Video Game Composers: The Art of Music in Virtual Reality (GDC 2018)

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio.


By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Once again, the Game Developers Conference is almost upon us!  GDC 2018 promises to be an awesome event, chock full of great opportunities for us to learn and grow as video game music composers.  I always look forward to the comprehensive sessions on offer in the popular GDC audio track, and for the past few years I’ve been honored to be selected as a GDC speaker.  Last year I presented a talk that explored how I built suspense and tension through music I composed for such games as God of War and Homefront: The Revolution.  This year, I’m tremendously excited that I’ll be presenting the talk, “Music in Virtual Reality.” The subject matter is very close to my heart!  Throughout 2016 and 2017, I’ve composed music for many virtual reality projects, some of which have hit retail over the past year, and some of which will be released very soon.  I’ve learned a lot about the process of composing music for a VR experience, and I’ve given a lot of thought to what makes music for VR unique.  During my GDC talk in March, I’ll be taking my audience through my experiences composing music for four very different VR games –the Bebylon: Battle Royale arena combat game from Kite & Lightning, the Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage Software, the Fail Factory comedy game from Armature Studio, and the Scraper: First Strike Shooter/RPG from Labrodex Inc.  I’ll talk about some of the top problems that came up, the solutions that were tried, and the lessons that were learned.  Virtual Reality is a brave new world for game music composers, and there will be a lot of ground for me to cover in my presentation!

In preparing my talk for GDC, I kept my focus squarely on composition techniques for VR music creation, while making sure to supply an overview of the technologies that would help place these techniques in context.  With these considerations in mind, I had to prioritize the information I intended to offer, and some interesting topics simply wouldn’t fit within the time constraints of my GDC presentation.  With that in mind, I thought it would be worthwhile to include some of these extra materials in a couple of articles that would precede my talk in March.  In this article, I’ll explore some theoretical ideas from experts in the field of VR, and I’ll include some of my own musings about creative directions we might pursue with VR music composition.  In the next article, I’ll talk about some practical considerations relating to the technology of VR music.

So, let’s get started!


An illustration for a discussion of VIMS on the popular VR platform, by Winifred Phillips (video game composer)No discussion of virtual reality is complete without some time spent on the perils of Visually Induced Motion Sickness (a.k.a. VIMS).  My upcoming GDC talk will include research on this topic pointing to a specific music approach that can play an important role in alleviating VIMS symptoms. However, there is more to consider about the general role that music plays in relation to the famous VIMS phenomenon, apart from the technique that I’ll be describing in my GDC presentation.  So let’s take a look at the general relationship between music and VIMS, starting with the most basic question:

What causes VIMS?

An illustration of a theoretical discussion of the famous VIMS phenomenon, by video game composer Winifred PhillipsLet’s picture ourselves sitting in a movie theater.  We’re watching a silent film that shows a first-person perspective of a high-speed bicycle ride full of wild twists and turns.  It looks stressful, but as we sit and watch the visuals, we’re not really all that stressed.  Okay, so now let’s imagine that the film isn’t silent anymore.  We can hear the bumps and jogs in the road, the air whooshing by, the aurally chaotic soundscape.  It’s a bit more exciting to watch, but we’re still feeling comfortable in our movie-theater seats.  Now, let’s imagine that we aren’t looking at a flat 2D screen anymore.  Now it’s a 3D stereoscopic image of that wild bicycle ride.  Oncoming traffic leaps off the screen at us.  Obstacles seem to whip by our heads as the road before us corkscrews madly.  Are we still comfortable?  Or could all that dizzying 3D motion be finally getting to us?

In their study to better understand the causes of motion sickness, professors Behrang Keshavarz and Heiko Hecht gathered 69 experimental test subjects and exposed them to the visual presentation I described above.  There were two variables: viewing mode (2D or 3D stereoscopic) and sound (on or 0ff).  The 2D film didn’t cause a problem.  Likewise, the presence (or absence) of sound wasn’t an issue.  But when 3D visuals were introduced, motion sickness became a big problem.  The findings of the study support the conclusion that immersive visual stimuli has the potential to negatively impact our sense of balance and equilibrium.  However, there’s also a secondary conclusion that’s equally interesting to us as game audio folks: sound doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it.  Yes, the 3D bicycle ride with sound was pretty nausea-inducing, but according to the study, a silent 3D bike ride has just as much potential to cause motion sickness.

So what does that mean for audio and music in virtual reality?  Does it mean that the aural spectrum simply doesn’t matter?  Or does it present us with some interesting creative opportunities?  Let’s explore that idea a bit further.

Music and VIMS

First, let’s dispense with the notion that music and sound design doesn’t matter when it comes to VIMS.  Specifically, the presence of music actually has a powerful influence on the VIMS state, but that influence is therapeutic rather than harmful.

