Composing video game music to build suspense, part 4: drones of dread

Winifred Phillips, video game music composer, at work in her studio on the music of the original God of War.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome to the fourth installment of my five-part article series discussing music composition techniques that heighten tension and suspense for video game projects.  These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  If you haven’t read the previous three articles, you’ll find them here:

Before we move on to the next music composition technique in our suspense-building arsenal, I’d like to briefly revisit a video game project we discussed in our last article; the popular Dragon Front VR game for the Oculus Rift, developed by High Voltage Software.

From the article by game composer Winifred Phillips - illustration of the logo for the Dragon Front game for Oculus Rift VR.As we mentioned in the last article, the video game music I composed for Dragon Front included some creepy tone clusters and dissonant swells that were designed to keep the player on edge during gameplay. While these type of techniques can be powerfully effective, serving as top suspense-enhancing tools for video game composers, we have to be particularly cautious when it comes to music for a virtual reality project.

VR considerations

Like all elements of a VR experience, music has the responsibility to help players remain at their most comfortable as they navigate the virtual world. So, while we can compose music that’s great at creating a disturbing atmosphere, we have to be careful that we aren’t agitating players enough to exacerbate VIMS – visually induced motion sickness.

From game composer Winifred Phillips' article - an illustration of the low frequency noise that may exacerbate Visually Induced Motion Sickness (VIMS).While music has never been shown to have any causal relationship with VIMS, we do have some interesting research from expert noise researcher Hylton Dawson, a one-time director of Environmental Protection UK.  In the 1960s, Dawson worked with the Gas Turbine Collaboration Committee.  Later, in 1982, Dawson wrote a paper for The Journal of Low Frequency Noise and Vibration, showing that continuous, unbroken infrasound – low frequency sound such as that generated by gas turbines – can potentially induce those feelings of dizziness associated with VIMS. With that in mind, we might be best served by saving this next musical technique for projects that aren’t designed for VR:

The Drones of Dread technique

The Drones of Dread technique is such an iconic tool of audio suspense that it has its own article on the TV Tropes website – that awesome compendium of techniques and concepts that have permeated popular culture.  According to TV Tropes, a good suspenseful ‘drone of dread’ consists of “sustained, continuous sound,” which is particularly effective if it uses infrasound, defined as “sound pitched so low that it’s just barely above the human threshold of hearing.”

As we mentioned before, infrasound has the ability to make listeners nervous and physically uncomfortable. In the journal Science, engineer and audio researcher Vic Tandy tells us that “infrasound triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response.”

From video game composer Winifred Phillips' article - an illustration for a discussion of the role of infrasound in the physiological symptoms associated with places reported to be haunted.Tandy has investigated the role that infrasound may play in creating the physical symptoms associated with places that are supposedly haunted by ghostly apparitions.  As a part of his research, Tandy has observed a correlation between low frequency vibrations and the psychological unease associated with hauntings, along with such physical symptoms as hair rising on the back of the neck, the notorious drop in body temperature, and even some shimmering visual effects (caused by low frequencies vibrating the eyeball).

So, if low frequencies can bring about such dramatic physical and psychological reactions, how can we game composers employ low drones to instill the same kind of nervous energy in our compositions?

Example: God of War

From the article by game composer Winifred Phillips, this illustration depicts the logo of the original God of War video game.

In my music for the famous God of War video game from Sony Computer Entertainment America, I wrote atmospheric tracks that included those unnerving low drones of dread. Here’s an example, from music I composed for the Challenge of Hades sequence of the God of War video game. Notice the pervasive and continuous low frequencies that form the backbone of the musical structure in this piece:

Conclusion

This concludes part four of this five part series based on my GDC 2017 talk, “Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.”  In part five we’ll wrap up this discussion by tackling the “Semi-Silence” technique, including examples of my music from The Da Vinci Code and Homefront: The Revolution video games.  In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio.Winifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Video game composers can make you smarter! (The music of Dragon Front) Pt. 3

Winifred Phillips, video game music composer, pictured at the GDC 2016 display for the Dragon Front virtual reality game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome to the third (and final) article in this three-part discussion of how video game composers (like us) can make strategy gamers smarter!  We’ve been exploring the best ways that the music of game composers can help strategy gamers to better concentrate while making more sound tactical decisions. During this discussion, I’ve shared my personal perspective as the composer for the popular Dragon Front strategy game for VR.

In part one, we discussed the concept of ‘music-message congruency,’ so if you haven’t read that article yet, you can read it here.  In part two, we explored the meaning of ‘cognition-enhancing tempo’ – you can read that article here.  Please make sure to read both those articles first and then come back.

Are you back?  Awesome!  Let’s launch into a discussion of the third technique for increasing the smarts of strategy gamers!

Tension-regulating affect

From the article by game composer Winifred Phillips, an illustration of 'psychological affect.'In psychology, the term ‘affect’ refers to emotion, particularly in terms of the way in which such emotional content is displayed.  Whether by visual or aural means, an emotion can not be shared without some kind of ‘affect’ that serves as its mode of communication from one person to another.  When we’re happy, we smile.  When we’re angry, we frown.

