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.

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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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Game Music and The Theory of Flow: How Game Composers Can Enhance Virtual Presence (Pt. 1)

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her video game music production studio working on the music of "The Haunted Graveyard" VR game.

By Winifred Phillips | ContactFollow

Hello there!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  At this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I was pleased to give a presentation entitled How Music Enhances Virtual Presence (I’ve included the official description of my talk at the end of this article). The talk I delivered at GDC gave me the opportunity to pull a lot of ideas about virtual reality together and present a concentrated exploration of how music can increase a sensation of presence for VR gamers.  It occurred to me that such a discussion might be interesting to share in this forum as well. So, with that in mind, I’m excited to begin a four-part article series based on my GDC 2019 presentation!

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Video: The first Library of Congress lecture given by a video game music composer

Popular video game composer Winifred Phillips giving her Library of Congress lecture -- the first presentation by a video game composer at the Library of Congress.

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Hey everyone!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips.  This past April, I gave a lecture on video game music composition techniques at the invitation of The Library of Congress in Washington DC. It was the first speech on game music composition given at The Library of Congress, and I was tremendously honored to be able to represent the field of video game music!  My presentation was entitled “The Interface Between Music Composition and Game Design,” and was supported by a full house in the Whittall Pavilion of the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. In a previous article, I posted a partial transcript of the Q&A portion from my Library of Congress session, including some of the best questions from the Q&A.  Since then, The Library of Congress has included a video of my entire presentation as a part of their permanent archival collection for future generations.  I’m very pleased to be able to share the entire video with you!

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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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From the video game music of EA’s Spore Hero to Avengers Endgame: Composing the Hero Theme

Photo of composer Winifred Phillips working on the video game music of Spore Hero from Electronic Arts.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

The famous Avengers Endgame logo, from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.Hi!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips, and sometimes my game music shows up in places I never would have expected.  A little over a week ago, while I was eagerly watching an awesome trailer for the just-released blockbuster Avengers Endgame, I was suddenly stunned to hear my own music in it!  (I’ve embedded the Avengers Endgame trailer that features my music at the end of this article.)  What made this moment even more jaw-dropping for me was that I had originally composed this music for the video game Spore Hero (a game from Electronic Arts’ popular Spore franchise).  Just as a reference, here’s what the characters look like in Spore Hero:

Detail from cover image of popular video game Spore Hero (from the article by Winifred Phillips, video game composer).

The style of Spore Hero couldn’t be further away from that famous Avengers style, as expertly displayed in the Avengers Endgame trailer.  Yet the same music was used for both projects.

The famous faces of Avengers Endgame depicted in the official poster (an illustration from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips)

The Spore Hero music I was hearing in the Avengers Endgame trailer was my “Hero Theme,” which functions essentially as a leitmotif within the Spore Hero score – it’s the central recurring melody in the game.  By virtue of the theme-and-variation technique, the melody undergoes a gradual transformation from invitingly cute to heroically epic.

The Avengers Endgame trailer featured the most dramatic iteration of this theme.  When I recovered from the initial surprise, it occurred to me that a mini-postmortem of this particular melodic theme might be the best way to explore an interesting topic: how does a single theme transform itself from an amiable melody to an avenging one?

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Video game music composer gives lecture at the Library of Congress

Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips giving a lecture at the Library of Congress (Whittall Pavilion, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC). Winifred Phillips' lecture was the first video game music composition lecture given at the Library of Congress.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

On April 6th I was honored to give a lecture at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington DC (pictured right).  As a video game composer, I’d been invited to speak by the Music Division of the Library of Congress.  I’d be delivering the concluding presentation during their Popular video game music composer Winifred Phillips is here shown outside the Thomas Jefferson Building (Library of Congress, Washington DC), where she gave the first-ever video game music composition lecture at the invitation of the music division of the Library of Congress.premiere event celebrating popular video game music.  My lecture would be the very first video game music composition lecture ever given at the Library of Congress.  I was both honored and humbled to accept the invitation and have my lecture included in the 2018-2019 season of concerts and symposia from the Library of Congress.

In my presentation, I included many topics that I’ve written about in previous articles.  My lecture topics included horizontal resequencing, vertical layering, and interactive MIDI-based composition. I explored the various roles that music has played in famous games from the earliest days of game design (like Frogger and Ballblazer).  I also discussed how music has been implemented in some of the awesome games from the modern era (like one of my own projects, Assassin’s Creed Liberation).

My lecture was supported by a full house in the Whittall Pavilion at the Library of Congress. The audience gave me both a warm welcome and lots of great questions following the conclusion of my lecture.  Afterwards, the discussion continued during a book signing event that was kindly hosted by the Library of Congress shop.  During the book signing event, I was pleased to sign copies of my book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. I also got to talk personally with quite a few audience members.  Such an engaging and insightful crowd!  It was a pleasure getting to know these lovely people.  I really enjoyed the lively conversation – I had the best time!!

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