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

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips, shown working on the music of LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story.Welcome to the fourth and final installment of my four-part series on the basic structure and utility of interactive music systems, including video demonstrations that clarify the concepts. In Part One of this series, we examined a simple Horizontal Re-Sequencing model of interactive music, as used in the Speed Racer Videogame from Warner Bros. Interactive. Part Two of this series explored the more advanced Horizontal Re-sequencing system of the Spore Hero game from Electronic Arts.  In Part Three of this series, we learned about the simple Vertical Layering system of The Maw video game.  So now let’s take a look at a much more ambitious execution of vertical layering.

Our discussion of Vertical Layering will focus on its use in one of my projects: The LittleBigPlanet 2: Toy Story video game (photo above). As opposed to the three layer music system we discussed in the previous article, this vertical layering music model for the LittleBigPlanet 2: Toy Story game features six layers, all able to function simultaneously. To make this possible, the layers needed to be most carefully constructed.  In my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I talked at length about how musical events can best be vertically constructed for the purposes of such complex interactive implementation. That discussion included an exploration of what ‘vertical’ means in the context of such a music system:

Continue reading

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

video game music composer Winifred Phillips, working in her studio on the music of The Maw video game.Welcome to the third installment of my four-part article series on the core principles of music interactivity, including video demonstrations and supplementary supporting materials that take these abstract concepts and make them more concrete.  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. Part Two of this series looked at the more complex Horizontal Re-sequencing music system of the Spore Hero game from Electronic Arts.  So now let’s move on to another major music interactivity model used by video game composers – Vertical Layering.

Continue reading

Arrangement for Vertical Layers Pt. 3: A Game Composer’s Guide

music-keys-notesWelcome back to my three-part blog series on techniques of arrangement for interactive game music! In this blog series, I’m exploring the discipline of arrangement in relation to interactive game music, using examples from my music for the LittleBigPlanet franchise.  In part one, we covered the purpose of the arranger, the value of a strong arrangement, and what differentiates traditional arranging from creating an arrangement for an interactive piece of music. We then discussed techniques for arranging an effective melody in an interactive construct. In part two we extended the discussion to countermelody, exploring techniques that function well when creating a secondary melody for use within interactive music. If you haven’t read the first two parts of this series, please click below to catch up:

Okay, all caught up now? Ready? Let’s go!

Continue reading

Arrangement for Vertical Layers Pt. 1: A Game Composer’s Guide

classical-music-245590_640

The art of arrangement.

This week, I’m beginning a three-part blog series on the art of arrangement for dynamic music systems in games. I’ll be exploring the techniques of arrangement as they relate to interactive game music by discussing examples from the music I composed for video games from the blockbuster LittleBigPlanet franchise.

Arrangement for interactivity is a complex subject, so I thought we should begin by developing a basic understanding of what arrangement is, and then move on to the reasons why it’s especially important in interactive music.

Continue reading

Simultaneous Genres for the Game Music Composer

LBP3_Soundtrack_CoverImage

Since the Grammy nominating period is underway, I’ve been thinking a lot about my work on the popular LittleBigPlanet video game franchise.  I recently submitted a couple of tracks from the LittleBigPlanet 3 soundtrack for consideration (LittleBigPlanet 3 The Ziggurat Theme and LittleBigPlanet 3 The Pod), which brought to mind some of the creative processes that went into structuring the interactive music for the LittleBigPlanet games. In my blog today I’d like to share with you a fun technique that’s actually one of my favorite aspects of composing music in this interactive system.  I’ve been a part of the music composition team for six LittleBigPlanet games, and over the course of those six projects, I’ve been asked to execute this particular technique a lot.  It’s a great musical trick that can only be pulled off when you’re composing in a Vertical Layering system.  Since the LittleBigPlanet music system is one of the most complex examples of Vertical Layering, it really makes for ideal conditions in which to execute this technique, which is…

Composing in Two Simultaneous Genres

We’ll recall that Vertical Layering is the process by which a single piece of music is recorded into separate yet simultaneous audio recordings that each embody a percentage of the whole composition.  This allows the music to be disassembled and reassembled into different instrument combinations during gameplay.

Last year I produced an instructional video that goes into the process in more depth:

Vertical Layering gives us the chance to write one track in two simultaneous musical genres. In traditional music composition, if we want to combine two genres of music in one track we can attempt to pull together a creative fusion, in which the styles are mixed together to create a result that isn’t quite one genre, and isn’t quite the other. Fusions can be exciting and original, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. The musical interactivity of Vertical Layering gives us the chance to keep the two genres distinct, and still incorporate them into the same piece of music.  The track can switch up which layers are playing, and it’ll be in one musical genre in one moment, and then become another genre at the drop of a hat. It’s very cool, and a lot of fun for a composer – although it can also be hard for us to wrap our heads around, especially at first.

