Composer Winifred Phillips answers Reddit’s questions in viral Ask-Me-Anything about video game music

Photo of popular video game composer Winifred Phillips, taken as 'proof photo' for her recent viral Reddit Ask-Me-Anything that hit the Reddit front page, receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes and garnering Reddit's gold and platinum awards.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m the author of the book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.  Recently my publisher The MIT Press requested that I host a question and answer session on Reddit’s famous Ask Me Anything forum, to share my knowledge about game music and spread the word about my book on that topic.  I’d be answering questions from a community consisting of thousands of gamers, developers and aspiring composers.  It sounded like fun, so last Thursday and Friday I logged onto Reddit and answered as many questions as I possibly could.  It was an awesome experience!  Over the course of those two days, my Reddit AMA went viral.  It ascended to the Reddit front page, receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes and garnering Reddit’s gold and platinum awards.  My AMA has now become one of the most engaged and popular Reddit gaming AMAs ever hosted on the Ask-Me-Anything subreddit.  I’m so grateful to the Reddit community for their amazing support and enthusiasm!!  During the course of those two days, the community posed some wonderful questions, and I thought it would be great to gather together some of those questions and answers that might interest us here.  Below you’ll find a discussion focused on the art and craft of game music composition.  The discussion covered the gamut of subjects, from elementary to expert, and I’ve arranged the discussion below under topic headings for the sake of convenience.  I hope you enjoy this excerpted Q&A from my Reddit Ask-Me-Anything!  If you’d like to read the entire AMA (which also includes lots of discussion of my past video game music projects), you’ll find the whole Reddit AMA here.

Questions about workflow

Question: I am really curious to learn what the process of developing music for a game is. I know with film media, musical directors get footage to create along with, how does this process work for games?

Winifred Phillips: You’re right about the process with film media. It’s a spotting procedure, wherein the director and composer go through the film and look for good opportunities to place music in positions that will have maximum impact. I think that there’s a similar philosophy behind how music is placed in games. The game development team and the composer make decisions about where music is going to be most impactful. The difference is that we can’t just watch the game all the way through, the way we might watch a film. Instead, we can look at the design documents, look at the currently built levels at whatever stage of development they’re currently in, and make decisions based on that. The dev team usually has strong ideas about the role of music in their project, and how they want the music to interact with their game. Sometimes I’ll have more input regarding these choices, and other times the team will be fired up about their vision for the role that music will play, and I’ll need to execute that vision.

Image illustrating the concept of workflow, from the article by game composer Winifred Phillips about her Reddit AMA that went viral, hitting the Reddit front page, with 14.8 thousand upvotes and both Reddit's gold and platinum awards.Question: When composing, what kind of details are important to ensure it fits the game? Do you play through a scene without music before working on the piece?

Winifred Phillips: Cool question! I always love receiving a build of the game while I’m working so that I can play it and get inspired by what the development team is doing. That’s not always possible, though. Sometimes the game is just too early in development for me to receive a playable version. In that case, I read all sorts of design documents, look at tons of concept art, have lots of great meetings with the developers to talk about what inspires them and what their vision is for the music of their game. I’ll also do a bunch of research before I begin work. The research sometimes focuses on musical style, genre, instrumentation, etc. Sometimes the research also includes topics related to the game narrative and history. I want to understand the world of the game, so that I can create music that’s appropriate for it.

Question: How is your typical workflow when writing music for a new scene/part of a game? Like; play the scene once, fiddle around with some melodies, record a quick piece and let it sit for a few days and so on.

Winifred Phillips: I like to watch gameplay video or play a game build (if there’s one available) before I start work. Every piece of gameplay has its own visual rhythm, and that has a profound influence on the pacing and momentum of the music I’ll create for it. Regarding how I schedule my work — usually I’m operating on some An image of the Assassin's Creed Liberation HD cover art, illustrating the discussion in the article by popular video game music composer Winifred Phillipspretty tight deadlines, so I rarely have the luxury to set a piece aside and then come back to it. The music must be finished! The deadline gods will be satisfied! Honestly, there’s nothing more inspiring than that terrifying ticking of the clock counting down to a deadline. I amaze myself with how much I can get done.

