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.

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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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How Music Can Intensify Video Games: Part One

Tension has always served a crucial role in music composition and performance.  My next two blog articles will focus on how music works to shape tension and intensity in a dramatic presentation such as a video game.

Composer Winifred Phillips, working on music for Homefront: The Revolution in her music studio.During these blogs, we’ll be consulting with lots of top experts on the subject, and I’ll be sharing my experiences in regards to the tension-filled music that I composed as a member of the music team of Homefront: The Revolution – an open world, triple-A first person shooter game that was just released by Deep Silver/Dambuster Studios.  Along the way we’ll check out some excerpts from music tracks I composed (in my music production studio, pictured right) for Homefront: The Revolution, and we’ll talk about multiple techniques to build tension in a piece of music, with the goal of inciting the most emotional intensity possible in our audience. With that in mind, let’s start things off with a great quote from philosopher Henry David Thoreau:

“The fibers of all things have their tension and are strained like the strings of an instrument.”

Image illustrating anxiety (from the article by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips)Thoreau not only saw the connection between music and tension, but also made a good point about the stresses and strains in our lives – we all possess our own inner emotional pressure. The more fervently we pursue our goals and struggles, the higher the tension grows. Taken to the extreme, it can feel as though our insides are wound up as taut as clockworks. As game composers, our job has always been to induce players to care about what’s happening in the game, and that includes inciting and escalating the nervous anxiety associated with an awesome investment of emotion and empathy.  So let’s explore the best ways we can make players feel the tension!

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