Variation for the video game composer: the music of Little Lords of Twilight

Pictured: video game music composer Winifred Phillips at the BKOM booth during GDC 2017.

Since one of my most recent projects, Little Lords of Twilight, became available worldwide earlier this year and was recently greenlit on the famous Steam platform, I thought I’d write this article to share some of my creative and technical process in composing the music for this game. In particular, this project presents a great opportunity to look at how compositional variation (as we understand it from music theory) can be useful for the structure of interactive music.

Developed by BKOM Studios, Little Lords of Twilight won a Best in Play Award at GDC 2017, a Best Designed Mobile App Platinum Award from the BMA Awards, a Communicator Award for Best Mobile App, and has appeared on numerous “Best of” lists, including those published by PocketGamer, Explore Gadgets, and GameInOnline.  As a player-versus-player turn-based strategy game, Little Lords of Twilight offers a unique gameplay mechanic influenced by the in-game passage of time.  Day and night cycles dramatically alter your character’s appearance and abilities. Depending on whether it is currently day or night in the game, your character will have access to a completely different complement of awesome skills and spells to wield on the battlefield.

An illustration of the Little Lords of Twilight video game, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.I first encountered Little Lords of Twilight on the show floor of the popular Electronic Entertainment Expo last year. After being thoroughly charmed by the game’s art style and intrigued by its mechanics, I had the chance to meet with the BKOM Studios representative at the booth and talk about music needs for the game.  The timing couldn’t have been better.  That initial conversation led to more in-depth talks with more members of the development team over the ensuing weeks, and I was subsequently hired to create the music of the Little Lords of Twilight game. So, I suppose the lesson here is that we game composers can never be sure when opportunity will present itself, but the E3 convention seems to be a good place to go looking for it!

Pictured: an illustration from the Little Lords of Twilight video game, from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.The expert development team of Little Lords of Twilight were interested in a musical style that would feel simultaneously adventurous, whimsical and sinister.  So, let’s first listen to my Little Lords of Twilight main theme music, which was designed to express the musical style of the game as succinctly and iconically as possible.  Here’s a video that shows how a player encounters the main theme music while navigating the game’s menu system. Notice the whimsical celeste and glockenspiel on top, the adventurous orchestral strings and brass underneath, and the darkly sinister timpani, theremin and sound design rounding out the mix.

While the main theme sets the general mood of the game, the atmosphere of the gameplay in Little Lords of Twilight is much more intense and determined.  To get a sense of how gameplay proceeds, here’s the trailer for Little Lords of Twilight, featuring music I composed for the game:

You’ll notice that the trailer highlights the game’s most distinguishing play mechanic – the power of day and night to bring about change in the characters’ appearances and abilities.  For most of the pieces I composed for Little Lords of Twilight, I was asked to musically execute this abstract idea of fundamental change between the innate nature of day and night in the game’s magical world.  The interactive music system of Little Lords of Twilight hinged on the changeover from day into night and vice versa.  The music for these two gameplay states needed to transition well into each other, and yet convey distinctly different atmospheres.  Let’s take a look at a couple of levels from the Little Lords of Twilight game to see how this worked.

Day and night in the forest

The music of the forest in the daytime is driven by a moderate tempo and a 3/4 time signature that gives the music its whimsical touch, accented by plentiful bells and harps to further enhance the effect.  The string section states a repeating rhythmic motive right from the start and continues to emphasize this same pattern throughout the piece.  The composition goes through several melodic sections with chord progressions that create forward momentum from one musical idea to the next.  When I was composing this track for Forest Day, I had in my mind that for the Forest Night track, I wanted to use a recognizably familiar variation on the same rhythmic motive, along with variations on melodic sections and chord progressions that had already been heard in Forest Day.  However, it was very important that the contrast between the two tracks made itself readily apparent to the listener.  Let’s first listen to the Forest Day track in its entirety:

