How Music Can Intensify Video Games: Part One

Tension has always served a crucial role in music composition and performance.  My next two blog articles will focus on how music works to shape tension and intensity in a dramatic presentation such as a video game.

Composer Winifred Phillips, working on music for Homefront: The Revolution in her music studio.During these blogs, we’ll be consulting with lots of top experts on the subject, and I’ll be sharing my experiences in regards to the tension-filled music that I composed as a member of the music team of Homefront: The Revolution – an open world, triple-A first person shooter game that was just released by Deep Silver/Dambuster Studios.  Along the way we’ll check out some excerpts from music tracks I composed (in my music production studio, pictured right) for Homefront: The Revolution, and we’ll talk about multiple techniques to build tension in a piece of music, with the goal of inciting the most emotional intensity possible in our audience. With that in mind, let’s start things off with a great quote from philosopher Henry David Thoreau:

“The fibers of all things have their tension and are strained like the strings of an instrument.”

Image illustrating anxiety (from the article by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips)Thoreau not only saw the connection between music and tension, but also made a good point about the stresses and strains in our lives – we all possess our own inner emotional pressure. The more fervently we pursue our goals and struggles, the higher the tension grows. Taken to the extreme, it can feel as though our insides are wound up as taut as clockworks. As game composers, our job has always been to induce players to care about what’s happening in the game, and that includes inciting and escalating the nervous anxiety associated with an awesome investment of emotion and empathy.  So let’s explore the best ways we can make players feel the tension!

Suspense, dread and terror

In a high-stakes story involving life-and-death peril, the emotional undercurrents will often contain moments of nail-biting suspense, growing dread, and even abject terror.  The degree to which these emotional states are manifested will likely depend on the tone and pacing of the story, but they’ll certainly make at least a few appearances as events run their course.

Image of the enemies in Homefront: The Revolution (from the article written by Winifred Phillips, video game music composer)When I was hired to create music for the narrative sections of Homefront: The Revolution, I thought a great deal about how to augment and amplify emotional intensity.  I thought about how suspenseful things became as the narrative progressed, how much dread haunted the characters, and how terrifyingly powerful their enemy was (pictured left).  As I considered these ideas, it started to occur to me that the intense character of these emotions bore some strong similarities to the kind of atmosphere you’d encounter in the popular horror genre – and that became a core idea that informed my musical composition for this project.  Exploring how music and sound ratchet up the tension and intensity in horror is an excellent way for us to learn about the techniques of tension – since intense emotional stress is what the horror genre is all about.  With that in mind, let’s start thinking about what role music and sound play in the mechanics of horror.

The role of music and sound

Pictured: Chris Pruett (co-founder of Robot Invader Games) - from the article by game composer Winifred Phillips“It’s worth thinking of sound (and music) as your primary method for emotional messaging,” says Chris Pruett (pictured right), the co-founder of the Robot Invader game development studio and administrator of developer relations for the famous Oculus Rift VR device. Pruett is an expert on horror games, and blogs often on the techniques of eliciting and reinforcing emotional investment in dark stories. “You set the tone for your game and suggest an emotional response with sound,” Pruett tells us in an article on the Gamasutra site. “A skilled sound designer can make even the blandest space feel ominous.”

Some of the best examples of the “ominous spaces” technique can be found in the works of director David Lynch, best known for the films Mulholland Dr., Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, as well as the television series Twin Peaks. “Moments of silence are rather rare occurrences in the films of David Lynch,” observes filmmaker Jacob T. Swinney in an article for the Fandor site. “Toying with the boundaries of diegetic and non-diegetic, Lynch’s unique approach to ambient noise is a crucial ingredient to what makes his films feel so disorienting and abrasive. What are these sounds? Where are they coming from?”

To better illustrate, Swinney produced a short video that assembles brief excerpts of the “environmental ambience” characterizing locations from many different David Lynch films.  By pulling these excerpts together, Swinney shows how each of the spaces has its own particular (and increasingly unnerving) sound:

As an example, let’s take a look at my music for the single-player narrative of Homefront: The Revolution. For a scene taking place in a perpetual war zone, I created music driven by grimly atmospheric sound-design.  In this no-man’s-land (pictured below), breathing requires a gas mask, and the echoes of death and suffering are constantly audible in the distance.

Image of the Red Zone from Homefront: The Revolution (pictured in the article written by game composer Winifred Phillips)

This was certainly a horrific environment, so I kept the aural soundscape eerie. A dissonant midrange drone formed the backbone of the environmental ambience, with light rhythms heightening the tension while a high-pitched, shimmering metallic sound escalated the disconcerting mood.  In this MP3 excerpt (audio-only to prevent game spoilers), the player has committed to a difficult course of action, and an NPC character is now getting the player ready to execute their plan.  The eerie sonic elements work together to set the stage for the sudden, surprising moment of violence that ends the scene.


The low-keyed unsettling mood of the scene paves the way for the frightening moment at the end, when the player character is violently knocked unconscious. The contrast accentuates the intensity.

