We briefly ponder whether a strand of music found in video games, particularly soundtracks from the ‘golden age of indie’, deserves its own subgenre.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
For a while now, I keep coming across video game soundtrack music that feels very video gamey and is clearly paying homage to retro games and chiptune without sticking rigidly to the sonic limitations of what, for example, 8- or 16-bit sound chips could achieve. I feel like I want to give this strand of music a name, a label — so, like a magpie, I’m pinching ‘post-chiptune’.
Alternatives include ‘retro-vgm’, although ‘retro’ implies that the music itself is old, it’s not. Another misnomer would be ‘modern chiptune’, but this music isn’t generated by a sound chip per se. None of ‘neo-chiptune’, ‘neo-chip’, or ‘chip-hop’ work either.
There are a few sides to my feelings about post-chiptune.
On the one hand, there are loads of brilliant tracks in this style, usually by composers working on groundbreaking indie games over the last 10 years. Nostalgia is smartly harnessed for the purposes of crafting something new and wonderful.
On the other hand, as with so many music genres, there is also a lot of hopelessly derivative stuff added daily to the online cultural landfill; although, of course, one person’s garbage is another’s treasure.
I sometimes wonder whether it’s all a bit played-out, and that we need to move on from games and game music in hock to the pixel art and chiptune tracks of old. That’s just me though — and of course there’s a wider conversation ongoing about retro culture and the perennial recycling of culture not just for artistic inspiration, but for cynically-motivated gain.
Warning: shallow research and some sloppy inductive reasoning ahead. 🖖🏻
A rough definition
To contain the scope of this cobbled-together half-thought, I’m willfully ignoring the small subgenre of indie electronica also known as post-chiptune, on the arbitrary grounds that it isn’t game soundtrack music.
And what is chiptune anyway? Composer Lena Raine, in gently and informatively correcting people’s mislabelling of her Celeste score as ‘chiptune’, came up with this definition:
“Chiptune is music created from sounds originating from hardware/analog synths, usually from older game consoles like the NES, Genesis, etc... The most important part is that everything is contained within the chip itself. There are no external settings or knobs or patching that can be used to layer or modify the sound.”
What I think of as post-chiptune is video game music made by people that unabashedly pay homage to old school chiptune, but nevertheless use modern tools and techniques; and they don’t necessarily restrict themselves sonically or technically.
It’s music that is evocative rather than authentic, and includes common musical elements:
- a straight 4/4 time signature with highly-quantised notes (and lots of them),
- plenty of arpeggios,
- and a software (or hardware) lead synth line (or chords/pads) that evoke sound chip-synthesis.
Post-chiptune tracks almost always intersect with one or more other genres, for instance instrumental hip-hop, trip-hop, house, prog rock, jazz fusion, and so on. The above example from Dustforce exists at the centre of a venn diagram that includes post-dubstep, synthwave, retrowave, and chillwave.
Since I haven’t been down a giant research rabbit-hole, I’m going with my gut in pinning down examples. I loosely connect the coalescence of post-chiptune with the dawn of the ‘golden age’ of ‘indie’ games — the period 2008-2015 (ish) that saw the release of Spelunky (2008), Super Meat Boy (2010), The Binding of Isaac (2011), Dustforce and FEZ (2012), Rogue Legacy (2013), Untertale (2015), and so on.
Hopefully by now I’ll have at least started to convince you that post-chiptune might be a worthy subgenre label, or sparked agreeable or disagreeable thoughts about the notion.
To my mind, several relevant composers broke through in that ‘indie golden era’ period, including arguably The Don of post-chiptune, Danny Baranowsky, and Richard Vreeland aka Disasterpeace.
Baranowsky’s latest release sees him doing a video game music victory lap with his remixes for the pithily titled Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer featuring The Legend of Zelda.
“Overworld” by Danny Baranowsky (YouTube)
What else is there to say about Disasterpeace’s iconic FEZ score? That fuzzy, fizzy synth sound became his signature, and the soundtrack still sounds fresh to me.
Lena Raine’s emotionally resonant music for Celeste (2018) is a core part of that game’s success, and long may we and others rave about it.
Then there are the awe-inspiring developer-composers, in particular Eric ‘ConcernedApe’ Barrone with Stardew Valley, Toby Fox with Undertale, and Thomas Happ with Axiom Verge. In each case, an enterprising soul has (initially) gone it (mostly) solo to rework or subvert a personal genre favourite. Since the projects are born with a spirit of reinterpretation, it’s no surprise that the music by and large aims for updated nostalgia.
Exceptions and contradictions
Shovel Knight hews as close to 8-bit aesthetics as possible. I don’t know if the score is technically faithful down to the last note, but who really cares if it isn’t?
Slightly different is Sonic Mania, which exists to celebrate the series’ 16-bit roots by harnessing faithful recreations of graphics, animation, and sound — and then deviate in delightful ways. Its soundtrack is thus chiptune and post-chiptune at the same time: Schrödinger's chiptune.
“Green Hill Zone Act 2” by Tee Lopes from Sonic Mania (YouTube)
Again, CrossCode pays homage to 16-bit games, whereas the game’s composer seems to revere early CD-based console soundtracks — by the sounds of it, Sega CD/Mega-CD, Saturn, and Dreamcast titles. In other words, scores that aren’t chiptune. That said, much of the music conforms to the post-chiptune vibe: explicitly ‘video-gamey’, heavily quantised, etc.
It’s all a bit tangled, and I’m not totally won over by my own argument.
There are plenty of other influences at play with a lot of electronically-produced video game music: film soundtracks such as those for Blade Runner or Transformers: The Movie (the ‘80s animated one); electronic music pioneers like Brian Eno, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Björk, Aphex Twin, and so on. There’s a long history of video game music being in conversation with electronic and dance music — something I’d love to cover in more detail, especially after our interview with The Chiptune Maven, Diggin in the Carts’ Nick Dwyer.
Maybe ‘post-chiptune’ is too broad or vague a label. Maybe you don’t hear what I’m hearing. Maybe you don’t like labels, and/or find them redundant. Maybe you hate the gatekeepy subdivision of music subgenres into ever thinner segments. Maybe you’d simply call a lot of the above examples synthwave, or even just VGM.
That’s all fine and dandy — feel free to let me know how wrong I am, or that I missed X and Y example or counterexample. Get in touch over at our Facebook page (article post is here) on Twitter (article tweet is here) or on Instagram (post).
And for the love of God, can everyone please stop with the post-chiptune/chiptune-esque podcast intro music. We get it, it’s about video games. 😉