Now, let’s turn our attention to Forest Night.  Unlike Forest Day, the music for Forest Night is in the common time signature, although the tempo is still moderately paced.  Xylophone, theremin and frequent tremolo strings emphasize the sinister, gothic nature of nighttime in Little Lords of Twilight. Listening carefully, however, we’ll notice that variations on the same rhythmic motives, melodic sections and chord progressions from Forest Day are present in the compositional structure of Forest Night.  These elements also occur in the same order in which they previously appeared during the daytime music.  Let’s now listen to the Forest Night track:

Okay, so we’ve listened to the two tracks.  Now let’s see how they worked in the game.  Notice the transition from day to night at 0:26 seconds:

Let’s now see how this same principle worked in a very different level of the Little Lords of Twilight game.

Day and night in the Underground

By the time the player has reached the Underground, the intensity of gameplay has increased considerably, and the music also grows more correspondingly anxious.  Like the music for Forest Day, the music for Underground Day incorporates a meter and rhythm that focuses on threes.  In the forest, the music is written in a classic waltz-like triple meter (3/4).  In the Underground, however, the music is written in an unusual compound meter, in which there are nine beats per measure, with each beat divided into three parts.  The bassline in this track is the most characteristically iconic element of the music, with its insistently repetitive structure creating the forward momentum of the track.  This momentum builds towards a chord modulation in a new section midway through, which also introduces a plaintive high-pitched melody line.  When composing this track for Underground Day, I knew it would be important to retain all of these musical elements in the nighttime track and execute them in a way that created contrast while still retaining familiarity.  So let’s listen first to the Underground Day track:

For Underground Night, I retained the focus on nine beats per measure, although the compound meter is now simplified to a more traditional rhythmic structure (each beat divided into two parts rather than three).  The tempo in Underground Night is now greatly accelerated, which helps to indicate the higher stakes of gameplay at this point in the game.  Despite these differences, we’ll notice that the same bassline from Underground Day is now forming the backbone of Underground Night, along with a melody line that is a variation and development of the plaintive melody from Underground Day.  Let’s listen to how these elements worked together in the music for Underground Night:

Finally, let’s see how both of these tracks worked in the game.  As sometimes happens in the game, in this video you’ll notice that gameplay begins in the nighttime state, and then transitions into day.  Notice the transition from night to day that occurs at 0:32:

Conclusion

In this article, we’ve explored how musical variation can be used to make interactive music transitions more impactful, while still retaining a distinct musical identity for specific locations within a game.  I hope you’ve found this discussion of the music of Little Lords of Twilight interesting!  Thanks for reading, and please let me know 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 projects include the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution and the Dragon Front game for Oculus VR. Her credits include games in 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.

Composing video game music to build suspense, part 5: semi silence

Winifred Phillips - video game music composer - working on the music of The Da Vinci Code video game in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of my five-part article series on music composition techniques for stimulating tension and suspense in video games.  These articles are based on the presentation I gave this year at the popular Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  If you haven’t yet read the previous four articles, you’ll find them here:

Now that we’ve considered the power of Ominous Ambiences, Jarring Jolts, Creepy Clusters, and Drones of Dread, let’s take a look at the last item on our list of suspenseful music composition techniques – Semi Silence.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Composing video game music to build suspense, part 3: creepy clusters

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

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our five part discussion of the role that video game music can play in enhancing tension and promoting suspenseful gameplay!  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 two articles, you’ll find them here:

So, now that we’ve discussed ominous atmospheres and jarring jolts, let’s look at the next technique in our arsenal:

The Creepy Cluster technique

From game composer Winifred Phillips' article on suspenseful game music - an illustration of the 'clusters' technique.As we know, tone clusters are collections of notes packed together to produce unnerving dissonant effects. While it might seem like any cat can walk across a piano and produce unpleasant clusters, well-executed dissonance is actually one of the trickiest techniques we can employ.  It’s tremendously potent when used with expert precision.

