Crunchyroll-Hime has her own video game! Developed by Poppy Works, the studio behind games like Devil Engine and Slave Zero X, Hime's Quest follows our beloved orange mascot as she travels through a haunted forest to rescue her friends and save the New Crunchy City anime club. It's a throwback to classic Game Boy Color games with a totally period-accurate aesthetic. A huge part of that authenticity comes from the soundtrack composed by jazz fusion chiptune artist PROTODOME. We had the opportunity to talk with PROTODOME about his work on the game as well as his love for video game music, his double-life as an academic researcher, and his advice for people who want to break into the chiptune scene!
Crunchyroll: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today! Could you please introduce yourself and what you do for our readers?
PROTODOME: No worries, thanks very much for asking! I'm Blake and I think I'm probably best known for writing jazz fusion inspired chiptune under the artist name PROTODOME. I've written enough music for games now that I think I can call myself a video game composer too. I also mess around with code, electronics, and academic stuff - diversifying my skill-set in case writing Game Boy music isn't a sensible career choice.
How did you first become interested in chiptune music?
PROTODOME: Wow, a long time ago — it's kind of been omnipresent in my life. Like many kids born in the '90s I spent a huge chunk of my time playing Game Boy, which was my introduction to the chiptune sound palette. There was (and still is) something magical about having a tiny little synthesizer singing away in your hands. The limited range of sounds available on the platform is a major part of its appeal. It gives the platform its own sound, making it as distinct and unique as any traditional acoustic instrument. I remember regularly booting up my (brother's) copy of Pokémon Crystal and flying from town to town just to listen to the music.
Game Boy music was my favorite music too, which I could obviously never admit or I would have been mercilessly teased. I pretended to like metal in school instead (it didn't make me more cool, moral: always be yourself).
Not only are you a musician, you are also an award-winning researcher with published work on the subject of 1-bit instruments. Do your experiences as an academic and as a musician inform each other?
PROTODOME: Oh yeah, definitely. I've studied music at undergraduate, postgraduate, and PhD levels, and I currently work at an online postgraduate institution that teaches professional composition for media. My life has been so saturated with academic perspectives of music composition that I'm not sure if I can tell you fairly how one has influenced the other. I can tell you however that studying musically formally doesn't make you more creative, but it does help make you more consistent. When inspiration fails, you have this backup toolkit of strategies to help see you through the writing process.
In a more epistemological sense, academia can assist in refining your ability to ask insightful questions about music, allowing for a deeper understanding of what makes a piece resonate personally. This, in turn, can inform and enhance your own compositions.
Could you explain 1-bit instruments a bit further?
PROTODOME: Of course. This is a dangerous thing to ask me in-person, I'm always itching to explain 1-bit music in excruciating detail. Well, since you asked...
1-bit music is music made using a single square wave. If you think about the beeps from a microwave, your PC switching on, or your washing machine notifying you that it’s completed its cycle - that stuff.
It's a bit technical, but the only operations possible to a waveform in a 1-bit environment are alterations to either amplitude or time, where the amplitude is quantized to two binary states: high or low, on or off, 1 or 0. As such, it is impossible (in the traditional way) to achieve simple musical operations such as polyphony (multiple instruments playing at the same time) or changing volume (which would require more amplitude states than just 0 or 1). To subvert these restrictions, there are a bunch of really interesting tricks that give 1-bit music a distinctive, peculiar sound. Or, as a YouTube commenter on my music put it: "like a vacuum with nails inside it". It's not for everyone!
If you're interested in reading a more coherent explanation, 1-bit musician utz (who wrote the popular Texas Instruments calculator music software 'HoustonTracker 2') has a brilliant explanation in an interview for the Ludomusicology research group, which you can find here.
How did you become involved with Hime’s Quest?
PROTODOME: I've previously written various chiptune soundtracks for Poppy Works, including helping score another Game Boy game (Melon Journey Pocket) previously. I think Wolfgang (the project director) said something like, "Hey, want to work on another GB game?" and I agreed immediately with no further information. When someone asks you to write music for a console that hasn't been commercially relevant for 20 years, the answer's always yes.
How much did you collaborate with the other teams working on the game? Did other teams give you input on what sort of music they needed for different parts of the game?
PROTODOME: I think collaboration is baked into small teams in a unique way that you don't experience when you're an individual in a big dedicated audio department. We were all largely collaborating in a single channel on a Discord server, so you'd see concept art, pixel art, dialogue, and code discussions as they happened in real-time. It's pretty daunting working with this group sometimes, the speed at which Tia and Alexis can produce polished, beautiful artwork, or Buchi can create detailed tilesets, is unreal! Even as development happened in parallel, I always had a great idea of the vibe I was aiming for based on their work.
Another, forever overarching, facet of Game Boy music is the technical implementation. I worked closely with Oscar (the lead developer) who was super knowledgeable and always willing to make special builds of the game to help me test out various audio ideas in practice. He also had to decipher and creatively implement my pretty vague sound effect instructions, so he gets a bit of the audio credit for sure!
