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.

Illustration of projects utilizing ambiences and jolts in sound design - from the article by game music composer Winifred Phillips.A good explanation of this comes from top film sound designer Paul Hackner, best known for his work on The Hunger Games and the popular Matrix franchise. In an interview with Audio Media International, Hackner says:

“If everything suddenly gets quiet and the music drops out that is not necessarily scary.  It can often pull the audience out. It is more effective to have eerie drones, creepy winds, and rumbles come and go. The notion is counterintuitive, but it is necessary to let the audience know that a jump scare is about to happen.”

The Jump Scare

From the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips - an illustration of the 'jarring jolt' concept.We’re probably all familiar with the idea of a jump scare – a hushed moment followed by a sudden appearance that’s calculated to be as startling as possible. Jump scares are a famous technique used in horror games and films, but we’ll also encounter sudden surprises in other genres. These jolts can be very effective in provoking a physiological response, bringing players into a hyper-alert state.

The jarring jolt is at its very best when it’s preceded by an ominous atmosphere, because players navigate such an environment with a feeling of persistent uncertainty, knowing that nothing is reliable, and nowhere is safe. When players are on edge to that degree, a jarring jolt can get their hearts racing.

There are many ways in which a video game composer can create a jarring jolt, but two of the most common methods come directly from the world of sound design. They’re heavily used in movie trailers, because they are an awesome way to get an audience’s attention. Their technical names are:

Bumpers and Whooshes.

So let’s start with definitions.

The Bumper

From the article by Winifred Phillips (composer of video game music) - an illustration of the 'bumper' concept.In music composition, a bumper may also be called a “hit,” but it’s essentially the same idea. A bumper is a sudden, jarring noise evocative of a violent impact that’s designed to arrest the listener’s attention. In sound design, bumpers are used often in correlation with a visual jump scare, but we can use bumpers in music to keep players on edge, even if there’s no corresponding visual cue.

Logo art for Assassin's Creed Liberation, music by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.When I composed the Assassin’s Creed Liberation score for Ubisoft, one of the tracks I wrote was for an action sequence in which the main character undertakes a dangerous escort mission.  She has to reach a checkpoint without being killed by the guards.  It had to feel scary, so I built ominous ambiences and bumpers into the music to ratchet up the tension.  Here’s an example – notice how the music settles down to a light rhythmic texture with a dissonant midrange tone, and then gets interrupted by a big orchestral jolt:

The Whoosh

From video game composer Winifred Phillips' article - an illustration of the 'whoosh' concept.whoosh is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a sound that makes you think of something flying by your head. More specifically, a whoosh is a high-frequency noise that’s followed by a long release or a reverberant envelope.

A cymbal roll is the most musically traditional example of a whoosh, but there are tons of sound effects-inspired whooshes that can be used musically. They’re great for adding suspense and drama to a musical transition.

Logo art for Speed Racer the Video Game, music by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.For instance, in this track that I composed for WB Games for my Speed Racer game score, I loaded the music with lots of whooshes. In music designed to make a racing game feel fast and intense, the whooshes helped to add tension and danger to the track:

Bumpers, whooshes, and ambience

Finally, let’s check out an example that uses all three techniques together. Here’s an in-game combat track I composed for Assassin’s Creed Liberation that’s built entirely around ambiences, bumpers and whooshes:


So now we’ve looked at the Jarring Jolt – the second technique for imbuing a game with tension and suspense. This concludes part two of this five part series based on my GDC 2017 talk, “Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.”  Part three will include a discussion of the Creepy Cluster technique, including strategies for video game music composers to best employ disconcerting intervals in order to build tension and suspense.  Along the way, we’ll examine music excerpts from two of my projects – the Dragon Front VR game from High Voltage Software, and the SimAnimals game from the blockbuster Sims franchise.  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 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. 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 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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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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Video game composers can make you smarter! (The music of Dragon Front) Pt. 3

Winifred Phillips, video game music composer, pictured at the GDC 2016 display for the Dragon Front virtual reality game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome to the third (and final) article in this three-part discussion of how video game composers (like us) can make strategy gamers smarter!  We’ve been exploring the best ways that the music of game composers can help strategy gamers to better concentrate while making more sound tactical decisions. During this discussion, I’ve shared my personal perspective as the composer for the popular Dragon Front strategy game for VR.

In part one, we discussed the concept of ‘music-message congruency,’ so if you haven’t read that article yet, you can read it here.  In part two, we explored the meaning of ‘cognition-enhancing tempo’ – you can read that article here.  Please make sure to read both those articles first and then come back.

Are you back?  Awesome!  Let’s launch into a discussion of the third technique for increasing the smarts of strategy gamers!

Tension-regulating affect

From the article by game composer Winifred Phillips, an illustration of 'psychological affect.'In psychology, the term ‘affect’ refers to emotion, particularly in terms of the way in which such emotional content is displayed.  Whether by visual or aural means, an emotion can not be shared without some kind of ‘affect’ that serves as its mode of communication from one person to another.  When we’re happy, we smile.  When we’re angry, we frown.

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Music Game Plan: Tactics for the Video Game Composer (Part Four)

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips, shown working on the music of LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story.Welcome to the fourth and final installment of my four-part series on the basic structure and utility of interactive music systems, including video demonstrations that clarify the concepts. In Part One of this series, we examined a simple Horizontal Re-Sequencing model of interactive music, as used in the Speed Racer Videogame from Warner Bros. Interactive. Part Two of this series explored the more advanced Horizontal Re-sequencing system of the Spore Hero game from Electronic Arts.  In Part Three of this series, we learned about the simple Vertical Layering system of The Maw video game.  So now let’s take a look at a much more ambitious execution of vertical layering.

Our discussion of Vertical Layering will focus on its use in one of my projects: The LittleBigPlanet 2: Toy Story video game (photo above). As opposed to the three layer music system we discussed in the previous article, this vertical layering music model for the LittleBigPlanet 2: Toy Story game features six layers, all able to function simultaneously. To make this possible, the layers needed to be most carefully constructed.  In my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I talked at length about how musical events can best be vertically constructed for the purposes of such complex interactive implementation. That discussion included an exploration of what ‘vertical’ means in the context of such a music system:

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Music Game Plan: Tactics for the Video Game Composer (Part Three)

video game music composer Winifred Phillips, working in her studio on the music of The Maw video game.Welcome to the third installment of my four-part article series on the core principles of music interactivity, including video demonstrations and supplementary supporting materials that take these abstract concepts and make them more concrete.  In Part One of this series, we took a look at a simple example demonstrating the Horizontal Re-Sequencing model of musical interactivity, as it was used in the music I composed for the Speed Racer Videogame from Warner Bros. Interactive. Part Two of this series looked at the more complex Horizontal Re-sequencing music system of the Spore Hero game from Electronic Arts.  So now let’s move on to another major music interactivity model used by video game composers – Vertical Layering.

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Music Game Plan: Tactics for the Video Game Composer (Part Two)

Composer Winifred Phillips working on the music of the popular Spore Hero video game from Electronic Arts.

Welcome back to my four-part article series presenting videos and helpful references to aid aspiring game music composers in understanding how interactive music works. In Part One of this series, we took a look at a simple example demonstrating the Horizontal Re-Sequencing model of musical interactivity, as it was used in the music I composed for the Speed Racer Videogame from Warner Bros. Interactive.  Now let’s turn our attention to a more complex example of horizontal re-sequencing as demonstrated by the interactive music of the Spore Hero game from Electronic Arts.

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