Have you ever watched a movie or played a game, and something completely took you out of the experience? Something maybe too on-the-nose, or tacky that ends up breaking your immersion momentarily? I have felt that every time I hear the Wilhelm scream.
Present in almost everything, the Wilhelm scream is Hollywood’s oldest “meme”, and it’s about time it went away.
For those unfamiliar, the Wilhelm scream is an audio clip originated by the 1951 western movie Distant Drums, where a character named Private Wilhelm gets dragged underwater by an alligator and produces the peculiar scream.
Since then, the Wilhelm scream has been (over)used in various pieces of media as a stock sound effect, commonly referred to as an inside joke between audio engineers.
So, what exactly is my issue with it? For starters, it’s ironic that an audio engineer joke sounds like garbage. 9 times out of 10, it is horribly mixed, badly cut, and obnoxiously loud compared to the rest of the scene it is used in.
“Well, the point is that it’s obnoxiously loud”, you might say, drooling from the sides of your mouth. The issue is that, more often than not, it is used in serious or immersive media.
Even though I might roll my eyes at it, I am willing to admit that its inclusion in a movie like Toy Story can work since it’s made for kids, but things are different when you spot it on more serious media like Game of Thrones.
Much like how adding Call of Duty hit markers to John Wick would immediately take you out of the experience, the Wilhelm scream manages to cheapen anything that it is present in, a small, but very apparent blemish on good pieces of media.
I want to propose a little thought exercise to you: You have just purchased the newest immersive RPG, and within five minutes of playing, you spot a wall with familiar graffiti. It’s the 2008 trollface meme; how baffled would you be?
If this sounds too abstract or even unreasonable, keep in mind that you can hear the Wilhelm scream roughly 3 minutes after starting Baldur’s Gate 3. Yes, this overused, 72-year-old joke can be found as soon as you start what is widely considered the best game of 2023.
Baldur’s Gate 3 starts off with a massive 7-minute Blizzard-like CGI cutscene. It’s a huge technological achievement to produce such a long and high-quality cinematic, not to mention ridiculously expensive, and you just have this overused meme added right at the beginning.
I do understand that it’s “le epic audio engineer inside joke“, but could we have just a little bit of restraint when it comes to adding it in? Placing it in your introduction or at an important moment is a terrible use for something so comedic in nature.
The Star Wars series is responsible for popularizing the Wilhelm scream, but actually has some of the least aggravating uses of the sound effect; I still don’t like that it’s there, but at the very least it’s mixed in a way that doesn’t feel like a meme insert.
Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t the only video game that suffers from having a “meme” added to it, as internet culture has snaked its way into other competent titles.
A game that suffers from being injected with maybe too many pop culture references is Guacamelee, which at points feels like the video game equivalent of a Know Your Meme page. Almost every billboard on that game is a reference to some 2012 image macro that had the redditors hooting and hollering.
Thankfully the developers removed most memes when developing Guacamelee‘s remake, but they were quite bitter about the criticism. There is an entire area in Guacamelee 2 filled with outdated memes and negative strawman reviews written by the developers, essentially missing the point of the criticism entirely.
It’s baffling to think that some developers would feel insulted by this criticism, when it’s pretty obvious that these memes date these titles instantly. It’s even more baffling that players will go out of their way to defend the inclusion of these things, even though it adds nothing to the experience.
Memes are temporary fads and have no place in media, and that includes the Wilhelm scream. It appeals to the lowest common denominator by being a reference for reference’s sake, and I don’t care if you clap when you see it; it’s abhorrent and immediately takes the viewer out of the experience.
It’s worth thinking, how long do we have until the bruh sound effect #3 or vine boom are present on a major release? Either we are going to continue cheapening media by adding memes to everything, or we collectively agree that these things have no place in movies and games.