Question: I’m interested in your work on God of War and Assassin’s Creed. Those are two, for the most part, period pieces. Do you try and incorporate instruments or styles of music from ancient times? If so, how do you choose where to have modern/period music?  As a second question; how much creative freedom do you have? Do it vary gig to gig?

Winifred Phillips: Good questions!  I enjoy working on period pieces, because I get to do research and incorporate instruments and performance styles from another time. For Assassin’s Creed Liberation, I dug deep into baroque musical structures and instruments, and I learned a -lot- from the experience of creating the music for that game. For God of War I listened to a lot of world music from the locations where the game is based. Of course, we don’t really know what the ancient music of Sparta would have sounded like, although there are some guesses being made. Regarding creative freedom — you are absolutely right. It varies from gig to gig. I’ve worked on some gigs where the team just gave me their blessing and told me to do whatever I liked. I’ve also worked on projects where the development team closely supervised everything I did and had detailed instructions at every step of the project. It’s important to be able to adapt to whatever the circumstances may be.

 

Questions about working with development teams

Depiction of the popular LittleBigPlanet 2 cover art, illustrating a discussion in an article by Winifred Phillips (video game composer) of her recent Reddit Ask-Me-Anything. Phillips' AMA reached the Reddit front page, receiving Reddit's gold and platinum awards and garnering 14.8 thousand upvotes.Question: I would consider the music to be a huge part of the feel of any good game; considering what you just said about not having the ability to play a piece of the game before you compose, would you say that you have some creative license to sway the tone and feel of a game? I understand you want to help the game become what it’s supposed to become but sometimes a little creativity can help make the game into something more.

Winifred Phillips: You’re right about the creative license that composers sometimes have to define the sound of a game. When we’re brought in before the levels are finished, our music might actually have a big impact on the design of those levels. For instance, after I was hired to compose music for LittleBigPlanet 2, my first assignment was to create music for the Victoria’s Lab level, and I was given the description of the main character as a sort of mad scientist figure. She likes to build killer robots, and she’s a bit nuts. Always a delightful combination! So I composed a track with a lot of dark elements — gritty guitars, epic orchestral strings, etc. But since it’s also a LittleBigPlanet track, I made sure to infuse it with a lot of fun and wacky elements, like calliope, accordion, beat boxing, vocoder, and so on. Later, I found out that after I’d submitted the music, the level designers had gone back to the drawing board and revised the level pretty extensively. When I finally saw the level, Victoria was still a mad scientist, but now she was also a baker. The level was filled with cookies and cakes, and Sackboy could attack the killer robots by hurling giant cupcakes at them. The team at Media Molecule let me know that they’d changed the level because the music had inspired them. I can’t express how much that meant to me. The folks at Media Molecule are profoundly gifted and amazing, so I was so touched that my contribution helped to shape their creative process!  Here’s a vid of that music:

Question: I am a 29 year old who literally loves little big planet! Is there ever a time where you would feel like the music wasn’t right for the game and you were forced to pick it because of the director or developer?

Depiction of the famous Sackboy character from the LittleBigPlanet 2 franchise, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.Winifred Phillips: Nothing wrong with being 29 and loving LittleBigPlanet! I love it too! Regarding your question — I’ve been asked sometimes to deliver music that seems like sort of an eccentric choice for the game in question. But in those moments, I think it’s important to remember that the dev team knows their game a lot better than I do. They know their audience. They also know the overall effect they’re trying to create with the music of the game. Creative collaboration doesn’t work unless everybody trusts everybody else. I just have to metaphorically close my eyes and do a ‘trust fall’ in those circumstances. The final result is almost always fantastic!

Question: In projects where the sound design team and music team are not really coordinating wth each other, how do you ensure the music produced and evaluated stays on brand for a project?

Winifred Phillips: I know what you mean. Really, the sound design team and music team ought to be coordinating with each other! At the very least, there should be some kind of supervisor in the team that’s keeping an eye on those things and making sure that the music and sound design work together. In most projects I’ve worked on, that’s the case. However, I also like to ask the team to send me videos of gameplay that include the sound design. That way, I can drop the video with its sound design into my Pro Tools session and hear the sounds of the game while I’m creating the music. This helps me create music that isn’t going to clash with the other aural elements in the game.

