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.

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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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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.

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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.”

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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.