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:

In my GDC talk, I discussed Virtual Presence in connection with seven of the virtual reality games and experiences that I’ve scored, which have either released within the past year or will be released within the coming months.  These include Audioshield (Audiosurf LLC), Bebylon Battle Royale (Kite & Lightning), Fail Factory (Armature Studio), The Haunted Graveyard (Holospark), Life Hutch VR (Next Stop Willoughby), Scraper: First Strike (Labrodex Inc), and Shattered State (Supermassive Games).  Over the course of these four articles, we’ve been looking at how game music can most effectively assist in creating mental states that promote Virtual Presence.  We’d previously looked at ways in which music accomplishes the following three tasks:

  • Music empowers Flow.
  • Music promotes psychological attachment.
  • Music provides an avenue for mood attenuation.

An illustration of the checklist of components that come together to form Virtual Presence in gaming - section of the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer).In our first article we examined how Flow Theory relates to Virtual Presence.  In the second and third articles, we considered how engagement, engrossment and empathy can create the right circumstances for players to feel fully enveloped in an awesome virtual world, reinforcing the psychological attachment that helps to support and enable Virtual Presence. So now, let’s look at the third mechanism wherein music enables Virtual Presence:

Mood Attenuation

As game music composers, it’s important that we maintain a firm grasp of the emotional undercurrents in the game – not only because they can help to increase Virtual Presence, but also because some emotions have the potential to interfere with it. Case in point: in a study published in the Journal Presence, computer scientist David Nunez of the University of Capetown investigated how music influences Virtual Presence. He directed study subjects to explore a virtual environment while hearing music of differing styles.  The music included both positive and negative emotional states. Nunez found that during negative emotions, the sensation of Virtual Presence dropped. Likewise, during positive emotions, Virtual Presence increased.

A depiction of the logo of the virtual reality game Life Hutch (from the article about Virtual Presence in VR gaming, written by video game music composer Winifred Phillips).What does this mean for us as game music composers working in virtual reality? It may mean that we should keep a close watch on the overall emotional arc of our musical scores in VR, looking for the top opportunities to attenuate those emotions if they’re growing too dark for too long.

For instance, at one point during the Life Hutch VR game, players climb into the cockpit of a fighter ship and hurtle into a frantic space battle against a relentless enemy. In discussing musical choices for this battle, the project director and I decided that instead of focusing on the hopeless odds and the desperation, we’d inject a more neutral sense of determination and competence into the music. This meant that the space battle provided a break from the surreal mood that colors the rest of the game. Let’s see what that was like:

As you can see, interjecting breaks from otherwise dark emotional textures can be a great choice within the body of a narrative structure, and can also help to support Virtual Presence for players.

It’s clear that the psychology of Virtual Presence can be tenuous to maintain, and there are also some drawbacks to be considered. Let’s take a moment to think about one way in which Virtual Presence itself may possibly hinder player enjoyment and success.

Event Boundary

An illustration accompanying the discussion of event boundary phenomenon - section of the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.Have you ever walked into a room and then thought – why did I come in here? What was I going to do here? What was I looking for? You stare blankly around the room for a moment or two, and then bang! You remember. Oh! That’s what I came in here for! Well, that annoying interval of perfect confusion is also a famous psychological effect, popularly known as The Event Boundary phenomenon, as discovered by psychology professor Gabriel Radvansky of the University of Notre Dame.

It seems that as human beings, we tend to organize our memories according to our location. When we move through any kind of passage or doorway leading from location 1 to location 2, our brains decide that we’re done with whatever we were thinking about in location 1. That info gets filed away, and when we try to remember it in location 2, it’s not readily available.

When exploring locations in video gaming, we never had to worry about event boundaries – because we were sitting in front of a screen. But with Virtual Presence, we don’t feel like we’re sitting in front of a screen.  We feel like we’re actually wandering about, so it’s possible to get confused when going from place to place – to forget objectives, to wonder what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. That’s bad for gameplay, and it’s bad for players. So how can we counteract the effect?

Music can go a long way to help players. Having music maintain a constant identity while following players through passages and doorways can help keep players focused.

