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.

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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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How Music Can Intensify Video Games, Part Two

Welcome back to our two-part exploration of the role of tension and intensity in a musical score, and the techniques that can best and most effectively accentuate our audience’s nervous excitement.  If you haven’t read Part One yet, please read that article first, and then come back for the continuation of our discussion.

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, composing music for the triple-A first person shooter HOMEFRONT: THE REVOLUTION in her music studio.In Part One we explored how popular narrative genres such as horror benefit from a tense musical score, and we studied effective techniques for horror music composition as a model for musical tension-building in any narrative genre. We learned about some techniques from the world of sound design that can add intensity and emotional pressure to our music. We listened to a couple of musical examples that I composed as a member of the music team for Homefront: The Revolution (pictured right).  We also consulted the opinions of some top experts in the field to better understand how amplifying tension can make any story feel like a more awesome, satisfying experience.  Now, let’s move on to the more musical meat-and-bones of the topic: the actual harmonic textures and chord structures of our compositions.

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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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