 

Questions about dynamic / interactive music composition

Question: What would you consider the main difference between game music and normal music?

Winifred Phillips: Well, normal music has a beginning, that proceeds to a middle, and then concludes with an ending. Game music usually doesn’t have any of those things. At its simplest, game music is composed so that it can be repeated indefinitely, which means that it must be composed with a very different composition structure than traditional music. As game composers, we have to think about what qualities will help players to enjoy a piece of music that repeats, and what qualities will lessen that enjoyment. Beyond this simplest of considerations, as game music gets more interactive and responsive to the actions of the player, the whole situation grows exponentially more complex. The music starts getting fragmented into many different segments that can be juggled around according to the action of the game. It can be very challenging for a traditional composer to understand how fundamentally different game music composition is.

Question: Is making game music different from making regular music, is there a guideline to follow?

Winifred Phillips: Regarding making game music — it couldn’t be -more- different than making regular music! Game music is very distinct. The demands on the composer are very different than they would be for a film or television composer, or even for a symphonic composer. Game music has to be interactive. It has to react An illustration emphasizing the importance of gamer choice, from a discussion of game music in an article by Winifred Phillips (video game composer) -- the article includes materials from her recent Reddit Ask-Me-Anything that received 14.8 thousand upvotes, helping it to reach the Reddit front page and garner both Reddit's gold and platinum awards.to the actions of the player. That’s actually really inspiring to me. I feel like I’m having a sort of musical conversation with players. They perform actions, and the music responds. Hopefully the music inspires players on their in-game journey. In terms of the technical aspects, game music has to be constructed in bits and pieces, that can be jig-sawed together by the game engine according to what’s going on in the game. I go into a lot of detail about this in my book — it’s a fascinating way to think about music creation, and it’s really inspired me to stretch and grow as a composer.

Question: How do you manage to get certain feelings (tension, etc) to change over time during certain songs? Such as going into combat or coming out of it.

Winifred Phillips: Good question! When we’re structuring music for a game, we’ll assign different tasks to different compositions. A track may be assigned the task of accompanying the player during exploration. Another track may be assigned to a specific combat sequence. When transitioning from exploration into combat, often the game engine may trigger a specifically-composed transitional composition to play. This may be a short track that helps to ease the player from one piece of music to another, smoothing out the rough edges and helping the transition to feel natural.

Question: So do you ever end up with situations where the game itself is resolving chord progressions or making harmonic functional type changes where you compose something that has a series of chords but they end on what is to be a transition to another section that the gameplay or some kind of randomness might chose where the progression goes next? (so for example like the game itself would chose whether you end up with a cadence or go to another chord which might resolve to something else etc? ) Or is this more of “one theme” and then the game action will trade for “another theme…” but the functions are more or less contained? (and if the answer is NO? Wouldnt it be so cool to for a composer to be involved with game developers to design a game that way!? eg the player would be literally working to resolve tension in the music !)

Winifred Phillips: Wonderful question! What you’re describing is the technique and core philosophy of interactive/dynamic music construction. It’s challenging for a game composer, but also incredibly stimulating and inspiring. Kind of like trying to solve a really good puzzle. Composing interactive music for a game often requires a game composer to construct the harmonic progressions so that they can transition in several different optional directions — allowing the game engine to pick and choose depending on what’s happening in the game. To make this happen, the composer records the music in separate distinct segments, and the game engine picks and chooses the segments according to what’s happening during gameplay. It’s a complicated subject — I actually produced a series of four tutorial videos about it in connection with my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. Here’s the first video:

Question: I’m working on a retro shooter at the moment and I had an idea to do things that were constructed less from the perspective of whole pieces of music that would fade into one another, but rather as bite-sized function-focused chunks that would be triggered as players entered from one zone to another, confronted enemies, etc. My question for you has to do with interactivity of music and how you design your layers when constructing an adaptive score. Have you ever used level layout and player progress through a level as a way of dictating which layers are faded in/out? If so, are there any best practices you’ve come up with for the process?

