Atchafalaya Arcade is a pixelated love song to Louisiana made for the Game Boy. It presents three “virtual instruments” for the player to tinker with, creating chiptune musical scales and staticky beats. It’s one of the nominees this year at IndieCade Festival, a gaming event that’s been showcasing independent games since 2005.
When I played Atchafalaya Arcade, it was at first cryptic. Developer Tammy Duplantis handed me a Super Nintendo controller and told me to hold down “A.” As I did, sound burst from the game and stripes of color streaked across the screen. I used the d-pad to increase or decrease the speed and pitch of the sound. Moving onto another instrument evoked a crunchy chiptune rhythm instead of the sustained tones from before.
While I experimented, Duplantis grabbed a Game Boy and explained that the three instruments respectively represented rhythm, harmony, and melody. She offered to play rhythm while I played harmony. After a couple of minutes, Atchafalaya Arcade had been demystified for me and I began to have fun. Like most musical instruments, it’s about what you do with it.
Duplantis is a developer, electronic musician, and composer, and a lot of her previous work — which is available on the platform Itch.io — plays and experiments with music. Divine Jalopy, for instance, is a directed group experience where everyone is asked to make sounds and then gradually learn how to work together. And InstantChip is a virtual toy that procedurally generates chiptunes.
“I started making musical games as a member of the Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana before moving to Oakland, California to continue my studies at the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music,” said Duplantis.
Many of Duplantis’s previous titles are also designed to be played on Game Boy emulators, such as Downstream, which is described as “an art program and interactive musical work.”
“I chose to start making musical Game Boy games because, with the ever-growing popularity of chiptune, the device already has such a strong reputation as a musical instrument in its own right,” said Duplantis. “It also gives me some pretty strict limitations that push me to be creative about how I use it.”
Though music is a big part of Atchafalaya Arcade, it’s also very much about Louisiana. Interspersed throughout the game are short poetic verses, which appear line by line as though through remembrance. Duplantis was born in New Orleans, and she said a big part of her inspiration for the game was nostalgia.
“Growing up on the Gulf Coast, I have strong nostalgia for the Louisiana wetlands, and I worry about their rapid disappearance,” said Duplantis. “After moving away, I felt an extreme homesickness for this part of the world that may soon be lost to time. It felt right to work through this personal nostalgia using a medium that seemed like a long-lost relic of my childhood.”