Video game music systems at GDC 2017: what are composers using?

By video game music composer Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, presenting at the Game Developers Conference 2017.The 2017 Game Developers Conference could be described as a densely-packed deep-dive exploration of the state-of-the-art tools and methodologies used in modern game development.  This description held especially true for the game audio track, wherein top experts in the field offered a plethora of viewpoints and advice on the awesome technical and artistic challenges of creating great sound for games. I’ve given GDC talks for the past three years now (see photo), and every year I’m amazed at the breadth and diversity of the problem-solving approaches discussed by my fellow GDC presenters.  Often I’ll emerge from the conference with the impression that we game audio folks are all “doing it our own way,” using widely divergent strategies and tools.

This year, I thought I’d write three articles to collect and explore the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC audio talks.  During their presentations, these five speakers all shared their thoughts on best practices and methods for instilling interactivity in modern game music.  By absorbing these ideas side-by-side, I thought we might gain a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the current leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. In the first article, we’ll look at the basic nature of these interactive systems.  We’ll devote the second article to the pros and cons of each system, and in the third article we’ll look at tools and tips shared by these music interactivity experts. Along the way, I’ll also be sharing my thoughts on the subject, and we’ll take a look at musical examples from some of my own projects that demonstrate a few ideas explored in these GDC talks:

So, let’s begin with the most obvious question.  What kind of interactive music systems are game audio folks using lately?

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Variation for the video game composer: the music of Little Lords of Twilight

Pictured: video game music composer Winifred Phillips at the BKOM booth during GDC 2017.

Since one of my most recent projects, Little Lords of Twilight, became available worldwide earlier this year and was recently greenlit on the famous Steam platform, I thought I’d write this article to share some of my creative and technical process in composing the music for this game. In particular, this project presents a great opportunity to look at how compositional variation (as we understand it from music theory) can be useful for the structure of interactive music.

Developed by BKOM Studios, Little Lords of Twilight won a Best in Play Award at GDC 2017, a Best Designed Mobile App Platinum Award from the BMA Awards, a Communicator Award for Best Mobile App, and has appeared on numerous “Best of” lists, including those published by PocketGamer, Explore Gadgets, and GameInOnline.  As a player-versus-player turn-based strategy game, Little Lords of Twilight offers a unique gameplay mechanic influenced by the in-game passage of time.  Day and night cycles dramatically alter your character’s appearance and abilities. Depending on whether it is currently day or night in the game, your character will have access to a completely different complement of awesome skills and spells to wield on the battlefield.

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Composing video game music to build suspense, part 5: semi silence

Winifred Phillips - video game music composer - working on the music of The Da Vinci Code video game in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of my five-part article series on music composition techniques for stimulating tension and suspense in video games.  These articles are based on the presentation I gave this year at the popular Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  If you haven’t yet read the previous four articles, you’ll find them here:

Now that we’ve considered the power of Ominous Ambiences, Jarring Jolts, Creepy Clusters, and Drones of Dread, let’s take a look at the last item on our list of suspenseful music composition techniques – Semi Silence.

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Composing video game music to build suspense, part 4: drones of dread

Winifred Phillips, video game music composer, at work in her studio on the music of the original God of War.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome to the fourth installment of my five-part article series discussing music composition techniques that heighten tension and suspense for video game projects.  These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  If you haven’t read the previous three articles, you’ll find them here:

Before we move on to the next music composition technique in our suspense-building arsenal, I’d like to briefly revisit a video game project we discussed in our last article; the popular Dragon Front VR game for the Oculus Rift, developed by High Voltage Software.

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Composing video game music to build suspense, part 3: creepy clusters

Winifred Phillips (video game music composer) working in her studio on the music of the Dragon Front video game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our five part discussion of the role that video game music can play in enhancing tension and promoting suspenseful gameplay!  These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  If you haven’t read the previous two articles, you’ll find them here:

So, now that we’ve discussed ominous atmospheres and jarring jolts, let’s look at the next technique in our arsenal:

The Creepy Cluster technique

From game composer Winifred Phillips' article on suspenseful game music - an illustration of the 'clusters' technique.As we know, tone clusters are collections of notes packed together to produce unnerving dissonant effects. While it might seem like any cat can walk across a piano and produce unpleasant clusters, well-executed dissonance is actually one of the trickiest techniques we can employ.  It’s tremendously potent when used with expert precision.

Why do human beings respond so intensely to dissonance? Professor Michael Epstein of Northeastern University’s Auditory Modeling and Processing Lab has devoted over 20 years of expert research into why certain sounds have the power to instantly incite and deepen fear in listeners.  He tells Boston Magazine that “common musical intervals, changed slightly to create dissonance, are immediately disconcerting.” According to Epstein, “very precise noises trigger human fear and discomfort.”

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Composing video game music to build suspense, part 2: jarring jolts

Winifred Phillips, composer of video game music, shown in her studio working on the music of the Assassin's Creed Liberation video game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our five-part discussion of some of the best techniques that video game composers can use to enhance tension and promote suspenseful gameplay.  These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  If you haven’t read our previous discussion of Ominous Ambiences in part one of this series, please go check that article out.

Are you back?  Good!  Let’s continue!

We’ve already talked about how to create an edgy, ominous atmosphere. By carefully nurturing the player’s suspense and anxiety, we can prime the player with an assortment of quietly unnerving sounds, until the player is perfectly ready for…

The Jarring Jolt technique

This is the second technique we’ll be discussing in our five-part article series on the role of music in building suspense. Like the Ominous Ambience (which we discussed in part one), the Jarring Jolt also owes a debt to the expert work of sound designers.  In fact, the Ominous Ambience and the Jarring Jolt are fairly interdependent. One doesn’t work that well without the other.

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Composing video game music to build suspense, part 1: ominous ambience

Winifred Phillips (video game composer), working in her studio on the music of the Homefront: The Revolution video game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

At this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I was honored to give a presentation entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  While I’ve certainly discussed techniques for building suspense in this blog before, the talk I gave at GDC expanded significantly on that discussion and included lots more research and practical examples that we haven’t previously examined here.  With that in mind, I’m excited to begin a five-part article series based on my GDC 2017 presentation!  During the course of these five articles, we’ll be taking a look at some of the best techniques that enable video game music composers to introduce suspense into their music, control tension levels during gameplay and keep players engaged.

So, let’s start by defining the core concept.  What exactly is suspense?

A physiological reaction

We all can agree that music is one of the most effective ways to produce emotional reactions. But suspense, particularly in the field of game development, isn’t just about an emotional state. It’s also a unique physiological reaction – a tension rising out of the uncertainty that we’re encountering during gameplay.

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