Characterization in trailers, cutscenes and cinematics (for the game music composer)

Photo of BAFTA-nominated composer Winifred Phillips at work in her music production studio. Phillips' projects include titles in six of gamings biggest franchises: God of War, Assassin's Creed, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, Lineage, and The Sims.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips thanks for joining us!  As we all know, dynamic music has become a central focus of our craft as game composers. In our past articles here, we tend to focus on the awesome power of dynamic implementation to increase the utility of game music across lengthy gameplay sequences.  In-game music serves many purposes, so it must morph and change in order to best accommodate shifting circumstances.  However, no matter how interactive our in-game tracks may be, we inevitably run into situations in which dynamic music systems fall short.

So today, we’ll be talking about those conditions in which only a linear approach will suffice.  We’ll be looking at trailers –  linear visual presentations that players experience outside of the context of the game.  We’ll also be considering cinematics and cutscenes, in which linear visual content is presented within the game itself.  Here’s how I described cinematics and cutscenes in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music:

The cover of the book A Composer's Guide to Game Music, written by video game composer Winifred Phillips and published by The MIT Press.

“Most of our work in video game music creation will be concerned with forms and structures that bear little similarity to the traditional composition undertaken by our counterparts in the fields of television and film. Cinematics and cut scenes, however, are very similar to scenes from a movie or television show, and thus offer us the chance to compose in a more conventional manner. We should seize these opportunities.

“Both cinematics and cut scenes are devoted solely to advancing the narrative. Because they traditionally happen in a fixed sequence that plays out on a set timetable, they can usually be scored just as a film is scored. Certain musical effects can be achieved only through traditional means, and the cinematic and cut scene track allows us the chance to employ them.”  Chapter 10, pg. 182

Creating music for a trailer, cinematic or cutscene is commonly referred to as “scoring-to-picture,” since the music is designed to sync directly with a series of events that doesn’t react to player input.  In the case of a trailer or a cinematic, the events are captured on video.  This makes the moniker “scoring-to-picture” a very literal one.

An illustration accompanying a discussion of linear music composition techniques for video game projects, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game composer).

As I observed in my book, the composition of such music bears strong similarities to the work of film and television composers.  On the surface this might sound like a simple adaptation for us.  However, as game composers, we’re essentially built differently.  Being a game composer necessitates a creative process and skillset that can be drastically different from the way other media composers work.  We’re used to thinking of our music as highly-flexible, capable of instantaneous variation, and structured around a multiplicity of component parts.  Because of this, when we move from dynamic techniques into a linear structure we might feel a bit restricted.  So let’s tackle this problem from our own unique vantage-point.  Since our emphasis during the creative process tends to lean towards goal-oriented outcomes, let’s consider some of the goals that linear music can achieve.

An illustration preceding a list of goals for linear music composition within video game projects, from the article by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips.

I’m going to be sharing some videos that include my own linear compositions for game trailers, cutscenes and cinematics.  I’ve arranged these videos according to a set of four goals:

  1. Characterization
  2. Information
  3. Identity
  4. Narrative

So let’s get started!

Characterization

When I was hired by Deep Silver Dambuster to join the music composition team for Homefront: The Revolution, my task was to focus almost exclusively on the cinematic music of the game.  Cinematics take agency completely away from the player in order to represent dramatic moments when critical objectives have been achieved.

A depiction of the logo to Homefront The Revolution, in a discussion of music techniques for cinematics from this video game project. The article is written by BAFTA-nominated video game composer Winifred Phillips.

The story of Homefront: The Revolution is told through cinematics.  The narrative follows a group of rag-tag revolutionaries from an alternate-history in which North Korea has occupied the United States and subjugated its people.  It was my job to find musical expression for those cinematic moments in which the efforts of the player had yielded big results.  It might be tempting to think of this as an opportunity to musically reward players, much in the way that a success stinger might be triggered during gameplay.  While a cinematic is often played as a reward for player progress, the world of Homefront: The Revolution presented such dark consequences for player actions that even successes could feel pretty bleak.  The cinematics in Homefront: The Revolution also tended to include intense character development and moments of human angst, affording players an opportunity to identify with both their own character and the non-player characters around them.

