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.

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.”

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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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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.”

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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).

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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:

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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.

LittleBigPlanet 3 and Beyond: Taking Your Score to Vertical Extremes

1st-Slide_FF-and-LBP-session

Yesterday I shared some info about my upcoming Audio Bootcamp presentation on Tuesday March 3rd at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco — and today I’d like to share some information about the second presentation I’ll be giving during the main conference. On Friday, March 6th at 10am, I’ll be giving an Audio Track presentation at the Game Developers Conference – I’ll have the pleasure of talking about the interactive music system of the LittleBigPlanet franchise.  Here is the official description of my conference session from the GDC 2015 Schedule:

SackNotes

“LittleBigPlanet 3 and Beyond: Taking Your Score to Vertical Extremes” presents down-to-earth strategies for the design and utilization of a vertical layering music system. Composer Winifred Phillips’ credits include six LittleBigPlanet games (LittleBigPlanet 3, LittleBigPlanet 2, LittleBigPlanet Vita, LittleBigPlanet Cross Controller, LittleBigPlanet Karting, LittleBigPlanet Toy Story). Phillips will discuss her music from the LittleBigPlanet franchise — a series that features one of the most complex vertical layering systems in the field of game audio. Intense challenges often lead to inventive solutions. By virtue of the extreme example embodied by the LittleBigPlanet system, Phillips will share the simple approaches that solved some of the common problems associated with vertical construction. This discussion will be augmented by musical examples from a dozen interactive compositions that Phillips created for LittleBigPlanet games. Attendees will learn techniques to avoid problems in any vertical layering system, regardless of whether that system is simple or extreme.

Takeaway

Through detailed examples from the LittleBigPlanet franchise, Phillips will provide a step-by-step analysis of the process that resulted in a tightly-constructed, six-layer interactive music system. This discussion will provide attendees with practical knowledge that can be applied to their own projects.

Intended Audience

This session is for anyone interested in game scoring, interactive music systems and game music implementation strategies. Simple approaches to vertical layering will be accessible to attendees at all levels, while more advanced attendees will appreciate the innovative solutions applied to the complex vertical music system of the LittleBigPlanet franchise.

So, if you’ll be attending GDC in San Francisco on March the 6th, I hope you’ll come to my session!

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Inside the World of Game Music: A Society of Composers & Lyricists Seminar

SCL-GameMusic-Jan2015

I’m happy to announce that I’ll be speaking in New York City on a panel entitled “Inside the World of Game Music.”  The event is hosted by the Society of Composers & Lyricists, and moderated the distinguished NY SCL Steering Committee member Elizabeth Rose.

The panel will consist of myself and game composer Tom Salta, well known for his work on the Ghost Recon and H.A.W.X. series of games.  We’ll be talking about our creative process as game composers.  Here’s the official description of the seminar from the event’s web site:

These days, many top music composers who have been scoring film and TV are lending their talents to our newest media: video games. Using everything from full orchestras to digital instruments, this is a fascinating new creative field which turns the rules of composing sideways. Video games have earned more in revenue than film and TV combined, according to some reports. It is a bright, highly creative and competitive field. Please join us for this entertaining panel led by two of our most successful game composers who will demonstrate how they make musical magic happen in this fascinating “one-click” digital world.

Hosted by the New York chapter of the Society of Composers & Lyricists, this event is part of their ongoing seminar series.  As an organization that supports and champions the interests of music creators, the society offers lots of informational resources that delve into the creative and business aspects of writing music and lyrics for film and television.  They also make efforts to improve workplace and working conditions for their members, encourage a sense of community through the establishment of online forums, and proactively reach out to producers to facilitate productive communication and collaboration with the society’s members.

In 2008, the Society of Composers & Lyricists released a short video describing the mission of the organization.  Here is television composer Dan Foliart, describing the society in his own words when he was the president of the organization:

It’s an honor to participate in the SCL’s seminar series and speak about game music to the New York Chapter!  The event will take place on February 9th, starting at 6:30pm.  If you’d like to attend, you can register here.