Game Composers and the Importance of Themes: Repetition in Game Music (Pt. 2)

Pictured: video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio. Phillips is the game music composer for The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes game, developed by Random Potion for Wild River Games. Her credits include titles from 5 of the most well-known game franchises, and she is one of the foremost authorities on video game music, having presented lectures at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and the Society of Composers and Lyricists in NYC.

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Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and this is the second installment of my five article series based on the presentation I gave at the first-ever digital edition of the Game Developers Conference that took place this past March.  My talk was entitled “From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes” (I’ve included the official description of my talk at this end of this article).  In my GDC 2020 presentation, I discussed the music I composed for several video game projects, including Assassin’s Creed Liberation (Ubisoft), God of War (Sony Interactive America), LittleBigPlanet (Sony Interactive Europe), Homefront: The Revolution (Deep Silver), Speed Racer (Warner Bros Interactive), Spore Hero (Electronic Arts), and The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes (Wild River).

In the last article, we discussed the concept of the “hook” as it relates to thematic composition, and we explored how an awesome hook can function best from within a main theme track.  In our discussion, we used both a famous example from the Star Wars franchise, as well as the main theme from one of my own recently-released game projects – The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes.  Both examples included a fairly dynamic foreground melody, which made it a great example for our discussion of the role of the hook in thematic construction.  So let’s now consider what happens when we eschew such an attention-drawing melodic element and instead take a more subtle approach.

Assassin’s Creed Liberation

When I was hired to compose the music for Assassin’s Creed Liberation, one of the first requested tracks was the main theme.  So I’m sitting there in front of the keyboard, trying to start composing a main theme for an entry in one of the most popular video game franchises… and I’m thinking about what makes Assassin’s Creed unique: the surreal nature of being in the Animus.  It’s a virtual world that exists as an altered mental state, like dreaming or hypnosis.  What could I do as the composer to evoke this feeling?

An image of the text logo for the

Around that time, there was some discussion of the four-chord technique that Hans Zimmer popularized in scores like Inception.  I remember that there were a lot of opinions out the technique at the time, from experts and amateurs alike. The technique wasn’t original to him – it actually owes a lot to pop music construction – but Zimmer brought a bunch of attention to it.  Something about a simple repeating four-chord progression feels very hypnotic. And so I thought – why not?  Let’s figure out a four-chord progression, something that sounds interesting, and then base the whole track on it. I’d never done anything like that before. It could work.

A sheet music excerpt of the

So here they are – the four chords for the Assassin’s Creed Liberation main theme. It took a little while to settle on them, and then I recorded them using a really mellow synth pad – played them over and over and over again for about two minutes. Here’s what that was like:

The four-chords became the foundation of the main theme, and then it was just a matter of adding things to it. Lots of things.

So while there is plenty of melodic material in the main theme, the element that gets the most repetition is that sequence of four chords.  We hear that four-chord pattern 14 times in the main theme alone. This gives the four-chord sequence some mnemonic heft within the body of the game’s score.  It’s going to feel familiar when heard again, and that allows it to be meaningful when it reappears as a broken chord sequence during stealth gameplay:

Or when the four-chord shows up in the game’s main user-interface menus:

Repetition can serve as a powerful musical signature – whether by virtue of a bold and dynamic melody line, or a subtle chord progression. If an element pops up during music composition that seems perfect for recurrence, we have to stay on top of the situation, recognize this new composition opportunity and act on it.  Let’s look at an example from one of my other game projects.

Homefront: The Revolution

An image excerpt from the GDC 2020 presentation of video game composer Winifred Phillips, depicting her workflow during music composition for the game Homefront: The Revolution.In my music for the first person shooter Homefront the Revolution, I composed an emotional theme when an unlikely hero suddenly gives a remarkably inspiring speech about fighting back against oppression.  Since the whole story centers on that idea, that musical signature took on a really iconic character and I privately named it the ‘Stand With Me’ theme, after a phrase from that inspirational speech. Afterwards, I made a mental note to use the ‘Stand With Me’ theme again if I had the chance. Turns out, I had several. Here it is as it was used in three different story missions:

Conclusion

In this article, we’ve taken a look at how more subtle thematic elements can add emotional weight to a game.  We examined the four-chord theme of Assassin’s Creed Liberation, and discussed how repetition helps to solidify its association with the game’s core identity.  We also talked about how themes can be linked with specific story ideas, and how this linkage can facilitate further repetition within the body of the game’s musical score.  In the next article of this series, we’ll be exploring how variation and fragmentation can add utility to our musical themes.  Along the way, I’ll be sharing some of personal stories of my creative process for two of my game music projects – Spore Hero and LittleBigPlanet PS Vita.  Until then, thanks for reading!