GDC 2018 Presentation Preview

In my upcoming GDC talk, I’ll be exploring the specific type of music that exerts the most beneficial effects when it comes to Visually Induced Motion Sickness.  By virtue of both my own experiences with multiple VR projects and the results of relevant scientific studies, I’ll be showing how video game composers can best alleviate the effects of VIMS through their musical compositions, and under which circumstances those compositions should be deployed.

While there’s a certain musical strategy that has the most beneficial effect (which I’ll define in my GDC talk), the mere presence of music is a proven therapeutic agent that has been shown to diminish nausea symptoms.  In a study conducted by the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Research Center at Ohio State University, researchers found that the use of music during high-dose chemotherapy sessions led to a significant reduction in symptoms of nausea.  Music acts both as a diversion and a targeted therapeutic agent, shifting the listener’s attention away from physical discomfort while at the same time acting to reduce the symptoms.

In my talk I’ll be exploring how we can best employ an effective music strategy within the constructs of virtual reality in order to cushion VR players and make them more comfortable in the immersive environment.  There is, however, an additional dimension to the relationship between music, audio and VR exploration, which I didn’t have time to include in my upcoming GDC talk.  I’d like to share my thoughts on that here.


An illustration of "virtual presence" on the popular VR platform, from the article by award-winning video game music composer Winifred PhillipsWhat makes virtual reality so real?  It can’t be just the encompassing imagery, because then we wouldn’t need VR, we could just go to a 3D movie.  No, in order for VR to engage us, it has to make us feel as though we are personally present in the virtual world.  This phenomenon can be alternately called telepresence or virtual presence, but the end result is the same.  We feel as though we’re physically occupying the same world as the imaginary visuals we’re encountering.  How does the game make us feel this sense of presence?

According to MIT Professor Thomas B. Sheridan, the sensation of presence depends on the operation of three important factors: a “sufficiently high-fidelity display, a mental attitude of willing acceptance, and a modicum of motor “participation”.  In other words, we need to find the visuals to be sufficiently convincing, we have to be willing to be convinced that they’re real, and we must be able to move about freely and interact with the environment.  Unfortunately, it’s that third factor that causes the VIMS problem.  Moving around in VR opens us up to motion sickness.  How is this problem typically addressed?

According to Steve Bowler, cofounder of the VR game company CloudGate Studio, the community of VR game developers have “zero tolerance for user motion sickness.”  In an interview with, Bowler describes the way in which developers typically solve the problem.  By virtue of a system of in-game navigation that relies on a type of teleportation, developers allow us to wander their VR worlds.  An illustration of the Oculus Touch controller for the popular Oculus Rift headset, from the article by video game composer Winifred PhillipsWe point our controllers where we want to be, we hit the teleport button and zip!  We’re there in a flash.  It’s highly effective in avoiding the perils of VIMS.  However, it also sharply curtails our sensation of being able to “move about freely and interact with the environment.”

So, if developers are forced to limit the personal agency of players in wandering around the environment, is it possible for game audio folks to compensate by making it seem as though the environment is wandering around us?  This is a thought I’ve been considering lately, as I contemplate the movement limitations we experience in VR environments.  After all, before we had visual virtual reality, we had a kind of audio VR in the form of audio-only games like Papa Sangre.  In games like Papa Sangre, the environment presents a busy soundscape that invisibly drifts around us.  If we close our eyes, we’re suddenly fully enveloped in the world that the game developers have created.  Merely turning around becomes a radically dramatic act of personal agency as the sonic universe reacts to our movement.  I’ve included a non-interactive video clip below that demonstrates some gameplay from Papa Sangre.  In this clip, you can watch a gamer interacting with the game’s interface.  Notice the somewhat exaggerated nature of the sound design as the player is instructed how to play the game:

The effect of this audio-only universe can be very immersive, and its power depends on the sensation of an active soundscape that surrounds, enfolds and interacts with the player in ways that exaggerate and heighten reality.  Could these techniques make VR players feel more of a sense of presence in virtual reality, even if their physical mobility is limited?  Should we be thinking about opportunities to present a soundscape with moving components and an exaggerated sonic palette?

Conversely, if we decide to exaggerate our audio world, would this disrupt the impression of realism that virtual reality attempts to convey?  Here’s where we come to another interesting concept that I wasn’t able to include in my GDC talk, but that has some bearing on the train of thought we’re currently pursuing.