Image from the Homefront The Revolution video game, as included in a discussion of the cinematic music from this project. Article written by Winifred Phillips (video game composer).

In composing the music for the cinematics of Homefront: The Revolution, I concentrated on characterization as my top composition objective.  While I definitely wanted to support the kinetics of the on-screen action, my ulterior motive was to convey the confusion and horror happening within the characters’ minds.  Here’s an example of a cinematic in which the player character rescues a popular resistance leader who had been captured and tortured by the occupying force. Notice how the music leans towards horror techniques, particularly in the final standoff when the player desperately tries to get the prisoner to recognize him.

As you can see, music can move a cinematic beyond an objective presentation, giving us a view into the characters’ state of mind.  Now, for a vastly different approach to the same subject, let’s take a look at a cutscene from one of my VR projects, The Haunted Graveyard.

The official cover image for The Haunted Graveyard VR game, developed by Holospark. The music of this project was composed by video game composer Winifred Phillips.

A cutscene is similar to a cinematic, except that players still have the ability to look around and move somewhat freely.  Developed by Holospark, The Haunted Graveyard dropped players into an eerie cemetery filled with ghosts and supernatural creatures, and then challenged players to find a way out before midnight.  This VR game was certainly not as dark as Homefront: The Revolution.  In fact, The Haunted Graveyard conveyed a cheery spookiness akin to Disney’s famous haunted mansion.  That being said, the most compelling element of this virtual reality game was its astonishingly detailed characters (a feat that’s notoriously difficult to achieve in VR).  The expert team of developers at Holospark created a game engine able to render believable characters delivering convincing emotional performances, while also allowing the player to roam completely around those characters in virtual reality.  Players could view the massively detailed characters from every angle.  As a result, the characters in The Haunted Graveyard leapt out as its most compelling feature, so I knew it would be of great importance for my musical score to accentuate those characters as much as possible.

A depiction of characters from The Haunted Mansion video game, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game composer).

The video below is one of the cutscenes from The Haunted Graveyard.  In the cutscene, we meet the Caretaker – a mysterious ghostly figure in an elegant tuxedo.  While his manner is suave and detached, he’s clearly something other than human, and his dialogue resonates with portents of doom.  In composing for this cutscene, I made sure to give this character a very dramatic musical support, boosting his importance in the narrative and lending his spine-tingling dialogue some added weight and significance.

Now we’ve taken a look at how music can accentuate characters within linear constructs such as cutscenes and cinematics.  In the next article of this series, we’ll investigate how music can help players better comprehend the kind of information that these sorts of visual presentations are apt to convey.  Until then, thanks for reading!

 

This is a photo of game composer Winifred Phillips, working on her projects in her music production studio.Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer whose latest project is the Jurassic World Primal Ops video game (the official game of the blockbuster movie Jurassic World Dominion).  Other recent releases include the hit PlayStation 5 launch title Sackboy: A Big Adventure (soundtrack album now available).  Popular music from Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score was featured in the performance repertoire of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which made its Paris debut in 2019 with an 80-piece orchestra and choir. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in many of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: the list includes Assassin’s Creed, God of War, Total War, The Sims, and Sackboy / LittleBigPlanet.  Phillips’ has received numerous awards, including an Interactive Achievement Award / D.I.C.E. Award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, six Game Audio Network Guild Awards (including Music of the Year), and three Hollywood Music in Media Awards. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As one of the foremost authorities on music for interactive entertainment, Winifred Phillips has given lectures at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, and many more. Phillips’ enthusiastic fans showered her with questions during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session that went viral, hit the Reddit front page, received 14.9 thousand upvotes, and became one of the most popular gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit. An interview with her has been published as a part of the Routledge text, Women’s Music for the Screen: Diverse Narratives in Sound, which collects the viewpoints of the most esteemed female composers in film, television, and games.  Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Utility for Modular Game Music (Composing for Lineage M: GDC 2022)

In her music studio at Generations Productions, Winifred Phillips is pictured here composing music for her video game projects. Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer of music for games in the franchises God of War, Assassin's Creed, Total War, Lineage, LittleBigPlanet, and The Sims.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Welcome to the fifth and concluding installment in this article series based on my Game Developers Conference 2022 presentation, “Composing for Lineage M: Modular Construction in Game Music.”  You’ll find the entire contents of my GDC lecture in these articles, accompanied by all of the included videos and some of the images from the Powerpoint presentation I used during my conference session.

