Almost 30 years since the original game was released, Sonic the Hedgehog is about to make his big screen debut. Since the initial trailer was released last April — complete with an inexplicably human-toothed protagonist pulled from the very depths of the uncanny valley — expectations have been fairly low (Paramount wisely changed the design following vocal fan backlash). But regardless of how good or bad the movie is, it will surely find an audience: Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the world’s most profitable game franchises, selling 920 million units since 1991 and grossing more than $5 billion as of 2015. For many who grew up playing the early games on the Sega Genesis (known outside of North America as the Mega Drive), he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Mario as one of the most iconic characters of the 16-bit era.
But for all of the colorful graphics, challenging-but-winnable levels and charming characters, these games were also an early introduction to panic, anxiety and the shadow of mortality, thanks to a simple, two-note jingle that portended Sonic’s death during underwater levels.
“Every generation has a certain thing, quite specifically from childhood, where there’s a horrible bit or line in a film [that sticks with them] — Bambi’s mum being shot or things like that,” says Kim Justice, 34, a U.K.-based documentary filmmaker and YouTube vlogger who reports on retro games. “Generation X kids, we had the Sonic drowning jingle.”
For those unfamiliar with the game, Sonic is a mammal, and as such, he needs to breathe. When he goes too long underwater without finding an air bubble, rising to the surface, or in certain games, acquiring a water shield, an ominous, quickening jingle starts to play and a timer counts down his final seconds of life. Depending on the game (the theme has featured in many, but not all, Sonic games since 1991), you’ll then watch Sonic die in some way — perhaps sinking with his arms raised, as he does in the original; clutching his throat as he slowly loses consciousness (Sonic Colors, 2010); or floating face-down as his chest cavity fills with gas in a bizarre nod to biological realism (Sonic Lost World, 2013).
“For quite a cartoon-y game, it’s quite a graphic thing that happens,” Justice says. “I think the first time it happened, I might have run out of the room yelling for my mum.”
Justice isn’t the only one to have been traumatized by the music. I remember having to turn off the TV mid-level or hand off the controller to my dad at points because my eight-year-old nerves were so shot. Meanwhile, on social media, “Sonic drowning music intensifies” has become shorthand for an increase in stress, and there’s no shortage of comments like, “Just had a flashback to the music in Sonic that played when you were drowning and almost threw up from anxiety.”
And over on YouTube, a compilation video of drowning sequences has racked up more than eight million views.
The long life of the jingle, composed by Yukifumi Makino under the supervision of sound director Masato Nakamura, of the J-pop band Dreams Come True, can be attributed to both the franchise’s wide-reaching success and the internet’s inability to let anything go. “Anything like that that [people have] got a sort of nostalgia for tends to end up becoming a meme at some point, doesn’t it?” Justice remarks.
But what makes it so memorable is its ingenious composition. London-based music therapist Marianne Rizkallah points out that dramatic increases in tempo like the one implemented in Sonic have been shown to lead to elevated heart rates in listeners (an element of the stress response); and the leap between between two consecutive pitches — C-natural and C-sharp — presents an additional source of agitation. “That’s an interval of a semitone, which, played one after the other, sounds quite dissonant, and played together sounds really scrunchy. Our ears can hear that the frequencies are clashing,” she explains. “It’s the same motif that’s used in Jaws.”
Compounding these factors is the unresolved repetition: “[The jingle] doesn’t go anywhere. You’re just kind of stuck in this dissonant pattern, which is only getting faster and faster and faster, and louder and louder and louder. That’s why it feels like a stressor to us,” Rizkallah says.
This lack of resolution, however, should be seen as a feature rather than a defect. Karen Collins, an associate professor of communication arts at the University of Waterloo and author of Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design, explains that tense music is one of many ways game designers maintain player engagement. “Having the tension there is like having a question unanswered,” Collins explains. “You want to hear the answer, you want to stick around for the ending, because having something left unresolved is frustrating. So with music, you can build up this tension and the release is either they die — which is leaving it unresolved because [the player will] want to get to the ‘right’ ending, so they keep playing the game — or they win and get to the next level,” she says. “Without the high anxiety, you don’t get the catharsis, the fun part of the emotional side of the story.”
Indeed, for all the associated stress, Justice remembers feeling compelled to keep playing not in spite of, but because of the feeling of being on edge, likening it to the way the non-stop tension of Resident Evil kept her on edge and engrossed as a teenager. “We kind of get addicted to that [feeling], whether you play games or whether you watch movies,” she says.
And if the stress turns out to be too much to handle, Collins has a simple solution: “The easiest way to get through this type of area is turn off the sound.”
We suspect this advice will apply to the new movie, too.