 

From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes

An image montage that includes the logos of video games discussed during the GDC 2020 presentation,

(Game Developers Conference Session Description)

Through an exploration of her work composing music for games such as Assassin’s Creed Liberation, God of War, LittleBigPlanet and the upcoming RPG The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes, composer Winifred Phillips will examine the potential of thematic music to enable a game to stand out as special and unique.

By employing musical themes, a composer can infuse a game with a strong sense of character and originality.

According to research, music heard during activities is remembered vividly. Coupling this with the innately memorable nature of themes allows a game composer to create an indelible musical signature for any game. This talk will examine composition techniques that extend the life and utility of themes. Variation, development, figures, fragmentation, and motifs will be explored, along with examples of themes in combat, menus, cutscenes, and stingers. Finally, dynamic music construction will be considered, including workarounds to enable effective themes within interactive systems.

Takeaway

Using examples from several games, Phillips will discuss specific composition techniques designed to enhance the utility of thematic content. Attendees will learn how themes may be incorporated into specific game music asset types. Also included in the discussion: composition adjustments required by interactive music constructs.

Intended Audience

This session will present inspirational ideas for composers seeking to create distinctive musical signatures for their game projects. Discussion of thematic use within different types of game music assets may be helpful for audio developers engaged in preparing music design documents. The talk will be approachable for all levels.

 

Photo showing award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio.Popular music from composer Winifred Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score is currently being performed live by a top 80-piece orchestra and choir as part of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which kicked off in 2019 with its Paris premiere. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in five of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: Assassin’s Creed, God of War, Total War, The Sims, and LittleBigPlanet.  Phillips’ other notable projects include music for the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution (Deep Silver), and numerous virtual reality games from such accomplished developers as Supermassive Games, High Voltage Software, and Armature Studio.   She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As the foremost authority on music for interactive entertainment, Winifred Phillips has given lectures at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, and many more. Phillips’ enthusiastic fans showered her with questions during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session that went viral, hit the Reddit front page, received 14.9 thousand upvotes, and became one of the most popular gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

 

Game Composers and the Importance of Themes: The Hook in Game Music (Pt. 1)

This photo includes game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her production studio. Phillips is the game music composer for The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes game, developed by Random Potion for Wild River Games. Her credits include titles from 5 of the most well-known game franchises, and she is one of the foremost authorities on video game music, having presented lectures at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and the Society of Composers and Lyricists in NYC.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Last March, I gave a presentation at the very first online Game Developers Conference.  My talk was entitled “From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes” (I’ve included the official description of my talk at this end of this article).  This coming August, I’ll be participating as a speaker in the upcoming GDC Summer online conference.  My session this August will be a wide-ranging Ask-Me-Anything Q&A, and I’m really looking forward it!  In anticipation of that conference session, I thought it might be useful for me to share the content of my March GDC talk in a series of articles.  I’m happy to now begin a five-part article series based on my GDC 2020 presentation in March!

In my GDC 2020 presentation, I discussed musical themes, and I shared some stories about my work composing music for lots of great game projects. I’ll be sharing the same stories here.  Those projects include Assassin’s Creed Liberation (Ubisoft), God of War (Sony Interactive America), the LittleBigPlanet franchise (Sony Interactive Europe), Homefront: The Revolution (Deep Silver), Speed Racer (Warner Bros Interactive), Spore Hero (Electronic Arts), and The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes (Wild River).

But before we start digging into practical examples, let’s take a quick look at one of the best and most iconic themes in the history of music for media. I’ve included a short excerpt below. Notice how we hear a melodic phrase once, then we hear it again, and it’s exactly the same as before. So the melody is saying, “hey – you liked that? Here, have another!”

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Video Game Music Composer: The Interactive Music of SPYDER (Part 2)

Photograph of video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio. Phillips is the video game composer for the Spyder game, developed by Sumo Digital for Apple Arcade. Her credits include games in five of the biggest franchises in gaming, and she is considered an authority on video game music who has given lectures at such venues as the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m glad you’ve joined us for this continuation of our discussion of the dynamic music system in the video game Spyder!  As you may recall from our previous discussion, Spyder is a spy thriller set in a retro world that’s vibrant with the famously over-the-top music and aesthetic of the late 1960s to early 1970s.  The game was developed by Sumo Digital for the popular Apple Arcade gaming platform.  The protagonist is an intelligent gadget resembling a tiny robotic spider.  This device, named “Agent 8,” was created by an elite British spy organization.  As the hero of the game, Agent 8 undertakes high-stakes espionage in order to defeat a sprawling evil organization known as S.I.N.!  Sumo Digital recently released a developer diary video about the making of the music of SPYDER, so let’s check that out:

As you could see from the video, the Spyder video game features a dynamic music system designed to convey the iconic 1960s style of a classic spy thriller.  In this two-part article series, we’ve been exploring how that system was created.

