Audio is for Everyone! How Griffin McElroy took The Adventure Zone from a side project to an ambitious media phenomenon

Here's an article I wrote, published on Medium. It's about how Griffin McElroy's use of music in audio storytelling, specifically The Adventure Zone, shows how accessible audio can be! The full text is also featured below.

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Griffin McElroy is no stranger to the audio-only format.

He’s been named a Forbes 30 Under 30 “Media Luminary,” a title he proudly flaunts at the beginning of every episode of the McElroy brothers’ flagship podcast, My Brother My Brother and Me.

He also has his fingers in all number of other multimedia pies: Rosebuddies, a Bachelor podcast with his wife Rachel, multiple video series as part of his senior editorial position at Polygon— the list goes on.

It may come as a surprise, then, that Griffin’s most ambitious project started as a one-off episode of MBMBaM because of Justin McElroy’s paternity leave — and that it’s a Dungeons and Dragons podcast, anathema to conventional notions of ‘cool.’

It is The Adventure Zone, starring brothers Griffin (the Dungeon Master), Justin (as Taako, the elven wizard), Travis (as Magnus Burnsides, the human fighter), and their daddy Clint (as Merle Highchurch, the dwarf cleric).

The Adventure Zone is released biweekly, and each episode clocks in at about an hour. Griffin DMs the game. This means that, aside from Taako, Magnus, and Merle, Griffin voices every character and develops the story.

The podcast starts out joke-heavy and D&D light. The first adventure has the heroes following the D&D default campaign: fighting goblins, stealing from each other for the laugh, and failing pretty miserably pretty frequently.

Fairly early in the series, Griffin abandoned more classical notions of fantasy in favor of a highly anachronistic world where flying moon bases, robots, and multiverses are the norm, but castles and kings are nowhere to be found.

What makes The Adventure Zone so ambitious, then? After all, Griffin is an experienced storyteller already, and podcasts are kind of his thing.

Music.

I’m not just saying that either. By Word of God, Griffin has told listeners that of his myriad projects, The Adventure Zone takes up by far the most time.

It wasn’t like that at first though.

It wasn’t until the third sub-arc of the overarching story that there was a palpable tonal shift. The adventurers’ decisions suddenly had much more weight. In fact, the first scene has the arc’s main antagonist beat the three nearly to death, and spare them only because her character appears to have a terrible internal struggle.

This was also when Griffin began to introduce custom sounds to the podcast. At first, they were relatively simple — great, deep booms from towering pylons, high pitched alarms. All of these added a depth of immersion that enhanced Griffin’s storytelling and enabled listeners to not just visualize, but literally hear what was going on in the world of The Adventure Zone.

During the rising action of this arc, entitled Petals to the Metal, Griffin included original tracks to increase the excitement. It was driving music, albeit a little derivative, reserved for background tension.

Many of the tracks were decidedly derivative. One track, ‘Garyl’ has a guitar arpeggio that sounds suspiciously like Short Change Hero by The Heavy. That isn’t to say they didn’t work — they did — but they were nothing groundbreaking.

But at the end of the third arc, and quite suddenly, Griffin included a serene number entitled Discovery and Recovery. The piece concluded a deep and tumultuous relationship between two characters — and helped see them to harmony.

And it was an enormous risk for Griffin. Music? In a podcast this goofy? Maybe the intro thematic, maybe sparse background transitions, but “Discovery and Recovery” had real emotional weight. The McElroys are famous for goofin’— how would listeners respond to this whiplash tonal shift?

But it worked. It didn’t just work, it helped propel The Adventure Zone from a silly, charming D&D-ish podcast to a true work of audio storytelling.

Users on SoundCloud gushed their unexpected reactions: “I was in class when I heard the conclusion to Petals to the Metal, and this scene broke me,” and, “this part made me so emotional and i [sic] cried ugly tears in public,” and perhaps the most telling, “oh yeah it was this part i [sic] gave my life to this podcast. yep. this part.”

Bamboolike, Griffin’s musical abilities grew over the course of this podcast. In one of the podcast’s ‘Lunar Interludes,’ two musical characters play a duet with one another. Deep, throbbing, and organic low tones contrast with the twinkling of a small harp played by ‘basically the greatest violin player ever.’

While the music is simple, Griffin’s usage of source music serves to build a lively, immersive world.

The next arc, The Crystal Kingdom, contained at least one original composition per episode. Some of them even had lyrics which, Griffin confessed, partially came from his desire to toy with a vocalizer tool.

In this arc, listeners see a greater integration of music and narrative. The sounds Griffin uses reflect the action: crystalline bells chime lightly while Magnus, Taako, and Merle explore an environment dominated by pink tourmaline.

In The Eleventh Hour, Griffin switches the musical palette up quite a bit. When the adventurers find themselves in a Old West style village — the only thing missing is six shooters — Griffin treats listeners to dirty slide guitars that enliven the atmosphere.

Typical to the podcast, though, the Old West village isn’t what it seems. When other plot elements surface and collide with the main pastiche of Old West tropes, we get some reverent churchlike music, a chaotic electric guitar driven stinger, and even a jazzy source music piece for the local bar.

By the time of The Suffering GameThe Adventure Zone had a lively fan community. Many fans took to illustrating the characters and locations. Many more were enthralled by the synthesis of music and storytelling that it had to offer. But no listener was really prepared for what The Suffering Game had to offer — or more accurately, to take away.

From the very beginning, The Suffering Game stood out for how much it upped the stakes for the characters. Even more than that, it once again switched the instrumental palette as the adventurers stumble into an area with more-or-less constant source music, all executed with heavy dance beats and electronic synths and controlled by two jeering, untouchable enemies.

The Suffering Game’s casino-like atmosphere grinds against the true peril Taako, Magnus, and Merle face and creates an environment of great tension. Griffin’s omnipresent source music adds to the sense of claustrophobia, immersing listeners in his dazzling, inescapable fantasy-casino. It’s the most anachronistic narrative yet, and still manages to fit the universe that Griffin has established through 60+ hours of storytelling.

All of this connects to a much wider phenomenon of audio storytelling. With the prominence of outlets such as Audible and the ability to store countless audio files on progressively more powerful handheld devices, audio storytellers have exciting new tools at their hands to engage listeners in unprecedented ways.

The most important aspect is, perhaps, the dirt cheap price for entry. In The Adventure Zone, for instance, Griffin created all of his music with a Rock Band keyboard, a cheap MIDI converter, and Garageband. Almost anyone with access to a computer could execute similar feats. As the price for entry becomes progressively cheaper, creative time limits access to the field more than technology itself, which is vastly important for creators.

Of course, this accessibility itself has a long way to go before we can truly call it ideal. Having access to a computer, a keyboard, a MIDI converter, Garageband, and, most elusively, time to be creative — these are still steep requirements for many people. But Griffin McElroy’s storytelling through the audio format has revealed an unprecedented flexibility that simply isn’t there with other media formats.

Opening the door to creativity, or even demonstrating the possibility of it as Griffin has, is always welcome in my book.