Game Composers and the Importance of Themes: Repetition in Game Music (Pt. 2)

Pictured: video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio. Phillips is the game music composer for The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes game, developed by Random Potion for Wild River Games. Her credits include titles from 5 of the most well-known game franchises, and she is one of the foremost authorities on video game music, having presented lectures at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and the Society of Composers and Lyricists in NYC.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and this is the second installment of my five article series based on the presentation I gave at the first-ever digital edition of the Game Developers Conference that took place this past March.  My talk was entitled “From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes” (I’ve included the official description of my talk at this end of this article).  In my GDC 2020 presentation, I discussed the music I composed for several video game projects, including Assassin’s Creed Liberation (Ubisoft), God of War (Sony Interactive America), LittleBigPlanet (Sony Interactive Europe), Homefront: The Revolution (Deep Silver), Speed Racer (Warner Bros Interactive), Spore Hero (Electronic Arts), and The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes (Wild River).

In the last article, we discussed the concept of the “hook” as it relates to thematic composition, and we explored how an awesome hook can function best from within a main theme track.  In our discussion, we used both a famous example from the Star Wars franchise, as well as the main theme from one of my own recently-released game projects – The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes.  Both examples included a fairly dynamic foreground melody, which made it a great example for our discussion of the role of the hook in thematic construction.  So let’s now consider what happens when we eschew such an attention-drawing melodic element and instead take a more subtle approach.

Assassin’s Creed Liberation

When I was hired to compose the music for Assassin’s Creed Liberation, one of the first requested tracks was the main theme.  So I’m sitting there in front of the keyboard, trying to start composing a main theme for an entry in one of the most popular video game franchises… and I’m thinking about what makes Assassin’s Creed unique: the surreal nature of being in the Animus.  It’s a virtual world that exists as an altered mental state, like dreaming or hypnosis.  What could I do as the composer to evoke this feeling?

An image of the text logo for the

Around that time, there was some discussion of the four-chord technique that Hans Zimmer popularized in scores like Inception.  I remember that there were a lot of opinions out the technique at the time, from experts and amateurs alike. The technique wasn’t original to him – it actually owes a lot to pop music construction – but Zimmer brought a bunch of attention to it.  Something about a simple repeating four-chord progression feels very hypnotic. And so I thought – why not?  Let’s figure out a four-chord progression, something that sounds interesting, and then base the whole track on it. I’d never done anything like that before. It could work.

A sheet music excerpt of the

So here they are – the four chords for the Assassin’s Creed Liberation main theme. It took a little while to settle on them, and then I recorded them using a really mellow synth pad – played them over and over and over again for about two minutes. Here’s what that was like:

The four-chords became the foundation of the main theme, and then it was just a matter of adding things to it. Lots of things.

So while there is plenty of melodic material in the main theme, the element that gets the most repetition is that sequence of four chords.  We hear that four-chord pattern 14 times in the main theme alone. This gives the four-chord sequence some mnemonic heft within the body of the game’s score.  It’s going to feel familiar when heard again, and that allows it to be meaningful when it reappears as a broken chord sequence during stealth gameplay:

Or when the four-chord shows up in the game’s main user-interface menus:

Repetition can serve as a powerful musical signature – whether by virtue of a bold and dynamic melody line, or a subtle chord progression. If an element pops up during music composition that seems perfect for recurrence, we have to stay on top of the situation, recognize this new composition opportunity and act on it.  Let’s look at an example from one of my other game projects.

Homefront: The Revolution

An image excerpt from the GDC 2020 presentation of video game composer Winifred Phillips, depicting her workflow during music composition for the game Homefront: The Revolution.In my music for the first person shooter Homefront the Revolution, I composed an emotional theme when an unlikely hero suddenly gives a remarkably inspiring speech about fighting back against oppression.  Since the whole story centers on that idea, that musical signature took on a really iconic character and I privately named it the ‘Stand With Me’ theme, after a phrase from that inspirational speech. Afterwards, I made a mental note to use the ‘Stand With Me’ theme again if I had the chance. Turns out, I had several. Here it is as it was used in three different story missions:

Conclusion

In this article, we’ve taken a look at how more subtle thematic elements can add emotional weight to a game.  We examined the four-chord theme of Assassin’s Creed Liberation, and discussed how repetition helps to solidify its association with the game’s core identity.  We also talked about how themes can be linked with specific story ideas, and how this linkage can facilitate further repetition within the body of the game’s musical score.  In the next article of this series, we’ll be exploring how variation and fragmentation can add utility to our musical themes.  Along the way, I’ll be sharing some of personal stories of my creative process for two of my game music projects – Spore Hero and LittleBigPlanet PS Vita.  Until then, thanks for reading!