The logo of the VR game Scraper: First Strike (from the article about Virtual Presence by Winifred Phillips, video game composer).In the Scraper: First Strike VR shooter from Labrodex Studios, players are given missions to accomplish within sprawling skyscrapers chock-full of passageways and doors.

The music I composed for Scraper: First Strike establishes a steady tone and atmosphere that follows players as they explore – bridging divides, and hopefully staving off any negative effects from the event boundary phenomenon.

Let’s take a quick look at how that works:

Conclusion

Virtual Presence is an elusive prize, and one that expert VR studios will continue to pursue as virtual reality development progresses and becomes more sophisticated over time.

An illustration accompanying a discussion of Virtual Presence in VR gaming, from the article written by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.During this four-article series we’ve taken a look at how music can help to enhance and support the sensation of Virtual Presence. We’ve explored what Virtual Presence is, and why it’s important in VR gaming. We’ve discussed Flow Theory, and how Flow can help players to become more fully engaged in a virtual environment. We’ve looked at an interesting three-stage model of psychological attachment that can work to enable Virtual Presence. We’ve explored how mood attenuation can allow video game composers to assist players in maintaining their Virtual Presence. And finally, we’ve considered that Virtual Presence itself may introduce some negative gameplay effects in the form of the event boundary phenomenon, and we’ve conjectured on possible solutions that music can provide to solve that problem.

I hope you’ve been inspired by these ideas, and that you’ll put some of them to work in your own projects. Virtual Reality is a bold new frontier in game development, and it offers us brand new creative opportunities. Achieving Virtual Presence is one of the main goals of our work in VR, but it presents a significant challenge. As game developers, we’ll need to employ every trick of science and artistry to convince players that they’re truly present in an alternate world – and music can be a powerful tool to accomplish that.  Thanks for reading!

 


 

How Music Enhances Virtual Presence

Compilation of images depicting popular game titles for VR platforms that are included in the GDC 2019 lecture of game composer Winifred Phillips.

Virtual Presence is defined as a state in which gamers fully accept the virtual world around them and their existence within it. This talk, “How Music Enhances Virtual Presence,” will explore how highly effective game music can enhance the sensation of Virtual Presence in VR gaming.

The talk will begin with an exploration of both the Flow Theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the research of Dr. Paul Cairns on psychological engagement in video gaming. By understanding how the mental activity of players interacts with the way a game is designed, composers can create music intended to induce psychological states conducive with the formation of Virtual Presence.

The talk will include a discussion of techniques aimed at drawing attention to mission objectives, facilitating effective concentration, enhancing emotional empathy and intensifying player focus. The discussion will also include an exploration of some inherent drawbacks to Virtual Presence, including its fragility when exposed to negative emotional states, and its possible susceptibility to inducing the “event boundary” phenomenon. Musical solutions to these problems will be explored.

Phillips’ talk will offer techniques for composers and audio directors who seek to employ music as a tool to enhance Virtual Presence for their players.

Takeaway

Using examples from several games, Phillips will explore how music can influence the mental states of players through specific effects documented in scientific research. Study data will be discussed in regards to the interaction between music and cognition. Phillips will offer strategies and tips for composers seeking to use their music to influence the player’s mental state, thus facilitating the formation of Virtual Presence.

Intended Audience

This session is intended to inspire and stimulate composers seeking to employ their music towards enhancing player engagement and enjoyment, with a particular emphasis on VR games. Includes overview of Flow Theory and the psychological components of Virtual Presence, which may be useful to other disciplines within game development. Talk will be approachable for all levels (advanced composers may better appreciate the specific composition techniques discussed).