Let’s take a look at three examples of this technique in action.  We’ll start with a couple of tracks from LittleBigPlanet 2, and then a more recent track from the latest game in the franchise – LittleBigPlanet 3.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Victoria’s Lab

In the “Victoria’s Lab” level from LittleBigPlanet 2, our world-famous hero, Sackboy, must do his best to navigate a perilous steampunk bakery, using cupcakes as weapons against evil robots made of teacups.  All these wacky elements come together to create the typically whimsical awesomeness that makes LittleBigPlanet the lovable franchise it is.  I composed the Victoria’s Lab music for LittleBigPlanet 2. Here’s a music video that includes the complete track, along with action from the Victoria’s Lab level of the game:

Victoria’s lab aptly demonstrates the “two simultaneous musical genres” approach.  For instance, Victoria’s lab can switch from a whimsical lollipop style to a gritty orchestral/rock hybrid at any time. Here’s the whimsical lollipop:

And here’s the orchestral/rock hybrid:

It’s like the music has a case of multiple personality, and the audio team can use this to add distinctive character to locations and situations within the level – some areas benefiting from the cuteness of the whimsical style, others from the toughness of the rock. In order to make this happen, as game composers we have to keep the two styles balanced in our minds – compose them both separately, test how they work together, adjust the instrumental performances and fundamental organization so that the two styles can coexist in a way that makes musical sense, test the layers some more in various configurations, until all the layers seem to work well – both when played together and when played alone.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Eve’s Asylum

EveNow, while the Victoria’s Lab example presents a fairly extreme contrast in music styles, the music from the Eve’s Asylum level of LittleBigPlanet 2 shows off this technique in an even more dramatic way. The Eve’s Asylum level is set inside a giant tree, where a lady with an apple for a head runs a a highly-spiritual insane asylum. The music for this level is structured around two very distinct musical genres that are assigned to specific tasks.

The sparkling, surreal New Age music style works to enhance gameplay during relaxed exploration, and it also highlights the natural beauty of the giant tree. Here’s a taste of that:

On the flip side of the coin, the Boogie-Woogie style pays tribute to the Andrew Sisters and the age of swing, and the high-energy rhythms provide support for combat and perilous situations. Let’s listen to a little of that:

Okay, now here’s what it sounds like when the Vertical Layering music system transitions from one musical genre to the other in the Eve’s Asylum level of LittleBigPlanet 2:

What’s great about this technique is that it allows the music to morph into something completely different in a perfectly seamless way, without ever making the player overtly conscious of the transition, and without creating any artificial sense of demarcation where one style ends and another begins. The music is simply interacting with the gameplay, changing in a logical way as the player’s circumstances change. Now, let’s look at one more example of this technique, this time from LittleBigPlanet 3.

LittleBigPlanet 3 The Ziggurat Theme

SackBrosIn the Ziggurat level, Sackboy explores a gigantic sanctuary that’s full of both grandly spiritual architecture and playfully eccentric machines. As a setting that already had a built-in duality, it seemed clear that the music should also have a similar sense of division – so I composed this Vertical Layering composition in two musical styles. The first was a traditionally designed Baroque-style fugue – a multi-voiced counterpoint composition built around the repetition and development of a single melodic theme. Here’s a snippet of that Baroque-style fugue:

The second style was a quirky World Fusion in which log drums, upright bass and assorted percussion instruments worked together to have some fun with African, Latin, Polynesian and Jazz rhythms. Here’s an excerpt of those groovy world beats:

So, the music is essentially coming from the opposite ends of the cultural spectrum – a very strict and refined musical form on one side, and a very groovy and uninhibited style on the other. Now, watch how the music system added layers during this gameplay sequence in the Ziggurat level of LittleBigPlanet 3:

Vertical Layering is a tremendously flexible composition technique that allows a game composer to incorporate two simultaneous musical genres into a single track. We can use the two distinctly-different genres separately, and then combine them to create dramatically different musical effects.  It’s a fun technique, and I hope that you’ll give it a try in your own work.  Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever tried to combine two musical genres using Vertical Layering, or if you’re planning to try it in the future!

border-159926_640_white

Studio1_GreenWinifred 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 five of the most famous and popular franchises in video 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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Power to the Players: Music for User-Created Levels

This week, I’d like to touch upon an aspect of the LittleBigPlanet music system that sets it apart from most other games – and that is the way in which the game gives players the power to directly manipulate the music content.

