Game Composers and the Importance of Themes: Repetition in Game Music (Pt. 2)

Pictured: video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio. Phillips is the game music composer for The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes game, developed by Random Potion for Wild River Games. Her credits include titles from 5 of the most well-known game franchises, and she is one of the foremost authorities on video game music, having presented lectures at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and the Society of Composers and Lyricists in NYC.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and this is the second installment of my five article series based on the presentation I gave at the first-ever digital edition of the Game Developers Conference that took place this past March.  My talk was entitled “From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes” (I’ve included the official description of my talk at this end of this article).  In my GDC 2020 presentation, I discussed the music I composed for several video game projects, including Assassin’s Creed Liberation (Ubisoft), God of War (Sony Interactive America), LittleBigPlanet (Sony Interactive Europe), Homefront: The Revolution (Deep Silver), Speed Racer (Warner Bros Interactive), Spore Hero (Electronic Arts), and The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes (Wild River).

In the last article, we discussed the concept of the “hook” as it relates to thematic composition, and we explored how an awesome hook can function best from within a main theme track.  In our discussion, we used both a famous example from the Star Wars franchise, as well as the main theme from one of my own recently-released game projects – The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes.  Both examples included a fairly dynamic foreground melody, which made it a great example for our discussion of the role of the hook in thematic construction.  So let’s now consider what happens when we eschew such an attention-drawing melodic element and instead take a more subtle approach.

Assassin’s Creed Liberation

When I was hired to compose the music for Assassin’s Creed Liberation, one of the first requested tracks was the main theme.  So I’m sitting there in front of the keyboard, trying to start composing a main theme for an entry in one of the most popular video game franchises… and I’m thinking about what makes Assassin’s Creed unique: the surreal nature of being in the Animus.  It’s a virtual world that exists as an altered mental state, like dreaming or hypnosis.  What could I do as the composer to evoke this feeling?

An image of the text logo for the

Around that time, there was some discussion of the four-chord technique that Hans Zimmer popularized in scores like Inception.  I remember that there were a lot of opinions out the technique at the time, from experts and amateurs alike. The technique wasn’t original to him – it actually owes a lot to pop music construction – but Zimmer brought a bunch of attention to it.  Something about a simple repeating four-chord progression feels very hypnotic. And so I thought – why not?  Let’s figure out a four-chord progression, something that sounds interesting, and then base the whole track on it. I’d never done anything like that before. It could work.

A sheet music excerpt of the

So here they are – the four chords for the Assassin’s Creed Liberation main theme. It took a little while to settle on them, and then I recorded them using a really mellow synth pad – played them over and over and over again for about two minutes. Here’s what that was like:

The four-chords became the foundation of the main theme, and then it was just a matter of adding things to it. Lots of things.

So while there is plenty of melodic material in the main theme, the element that gets the most repetition is that sequence of four chords.  We hear that four-chord pattern 14 times in the main theme alone. This gives the four-chord sequence some mnemonic heft within the body of the game’s score.  It’s going to feel familiar when heard again, and that allows it to be meaningful when it reappears as a broken chord sequence during stealth gameplay:

Or when the four-chord shows up in the game’s main user-interface menus:

Repetition can serve as a powerful musical signature – whether by virtue of a bold and dynamic melody line, or a subtle chord progression. If an element pops up during music composition that seems perfect for recurrence, we have to stay on top of the situation, recognize this new composition opportunity and act on it.  Let’s look at an example from one of my other game projects.

Homefront: The Revolution

An image excerpt from the GDC 2020 presentation of video game composer Winifred Phillips, depicting her workflow during music composition for the game Homefront: The Revolution.In my music for the first person shooter Homefront the Revolution, I composed an emotional theme when an unlikely hero suddenly gives a remarkably inspiring speech about fighting back against oppression.  Since the whole story centers on that idea, that musical signature took on a really iconic character and I privately named it the ‘Stand With Me’ theme, after a phrase from that inspirational speech. Afterwards, I made a mental note to use the ‘Stand With Me’ theme again if I had the chance. Turns out, I had several. Here it is as it was used in three different story missions:

Conclusion

In this article, we’ve taken a look at how more subtle thematic elements can add emotional weight to a game.  We examined the four-chord theme of Assassin’s Creed Liberation, and discussed how repetition helps to solidify its association with the game’s core identity.  We also talked about how themes can be linked with specific story ideas, and how this linkage can facilitate further repetition within the body of the game’s musical score.  In the next article of this series, we’ll be exploring how variation and fragmentation can add utility to our musical themes.  Along the way, I’ll be sharing some of personal stories of my creative process for two of my game music projects – Spore Hero and LittleBigPlanet PS Vita.  Until then, thanks for reading!

 

From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes

An image montage that includes the logos of video games discussed during the GDC 2020 presentation,

(Game Developers Conference Session Description)

Through an exploration of her work composing music for games such as Assassin’s Creed Liberation, God of War, LittleBigPlanet and the upcoming RPG The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes, composer Winifred Phillips will examine the potential of thematic music to enable a game to stand out as special and unique.

By employing musical themes, a composer can infuse a game with a strong sense of character and originality.

According to research, music heard during activities is remembered vividly. Coupling this with the innately memorable nature of themes allows a game composer to create an indelible musical signature for any game. This talk will examine composition techniques that extend the life and utility of themes. Variation, development, figures, fragmentation, and motifs will be explored, along with examples of themes in combat, menus, cutscenes, and stingers. Finally, dynamic music construction will be considered, including workarounds to enable effective themes within interactive systems.

Takeaway

Using examples from several games, Phillips will discuss specific composition techniques designed to enhance the utility of thematic content. Attendees will learn how themes may be incorporated into specific game music asset types. Also included in the discussion: composition adjustments required by interactive music constructs.

