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.