With the boom of video game creation in the 1980s came a surge of new music made entirely with old computer and gaming consoles known as "chiptunes." Those chirpy, electronic classics have developed from early arcade games like Space Invaders and Gameboy's Pokémon battle themes to modern synthpop and electronic music. As video games have advanced in technology and storytelling capabilities, though, this genre has become a rarity as the industry begins to lean on orchestral, cinematic soundtracks. Even so, the chiptune and electronic genres are still associated with video games, a fact that has led to some interesting developments in music composition for not only games, but everything from movies to, perhaps most effectively, podcasts.
Though certain music genres obviously lend themselves to certain stories, a few select storytellers have discovered the surprisingly effective technique of combining classic video game music with acoustic instruments. The strong ties chiptunes and electronic music have with video games encourage listeners to understand those sounds as fantastical, animated, and vibrant, while acoustic instruments, whether or not they are actually played in the song or are mimicked by the computer, sound grounded in reality. Combining these contrasting styles can result in sound that can be comforting, unsettling, and everything in between.
Though this use of conflicting styles has been around for years, it was brought further into the limelight with video games like Undertale. The popular 2015 RPG was praised for its soundtrack, which combined chiptune with a medley of genres to create a game fueled by nostalgia. Its chiptunes mimic standard video game battle themes, jazz, and breaking news stingers while acoustic instruments, mainly piano, accompany the chiptune in moments that the game needs to make an impact, whether that be establishing a safe haven in "Ruins" or evoking Asgore's sadness and reluctance to fight during the final battle in the bridge of "ASGORE." Though the acoustic instruments and electronic chiptune rarely play at the same time, composer Toby Fox's decision to use both lends the soundtrack heart and excitement.
This technique goes beyond video games, though. As chiptune has evolved with the creation of more advanced music technology, the combination of classic video game sounds with instrumentals has infiltrated everything from pop music to film soundtracks. Of all of its newest uses, though, it seems to have found a home most easily in podcasts. Music in podcasts is as much or more a part of the art as video game and film soundtracks, simply because it is a strictly auditory medium, so every sound counts that much more. In response to the weight music can add to a podcast, two of the most popular podcast creators of recent years have turned to the mixture of electronic and acoustic music. Joseph Fink's podcasts, Welcome to Night Vale and Alice Isn't Dead, both feature soundtracks by Disparition, who uses "electronic and acoustic instruments [...] fed by natural and unnatural sources. When used as intended, elements of this material may cause disintegration of categorical boundaries. Some processes are irreversible." Disparition's use of these two genres takes both of these soundtracks into the uncanny valley, right where these podcasts need to be in order to work.
The internet's other favorite podcasters, the McElroys, have also introduced this style of music to their storytelling. The Adventure Zone, an Actual Play Dungeons and Dragons podcast featuring the three brothers of My Brother, My Brother and Me and their dad, Clint, just finished its first campaign, the back half of which was accompanied by a soundtrack composed by the youngest of the brothers, Griffin. Though most of the music used in the show has transcended the name "chiptune" at this point, it is undoubtedly inspired by it and finds its beginnings in the same humble place. Using a Rock Band 3 controller, a cheap MIDI converter, and Garageband, Griffin started composing toward the end of the show's third arc in anticipation of the music he knew he wanted to incorporate into the fourth. The resulting initial soundtrack is mainly ambient music composed of 8-bit and electronic sounds. "I’m thinking of them less like theme songs, and more like radio stingers," he wrote in a Tumblr post after first introducing the music to the show. "I should mention that I have no idea what I’m doing and if everyone hates them I will immediately stop doing them, because I am an adult baby."
Obviously, everyone did not hate them, because they soon became an integral part of the show. As the next arc's soundtrack maneuvered between original melodies, Garageband loops, and vocaloids, a good portion drew from classic video game music. That's not entirely surprising, considering Griffin is a founding editor and Senior Video Producer at Polygon, Vox's gaming brand. When Griffin posted the song "See You Later" on Tumblr, he even wrote, "There’s some Secret of Mana and Super Mario World pianos in there, and I think Earthbound bass?" Chiptunes and electronic music naturally suggest new worlds, make-believe, and interactive stories because of their roots in video games, but the fact that the boys are literally playing a role-playing game on its own makes the decision to make the music sound like classic video game music seem like a straight line.
The thing is, Griffin never seems to want to stick to a single style. Within the same narrative arc, songs constantly flow between acoustic and electronic. Even "Oh Hey, It's Hodge Podge!," the most chirpy of the "Crystal Kingdom" arc's songs and possibly of the entire show, becomes a mixture of the two by the end. This blurred line between electronic and acoustic is exactly why the music of The Adventure Zone succeeds, though. Though every other composer obviously adds to their respective stories by finding a balance between these two styles, the line is not so blurred or essential that Undertale could not function if it was solely chiptune or Alice Isn't Dead couldn't without electronic. Moments in The Adventure Zone that are crafted with songs that span both genres like "Voidfish (Duet)," "The Purple Worm," and "Arms Outstretched," though, simply would not work in the same way if the music was not an amalgam of electronic and acoustic sounds. The duet between the Voidfish's electronic singing and Johann's harp just before the "Crystal Kingdom" arc begins actually put a lump in my throat once Johann sped up the Voidfish's song and turned it into something shocking and beautiful. "The Purple Worm" takes the acoustic drawl that so perfectly matched the ambience of the "Eleventh Hour" arc and cuts the bass with electronic beats and loops that back the arc's absurd conclusion. The entire "Suffering Game" album flits back and forth between chiptunes like "The Felicity Winds," ambient sounds like "The Wheel," acoustic tracks like "Battle Axe Proficiency," and club beats like "Wonderland - Round 1, 2 & 3," so when "Arms Outstretched" took each of those styles to form the music for the arc's climax it became one of the podcast's most moving moments.
Podcasts on their own are an interactive medium. The fact that they are an audio-only platform means that the audience must invest some of their own imagination as they listen. Video games by definition require audience interaction, too. In combining the implicit interactive nature of video games with the grounded, real-world attachment that comes with acoustic instruments like piano, harp, guitar, and drums, Griffin is able to back the podcast with music that inherently lends itself to getting the audience involved, provokes inventive, creative thought, and invites real emotion.