Game Composers and the Importance of Themes: Recurrence and Rationale in Game Music (Pt. 4)

Photo of composer Winifred Phillips at work in her music production studio at Generations Productions. Phillips' work includes several famous and popular games and game franchises, including God of War, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, Assassin's Creed, and The Sims.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and welcome to the fourth installment of my five article series based on the presentation I gave this past March at the first-ever completely online Game Developers Conference!  My talk was titled “From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes” (you’ll find the official description of my talk at the end of this article).  In my presentation, I explored the thematic content in music I composed for several top 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).

If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, you can find them here:

In the last article, we discussed theme fragmentation and variation.  So now let’s consider how themes can best enhance different types of gameplay.

Recurring themes

An image depicting the official logo of the Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole IP. This image is a part of the five-article series written by Winifred Phillips (video game composer).

We typically see recurring musical themes used most frequently in story-driven games – especially during cinematics and cutscenes.  For instance, when I composed the music for the Legend of the Guardians video game, I made sure that the main theme melody was prevalent during the game’s start sequence and in the cinematic opening credits:

However, the role of thematic music goes beyond cinematic uses.  While themes can propel a storyline, using themes more frequently can also reinforce the identity of the game we’re scoring, and serve as a musical signature for it.  For instance, while the main theme was important during cinematic sequences, the main theme melody was also used during combat:

Image depicting the official logo of the Speed Racer video game, as included in the article written by popular video game composer Winifred Phillips.Themes can work during action, even in a game that isn’t driven by narrative.  A good example is the music I composed for the Speed Racer video game based on the movie from the famous Wachowski siblings. It’s not a story-driven game, but nevertheless my main theme melody is all over the place – in the opening cinema, during the races, and even in the end credits:

This image includes the famous God of War logo. It is included for illustration in the educational article about video game music construction, written by award-winning composer Winifred Phillips.These kind of recurring thematic uses can be employed during exploration too.  In some of my music for the original God of War, I composed an atmospheric choral theme that was repeated in some of the grander and more awesome locations in the game:

Considering the rationale

As game composers working to incorporate themes into our work, repetition is our friend.  Repetition makes a musical theme more memorable. With that in mind, it can be useful if we create a rationale for why a musical theme is recurring.  For instance, in part three of this article series, we discussed the ‘Stand With Me’ theme that I composed for Homefront The Revolution. It tended to appear in inspiring moments of patriotism and self-sacrifice. Here’s a reminder of how that worked:

So “patriotism and self-sacrifice” had become the underlying meaning that this musical theme was meant to convey, and this guided me in terms of when the theme should be repeated.

This image depicts the cover art of the Assassin's Creed Liberation HD release. Included for illustrative purposes in the article written by composer Winifred Phillips (creator of music for the Assassin's Creed Liberation video game).Likewise, in the second article of this series we discussed the “four chord” theme that I composed for Assassin’s Creed Liberation (from the popular Assassin’s Creed franchise.) With that simple four-chord progression, I knew I had a memorable hook that could help to reinforce the identity of the game and give it a strong musical signature, but I wanted a clear narrative association that would guide me when choosing when the theme should recur.  With that in mind, I decided to use it during moments of revelation, when mysteries were solved and secrets discovered. Here are a couple of great examples of how the four-chord functioned as a theme representing ‘truth revealed’:

 

Conclusion

If we carefully consider the circumstances in which our themes recur, we have the chance to expertly associate in-game concepts and narrative ideas with our music.  This helps the music to more forcefully assert a unique identity for the game, and deepen its character.  In the final article in this five-part series, we’ll discuss how musical themes can be incorporated into interactive music systems.  Until then, thanks for reading!


 

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

This image includes the official logos of video game music projects discussed during the GDC 2020 presentation of video game music composer Winifred Phillips.

(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.

 
 

Popular game music composer Winifred Phillips works 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.

Variation and Fragmentation in Game Music: Game Composers and the Importance of Themes (Pt. 3)

This is a photo of composer Winifred Phillips in her production studio at Generations Productions. Phillips is known for her music for several well known games and game franchises, including LittleBigPlanet, God of War, Total War, Assassin's Creed, and The Sims.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hi!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and welcome to the third installment of my five article series based on the presentation I gave at this year’s online 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 the end of this article).  In my 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 took a look at how thematic material was employed in subtle ways within two of my video game projects – Assassin’s Creed Liberation and Homefront: The Revolution.  We considered how repetition can reinforce the significance of musical themes, particularly when they are associated with specific narrative ideas, and we talked about how repetition can work to make musical themes memorable and meaningful.  But we all know that repetition can get stale if we don’t approach it creatively.  So that brings us now to the topic of variation – how to keep themes feeling fresh.

Continue reading

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.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

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.

Continue reading

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!”

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

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.

Continue reading

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:

Continue reading