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Video game composers can make you smarter! (The music of Dragon Front) Pt. 2

Pictured: Winifred Phillips (video game music composer) in her studio working on the music of the Dragon Front virtual reality game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our three-part discussion of how video game composers (such as ourselves) can make strategy gamers smarter!  In these articles, we’re looking at ways in which our music can enhance concentration and tactical decision-making for players engrossed in strategic gameplay.  Along the way, I’ve been sharing my personal experiences as the composer for the Dragon Front strategy game for virtual reality.  Over the course of these articles we’ll be covering three of the top concepts that pertain to the relationship between music and concentration.  In part one, we discussed the concept of ‘music-message congruency,’ so if you haven’t read that article yet, please go check it out and then come back.

Are you back now?  Good!  Let’s move on to the second big technique for increasing the smarts of strategy gamers!

Cognition-enhancing tempo

As video game composers, we create music in a wide variety of tempos designed to support the energy of play and the pacing of the game’s overall design.  From leisurely tracks that accompany unstructured exploration to frenetic pieces that support the most high-stakes combat, our music is planned with expert precision to shape the excitement level of players and keep them motivated as they progress.

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Video game composers can make you smarter! (The music of Dragon Front) Pt. 1

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music studio working on the original score for the Dragon Front virtual reality game.

Can video game composers make you smarter?  Well, video gaming can be a pretty cerebral activity, requiring astute problem-solving skills and disciplined concentration in order to excel.  That’s especially true for any game built around strategic and/or tactical gameplay, such as real-time or turn-based strategy, tactical shooters, multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs), and online collectible card strategy games.  To succeed in these types of games, players must assess the current situation and formulate a plan that accounts for future developments and variables.  Without this type of tactical forward-thinking gameplay, a gamer has little chance to win.  So, can music enable gamers to think tactically, stay focused and make smart decisions?  Over the next three articles, I’ll try to answer that question, while exploring the role of music in enhancing the concentration of strategic/tactical gamers.

Along the way, we’ll be taking a look at some scholarly research on the subject, consulting the opinions of experts, and I’ll be sharing my experiences creating the music for the recently released Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage software.  We’ll check out some music tracks I composed for the popular Dragon Front game (pictured at the top of this article), and we’ll discuss methods for supporting and enhancing concentration for strategic/tactical game players.  But first, let’s take a closer look at the Dragon Front game.

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Video Game Music Composer: Music and Sound in VR Headphones (Part Two)

Photo of game composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio, from the article "Video Game Music Composer: Music and Sound in VR Headphones (Part Two)"My work as a video game composer has lately included some projects for virtual reality games (more info on that in the coming months), and as a result I’ve been thinking a lot about the awesome potential of VR, and have also been writing lots of articles on the subject.  Earlier this month I began a two-part article that focuses on the experience of the end user, and the gear with which they’ll be enjoying our video game music and audio content (you can read part one here). So, let’s now continue our discussion about the new generation of headphones designed specifically for VR!

In this article, we’ll be discussing two headphone models:

  • Entrim 4D
  • Plantronics RIG 4VR

So let’s get underway!

Entrim 4D headphones

Photo of the Entrim 4D, from the VR headphones article by Winifred Phillips (award-winning game music composer)This March at the famous SXSW convention in Austin, Samsung showed off a piece of experimental technology promising to bring a new dimension of immersion to virtual reality.  It’s designed specifically to complement their popular Samsung Gear VR device, and it works by virtue of electrodes that send electrical signals right into the wearer’s head!  As if virtual reality itself weren’t futuristic enough, now we’re talking about a device that zaps us to make the VR feel more real!  It’s called Entrim 4D (pictured right).  We’re talking about it here because (among other things) Entrim 4D is a pair of audio headphones built specifically for VR.

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VR Game Composer: Music in the Air

Illustration for the article by game music composer Winifred Phillips, entitled "VR Game Composer: Music in the Air"Since I’ve been working recently on music for a Virtual Reality project (more info in the coming months), I’ve been thinking a lot about VR technology and its effect on the creative process.  Certainly, VR is going to be a great environment in which to be creative and perform tasks and skills with enhanced focus, according to this article from the VR site SingularityHub.  I’ve written in this blog before about the role that music and sound will play in the Virtual Reality gaming experience.  It’s clear that music will have an impact on the way in which we experience VR, not only during gaming experiences, but also when using the tools of VR to create and be productive.  With that in mind, let’s consider if the opposite statement may also be true – will VR impact the way in which we experience music, not only as listeners, but also as video game composers?

Game composer Winifred Phillips tries out the VR experience of Google Cardboard (pictured here in her music production studio).Simple VR technologies like the popular Google Cardboard headset can be a lot of fun – as I personally experienced recently (photo to the left).  However, they offer only the rudimentary visual aspects, which omits some of the most compelling aspects of the VR experience.  When motion tracking (beyond simple head movement) is added to the mix, the potential of VR explodes.  Over the next three articles, we’ll be exploring some interesting possibilities created by the motion tracking capabilities of VR, and how this might alter our creative process.  In the first article, we’ll have some fun exploring new ways to play air guitars and air drums in the VR environment. In the second article, we’ll take a look at ways to control virtual instruments and sound modules that are folded into the VR software.  And finally, in the third article we’ll explore the ways in which VR motion tracking is allowing us to immersively control our existing real-world instruments using MIDI. But first, let’s take a look at the early days of VR musical technology!

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