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Video Game Music Composer: The Interactive Music of SPYDER

Award-winning game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio on the musical score of the Spyder video game for Apple Arcade. Her credits include games in five of the biggest franchises in gaming, and she is considered an authority on video game music who has given lectures at such venues as the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hello there!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m excited to announce the release of my most recent video game project – Spyder, developed by Sumo Digital for the popular Apple Arcade gaming platform.  I loved working with the amazing audio team at Sumo Digital, and composing the music of Spyder was an absolute blast!  As a retro spy thriller with a really iconic visual aesthetic, Spyder gave me the chance to delve into the Promotional poster for the video game Spyder, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.musical styles of the late sixties and early seventies.  Big band jazz of the 50s had evolved over time into a groovy psychedelic circus of 1960s musical fun.  Mix this with the beginnings of 70s funk – and early synthetic sounds such as the famous Minimoog – and you end up with a potent cocktail of musical influences and attitudes.  All of this retro goodness is reflected in the old-school movie-style poster created by the Sumo Digital team to announce the Spyder video game (pictured right).

The historical research into style, technique and instrumentation posed a significant challenge for me as a game music composer.  In the course of preparing to compose the music for Spyder, I sank an enormous amount of time into this research, listening to what felt like every single spy movie soundtrack from the late sixties and early seventies.  I also listened to tons of straight action movie soundtracks from the same era, as well as a great assortment of comedies, all while taking copious notes.  Lending a strong sense of authenticity to the era was a crucial responsibility of the game music that would give Spyder its evocative character.

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Video Game Composers: The Importance of Themes (GDC 2020)

Award-winning game music composer Winifred Phillips spoke at the Game Developers Conference in 2019.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  As most of us are no-doubt aware, the Game Developers Conference 2020 has been postponed.  This means that the yearly conference’s rich and diverse schedule of lectures will not be performed live next week during GDC 2020 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.  I was really looking forward to presenting my lecture, entitled “The Importance of Themes: Creating Musical Signatures for your Games.”  Having given GDC presentations every year since 2015, I consider the Game Developers Conference to be an indispensable event for both my career and my personal enrichment as a game music composer.  While the postponement is a set-back for the entire game development community, I’m glad to share some awesome news!  A portion of the GDC 2020 lecture schedule will still take place as planned – albeit from a much different venue.  Instead of in-person presentations, GDC plans to stream many of their previously scheduled GDC talks during GDC week as part of a “virtual conference.”  This means that I can share my lecture as a GDC Virtual Talk.  Best of all, all of the GDC Virtual Talks will be available for free!

Image illustrating the Game Developers Conference in 2020, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.My virtual talk will focus on the best ways to create memorable thematic material.  Catchy melodies can help to enhance a game’s distinctive character and originality, which can subsequently lead to a more memorable gameplay experience.  In preparing my presentation, I conducted quite a bit of research.  Because of time constraints, not all of that scholarly research made it into my final presentation. I was sorry to have to cut those materials – I thought it was pretty interesting stuff! So let’s now discuss some of that extra info in this article.  We won’t be delving into the actual subject matter of my lecture, since I’ll be saving that material for my actual presentation that will be included in the slate of GDC 2020 Virtual Talks. But the general relationship between music and memory is a fascinating area of study.  If our music can help games to stick in the minds of players, then it should be useful for us to understand some expert scholarly viewpoints on the relationship between music and memory.

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Video Game Composers and the Importance of Research: The Music of Sports Scramble

Working on the music of the VR game Sports Scramble, Winifred Phillips is here shown in her professional music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey, everybody!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  As game composers, it’s inevitable that we’ll eventually be asked to create music in a genre with which we have little or no experience.  Some projects may throw several unfamiliar musical genres our way.  It can be a scary prospect.  I’ve worked on many projects that have required me to quickly learn new musical styles and techniques, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about how research can help us cope with these sorts of unexpected demands.  This article will explore the role of music research, including how it can initiate us into the mysteries of unfamiliar musical styles, and ways in which it can lead us in unanticipated (but not unwelcome) directions.  I’ve had lots of experience delving into diverse musical genres and doing music research for projects both big and small over the course of my career.  For this article, I’ll be describing my recent experience composing the music for the Sports Scramble VR game, developed by Armature Studio and released earlier this year for popular VR platforms such as the Oculus Quest and the Oculus Rift/Rift S.

