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.

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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.

A screen capture of the main character of the Spyder video game examining some secret plans - from a section of the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer).During the previous article, we explored how the dynamic music system of Spyder deploys a large assortment of discrete atmospheric compositions in a semi-random triggering scheme and with scalable emotional intensity during exploration gameplay.  If you haven’t had a chance to read that article, you can check it out here.  In this article, we’ll be moving on to a discussion of the interactive system for action music in the Spyder game.  Agent 8 divides his time between stealthy intelligence gathering and frantic missions to thwart the dastardly schemes of the top agents of S.I.N.  When clandestine operations must be set aside in favor of bold plans, Spyder swings into action, and the music ramps up to increase the sense of epic stakes.  So let’s take a look at how the action music of Spyder makes Agent 8 feel like an awesome hero!

Sky High Spy

In Spyder, action music is structured in vertical layers, with the instrumental texture building into more complex and propulsive mixes that flow seamlessly into each other as events proceed.  The way in which the layers are combined will vary depending on the layout of the game level and the tasks that Agent 8 is asked to perform.  The result is a dynamic musical system that reacts quickly and smoothly to the actions of the player.  For instance, during one of Agent 8’s perilous missions, he is smuggled on board an enemy bomber plane that’s about to attack a cargo ship carrying humanitarian aid.  Agent 8’s goal throughout this mission is to An illustration accompanying the discussion of the Sky High Spy level from the Spyder video game - article by game music composer Winifred Phillips.disable the bomber plane as best he can, and prevent it from reaching its objective.  Early gameplay onboard the bomber consists of careful navigation through the bowels of the plane, accompanied by stealthy ambient music. However, once our multi-legged hero reaches the plane’s engine, things begin to heat up.  

Because of the nature of this level, action-oriented gameplay tends to occur in fits and starts, rather than in continuous sequences.  Each action sequence is accompanied by the same interactive music composition, but each time that the action music is triggered, the number of layers changes.  In order to make this possible, I composed the music so that every single instrument could be isolated into its own recording, making sure to create the most instrumental layers possible.  I then submitted these recordings to the audio team at Sumo Digital as a large collection of instrumental music files that could be mixed and matched.  All the recordings were labeled according to an emotional intensity scale, so that they could be incorporated appropriately as the action ramped up, and removed from the mix whenever it made sense to do so.  Let’s take a look at an example.

Early in the Sky High Spy level, Agent 8 works to drain the plane’s engine of its oil supply.  During this, the action music begins as a relatively low-keyed jazz groove featuring keyboards, vibraphone and some light synth.  Let’s check out how that sounds in-game:

Later, Agent 8 works to flood the engine of the plane with coolant.  The action music is triggered again, except now it also includes drums and bass support for added momentum:

Finally, while attempting to defuse a bomb, Agent 8 is dropped along with the bomb out of the belly of the plane.  At this point, Agent 8 must attempt to explode the bomb in mid-air so that it doesn’t reach its target.  While this is going on, the action music appears in its full-mix version, complete with a robust saxophone choir and orchestral string section.

In the case of the Sky High Spy level, the action music is triggered in separate instances with custom mixes that scale in intensity.  However, the actual mixing changes are happening off-stage, so to speak.  The player doesn’t get to experience these changes in real time.  In other levels of the Spyder video game, the action music makes these dynamic changes on the fly while the track is playing.  Let’s check out how that worked.

Space Invaded

An illustration accompanying a discussion of the Space Invaded level from the Spyder video game -- article written by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.At one point during the game, Agent 8 gets shot into space on board an out-of-control space capsule that has been sabotaged by the evil agents of S.I.N.  In our last article we examined how the ambient music system worked aboard that damaged space ship.  Now, let’s check out how the action music functions during more exciting gameplay situations.

Crawling along the outside of a damaged ship that’s being pummeled by debris, Agent 8 makes his way to an electrical subsystem that he must rewire in order to repair the life support system for the struggling astronauts.  As our little hero maneuvers his way across an electrical circuitboard, the action music begins in its simplest form.  At this point, it’s only a light synth melody and a few synthetic chords and effects.  After completing the task of rewiring that board in expert fashion, Agent 8 makes his way to a second electrical system, and the music explodes into full-scale space disco complete with a funk guitar, high disco violins and lots of spacey musical synth effects.  Let’s see how that worked.  Notice the layer activations taking place as the music plays:

This is a fuller realization of a vertical layering music system for the action sequences of the Spyder video game.  To get a better understanding of how the system works, let’s take a look at another example.

The War Room

An image depicting video game character Agent 8 navigating the War Room in the Apple Arcade game Spyder, as discussed in the article written by Winifred Phillips (video game composer).In our previous article, we discussed the atmospheric music from The War Room level, so now let’s see how action music proceeds.  The structure of the action music system in The War Room is a great example of this vertical layering system, because it consists of a long sequence of events in which the layers are gradually added into the mix as Agent 8 progresses through the level.  Because of the nature of gameplay and the implementation of a single dynamic vertical layering track that accentuates level progression, the War Room action music really exemplifies the vertical layering system in the Spyder game.  The music begins when our hero crawls into the War Room mainframe computer in order to find a S.I.N. sabotage device and disable it.  When you first hear the War Room action music, it consists of just three instruments: a piano, an electric piano, and a bass.  By the time Agent 8 begins navigating a hazardous spinning deathtrap of computer reels, the music mix has been joined by some driving drums, vibes and marimba.  Once our hero has disabled the sabotage device, the music breaks out into its full mix with full jazz brass, saxophone choir, and lots of quirky synths.  Here’s how that worked:

So in this vertical layering implementation, the action music started with fairly sparse instrumentation and gradually built into a full mix by virtue of the addition of layers.  If you’d like to hear the entire music composition for The War Room, you can check out this video posted by the developer Sumo Digital that features the full-length track:

Now let’s take a look at an action music implementation scheme that proceeds in the opposite direction.

Bugged Out

An image illustrating the Bugged Out! level of the Spyder video game, as explored in the article written by award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips.In one of the more dramatic levels of the game, Agent 8 is charged with sabotaging a spy satellite.  To complete this mission, our little hero must navigate across the satellite’s wings: an array of solar panels.  Once Agent 8 completes this journey, the action music triggers into a full mix complete with orchestral strings, full jazz band and rhythm section.  But then the satellite’s fiery booster rockets are engaged, introducing a new threat to Agent 8’s mission.  As soon as this happens, the music system deactivates the larger instrumental sections of the full mix, leaving only the core jazz rhythm section and a lead guitar.  As the camera perspective pans across these fiery plumes of death, the music system triggers a new vertical layer in the form of ominous orchestral swells.  Let’s check that out:

 

Conclusion

The interactive music system of the Spyder video game is more complex and multifaceted than can be  feasibly included in these two articles.  By applying a narrow focus to specific ambient and action music systems within the Spyder game, we’ve taken abstract concepts and rendered them more concrete and applicable to our ongoing work as game music composers.  I’m very proud to have composed music for the Spyder video game, and it was amazing to work with the outstanding audio team at Sumo Digital.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of some of the dynamic systems in the Spyder video game score!

 

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.Popular music from composer Winifred Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score is currently featured as a part of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which kicked off in 2019 in Paris with performances by a top 80-piece orchestra and choir. 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.

 

 

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).

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.

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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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