Winifred Phillips: Sounds like you’re putting together either a Horizontal Resequencing system or a system based on the triggering of stingers — not sure which, but either choice is cool. Regarding the layering music system you described… I talk about Vertical Layering a bunch in my book. One of my first experiences with it was for The Maw video game from Twisted Pixel games. Level layout and player progress were both determining factors when making choices about where layers would be triggered and manipulated. The system had three layers of dynamic music per composition — a layer for slapstick situations, a layer for exploring, and a layer for special circumstances (like flying, fighting, or fire breathing). Depending on where the player was or what the player was doing, the layers would turn on and off or adjust their volume up and down. When I was planning out this system, I combed through the game for good triggering points and drew up a sort-of roadmap for the audio implementation at Twisted Pixel, so they’d know how the music should behave during gameplay. Here’s a video of some gameplay from The Maw:

 

Questions about the creative composition process for video game music

Question: What is your normal first step in creating a composition for a new project? Do you always approach things in a particular order or with a specific method? I’m interested to hear how your process begins for a new piece.

Winifred Phillips: Hey, what a fascinating question! My process for composition is going to depend a lot on the preferences of the development team. Their working method has a lot of influence over mine. They’ll tell me which tracks they want me to compose first. They’ll give me instruction about style. They’ll lay out preferences for the way they want the music to interact with gameplay. All of that has to come into consideration in my composition process. I want to make sure my music is serving their vision. Otherwise, my creative process tends to change with each project, depending on the nature of the music in question. Sometimes I plan things out very meticulously, so that I’ll have a very clear idea of what every instrument is doing right from my initial piano sketches. Other times, I just launch right in with instrumental experimentation, like a painter throwing paint on the canvas just to see what happens. It really depends on the nature of the project. 🙂

Question: Hi! How do you find inspiration for particular melodies/musical themes? Do you just fiddle around until there’s a lightbulb moment? Also, how much of a role do themes/leitmotifs play in game composition, because they can make or break films when applied incorrectly/inconsistently.

The cover of the book A Composer's Guide to Game Music, as discussed in this article written by popular game composer Winifred Phillips -- the article included excerpts from her recent Reddit Ask-Me-Anything that reached the Reddit front page, garnered Reddit's gold and platinum awards and received 14.8 thousand upvotes.Winifred Phillips: Hey, that’s a really good point! I spend a chapter of my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, on the importance of musical themes in games. I think that themes can play a pivotal role in helping gamers to fully appreciate a game’s narrative. They can also step forward and communicate important information to the player about what gameplay objectives to pursue, and what threats may exist. I try to compose musical themes for all my projects, but the importance of thematic content can hinge on how the development team feels about that idea. They may not be excited about themes, and that’s okay. Not every musical score needs to be highly melodic in order to be effective. But themes can be really powerful, so I always try to incorporate them. When I’m composing music for a game, I try to save the big story-driven moments for later in music production. I like to compose exploration and combat music first. These tracks give me lots of opportunity to experiment with themes. Inevitably, some themes will leap out and shine. I’ll use those themes in the narrative-driven parts of the game, associating them with characters and situations. This tends to bind the gameplay and the story together really nicely.

Question: I love leitmotifs and recurring themes in music, but there have been cases like on Yoshi’s Island 3ds where the same tune was used too much and the music became repetitive and annoying. How do you find the balance between underusing and overusing recurring themes and how many leitmotifs do usually use per game?

Winifred Phillips: You make a good point — repetition fatigue is a HUGE issue in our work as game composers. I talk about repetition fatigue repeatedly in my book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music (in chapters 4, 9, 10 and 12). Avoiding repetition fatigue is incredibly tricky. Regarding how many leitmotifs and recurring themes do I use… that varies per project. For instance, my music for the Speed Racer game only had a couple of recurring themes, but my music for Assassin’s Creed Liberation had -loads- of them. I think the depth and complexity of the narrative can exert an influence on how many leitmotifs and themes would work successfully. If the story has lots of characters and explores a lot of important issues and ideas, then it will probably be able to support a large assortment of themes. Otherwise, it might make more sense to use fewer themes and associate them with only the most important aspects of the game.