community

Every piece of music in a LittleBigPlanet game is also a collectible prize that players can obtain and then use in levels that they build themselves using the game’s creation tools. For this reason, when composing for a LittleBigPlanet game, the members of the music composition team have to keep in mind that there’s no way to predict how the user community will use the music. Certainly, the players will be sharing their user-created levels across the entire community – there are over 9 million levels so far – and that knowledge tends to puts everything in a whole new light.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the music of the LittleBigPlanet franchise for consoles is structured using a Vertical Layering system comprised of six layers – six simultaneous audio recordings that play in synch with each other and each represent a percentage of the whole composition. This allows the music to be disassembled and reassembled by the game engine according to what’s happening during the course of play.  That means that each music composition is fragmented into six parts.  So, I have to ask myself – when players are using one of the interactive tracks I’ve composed for a LittleBigPlanet game, will users play only one layer out of the six? That thought tends to make me scrutinize every layer pretty intently.

On the other hand, will players just set every layer as active, at full volume, all the time? Again, that’s a thought that puts me on high alert, leading me to turn a hyper critical eye on each composition before I make that final submission to the developers.

scrutiny

When we create interactive music for most projects, we can trust that the audio team at the development studio will work to implement the music in the most advantageous way, with the most satisfying musical results – but players tend to make their decisions based on what seems like fun at the time.

Even so, I’m always excited to hear how players have implemented my music into their games.  Here are some of the best examples of ingenuity and artistry from a few of the top LittleBigPlanet level creators:

LittleBigPlanet 3 The Ziggurat Theme

In the Ziggurat level, Sackboy wanders through an impressive sanctuary characterized by imposing architecture and lots of glittering glass, with outdoor sections blanketed by softly falling snow.  I was asked to create music for this area, which was structured as a central hub from which Sackboy could embark on adventures and accept missions.  The music I composed included six layers – Choir, Harp, Bells, Bass, Jazz Drums and Percussion.  Here is a short 12 second excerpt taken from each of the six layers at the exact same moment in the composition:

In the Ziggurat level created by the development team at Sumo Digital, Sackboy repeatedly visits a central hub area, and the layers of the music are triggered in different configurations depending on when Sackboy visits.  The layers don’t change noticeably while Sackboy is exploring the level, but when he returns to the same level later, the music will have changed its layer configuration. Here’s a brief example of how that worked:

In the awesome user-created level Fuga Ad Infinitum (designed by Aratiatia), the Ziggurat Theme music is used with a very different triggering strategy.  The layers are turned on and off depending on the actions of Sackboy as he runs and flies through a mythologically-inspired environment, causing the music to fluidly change its character while Sackboy explores.  Because of this fundamentally different method of music triggering, The Ziggurat Theme has a unique tone and atmosphere in Fuga Ad Infinitum.  Here’s a gameplay video that shows how the music was triggered in the Fuga Ad Infinitum game:

The user Aratiatia created a mesmerizingly beautiful level, lacing the layers of The Ziggurat Theme throughout with thoughtfully designed trigger points that supported the action of the game very well.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story

Sometimes an interactive track can come across differently with very small changes in implementation.  As an example – the LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story game was a self-contained adventure in the world of the famous and popular Toy Story movies.  I wrote an interactive western bluegrass track for gameplay sequences that included cowboy romps with Woody and his pals.  The details regarding the composition of each layer in this bluegrass Vertical Layering composition are explored in one of the tutorial videos I produced to supplement my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music:

During the LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story game, the interactive music would be used for both low-energy cinematics and high-energy gameplay.  Here’s a brief video showing how the music was implemented in the LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story game:

Now, here’s the same music used in an incredibly clever LittleBigPlanet 2 user-created game called Paper World 2 by Adell22.  In this implementation of the music, Adell22 chose not to use the melody layer, opting instead for the bluegrass rhythm and energy to give the vehicular gameplay its momentum:

The drastically different gameplay circumstances, combined with the different mix of layers in the music, help this track to come across distinctively and support the action of the Paper World 2 user-created game.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Victoria’s Lab

I’ve blogged before about the music I composed for the Victoria’s Lab level of LittleBigPlanet 2 – I mention it here as an illustration of how a Vertical Layering composition can change depending on the implementation.  The music of Victoria’s Lab includes both whimsical and dark layers which can be played together or separately.  Here’s a 15 second excerpt of the full mix of Victoria’s Lab, to remind us of how all six layers sound when played together.

In a user-created level for the LittleBigPlanet 2 game, the user Acanimate chose to implement only the drums, guitars and strings of the Victoria’s Lab music (in other words, the dark and serious layers) in this exciting and perilous level called Sprocketz.