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Resources for Video Game Music Composers: The Big List 2020

This photo shows video game composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio. Phillips has composed music for titles in five of the most popular franchises in gaming (Assassin's Creed, God of War, Total War, The Sims, LittleBigPlanet).

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Hello there!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips, and it’s time once again for our yearly collection of top resources for game audio practitioners!  The following article contains an expanded and updated collection of links on an assortment of subjects important to the game audio community.  We kick things off with a list of concert tours and annual game music events.  After that, we check out the online game audio communities that we can join for support and assistance.  We’ll take a look at the software applications currently in use by game audio pros.  Finally, we’ll look at what’s going on in the world of game audio conferences and academia.

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Video game music composer: Getting your big break (2020 edition)

This photo shows video game composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio on music for the God of War video game. Phillips has composed music for titles in five of the most popular franchises in gaming (Assassin's Creed, God of War, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, The Sims).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everyone!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  In the photo above I’m working on the project that launched my career as a game composer – God of War.  Starting a viable career in the game development industry as a composer can be an awesome task, and I’m often asked for advice about how to break into this business.  So each year I revisit the subject in an article that allows us to consider current ideas and strategies.  Along the way, we contemplate multiple viewpoints, both from expert music and game audio practitioners and by anonymous game audio folks in community forums.  An image depicting the cover of the bestselling book A Composer's Guide to Game Music, written by award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips.This can be helpful, because the common wisdom on this subject changes in subtle but appreciable ways with each passing year.  By revisiting the topic periodically, I hope that we’ll be able to obtain a deeper understanding of what it takes to land the coveted first gig as a composer of music for games.

Part of the reason I write this article each year is personal.  My own “big break” story is so extraordinarily unusual that it can’t provide much useful guidance for newcomers.  Being fortunate enough to have a famous game like God of War as your first game credit isn’t the typical entry path for a budding video game composer.  Yet, because I’m a fairly visible member of the game audio community who has written a book called A Composer’s Guide to Game Music (pictured), I’m constantly asked for advice by aspiring composers who want to start their professional careers and are having trouble getting out of the gate.  Since my own story is such a ‘bolt-of-lightning’ case study, I think it’s useful for us to study the more traditional entry paths when we’re trying to understand how aspiring game composers can get their start.  By the way, in case you’re wondering, here’s the story of how I landed my first gig – I told the story during a Society of Composers and Lyricists event in NYC, and it’s captured in this video:

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Composing Iconic Theme Music for The Dark Eye video game

This photo shows video game composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio on music for the latest game in The Dark Eye franchise. Phillips has composed music for titles in five of the most popular franchises in gaming (Assassin's Creed, God of War, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, The Sims).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips.  Today I’d like to share some news about one of my latest projects as a video game composer: the newest installment in an internationally-acclaimed fantasy RPG franchise known as The Dark Eye.  During our discussion, we’ll break down the structure of one of the most important pieces of music I composed for that game.

The latest entry in the award-winning Dark Eye video game franchise will be released this coming Spring 2020 under the title The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes.  Before we begin discussing this project and one of the pieces of music I composed for it, let’s take a look at the announcement trailer that was recently released by the publisher Ulisses Games.  The trailer prominently features a sizable portion of the main theme I composed for the game:

As you can see from the gameplay captured in the trailer, The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes is an isometric real-time roleplaying game.  The developers have compared the gameplay of Book of Heroes to top RPG games from the classic era like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights.  The game offers both solo missions and cooperative adventures designed for up to four players.  Most importantly, the developers stress in an interview that their game will be faithful to the awesome fantasy world of the renowned RPG franchise – it will be “the most Dark Eye game ever.”  Composing a main theme is a heavy responsibility, since main theme tracks tend to be regarded as especially important in a composer’s body of work.  Just this week (Nov. 9th) I was interviewed on the Sound Of Gaming radio show on BBC Radio 3, and the main theme for The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes premiered on this broadcast, spotlighting my work as a game composer.  The entire show is available to listen at this link from now until Dec. 8th.  A main theme is not only a prominent showcase of a composer’s abilities, but also serves a crucial function within the main score of the game. So let’s explore that idea further.

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Game Music and Mood Attenuation: How Game Composers Can Enhance Virtual Presence (Pt. 4)

Working on the music of the Scraper: First Strike VR game, Winifred Phillips is here shown in her professional music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m happy to welcome you back to the last of my four-part article series exploring how game music can best enhance the sensation of presence in Virtual Reality! These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, entitled How Music Enhances Virtual Presence (I’ve included the official description of my talk at this end of this article). If you haven’t read the previous three articles, you’ll find them here:

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