 

Advice for breaking into the industry as a young game composer

Question: Do you have any advice for a composer in college who’s just starting their career?

Illustration to support a discussion of opportunities for aspiring game composers in the university setting, from the article by game music composer Winifred Phillips -- the article includes excerpts from her recent Reddit Ask-Me-Anything that received Reddit's gold and platinum awards, received 14.8 thousand upvotes and reached the Reddit front page.Winifred Phillips: Thanks for the question. If you’re in a college with a game development program, my advice to you is to make friends with those student developers! Also, you can look into student competitions. There’s the Imagine Cup, the Independent Games Festival Student Showcase, and the Dare to be Digital “One to Watch” award from BAFTA. Those student teams are going to need a composer, and why shouldn’t that be you? You could connect with a student team at your college, or maybe do some internet networking to find a team at another college that might be in need of your help.

Question: There seem to be countless thousands of would-be game composers out there these days. What can any of us do to help our music (and ourselves!) stand out from the crowd?

Winifred Phillips: You’re right, there are a lot of aspiring game composers out there. In terms of what you can do to make your music stand out… that’s a hard question. There’s usually a lot of discussion about being ‘unique’ and ‘true to yourself’ and that’s all worthwhile. But I think it makes us feel like we have to put ourselves in a stylistic box, like sticking a label on our foreheads. Personally, I tend to resist that. If I enjoy a style of music, I want to be able to compose in that style. So my recommendation is to compose the music you -want- to compose, and make sure that it pleases you. Apart from that, I think the biggest secret to success here is hard-headed stubbornness. Just don’t give up. Keep plugging away. Move mountains. That kind of determination is the special sauce that gives successful composers longevity in this industry.

Question: After you’re in the Industry is it very competitive or is it a very niche market?

Winifred Phillips: Regarding how competitive the industry is… it’s -very- competitive. Not terribly niche at all. There are lots of film and tv composers filtering over into the games sector. All are welcome! But game music composition is really -hard- and I’m not sure composers for other media are always fully cognizant of this when they try to cross over into games. It’s a completely different art form, and the learning curve is steep.

 

Questions about the role and function of music in video games

Question: How much do you think music elevates a game’s storyboard? Movies are often times build around visuals and music but games on the other hand have so much to offer like visuals, gameplay, graphics, story. So was there a point in your work experience where you were came across certain story elements that demanded equal if not more justification for the scene through music? If so how did you.go about it?

The logo for the Dragon Front virtual reality game, as included in a discussion of the role music plays in cognitive function for gamers (from the article by popular video game composer Winifred Phillips) -- this accompanies excerpts from Phillips' recent Reddit Ask-Me-Anything that received 14.8 thousand upvotes, garnering Reddit's gold and platinum awards and reaching the Reddit front page.Winifred Phillips: I think that music can do a -lot- to elevate a gameplay experience, and it’s not just about the kind of emotional and atmospheric concerns that usually drive these decisions. In games, the experience of the audience is active rather than passive. Because of this, the music has a chance to actually infiltrate the player’s thought process and help shape some of the cognitive activities that are going on. I wrote a whole series of articles about this for Gamasutra. The articles were about how the music of Dragon Front interacted with the thought process of gamers. I called the article series, Video game composers can make you smarter! 🙂

Question: Is “distractiveness” an important aspect of your compositions?

Winifred Phillips: You make a good point. Music shouldn’t distract the player. There’s a careful balance to be maintained. If the music becomes a distraction, that’s a problem. However, if we overreact and make the music so bland that nobody would ever notice it or care about it… then that’s a problem too. Got to find a solution midway between the two extremes, I think.

 

Some technical questions

Question: Are there any technical limitations you have to consider when composing music for games? I know in the past technical limitations could have an effect on what was produced, have you found that to the be the case today?