The Uncanny Aural Valley

Back in 2015, I wrote an article for Gamasutra about the “Uncanny Valley” – a concept that’s been a long-time fixture in the visual arts but has just started to be discussed in connection with audio.  An illustration of the famous "Uncanny Valley" concept, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer)When applied to the visual world, the “Uncanny Valley” pertains to representations of living things (most often humans, pictured left) that are impressively close to the real thing but that subtly miss the mark.  This imperfection leads to a deeply unsettling impression of wrongness.  In my Gamasutra article, I discussed how audio in the world of VR may be in danger of dipping into the “Uncanny Aural Valley,” in which sound gets impressively close to perfect realism but misses the mark.  Within the context of virtual reality, this subtle imperfection has the potential to impact players in a far more pronounced way than it would in a traditional video game.  That barely-perceptible sonic wrongness can (theoretically) pull virtual reality players out of the immersive experience.

So, is VR audio in danger of dipping into the “Uncanny Aural Valley” anytime soon?  Not according to Sean Earley, the Executive Editor of AR/VR Magazine.  “The visual uncanny valley will still be around for a while,” observes Earley. “Unless you are a super audiophile, however, digital audio has progressed to the point where a good engineer can make a recording that is very hard to distinguish from reality.  Spatial audio, when mixed with simple VR can add a totally new level of realism to an experience.”

That takes us back to our previous train of thought: if perfect sonic realism is achievable in VR, is it desirable?  Or would we rather aim for a form of hyperrealism that emphasizes aural motion and more fully envelops the player?  Do we want to dip into that Uncanny Aural Valley?

An illustration of immersive sound/music in popular VR games, from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips“Pure, super smooth and natural spatialized sound may be not immersive enough to get the sort of user experience/effect needed for VR,” writes Gabor Szanto, the creator of the Superpowered audio software development kit for mobile. “You don’t want the most natural chirping bird sound, you actually want the cleanest and most 3D-like bird sound. You want to amaze the listener.”

So, in a virtual reality environment in which we’re forced to limit the physical mobility of players, is it possible that by making the aural environment hyperreal and supremely encompassing, we can compensate for any loss of presence that players might feel when they can’t move around exactly as they please?  I think it’s an interesting idea to ponder, and one to which we should give some consideration as VR audio moves forward and becomes more ambitious.  Also, as video game composers, we might want to consider how our music mixes can more fully surround players.  For more surreal, synthetic or ambient-driven musical scores, we might even introduce spatial motion into our musical mixes, letting sounds float around players to convey an even greater level of sonic immersion.


In my next article, I’ll be discussing some more down-to-earth technical issues that pertain to music and audio in VR.  While my GDC presentation on Music in Virtual Reality will include several important technical issues and topics, there simply wasn’t enough time to include everything that might be of interest.  With that in mind, I’ll be happy to explore some of these technical concerns in my next article!  I’ve included the official GDC description of my upcoming talk below. Please feel free to share your thoughts and insights in the comments section!



Music in Virtual Reality

Illustration of the VR projects featuring music by game composer Winifred Phillips, to be discussed in a GDC talk presented by Winifred Phillips for video game composers.This lecture will present ideas for creating a musical score that complements an immersive VR experience. Composer Winifred Phillips will share tips from several of her VR projects. Beginning with a historical overview of positional audio technologies, Phillips will address several important problems facing composers in VR.

Topics will include 3D versus 2D music implementation, and the role of spatialized audio in a musical score for VR. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic music will be explored, including methods that blur the distinction between the two categories.

The discussion will also include an examination of the VIMS phenomenon (Visually Induced Motion Sickness), and the role of music in alleviating its symptoms.  Phillips’ talk will offer techniques for composers and audio directors looking to utilize music in the most advantageous way within a VR project.


Through examples from several VR games, Phillips will provide an analysis of music composition strategies that help music integrate successfully in a VR environment. The talk will include concrete examples and practical advice that audience members can apply to their own games.

Intended Audience

This session will provide composers and audio directors with strategies for designing music for VR. It will include an overview of the history of positional sound and the VIMS problem (useful knowledge for designers.)

The talk will be approachable for all levels (advanced composers may better appreciate the specific composition techniques discussed).


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 projects are the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution and the Dragon Front VR game for Oculus Rift. 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.






VRDC 2017 takeaways: VR music for the game composer

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips, at work in her music production studio - from the article about music for virtual reality / VR.The Game Developers Conference is always an awesome opportunity for game audio experts to learn and share experiences.  I’ve given presentations at GDC for a few years now, and I’m always excited to hear about what’s new and notable in game audio.  This year, the hot topic was virtual reality.  In fact, the subject received its own dedicated sub-conference that took place concurrently with the main GDC show.  The VRDC (Virtual Reality Developers Conference) didn’t focus particularly on the audio and music side of VR, but there were a couple of notable talks on that subject.  In this article, let’s take a look at some of the more intriguing VR game music takeaways from those two talks.  Along the way, I’ll also share some of my related experience as the composer of the music of the Dragon Front VR game for the Oculus Rift (pictured above).