 

From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes

An image montage that includes the logos of video games discussed during the GDC 2020 presentation,

(Game Developers Conference Session Description)

Through an exploration of her work composing music for games such as Assassin’s Creed Liberation, God of War, LittleBigPlanet and the upcoming RPG The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes, composer Winifred Phillips will examine the potential of thematic music to enable a game to stand out as special and unique.

By employing musical themes, a composer can infuse a game with a strong sense of character and originality.

According to research, music heard during activities is remembered vividly. Coupling this with the innately memorable nature of themes allows a game composer to create an indelible musical signature for any game. This talk will examine composition techniques that extend the life and utility of themes. Variation, development, figures, fragmentation, and motifs will be explored, along with examples of themes in combat, menus, cutscenes, and stingers. Finally, dynamic music construction will be considered, including workarounds to enable effective themes within interactive systems.

Takeaway

Using examples from several games, Phillips will discuss specific composition techniques designed to enhance the utility of thematic content. Attendees will learn how themes may be incorporated into specific game music asset types. Also included in the discussion: composition adjustments required by interactive music constructs.

Intended Audience

This session will present inspirational ideas for composers seeking to create distinctive musical signatures for their game projects. Discussion of thematic use within different types of game music assets may be helpful for audio developers engaged in preparing music design documents. The talk will be approachable for all levels.

 

Photo showing award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio.Popular music from composer Winifred Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score is currently being performed live by a top 80-piece orchestra and choir as part of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which kicked off in 2019 with its Paris premiere. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in five of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: Assassin’s Creed, God of War, Total War, The Sims, and LittleBigPlanet.  Phillips’ other notable projects include music for the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution (Deep Silver), and numerous virtual reality games from such accomplished developers as Supermassive Games, High Voltage Software, and Armature Studio.   She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As the foremost authority on music for interactive entertainment, Winifred Phillips has given lectures at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, and many more. Phillips’ enthusiastic fans showered her with questions during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session that went viral, hit the Reddit front page, received 14.9 thousand upvotes, and became one of the most popular gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

 

From the video game music of EA’s Spore Hero to Avengers Endgame: Composing the Hero Theme

Photo of composer Winifred Phillips working on the video game music of Spore Hero from Electronic Arts.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

The famous Avengers Endgame logo, from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.Hi!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips, and sometimes my game music shows up in places I never would have expected.  A little over a week ago, while I was eagerly watching an awesome trailer for the just-released blockbuster Avengers Endgame, I was suddenly stunned to hear my own music in it!  (I’ve embedded the Avengers Endgame trailer that features my music at the end of this article.)  What made this moment even more jaw-dropping for me was that I had originally composed this music for the video game Spore Hero (a game from Electronic Arts’ popular Spore franchise).  Just as a reference, here’s what the characters look like in Spore Hero:

Detail from cover image of popular video game Spore Hero (from the article by Winifred Phillips, video game composer).

The style of Spore Hero couldn’t be further away from that famous Avengers style, as expertly displayed in the Avengers Endgame trailer.  Yet the same music was used for both projects.

The famous faces of Avengers Endgame depicted in the official poster (an illustration from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips)

The Spore Hero music I was hearing in the Avengers Endgame trailer was my “Hero Theme,” which functions essentially as a leitmotif within the Spore Hero score – it’s the central recurring melody in the game.  By virtue of the theme-and-variation technique, the melody undergoes a gradual transformation from invitingly cute to heroically epic.

The Avengers Endgame trailer featured the most dramatic iteration of this theme.  When I recovered from the initial surprise, it occurred to me that a mini-postmortem of this particular melodic theme might be the best way to explore an interesting topic: how does a single theme transform itself from an amiable melody to an avenging one?