As a contrast, in this section of another user-created level called Sweets Fantasy by the user White Rabbit, only the light and comical layers of the Victoria’s Lab music were used, with the following result:

I’m always inspired by what the LittleBigPlanet user community does with the interactive music written for the franchise.  It’s a privilege to create music that will become part of user-created levels, and fascinating to see how the players choose to implement the interactive components of the LittleBigPlanet music system.  Their choices sometimes reveal hidden utility in the music created for the franchise, and looking at their choices can help us better understand the creative possibilities inherent in Vertical Layering.

border-159926_640_white

Studio1_GreenWinifred 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 five of the most famous and popular franchises in video 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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Game Music Middleware, Part 5: psai

Middleware-Blackboard

 

This is a continuation of my blog series on the top audio middleware options for game music composers, this time focusing on the psai Interactive Music Engine for games, developed by Periscope Studio, an audio/music production house. Initially developed as a proprietary middleware solution for use by Periscope’s in-house musicians, the software is now being made available commercially for use by game composers.  In this blog I’ll take a quick look at psai and provide some tutorial resources that will further explore the utility of this audio middleware.  If you’d like to read the first four blog entries in this series on middleware for the game composer, you can find them here:

Game Music Middleware, Part 1: Wwise

Game Music Middleware, Part 2: FMOD

Game Music Middleware, Part 3: Fabric

Game Music Middleware, Part 4: Elias

What is psai?

The name “psai” is an acronym for “Periscope Studio Audio Intelligence,” and its lowercase appearance is intentional.  Like the Elias middleware (explored in a previous installment of this blog series), the psai application attempts to provide a specialized environment specifically tailored to best suit the needs of game composers.  The developers at Periscope Studio claim that psai’s “ease of use is unrivaled,” primarily because the middleware was “designed by videogame composers, who found that the approaches of conventional game audio middleware to interactive music were too complicated and not flexible enough.”  The psai music engine was originally released for PC games, with a version of the software for the popular Unity engine released in January 2015.

psai graphical user interface

psai graphical user interface

Both Elias and psai offer intuitive graphical user interfaces designed to ease the workflow of a game composer. However, unlike Elias, which focused exclusively on a vertical layering approach to musical interactivity, the psai middleware is structured entirely around horizontal re-sequencing, with no support for vertical layering.  As I described in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, “the fundamental idea behind horizontal re-sequencing is that when composed carefully and according to certain rules, the sequence of a musical composition can be rearranged.” (Chapter 11, page 188).

Music for the psai middleware is composed in what Periscope describes as a “snippets” format, in which short chunks of music are arranged into groups that can then be triggered semi-randomly by the middleware.  The overall musical composition is called a “theme,” and the snippets represent short sections of that theme.  The snippets are assigned numbers that best represent degrees of emotional intensity (from most intense to most relaxed), and these intensity numbers help determine which of the snippets will be triggered at any given time.  Other property assignments include whether a snippet is designated as an introductory or ending segment, or whether the snippet is bundled into a “middle” group with a particular intensity designation.  Periscope cautions, “The more Middle Segments you provide, the more diversified your Theme will be. The more Middle Segments you provide for a Theme, the less repetition will occur. For a highly dynamic soundtrack make sure to provide a proper number of Segments across different levels of intensity.”

Here’s an introductory tutorial video produced by Periscope for the psai Interactive Music Engine for videogames:

Because psai only supports horizontal re-sequencing, it’s not as flexible as the more famous tools such as Wwise or FMOD, which can support projects that alternate between horizontal and vertical interactivity models.  However, psai’s ease of use may prove alluring for composers who had already planned to implement a horizontal re-sequencing structure for musical interactivity.  The utility of the psai middleware also seems to depend on snippets that are quite short, as is demonstrated by the above tutorial video produced by Periscope Studio.  There could be some negative effects of this structure on a composer’s ability to develop melodic content (as is sometimes the case in a horizontal re-sequencing model).  It would be helpful if Periscope could demonstrate psai using longer snippets that might give us a better sense of how musical ideas might be developed within the confines of their dynamic music system.  One can imagine an awesome potential for creativity with this system, if the structure can be adapted to allow for more development of musical ideas over time.

The psai middleware has been used successfully in a handful of game projects, including Black Mirror III, Lost Chronicles of Zerzura, Legends of Pegasus, Mount & Blade II – Bannerlord, and The Devil’s Men.  Here’s some gameplay video that demonstrates the music system of Legends of Pegasus:

And here is some gameplay video that demonstrates the music system of Mount & Blade II – Bannerlord:

border-159926_640_white

Studio1_GreenWinifred 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 five of the most famous and popular franchises in video 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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.