There are several others besides too, borrowing the note either for its musicality or to represent the game itself. The way O’Brien uses it less as a sample and more as the lead-in beat to the chorus though makes it stand out as the most distinctive use of the iconic sound.
It’s not alone in being a gaming melody sampled by the music industry. Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange begins with the PS1 boot up sound, while Gucci Mane has used Tetris, Wiz Khalifa and Michael Jackson have used Sonic, and Playboi Carti has used Final Fantasy. While sampling has been part of music for decades, bursting into prominence with early hip hop but actually going back much earlier, the difference now comes from the cultural touch points of the musicians themselves. Frank Ocean and Wiz Khalifa are both Millennials; Olivia O’Brien and Playboi Carti are Zoomers – many of the people making music today are kids who grew up playing video games. That means we’ll likely see even more songs sampling from video games in future.
While it will be interesting to see the musicality of other video games be explored through sampling, ‘eiweiweiweiweiw-wuh-wuh’ has set a high bar.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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