Composing video game music to build suspense, part 2: jarring jolts

Winifred Phillips, composer of video game music, shown in her studio working on the music of the Assassin's Creed Liberation video game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our five-part discussion of some of the best techniques that video game composers can use to enhance tension and promote suspenseful gameplay.  These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  If you haven’t read our previous discussion of Ominous Ambiences in part one of this series, please go check that article out.

Are you back?  Good!  Let’s continue!

We’ve already talked about how to create an edgy, ominous atmosphere. By carefully nurturing the player’s suspense and anxiety, we can prime the player with an assortment of quietly unnerving sounds, until the player is perfectly ready for…

The Jarring Jolt technique

This is the second technique we’ll be discussing in our five-part article series on the role of music in building suspense. Like the Ominous Ambience (which we discussed in part one), the Jarring Jolt also owes a debt to the expert work of sound designers.  In fact, the Ominous Ambience and the Jarring Jolt are fairly interdependent. One doesn’t work that well without the other.

Illustration of projects utilizing ambiences and jolts in sound design - from the article by game music composer Winifred Phillips.A good explanation of this comes from top film sound designer Paul Hackner, best known for his work on The Hunger Games and the popular Matrix franchise. In an interview with Audio Media International, Hackner says:

“If everything suddenly gets quiet and the music drops out that is not necessarily scary.  It can often pull the audience out. It is more effective to have eerie drones, creepy winds, and rumbles come and go. The notion is counterintuitive, but it is necessary to let the audience know that a jump scare is about to happen.”

The Jump Scare

From the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips - an illustration of the 'jarring jolt' concept.We’re probably all familiar with the idea of a jump scare – a hushed moment followed by a sudden appearance that’s calculated to be as startling as possible. Jump scares are a famous technique used in horror games and films, but we’ll also encounter sudden surprises in other genres. These jolts can be very effective in provoking a physiological response, bringing players into a hyper-alert state.

The jarring jolt is at its very best when it’s preceded by an ominous atmosphere, because players navigate such an environment with a feeling of persistent uncertainty, knowing that nothing is reliable, and nowhere is safe. When players are on edge to that degree, a jarring jolt can get their hearts racing.

There are many ways in which a video game composer can create a jarring jolt, but two of the most common methods come directly from the world of sound design. They’re heavily used in movie trailers, because they are an awesome way to get an audience’s attention. Their technical names are:

Bumpers and Whooshes.

So let’s start with definitions.

The Bumper

From the article by Winifred Phillips (composer of video game music) - an illustration of the 'bumper' concept.In music composition, a bumper may also be called a “hit,” but it’s essentially the same idea. A bumper is a sudden, jarring noise evocative of a violent impact that’s designed to arrest the listener’s attention. In sound design, bumpers are used often in correlation with a visual jump scare, but we can use bumpers in music to keep players on edge, even if there’s no corresponding visual cue.

Logo art for Assassin's Creed Liberation, music by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.When I composed the Assassin’s Creed Liberation score for Ubisoft, one of the tracks I wrote was for an action sequence in which the main character undertakes a dangerous escort mission.  She has to reach a checkpoint without being killed by the guards.  It had to feel scary, so I built ominous ambiences and bumpers into the music to ratchet up the tension.  Here’s an example – notice how the music settles down to a light rhythmic texture with a dissonant midrange tone, and then gets interrupted by a big orchestral jolt:

The Whoosh

From video game composer Winifred Phillips' article - an illustration of the 'whoosh' concept.whoosh is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a sound that makes you think of something flying by your head. More specifically, a whoosh is a high-frequency noise that’s followed by a long release or a reverberant envelope.

A cymbal roll is the most musically traditional example of a whoosh, but there are tons of sound effects-inspired whooshes that can be used musically. They’re great for adding suspense and drama to a musical transition.

Logo art for Speed Racer the Video Game, music by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.For instance, in this track that I composed for WB Games for my Speed Racer game score, I loaded the music with lots of whooshes. In music designed to make a racing game feel fast and intense, the whooshes helped to add tension and danger to the track:

Bumpers, whooshes, and ambience

Finally, let’s check out an example that uses all three techniques together. Here’s an in-game combat track I composed for Assassin’s Creed Liberation that’s built entirely around ambiences, bumpers and whooshes:


So now we’ve looked at the Jarring Jolt – the second technique for imbuing a game with tension and suspense. This concludes part two of this five part series based on my GDC 2017 talk, “Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.”  Part three will include a discussion of the Creepy Cluster technique, including strategies for video game music composers to best employ disconcerting intervals in order to build tension and suspense.  Along the way, we’ll examine music excerpts from two of my projects – the Dragon Front VR game from High Voltage Software, and the SimAnimals game from the blockbuster Sims franchise.  In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!


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 project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. 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.

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.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

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 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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