Photo of cinematic sound designer Paul Hackner (as appearing in the article about building suspense in music, written by video game composer Winifred Phillips)“Horror is an interesting genre for cinematic sound,” says Paul Hackner (pictured left), an accomplished cinematic sound designer. In an article for Audio Media International, Hackner discusses his ideas regarding the role of sound in building tension.  “If everything suddenly gets quiet and the music drops out that is not necessarily scary.  It can often pull the audience out. It is more effective to have eerie drones, creepy winds, and rumbles come and go. The notion is counterintuitive, but it is necessary to let the audience know that a jump scare is about to happen.”

Elements of sonic tension

The “jump scare” is defined beautifully by writer Jacob Hall in an article for Screen Crush:  “It’s quiet. Too quiet. Something bad is going to happen,” Hall writes, “And then a cat suddenly leaps out of the darkness… This is a jump scare and they’re not always false alarms. Sometimes, the thing that suddenly lurches into frame, usually accompanied by a shriek on the soundtrack, is the demon or the killer or the monster.”

Image from the Homefront: The Revolution video game, from the article about building suspense in music composition, by Winifred Phillips (video game composer).

In Homefront: The Revolution, the monster is the KPA occupying force (pictured above), and staying alive means keeping hyper aware. A jump scare functions best when the audience is in that tense, hyper-aware state.  Jump scares form one of the building blocks of a frightening soundscape, but it’s only one of many terms used to indicate levels of aural stress and excitement.

Dan Powell (creative development manager of Soundsnap), from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips“You’ve probably already heard a lot of these elements in action, but you might not know their technical titles,” writes Dan Powell (pictured right), the creative development manager of the Soundsnap audio library.  In an article for the Pro Video Coalition site, Powell breaks down the elements of sonic tension into a useful list of definitions. While the article was meant for sound designers, we game composers can glean useful information from it as well.

In addition to ambience, which is the aural mood of the scene, Powell also discusses concepts he calls bumpers and whooshes, defining bumpers as “sudden, jarring sounds, often used to emphasize surprise or impact,” while whooshes “evoke a fast passing-by element or transition.” Both of these techniques can be used very literally to illustrate tangible events on-screen, but they can also be used in an abstract, figurative way. A video game composer can employ them when attempting to highlight action and anxiety.  “Modern-day action movie trailers often use (and occasionally, abuse) bumpers for the sake of building tension,” Powell explains, adding that “figurative, abstract whooshes are great for emphasizing action.”

I used bumpers and whooshes frequently in the music I composed for Homefront: The Revolution – here’s an excerpt of my music that demonstrates how useful these sounds can be.

Image from the Homefront: The Revolution game (from the article by game music composer Winifred Phillips about building suspense in music composition)In this scene (pictured left), non-player characters are held captive and tortured by a vicious interrogator, who decides to express his impatience at one point by using a hammer on one of them.  Notice the big whoosh when the interrogator swings the hammer a third time, and the deep low-pitched impact bumper when the hammer strikes its target.  (Warning: this audio clip contains M-rated language and sounds of violent action)


So, that wraps up Part One of this two-part blog.  In the next installment, we’ll be taking a closer look at harmonic textures in tension building, and we’ll take a moment to consider the role of silence in elevating the anxiety of our audience. Thanks for reading, and please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!


Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips, working in her music production studio.Winifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer.  Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims.  She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Video Game Music Production Tips from GDC 2016

Game Composer Winifred Phillips during her game music presentation at the Game Developers Conference 2016I was pleased to give a talk about composing music for games at the 2016 Game Developers Conference (pictured left).  GDC took place this past March in San Francisco – it was an honor to be a part of the audio track again this year, which offered a wealth of awesome educational sessions for game audio practitioners.  So much fun to see the other talks and learn about what’s new and exciting in the field of game audio!  In this blog, I want to share some info that I thought was really interesting from two talks that pertained to the audio production side of game development: composer Laura Karpman’s talk about “Composing Virtually, Sounding Real” and audio director Garry Taylor’s talk on “Audio Mastering for Interactive Entertainment.”  Both sessions had some very good info for video game composers who may be looking to improve the quality of their recordings.  Along the way, I’ll also be sharing a few of my own personal viewpoints on these music production topics, and I’ll include some examples from one of my own projects, the Ultimate Trailers album for West One Music, to illustrate ideas that we’ll be discussing.  So let’s get started!

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Interactive Music for the Video Game Composer

Game Composer Winifred Phillips works in her studio on the music of the popular Spore Hero video game As a speaker in the audio track of the Game Developers Conference this year, I enjoyed taking in a number of GDC audio sessions — including a couple of presentations that focused on the future of interactive music in games.  I’ve explored this topic before at length in my book (A Composer’s Guide to Game Music), and it was great to see that the game audio community continues to push the boundaries and innovate in this area! Interactive music is a worthwhile subject for discussion, and will undoubtedly be increasingly important in the future as dynamic music systems become more prevalent in game projects.  With that in mind, in this blog I’d like to share my personal takeaway from two sessions that described very different approaches to musical interactivity. After that, we’ll discuss one of my experiences with interactive music for the video game Spore Hero from Electronic Arts (pictured above).