 

Award-winning video game 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 June 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, 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. Phillips’ Reddit AMA went viral, hitting the Reddit front page, receiving 14.9k upvotes & garnering gold & platinum awards to become one of the most engaged and popular Reddit gaming AMAs.  As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality games. Phillips has been invited to speak about her work as a game composer at the Library of Congress, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and many more.  Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Game Music and Empathy: How Game Composers Can Enhance Virtual Presence (Pt. 3)

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, LittleBigPlanet, The Sims).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips.  Welcome back to our four part discussion of how game music can enhance presence in awesome virtual reality video games! These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s gathering of the famous Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.  My talk was 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 two articles, you’ll find them here:

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Composer Winifred Phillips answers Reddit’s questions in viral Ask-Me-Anything about video game music

Photo of popular video game composer Winifred Phillips, taken as 'proof photo' for her recent viral Reddit Ask-Me-Anything that hit the Reddit front page, receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes and garnering Reddit's gold and platinum awards.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m the author of the book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.  Recently my publisher The MIT Press requested that I host a question and answer session on Reddit’s famous Ask Me Anything forum, to share my knowledge about game music and spread the word about my book on that topic.  I’d be answering questions from a community consisting of thousands of gamers, developers and aspiring composers.  It sounded like fun, so last Thursday and Friday I logged onto Reddit and answered as many questions as I possibly could.  It was an awesome experience!  Over the course of those two days, my Reddit AMA went viral.  It ascended to the Reddit front page, receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes and garnering Reddit’s gold and platinum awards.  My AMA has now become one of the most engaged and popular Reddit gaming AMAs ever hosted on the Ask-Me-Anything subreddit.  I’m so grateful to the Reddit community for their amazing support and enthusiasm!!  During the course of those two days, the community posed some wonderful questions, and I thought it would be great to gather together some of those questions and answers that might interest us here.  Below you’ll find a discussion focused on the art and craft of game music composition.  The discussion covered the gamut of subjects, from elementary to expert, and I’ve arranged the discussion below under topic headings for the sake of convenience.  I hope you enjoy this excerpted Q&A from my Reddit Ask-Me-Anything!  If you’d like to read the entire AMA (which also includes lots of discussion of my past video game music projects), you’ll find the whole Reddit AMA here.

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VR for the Game Music Composer: Audio for VR Platforms

In this article written for video game composers, Winifred Phillips (video game composer) is here pictured working in her music production studio on the music for the Scraper: First Strike game, developed for popular VR gaming platforms (PSVR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hello there!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips.  Lately, I’ve been very busy in my production studio composing music for a lot of awesome virtual reality games, including the upcoming Scraper: First Strike first person VR shooter (pictured above) that’s coming out next Wednesday (November 21st) for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Windows Mixed Reality Devices, and will be released on December 18th for the Playstation VR.  My work on this project has definitely stoked my interest in everything VR!  Since the game will be released very soon, here’s a trailer video released by the developers Labrodex Studios, featuring some of the music I composed for the game:

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: tools and tips for composers

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips, working in her music production studio on the music of the SimAnimals video game.

By video game composer Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to this three article series that’s bringing together the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC 2017 audio talks about interactive music!  These five speakers explored discoveries they’d made while creating interactivity in the music of their own game projects.  We’re looking at these ideas side-by-side to broaden our viewpoint and gain a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. We’ve been looking at five interactive music systems discussed in these five GDC 2017 presentations:

In the first article, we examined the basic nature of these interactive systems. In the second article, we contemplated why those systems were used, with some of the inherent pros and cons of each system discussed in turn.  So now, let’s get into the nitty gritty of tools and tips for working with such interactive music systems.  If you haven’t read parts one and two of this series, please go do so now and then come back:

  1. Video game music systems at GDC 2017: what are composers using?
  2. Video game music systems at GDC 2017: pros and cons for composers

Ready?  Great!  Here we go!

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: pros and cons for composers

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio working on the music of LittleBigPlanet 2 Cross Controller

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our three article series dedicated to collecting and exploring the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC 2017 audio talks about interactive music!  These five speakers shared ideas they’d developed in the process of creating interactivity in the music of their own game projects.  We’re looking at these ideas side-by-side to cultivate a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. In the first article, we looked at the basic nature of five interactive music systems discussed in these five GDC 2017 presentations:

If you haven’t read part one of this article series, please go do that now and come back.

Okay, so let’s now contemplate some simple but important questions: why were those systems used?  What was attractive about each interactive music strategy, and what were the challenges inherent in using those systems?

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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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