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.

From the article by game composer Winifred Phillips - illustration of the logo for the Dragon Front game for Oculus Rift VR.As we mentioned in the last article, the video game music I composed for Dragon Front included some creepy tone clusters and dissonant swells that were designed to keep the player on edge during gameplay. While these type of techniques can be powerfully effective, serving as top suspense-enhancing tools for video game composers, we have to be particularly cautious when it comes to music for a virtual reality project.

VR considerations

Like all elements of a VR experience, music has the responsibility to help players remain at their most comfortable as they navigate the virtual world. So, while we can compose music that’s great at creating a disturbing atmosphere, we have to be careful that we aren’t agitating players enough to exacerbate VIMS – visually induced motion sickness.

From game composer Winifred Phillips' article - an illustration of the low frequency noise that may exacerbate Visually Induced Motion Sickness (VIMS).While music has never been shown to have any causal relationship with VIMS, we do have some interesting research from expert noise researcher Hylton Dawson, a one-time director of Environmental Protection UK.  In the 1960s, Dawson worked with the Gas Turbine Collaboration Committee.  Later, in 1982, Dawson wrote a paper for The Journal of Low Frequency Noise and Vibration, showing that continuous, unbroken infrasound – low frequency sound such as that generated by gas turbines – can potentially induce those feelings of dizziness associated with VIMS. With that in mind, we might be best served by saving this next musical technique for projects that aren’t designed for VR:

The Drones of Dread technique

The Drones of Dread technique is such an iconic tool of audio suspense that it has its own article on the TV Tropes website – that awesome compendium of techniques and concepts that have permeated popular culture.  According to TV Tropes, a good suspenseful ‘drone of dread’ consists of “sustained, continuous sound,” which is particularly effective if it uses infrasound, defined as “sound pitched so low that it’s just barely above the human threshold of hearing.”

As we mentioned before, infrasound has the ability to make listeners nervous and physically uncomfortable. In the journal Science, engineer and audio researcher Vic Tandy tells us that “infrasound triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response.”

From video game composer Winifred Phillips' article - an illustration for a discussion of the role of infrasound in the physiological symptoms associated with places reported to be haunted.Tandy has investigated the role that infrasound may play in creating the physical symptoms associated with places that are supposedly haunted by ghostly apparitions.  As a part of his research, Tandy has observed a correlation between low frequency vibrations and the psychological unease associated with hauntings, along with such physical symptoms as hair rising on the back of the neck, the notorious drop in body temperature, and even some shimmering visual effects (caused by low frequencies vibrating the eyeball).

So, if low frequencies can bring about such dramatic physical and psychological reactions, how can we game composers employ low drones to instill the same kind of nervous energy in our compositions?

Example: God of War

From the article by game composer Winifred Phillips, this illustration depicts the logo of the original God of War video game.

In my music for the famous God of War video game from Sony Computer Entertainment America, I wrote atmospheric tracks that included those unnerving low drones of dread. Here’s an example, from music I composed for the Challenge of Hades sequence of the God of War video game. Notice the pervasive and continuous low frequencies that form the backbone of the musical structure in this piece:

Conclusion

This concludes part four of this five part series based on my GDC 2017 talk, “Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.”  In part five we’ll wrap up this discussion by tackling the “Semi-Silence” technique, including examples of my music from The Da Vinci Code and Homefront: The Revolution video games.  In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio.Winifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in 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 MIT Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

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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GDC 2017: How video game composers can use music to build suspense

Winifred Phillips, video game composer, giving a talk as part of the Game Developers Conference 2016 in San Francisco.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

The Game Developers Conference is coming up soon!  Last year I presented a talk on music for mobile games (pictured above), and I’m pleased that this year I’ll be presenting the talk, “Homefront’ to ‘God of War’: Using Music to Build Suspense(Wednesday, March 1st at 11am in room 3006 West Hall, Moscone Center, San Francisco).  In my talk I’ll be focusing on practical applications of techniques for video game composers and game audio folks, using my own experiences as concrete examples for exploration.  Along the way, I’ll be discussing some very compelling scholarly research on the relationship between suspense, gameplay and musical expression.  In preparing my GDC 2017 presentation I did a lot of reading and studying about the nature of suspense in video games, the importance of suspense in gameplay design, and the role that video game music plays in regulating and elevating suspense.  There will be lots of ground to cover in my presentation!  That being said, the targeted focus of my presentation precluded me from incorporating some very interesting extra research into the importance of suspense in a more general sense… why human beings need suspense, and what purpose it serves in our lives.  I also couldn’t find the space to include everything I’d encountered regarding suspense as an element in the gaming experience.  It occurred to me that some of this could be very useful to us in our work as game makers, so I’d like to share some of these extra ideas in this article.

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More Business Advice for the Game Music Composer

Winifred Phillips (video game composer) working in her music studio.Every so often, I like to grab some time between music composition gigs to gather together the current general wisdom regarding career strategies for game music composers (since so many of my readers are new to the industry and looking for guidance).  In this article, I’ve included some of the stand-out ideas garnered from three online resources – a Gamasutra article by a former audio designer for Rockstar North, an awesome discussion thread on Reddit about effective communication strategies (found in the GameAudio subreddit), and a roundtable discussion at GameSoundCon about best business practices for game audio pros.

Make some noise! Getting a job creating sound and music for videogames

Audio Director Will Morton of Solid Audioworks (formerly a senior audio designer and dialogue supervisor at the famous Rockstar North development studio), has written a comprehensive article for the game industry site Gamasutra about getting jobs in the game audio field.  The article, entitled “Make Some Noise! Getting a Job Creating Sound and Music for Videogames,” focuses on the importance of experience, networking and a polished presentation in order to sufficiently impress a potential employer/client.  While much of the article is solid advice that might apply to a job seeker in any industry, a few areas impressed me as particularly interesting for game composers to bear in mind.

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