In July, Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things fame and YouTube star Emma Chamberlain both uploaded clips of themselves jigging along to a track composed for Earthbound, a 1994 cult classic video Japanese role-playing game that is, all things considered, a pretty deep cut for your average modern teen.
But viewers loved it. Together, the TikToks have been viewed over 6 million times, ultimately joining a much larger audio meme that has been repurposed in more ways than anyone can count.
Meme culture has always sat cozily next to video games and the people who play them, as the most technologically savvy among us will always be the first to form the scaffolding of internet humor. Vine, for example, had no shortage of memes built on the backs of iconic video game tracks, like Nintendo’s Mii Channel and Wii Shop jingles. TikTok, a platform built around music, is especially suited for video game music’s short, catchy looping tunes. These hypnotizing video game harmonies can then be endlessly remixed or mashed together in duet videos. And franchises like Fortnite, Animal Crossing, and Pokémon are regular reminders that video games are mainstream culture, so of course we’ll hear their sounds on platforms like TikTok.
Yet, out of all possible aural sources, it’s notable just how often video game sound effects and tracks get ripped from their digital worlds and placed in new TikTok contexts, whether it be for jokes about depression or enhancing a hot new dance. As I write this, one common format mashes together a variety of Super Mario songs to enliven a rating game that judges things people do throughout the day. A jaunty tune from opening levels in New Super Mario Bros. eases the viewer into the video, but as things get wackier, the Nintendo ditties transport us to subterranean worlds, and underwater levels. These videos — which have nothing to do with games — have millions of views.
What is it about video game sounds that make them so amenable to nearly any situation on TikTok?
For one thing, sound design is at the center of what makes video games gratifying to play. Catching a fish in Animal Crossing isn’t just about a well-timed button press that reels in a writhing sea creature, it’s also about hearing that signature whistle congratulating your accomplishment. Nabbing a headshot in a game like Gears of War isn’t just about defeating your enemy, it’s about hearing that satisfying pop that commemorates your marksmanship.
“Even on something as simple as the animation of a sword swing, you can encode so much information in to it,” says Adam Hay, an award-winning sound designer who has worked on games like Dreams for the PS4. “How much weight and energy has been put in to this swing? What kind of material is it made from? How dangerous does it sound? Is this a super-awesome finishing blow, or a quick and light attack?”
Video games, in other words, try their damndest to enhance or capture the spirit of nearly everything you do through the use of sound, whether that’s the simple act of getting from point A to point B, or walking into a speciality shop. And on a platform like TikTok, where audio clips are a language unto their own, using a sound effect that accurately captures the vibe of a joke or situation is key.
“When I’m making sounds for things, I’m subconsciously trying to convey all these little narratives,” Hay says, describing his sound design process, “so hopefully the whole soundscape ends up forming a cohesive world which the listener can buy into — everything you hear ends up telling you a convincing and interesting story.” Anybody who tries to make a good TikTok has the same aim, which is to effectively tell a story in 60 seconds or less.
On its face, the idea that majestic sounds that were originally penned for grand adventures could so readily be appended to everyday actions, like eating or looking at your phone, probably sounds ludicrous. But there’s a reason the two mix so well.
“Video game victory music often has this funny mix of grandness and mundanity,” says Kirk Hamilton, a former colleague who is now a musician and podcast host. Hamilton explained to Polygon that video games have players repeating actions so often that you end up hearing things like victory music or power-up sounds all the time. And that repetition grants all video game sounds a paradoxical tinge of banality.
“The music in a game may be soaring and triumphant, but with enough repetition it starts to feel rote, and that contrast can be kinda funny. ‘Congratulations, you beat another level-three frogman!!’”
In 2017, Hamilton wrote a blog post where he wished every day life was accompanied by the video game fanfare. Actions like clearing your inbox or riding a bike should have their own melody, he argued, while providing some potential candidates from a range of classic JRPG games.
In short, he was almost advocating for the idea that life should treat us like the protagonist of a video game. Incidentally, TikTok users often talk about the concept of a “main character” — that is, someone who stands out so much, everyone else becomes a supporting cast member within the larger story. It’s an idea that gets embraced as often as it is ridiculed on the platform, and yet, when a TikTok goes viral, there’s no denying that person has become the protagonist of the story, at least until you swipe to the next video. And when you’re the main character, everything you experience is heightened, even if it’s just a shaky video shot from your bathroom.
Perhaps this sounds pompous or solipsistic. But, here’s the thing. When I close TikTok, after hours and hours of hearing the same audio clips appended to everyday situations, I’ve started to hear those same clips in my head while doing ordinary things, like walking down the street. Sometimes that means hearing Cardi B’s iconic voice asking, “oh my god, what is that?” And other times, it means imagining that my cats are pleading for their dinner in Animal Crossing voices.
In 2020, everyday life does have constant fanfare worthy of a video game — at least, if you’re on TikTok for long enough.