Did you have any particular theme or tone you wanted to get across in the music for Hime’s Quest?
PROTODOME: Hime's Quest is designed to be an alternate world '90s Game Boy game, and the art/gameplay is reminiscent of Japanese action-adventure titles of this era. It's not universally true, but the Japanese composers for Game Boy were often more melodic, with less focus on crazy hardware techniques than their Western contemporaries, so Hime's Quest needed some catchy, anime-style melodies and chords to capture that vibe.
I'm also a sucker for Nintendo soundtracks like the Super Mario Land series, or The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, in which multiple pieces are based around, or reference, a set of recurring melodic ideas (called leitmotifs in the business). Hime's Quest has two primary melodic ideas: the main 'theme' of the adventure (as heard on the title screen), and the city theme (in my headcanon, it's Hime's theme), which I think helps aurally 'glue' the soundtrack together.
Whether video games or music, what were your inspirations in composing the Hime’s Quest OST?
PROTODOME: Oh man haha, I'm always listening to music so pinning down an exact source can be hard.
As far as research goes, I played (and forensically analyzed) a whole bunch of Game Boy games to see how the soundtracks were put together. I already mentioned the Super Mario Land games and Link's Awakening, but I also had the soundtracks to the Pokémon Trading Card Game, Mole Mania, and Pocket Bomberman (three absolutely stellar examples of classic Game Boy music) on loop, among many others.
It's hard enough to write good Game Boy music when you have the full range of audio capabilities available to you and as much CPU time as you want (with Game Boy composition software like Little Sound DJ), but when you need to make considerations like: looping as much as possible to keep file sizes small, having to restrict your tempi to divisions of the frame rate, compositionally allowing for the sound effects to interrupt your pieces, and sacrificing audio capability for game performance, it changes the challenge somewhat!
It's for solutions to these strategies that I looked at soundtracks like Link's Awakening: the pieces are heavily melody driven, but communicate most of their musical information through only two, monophonic channels, leaving plenty of room for sound effect playback, without detracting from the music. There’s also loads of complicated and nuanced harmony communicated with simple, but clever writing between two channels. I'm going to make a conscious effort to stop here, I could go on and on!
In terms of anime influences, I went through some of the more popular OSTs to pick out some idiosyncratic tropes in Japanese melodies/chord progressions. Highlights for me were the Chobits and Kemono Friends intros and that new Urusei Yatsura ending piece. Also the Golden Boy soundtrack had some really cool '90s jazz. And that's off the top of my head; there's some *really good* anime music.
What is your favorite track from the OST and why?
PROTODOME: 'A Little Respite' probably, but don't ask me this question because I like music for weird nerdy reasons. There's a nice descending chromatic line through the chords and it brings me great joy. Also maybe 'Wholesome Beach Episode' for the cheeky seagull sounds. Hmm, maybe also 'Dungeoneering' for the solo - I can't pick!
How does composing music for use in a video game differ from composing music designed for listening on its own? Were there any medium-specific concerns you had to keep in mind when composing?
PROTODOME: I think this question is a PhD in its own right - perhaps one per genre, per console. There are the numerous technical limitations I touched on before but, as for the creative implications, I try to prevent too much repetition within a song because most pieces are going to be looped. This is true of the Hime's Quest engine, but also true of many, many other game engines. In a piece written for listening, you usually want to expose your listener to a musical idea, then bring it back later to help anchor the piece in familiarity. If we label unique musical sections with letters, it might look something like: ABACA. If we then loop that piece, you'll be getting way too much of musical material ‘A’ back to back (ABACAABACAABACA...), so you might swap the structure to something like: ABC, so that, when the song loops, distinct sections are nicely spaced (ABCABCABC...), fatiguing your listener far less.
You also need to consider that players will be hopping reasonably quickly between distinct areas, with different backing tracks. The earlier you can bring in the melody, or bring up the music to the appropriate energy level, the better.
Do you have any advice for people interested in learning more about creating chiptune or the history of the instruments and genre?
PROTODOME: Chiptune is an unusually democratized genre in my opinion. There are a lot of free tools out there that you can download and play with right now - no prior experience required. Learning heuristically is the best way to get a feel for any musical medium in my experience, and chiptune gives you ample opportunity to do so. Some popular software include: Famitracker or FamiStudio for creating NES music, LSDJ for creating Game Boy music (or hUGETracker, in which I wrote the soundtrack to Hime's Quest, shout-outs to that team!), DefleMask for creating music for - well - every major chiptune platform, and many, many more. You can also use the software we used to create the game, GB Studio 3.0, which comes with some decent composition tools in the box.
Is there anything else you would like to say to our audience before closing?
PROTODOME: Thank you very much for reading about my opinions on an obscure music genre. I really hope you all enjoy the Hime's Quest and the soundtrack. To further the above, if all this talk of chiptune and Game Boys has interested you, I hope I can inspire you to download one of the bits of software above and get your writing your own Game Boy music. Maybe even creating a Game Boy game of your own. For a console that was released in 1989, we’re going through a surprise renaissance in Game Boy development, and I just think it’d be pretty neat to keep that going.