Intended Audience

This session will present inspirational ideas for composers seeking to create distinctive musical signatures for their game projects. Discussion of thematic use within different types of game music assets may be helpful for audio developers engaged in preparing music design documents. The talk will be approachable for all levels.

 

Photo showing award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips working 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 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, God of War, Total War, The Sims, and LittleBigPlanet.  Phillips’ other notable projects include music for the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution (Deep Silver), and numerous virtual reality games from such accomplished developers as Supermassive Games, High Voltage Software, and Armature Studio.   She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As the foremost authority on music for interactive entertainment, Winifred Phillips has given lectures at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, and many more. Phillips’ enthusiastic fans showered her with questions during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session that went viral, hit the Reddit front page, received 14.9 thousand upvotes, and became one of the most popular gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

 

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.

Continue reading

From Total War to Assassin’s Creed: Music from my GDC Talk

From Total War to Assassin's Creed: Music from my GDC Talk (article by Winifred Phillips, video game composer)Last week, it was my honor and pleasure to give a presentation at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. My talk was entitled “From Total War to Assassin’s Creed: Music for Mobile Games.” The talk focused on the best and most effective methods for composition and implementation of music in portable gaming.  The talk was structured for the benefit of video game composers and game audio pros, and as a part of the presentation, I played short excerpts of music that I composed for several of my top mobile and handheld video game projects. Now that GDC is over, I thought I’d provide streaming links to some of the complete music tracks that I featured during my presentation, in case attendees were curious about the complete pieces of music. So, without further ado, here are tracks from my GDC 2016 talk!

Assassin’s Creed Liberation

The Assassin’s Creed Liberation game was released by Ubisoft for the PlayStation Vita, and delivered an immersive experience from the popular Assassin’s Creed franchise. The game was designed specifically for a portable system, and as such, all aspects of the design were adjusted to cater specifically to a portable gaming experience, including the music.

Game composer Winifred Phillips speaking about the music of Assassin's Creed Liberation at GDC 2016

Continue reading

From Total War to Assassin’s Creed: Music for Mobile Games (GDC 2016)

GDC15-Winifred-Phillips

Winifred Phillips speaking about interactive music systems at GDC 2015

I’m so pleased to announce that I’ve been selected as a speaker for the Game Developers Conference 2016, which will take place from March 14th to the 18th at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.  Very happy to be speaking again at GDC!  Last year I gave the #3 top-rated talk in the audio track, which is the collection of presentations focused on audio during the conference.  Last year’s slate of audio talks was thoroughly awesome, so I was really excited to be voted the #3 talk that year, and it’s a tremendous honor to have been invited back to give another game audio presentation. This time my talk at GDC will focus on composing effective music for mobile games!

Continue reading

Interview about Game Music on The Note Show!

The_Note_Show1

I’m excited to share that I’ve been interviewed about my career as a game music composer and my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, for the newest episode of The Note Show!

The Note Show is a terrific podcast that focuses on interviews with professionals in creative fields.  I’m very proud to have been included! Famous guests on The Note Show have included Hugo and Nebula award-winning sci-fi author David Brin, actress Kristina Anapau of the HBO series True Blood, video game designer Al Lowe (Leisure Suit Larry), actress Lisa Jakub (Mrs. Doubtfire, Independence Day), and Steven Long Mitchell and Craig Van Sickle, creators of the NBC series The Pretender.

A-Composers-Guide-To-Game-Music_Book-Cover
This is my second time being interviewed on The Note Show, and I’m so glad to have been invited back!

In this interview, I talk about my work on the LittleBigPlanet and Assassin’s Creed franchises, my latest project (Total War Battles: Kingdom), how composing music for a mobile game differs from composing for consoles or PC, and how my life has changed with the publication of my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.

In the podcast, we also talk about the National Indie Excellence Book Award that my book recently won, as well as the importance of optimism for an aspiring game composer.

border-159926_640_white

You can listen to the entire interview here:

wphillips_studio1

 

Here’s some official info from the creators of The Note Show:

The Creative Professional Podcast – Music & Arts Interviews

The Note Show is a creative journey where host Joshua Note returns to chat life and art with creative people across the world. We interview musicians, artists, comic book creators, novelists, directors, actors and anyone creative and bring you new people and experiences every week!  The Note Show is a Podcast for and featuring Creative Professionals from all walks of life. As long as it’s creative, it’s here on The Note Show.

The show’s host, Joshua Note, is a terrific interviewer who is also the author of a children’s book due for release in 2015.  In addition, Joshua studied classical composition and orchestration at Leeds College of Music and Leeds University, and in 2012 he produced a for-television animated series and worked on several projects for television and cinema.

Joshua Note, host of The Note Show

Joshua Note, host of The Note Show

In his role as the host of The Note Show, Joshua asks intelligent questions about what it means to be a creative person in modern times, and his interviews are always fascinating!  My thanks to Joshua and the staff of The Note Show – I had a great time!

Assassin’s Creed III Liberation Makes 1st Round Grammy Ballot

Some good news that I’d like to quickly share with you — I recently found out that my soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed III Liberation made the first-round balloting for this year’s Grammy Awards.

AC3L-ForYourConsideration

If you (or any of your friends) are members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), please consider voting for my soundtrack in these three categories: Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Arrangement.

Here’s an Assassin’s Creed III Liberation trailer that features the main theme I composed for the game. This music has already won a Hollywood Music in Media Award, a Global Music Award, a Game Audio Network Guild Award and a GameFocus Award:

Also, here’s a trailer for the high-definition re-release of the Assassin’s Creed Liberation video game, coming in early 2014. This trailer also features my music from the soundtrack to the game:

I’m very pleased that my music for Assassin’s Creed III Liberation has made the first-round voting ballot for this year’s Grammy Awards!