Musical Intelligence

Baldur BaldurssonPhoto of Baldur Baldursson, the audio director for Icelandic game development studio CCP Games (part of the article by game composer Winifred Phillips) (pictured left) is the audio director for Icelandic game development studio CCP Games, responsible for the EVE Online MMORPG.  Together with Professor Kjartan Olafsson of the Iceland Academy of Arts, Baldursson presented a talk at GDC 2016 on a new system to provide “Intelligent Music For Games.”

Baldursson began the presentation by explaining why an intelligent music system for games can be a necessity.  “We basically want an intelligent music system because we can’t (or maybe shouldn’t really) precompose all of the elements,” Baldursson explains. He describes the conundrum of creating a musical score for a game whose story is still fluid and changeable, and then asserts,  “I think we should find ways of making this better.”

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Comedic Sound for the Game Music Composer

In this week’s blog, I’d like to explore the role that comedy can play in a video game, and how we as game composers can use some of the techniques from comedic sound design to our best advantage.  Along the way, we’ll be looking at an interesting essay article by pop culture critic Christopher Gates, a presentation by game sound designer Luca Fusi at the December 2015 Vancouver Sound Design Meetup, and an interview with film sound designer Chris Scarabosio.

Game Composer Winifred Phillips works in her studio on the music of The Maw video game.I’ll also be sharing some of my experiences applying comedic sound design techniques during music composition for the video game The Maw – an award-winning and very funny game that was developed by Twisted Pixel Games.  To the left, you can see that I’m working hard to give The Maw its proper dose of comedic wackiness… but more on that later.

First, let’s get a broad perspective on the role of comedy in gaming.

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From Total War to Assassin’s Creed: Music from my GDC Talk

From Total War to Assassin's Creed: Music from my GDC Talk (article by Winifred Phillips, video game composer)Last week, it was my honor and pleasure to give a presentation at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. My talk was entitled “From Total War to Assassin’s Creed: Music for Mobile Games.” The talk focused on the best and most effective methods for composition and implementation of music in portable gaming.  The talk was structured for the benefit of video game composers and game audio pros, and as a part of the presentation, I played short excerpts of music that I composed for several of my top mobile and handheld video game projects. Now that GDC is over, I thought I’d provide streaming links to some of the complete music tracks that I featured during my presentation, in case attendees were curious about the complete pieces of music. So, without further ado, here are tracks from my GDC 2016 talk!

Assassin’s Creed Liberation

The Assassin’s Creed Liberation game was released by Ubisoft for the PlayStation Vita, and delivered an immersive experience from the popular Assassin’s Creed franchise. The game was designed specifically for a portable system, and as such, all aspects of the design were adjusted to cater specifically to a portable gaming experience, including the music.

Game composer Winifred Phillips speaking about the music of Assassin's Creed Liberation at GDC 2016

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Video Game Music Concert Tours

Colbert presents The Legend of Zelda Concert (article by Winifred Phillips, video game composer)This week I thought we’d check in with some of the top orchestral video game music concert tours currently underway.  We’ll take a look at some reviews of 2015 performances from the respective tours, and we’ll also take a look at video from some of the most recent concert performances.

The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses

Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses marquee (article by game composer Winifred Phillips)Originating as a simple four-minute overture performed at a Nintendo press event in 2011, Symphony of the Goddesses kicked off as a full-fledged concert tour in January 2012 and currently has 33 dates scheduled for 2016 that will take the popular tour all around the world.  The concert’s program lineup focuses exclusively on famous music from the Legend of Zelda games.  In a review of the September 25th 2015 performance at the Providence Performing Arts Center in Rhode Island, Broadway World critic Andria Tieman wrote, “Overall, this was a night of fantastic music, excellent people-watching and a fun, visual performance. This is something that Zelda fans should certainly seek out.” Here’s a video clip from the Oct. 30th 2015 broadcast of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in which the Symphony of the Goddesses tour performed their Legend of Zelda Medley:

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Strategies in Audio & Music for Portable Games

Portable Game Audio and Music (article by award winning video game composer Winifred Phillips)
I’ll be talking about effective music composition for mobile and portable gaming platforms during my talk, “From Total War to Assassin’s Creed: Music for Mobile Games,” which will take place on March 16th at the upcoming Game Developers Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.  With that in mind, I thought I’d use this blog entry to share some resources that explore current strategies and trends in regards to sound and music for mobile – resources that could be useful to the video game composer and sound designer.
Audio and Music for Portable Games (blog written by Winifred Phillips, video game composer)While my talk at GDC will focus specifically on music composition and implementation for handheld devices, the resources that will follow in this blog offer assistance with the more general technical issues that face audio pros creating sound assets for a mobile gaming environment.  I’ve included links to the original articles, as well as a summation of some of the best points that I thought were particularly interesting:

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