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Music Game Plan: Tactics for the Video Game Composer (Part Two)

Composer Winifred Phillips working on the music of the popular Spore Hero video game from Electronic Arts.

Welcome back to my four-part article series presenting videos and helpful references to aid aspiring game music composers in understanding how interactive music works. In Part One of this series, we took a look at a simple example demonstrating the Horizontal Re-Sequencing model of musical interactivity, as it was used in the music I composed for the Speed Racer Videogame from Warner Bros. Interactive.  Now let’s turn our attention to a more complex example of horizontal re-sequencing as demonstrated by the interactive music of the Spore Hero game from Electronic Arts.

Continue reading

Interactive Music for the Video Game Composer

Game Composer Winifred Phillips works in her studio on the music of the popular Spore Hero video game As a speaker in the audio track of the Game Developers Conference this year, I enjoyed taking in a number of GDC audio sessions — including a couple of presentations that focused on the future of interactive music in games.  I’ve explored this topic before at length in my book (A Composer’s Guide to Game Music), and it was great to see that the game audio community continues to push the boundaries and innovate in this area! Interactive music is a worthwhile subject for discussion, and will undoubtedly be increasingly important in the future as dynamic music systems become more prevalent in game projects.  With that in mind, in this blog I’d like to share my personal takeaway from two sessions that described very different approaches to musical interactivity. After that, we’ll discuss one of my experiences with interactive music for the video game Spore Hero from Electronic Arts (pictured above).

Musical Intelligence

Baldur BaldurssonPhoto of Baldur Baldursson, the audio director for Icelandic game development studio CCP Games (part of the article by game composer Winifred Phillips) (pictured left) is the audio director for Icelandic game development studio CCP Games, responsible for the EVE Online MMORPG.  Together with Professor Kjartan Olafsson of the Iceland Academy of Arts, Baldursson presented a talk at GDC 2016 on a new system to provide “Intelligent Music For Games.”

Baldursson began the presentation by explaining why an intelligent music system for games can be a necessity.  “We basically want an intelligent music system because we can’t (or maybe shouldn’t really) precompose all of the elements,” Baldursson explains. He describes the conundrum of creating a musical score for a game whose story is still fluid and changeable, and then asserts,  “I think we should find ways of making this better.”

Continue reading

My Music Around the World – Accidental Discoveries Part 2

This continues my intermittent series of posts about how I’ve accidently discovered my music being used in all sorts of amusing, entertaining, and unexpected ways:

The Very Dramatic Weddings of Kyrgyzstan

The Very Dramatic Weddings of Kyrgyzstan

Of all the ways in which I’ve stumbled across my own music on the web, this is one of the weirdest. Wedding videographer Uluk Omurkulov of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan put together a demo reel showing highlights from his past wedding videos, all set to my theme music from Assassin’s Creed III Liberation. There are beautiful brides in lace holding ivory roses, newly wedded couples waltzing among Corinthian marble pillars, meaningful handholding, devoted eye contact, beautiful scenes of a bride and groom in a snowy winter wonderland… with all shots edited precisely to the driving tempo of the theme music for a video game about an 18th century assassin in New Orleans. While the music choice is definitely odd and creates a bit of cognitive dissonance, it also sort of hangs together in a way that makes me grin. I have to hand it to Uluk Omurkulov – he can definitely shoot a great wedding video.

Haifa International Flower Exhibition

The Haifa International Flower Exhibition

I loved this one. In April of 2012, on the shore lines of Haifa (the largest city in Northern Israel), a huge team of Danish artists and flower designers created whimsical worlds of floral delight housed in 9 large white domes for the International Flower Exhibition in Hecht Park. Over 150,000 visitors toured these domes. One of these was named “Water World” and featured enormous white flowers, floating bubbles, misty filtered blue light creating a subaquatic atmosphere… and my music! The exhibition selected my composition “Haven” from the Spore Hero game (Electronic Arts) as the soundtrack that greeted visitors while they strolled through this magical world of flowers. I chanced upon this YouTube video shot by a visitor to the exhibition, and was delighted by the beauty of the exhibit and the honor of my music being selected for it.