GDC 2017: How video game composers can use music to build suspense

Winifred Phillips, video game composer, giving a talk as part of the Game Developers Conference 2016 in San Francisco.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

The Game Developers Conference is coming up soon!  Last year I presented a talk on music for mobile games (pictured above), and I’m pleased that this year I’ll be presenting the talk, “Homefront’ to ‘God of War’: Using Music to Build Suspense(Wednesday, March 1st at 11am in room 3006 West Hall, Moscone Center, San Francisco).  In my talk I’ll be focusing on practical applications of techniques for video game composers and game audio folks, using my own experiences as concrete examples for exploration.  Along the way, I’ll be discussing some very compelling scholarly research on the relationship between suspense, gameplay and musical expression.  In preparing my GDC 2017 presentation I did a lot of reading and studying about the nature of suspense in video games, the importance of suspense in gameplay design, and the role that video game music plays in regulating and elevating suspense.  There will be lots of ground to cover in my presentation!  That being said, the targeted focus of my presentation precluded me from incorporating some very interesting extra research into the importance of suspense in a more general sense… why human beings need suspense, and what purpose it serves in our lives.  I also couldn’t find the space to include everything I’d encountered regarding suspense as an element in the gaming experience.  It occurred to me that some of this could be very useful to us in our work as game makers, so I’d like to share some of these extra ideas in this article.

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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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How I got my big break as a video game music composer

I had a wonderful time last week, speaking before a lively and enthusiastic audience at the Society of Composers & Lyricists seminar, “Inside the World of Game Music.”  Organized by Greg Pliska (board member of the SCL NY), the event was moderated by steering committee member Elizabeth Rose and attended by a diverse audience of composers and music professionals.  Also, steering committee member Tom Salta joined the discussion remotely from his studio via Skype.

SCL-GameMusic-Feb2015

Towards the beginning of the evening, I was asked how I got my first big break in the game industry.  While I’d related my “big break” experience in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, it was fun sharing those memories with such a great audience, and I’ve included a video clip from that portion of the seminar.

After the event, we all headed over to O’Flanagan’s Irish Pub for great networking and good times at the official NYC SCL/Game Audio Network Guild G.A.N.G. Hang.  I especially enjoyed sharing some stories and getting to know some great people there!  Thanks to everyone who attended the SCL NYC seminar!

 

4 Unusual Things for a Game Composer to Try

In a cool article for Ask Audio Magazine, G. W. Childs IV suggested 5 Unusual Things Every Sound Designer Should Try.  These tactics were designed to shake the cobwebs off the creative process of sound designers, opening minds to new possibilities (including binaural recording techniques, plug-ins for randomizing audio content, adding reverb to dry audio sources by playing back the recordings in actual reverberant spaces, etc.)

In the spirit of that article, I’m going to offer 4 Unusual Things for a Game Composer to Try.  If you’re a game composer, you can play with some of these techniques.  I’m not going to say that you should, but if it sounds like fun, then go for it.

Use Sound Design Musically

One of the most energizing ways to get inspired is to use the actual aural building blocks of your game’s environment in a musical way. For instance, in the Speed Racer video game I incorporated lots of sound effects associated with the sport of racing into the music, including doppler effects that were worked into musical transitions, tire screeches mapped to the keyboard to accentuate their natural pitches so that they could be used harmonically, and crowd cheers worked into the rhythm section.  These elements helped my music feel more connected to the game, and kept me invigorated as I worked.

Get Sneaky with your Genres

Lately, the genre mashup has become very popular, in which two disparate musical styles are layered together in order to produce a novel effect.  Mashups can help keep a composer inspired, but even better — why not sneak that second genre into your track?  There’s no reason for us to be overt about it, and hiding a second genre within the first can give a composer a sense of wicked enjoyment.  For instance, while creating music for such bright and airy projects as Shrek the Third and SimAnimals, I worked in subtle avante garde orchestral approaches that included unusual meters and dissonance. The influences weren’t particularly overt, but they kept the composition process fresh and interesting for me and helped the music feel more unique.

Turn Tracks on their Heads

Some years back, I was involved in a project (which I will not name) that required me to take a large portion of music I had previously composed in one style and completely rework it into another style altogether.  This was a thoroughly drastic change, from a light-hearted approach to a dour and heavy-handed instrumental treatment.  The essential core elements of the track (meter, melody, tempo) had to remain the same, however.  It was a challenging puzzle to solve, but it also opened me up to creative possibilities I wouldn’t have conceived any other way.  In that spirit, if at any time we’re feeling creatively blocked while working on a track, maybe it might be fun to turn the track on its head — change its essential personality — while maintaining its skeletal structure.

Don’t Forget Your Old Gear

As our careers progress, we’re likely to build up a large assortment of high-tech equipment and state-of-the-art software tools.  After a while, we become accustomed to our workflow with these tools, and there ceases to be any novelty to the creative process.  At these times, it can be fun to drag out the old gear and put it to use.  Not only can the vintage stuff add some needed retro zest to our sound palettes, but it can also reignite those creative juices by reminding us of the days when we were starting out and filled with starry-eyed yearning.

So that’s it — 4 Unusual Things for a Game Composer to Try.  If any of it sounds like it might be helpful, then please give it a whirl!  And let me know in the comments if you have any other unusual strategies for getting the creative juices flowing.