Winifred Phillips: Interesting question! You’re right — in the past, there were some big technical limitations. Nowadays, that isn’t the case… but sometimes we face some technical obstacles. If we’re composing music for a game that’s trying to achieve a small memory footprint, there may be limits on how much memory is assigned to music at any given time. This may prevent the music from delving into more interactive constructs, wherein several music files might be playing simultaneous in synchronization. Since this would use more memory, it might not be a choice that’s available for every project.

Illustration of the music mixing process, as included in an article by popular game composer Winifred Phillips -- article includes excerpts from her recent Reddit Ask-Me-Anything that reached the Reddit front page, garnering Reddit's gold and platinum awards and receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes.Question: Do you do your own mixing for the music? If so, do you have any general tips regarding the mixing process?

Winifred Phillips: I do all my own mixing. In terms of general tips for the mixing process, I have a favorite mantra I repeat to myself during the mixing process. ‘Follow the lines.’ In music, there’s usually foreground content that gives the composition its shape. Whatever instrument is carrying this content has to receive top priority — it’s tracing the ‘line’ — creating the contours of the musical experience we want listeners to have. When I mix, I try to ‘follow the line,’ and emphasize whatever instruments are giving the music its shape and sense of movement. The line is often traded from instrument to instrument, so following the line becomes very important. In addition to that, I try to prioritize instruments according to their importance in the overall structure of the piece. As the composer, I have very definite ideas about what elements are most important in any ensemble I’m mixing, so I set level automation accordingly. This is one of the reasons why it’s great to be able to mix your own compositions.

Question: I’m curious how much you delve into synthesis for your projects?

Winifred Phillips: I’ll delve into synthesis from time to time, depending on the project. For the Speed Racer video game from Warner Bros. Interactive, I loaded my sound palette with a lot of synthetic sounds, and I tinkered a lot with them in order to achieve the distinctly analog/retro flavor that I wanted for that project. The whole aesthetic of Speed Racer is focused on a retro-futuristic vibe, so I wanted the music to reflect that as well. I also did some major synth tinkering for one of my latest projects, Sports Scramble for the Oculus Quest. It was fun trying to recreate the feel of those antique synths we remember from techno and hip-hop sports anthems (you can hear some of that in my music for the trailer). Really enjoyed that gig!

Question: Do you have any advice on making the most of limited resources? All I’m working with at the moment is a an iPhone, slightly older laptop, Reaper, some of my own instruments, a midi keyboard, and all the free plugins I can get. I’m an experienced musician and writer but I struggle to create something with a pleasing or professional sonic aesthetic. I worry that no matter how good the composition is, it won’t pass for anything usable. Thanks!

Winifred Phillips: I can absolutely sympathize — it’s hard to create the sound you’re dreaming about when your tools aren’t there yet. However, you might be able to restrict your sound to an electronic or even retro sound palette, and achieve some really satisfying results. What Koji Kondo taught us with Super Mario Bros. is that a fantastic musical theme can transcend the rudimentary instruments that are delivering that theme to our ears. There’s a whole movement in game development geared towards the nostalgia of early video games, complete with retro-styled soundtracks. Those games need composers that can discipline their composition style to function well with very limited tools, so that could be an avenue to explore.

Conclusion

That concludes these excerpted questions and answers from my viral Reddit Ask-Me-Anything.  The Reddit community was incredibly supportive, and I’m very grateful for their kindness and enthusiasm!  Many thanks to The MIT Press for arranging this Reddit AMA!  If you’d like to read more, the entire Reddit AMA is available to read on the Reddit Ask Me Anything page.

 
 

Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips, from the article about her recent popular Reddit Ask-Me-Anything that reached the Reddit front page, receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes and garnering Reddit's gold and platinum awards.Popular music from composer Winifred Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score will be performed live by a top 80-piece orchestra and choir as part of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which kicks 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, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims.  Phillips’ other notable projects include the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution, and numerous virtual reality games, including Sports Scramble, Audioshield, Scraper: First Strike, Dragon Front, and many more.  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. Phillips’ is a sought-after public speaker, and she has been invited to speak about her work as a game composer at the Library of Congress, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and many more.  Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

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:

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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.

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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!

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

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.

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Simultaneous Genres for the Game Music Composer

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.