Why do human beings respond so intensely to dissonance? Professor Michael Epstein of Northeastern University’s Auditory Modeling and Processing Lab has devoted over 20 years of expert research into why certain sounds have the power to instantly incite and deepen fear in listeners.  He tells Boston Magazine that “common musical intervals, changed slightly to create dissonance, are immediately disconcerting.” According to Epstein, “very precise noises trigger human fear and discomfort.”

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, now in Japanese!

 

A Composer's Guide to Game Music by Winifred Phillips, now on sale in Japanese! Published by O'Reilly Japan.

A Composer’s Guide to Game Music by Winifred Phillips, now on sale in Japanese!  Published by O’Reilly Japan.

I’m excited to share that my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, was released today in Japan in its newly-published Japanese-language edition!  O’Reilly Japan has published the Japanese softcover of my book in Japan under the title, “Game Sound Production Guide: Composer Techniques for Interactive Music.”

This is the Japanese cover of the book. In Japanese, A Composer's Guide to Game Music is titled "Game sound production guide - composer techniques for interactive music," by Winifred Phillips.

Side-by-side, these are the covers of the two editions of the book. In Japanese, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music is titled “Game sound production guide – composer techniques for interactive music,” by Winifred Phillips.

I’m very excited that the Japanese language edition of my book has already hit #1 on the “Most Wished For” list on Amazon Japan!

The Amazon Japan "Most Wished For" list.

The “Most Wished For” list on Amazon.co.jp.

Coincidentally, the English-language version of A Composer’s Guide to Game Music is now #1 on the Kindle Top Rated list, too!

The Kindle "Top Rated" list on Amazon.com.

The Kindle “Top Rated” list on Amazon.com.

O’Reilly Japan is located in Tokyo, and is dedicated to translating books about technological innovation for Japanese readers.  They are a division of O’Reilly Media, a California publishing company that acts as “a chronicler and catalyst of leading-edge development, homing in on the technology trends that really matter and galvanizing their adoption by amplifying “faint signals” from the alpha geeks who are creating the future.  O’Reilly publishes definitive books on computer technologies for developers, administrators, and users. Bestselling series include the legendary “animal books,” Missing Manuals, Hacks, and Head First.”

oreilly

From what I’ve gathered, my book – A Composer’s Guide to Game Music – is the first English language book about game music to be translated into Japanese and sold in Japan.  There are a few other books available in Japan on the subject – but they were all originally written in Japanese.  These include a book exploring game sound by the audio hardware designer and sound developer Shiomi Toshiyukia text on creating sound for games with the CRI ADX2 middleware by Uchida Tomoya, and a book on producing game music and sound design by the artist “polymoog” of the dance music duo ELEKETL (pictured below, from left to right).

books-ama-jp

I’m tremendously excited about the Japanese edition of my book, and my excitement comes in large part from the venerable tradition of outstanding music in Japanese games.  From the most celebrated classic scores of such top game composers as Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros.) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy), to the excellent modern scores of such popular composers as Masato Kouda (Monster Hunter) and Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts), Japanese video game composers have set the creative bar very high.  I’m incredibly honored that my book will be read by both established and aspiring game composers in Japan!  I hope they’ll find some helpful information in my book, and I’m excited to contribute to the ongoing conversation about game music in the Japanese development community.

I’ve always loved Japanese game music.  In 2008, I participated in a compilation album in which successful game composers created cover versions of celebrated video game songs from classic games.  The album was called “Best of the Best: A Tribute to Game Music.”  I chose the music by Koji Kondo from Super Mario Bros., and recorded an a cappella vocal version.  It’s currently available for sale from the Sumthing Else Music Works record label, and can also be downloaded on iTunes.  You can hear the track on YouTube here:

If you’d like to learn more about the rich legacy of game music composition in Japan, you can watch an awesome free documentary series produced by the Red Bull Music Academy, entitled “Diggin’ in the Carts: A Documentary Series About Japanese Video Game Music.”  The series interviews famous game composers of Japan, which means that the interviews and narration are both in Japanese (with English subtitles).  Here’s an episode that focuses on modern accomplishments by Japanese game composers:

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.