Inside and outside

The talks we’ll be discussing in this article are entitled “Audio Adventures in VR Worlds” and “The Sound Design of Star Wars: Battlefront VR.”  Here’s a common issue that popped up in both talks:

An illustration of music in the popular VR platform, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game composer).Where should video game music be in a VR game?  Should it feel like it exists inside the VR world, weaving itself into the immersive 3D atmosphere surrounding the player?  Or should it feel like it’s somehow outside of the VR environment and is instead coasting on top of the experience, being conveyed directly to the player?  The former approach suggests a spacious and expansive musical soundscape, and the latter would feel much closer and more personal.  Is one of these approaches more effective in VR than the other?  Which choice is best?

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: tools and tips for composers

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips, working in her music production studio on the music of the SimAnimals video game.

By video game composer Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to this three article series that’s bringing together the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC 2017 audio talks about interactive music!  These five speakers explored discoveries they’d made while creating interactivity in the music of their own game projects.  We’re looking at these ideas side-by-side to broaden our viewpoint and gain a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. We’ve been looking at five interactive music systems discussed in these five GDC 2017 presentations:

In the first article, we examined the basic nature of these interactive systems. In the second article, we contemplated why those systems were used, with some of the inherent pros and cons of each system discussed in turn.  So now, let’s get into the nitty gritty of tools and tips for working with such interactive music systems.  If you haven’t read parts one and two of this series, please go do so now and then come back:

  1. Video game music systems at GDC 2017: what are composers using?
  2. Video game music systems at GDC 2017: pros and cons for composers

Ready?  Great!  Here we go!

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: pros and cons for composers

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio working on the music of LittleBigPlanet 2 Cross Controller

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our three article series dedicated to collecting and exploring the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC 2017 audio talks about interactive music!  These five speakers shared ideas they’d developed in the process of creating interactivity in the music of their own game projects.  We’re looking at these ideas side-by-side to cultivate a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. In the first article, we looked at the basic nature of five interactive music systems discussed in these five GDC 2017 presentations:

If you haven’t read part one of this article series, please go do that now and come back.

Okay, so let’s now contemplate some simple but important questions: why were those systems used?  What was attractive about each interactive music strategy, and what were the challenges inherent in using those systems?

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: what are composers using?

By video game music composer Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, presenting at the Game Developers Conference 2017.The 2017 Game Developers Conference could be described as a densely-packed deep-dive exploration of the state-of-the-art tools and methodologies used in modern game development.  This description held especially true for the game audio track, wherein top experts in the field offered a plethora of viewpoints and advice on the awesome technical and artistic challenges of creating great sound for games. I’ve given GDC talks for the past three years now (see photo), and every year I’m amazed at the breadth and diversity of the problem-solving approaches discussed by my fellow GDC presenters.  Often I’ll emerge from the conference with the impression that we game audio folks are all “doing it our own way,” using widely divergent strategies and tools.

This year, I thought I’d write three articles to collect and explore the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC audio talks.  During their presentations, these five speakers all shared their thoughts on best practices and methods for instilling interactivity in modern game music.  By absorbing these ideas side-by-side, I thought we might gain a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the current leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. In the first article, we’ll look at the basic nature of these interactive systems.  We’ll devote the second article to the pros and cons of each system, and in the third article we’ll look at tools and tips shared by these music interactivity experts. Along the way, I’ll also be sharing my thoughts on the subject, and we’ll take a look at musical examples from some of my own projects that demonstrate a few ideas explored in these GDC talks:

So, let’s begin with the most obvious question.  What kind of interactive music systems are game audio folks using lately?

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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 Music Composer: How To Break Into the Business

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, working on the music of Homefront: The Revolution in her production studio.As a video game composer and author of the book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I’m frequently asked for advice on how a young composer can gain entry into this business.  I dedicated a chapter of my book to this topic (Chapter 14: Acting Like a Business and Finding Work), so I’ve certainly thought a great deal about the issue.  From my very first project (God of War) all the way to my most recent game (Homefront The Revolution, pictured right), one thing has always been abundantly clear: landing gigs can be a complex journey.  That’s especially true for newcomers, and there are no easy signposts pointing the way. While I tried to use my own experiences and insights to provide useful guidance in my book, I know that everyone’s experience is different, and multiple points of view can be very helpful.  So in this article, I’ll be offering resources from articles and community discussions on how to face down the awesome challenges of breaking into the industry as a composer of music for games.

First, I’ll be sharing a video from my presentation at the Society of Composers and Lyricists seminar, in which I answered the question about how I got my start in the games industry.  Then, we’ll be exploring highlights from a collection of online articles that offer helpful tips for how to break in and establish a career as a game composer.  Finally, at the end of this article I’ll be including a full list of links for further reading and reference.

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