During the previous four articles in this series, we learned about how NCSoft ported the original world-famous Lineage PC game from 1998 to mobile devices under the name Lineage M.  We discussed how the launch of brand-new DLC content for this mobile port raised an unusual conundrum.  How does a modern game composer create new music that will work effectively within a game engine originally devised in the 1990s?  In the previous articles of this series, we discussed the popular DLC release of Lineage M: The Elmor, and I described what it was like creating new music for such an awesome game with an amazingly long history and enduring fanbase.

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Segmentation for Modular Game Music (Composing for Lineage M: GDC 2022)

Pictured working in her music studio at Generations Productions, As a video game composer, Winifred Phillips' credits include games in the franchises The Sims, Total War, Assassin's Creed, LittleBigPlanet, and God of War. In this photo, Phillips is pictured at work in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and this is the fourth article in my series based on my Game Developers Conference 2022 presentation, “Composing for Lineage M: Modular Construction in Game Music.”  I’ve included the content of my GDC lecture in these articles, along with the videos and some of the images I used in my Powerpoint presentation during the conference.

In the first three articles of this series, we discussed the port of the popular Lineage PC game from 1998 to mobile devices under the name Lineage M, and the subsequent launch of brand-new content for this world-famous game in the DLC release Lineage M: The Elmor.

This is an official promotional game image supporting a discussion of game music composition within a modular system, as described by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.

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Stemming for Modular Game Music (Composing for Lineage M: GDC 2022)

Video game composer Winifred Phillips was nominated for a BAFTA for her work composing music for the LittleBigPlanet franchise (other projects include games from the franchises Total War, The Sims, Assassin's Creed, and God of War). Phillips is pictured her working in her music production studio at Generations Productions LLC.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  I’m glad you’re here for this third article in my series based on my Game Developers Conference 2022 lecture, “Composing for Lineage M: Modular Construction in Game Music.” My GDC presentation explored the top creative and technical challenges of creating a flexible music system for a game with a retro design.  This article series shares most of the content of that GDC presentation, along with the videos I included in my presentation at the conference.

In the first two articles of this series, we explored the power and awesome popularity of retro gaming.  We reviewed the history of the world-famous Lineage video game franchise, including how the original Lineage PC game from 1998 found its way to modern mobile devices in 2017 under the name Lineage M.  I shared my experience as the chosen composer of the music for a new DLC release for Lineage M, and what it was like composing the first new gameplay music for the original Lineage MMORPG in over 24 years.

An official game logo and cover image, as included in the article written by video game composer Winifred Phillips.

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Structure for Modular Game Music (Composing for Lineage M: GDC 2022)

BAFTA-nominated video game composer Winifred Phillips is pictured here working in her music production studio at Generations Productions. Phillips' video game credits include music for games in the famous franchises Lineage, Total War, God of War, Assassin's Creed, LittleBigPlanet, and The Sims.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everybody!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Thanks for joining me for this second article in my series based on my Game Developers Conference 2022 lecture, “Composing for Lineage M: Modular Construction in Game Music.”  In my GDC presentation, I discussed my work composing music for a recent installment in the famous Lineage franchise (one of the most popular MMORPG game series ever made).  This article series will share the content of that GDC talk, along with the audiovisual samples I included in my presentation at the conference.

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Techniques for Modular Game Music (Composing for Lineage M: GDC 2022)

In the Generations Productions music studio, video game music composer Winifred Phillips is pictured here working on projects. Phillips is best known for composing music for games in the franchises Assassin's Creed, Total War, God of War, Lineage, The Sims, and LittleBigPlanet.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hello there!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  At the most recent Game Developers Conference, I was pleased to present a lecture as part of the conference’s audio track.  GDC is a top video game industry conference, packed with expert sessions supplemented by an array of awesome opportunities to network and learn.  Whenever I give a GDC presentation, I like to include the content of my lecture in my articles here, so I’m now kicking off a five-part series of articles based on my presentation in March!  In these articles, I’ve included the substance of my GDC presentation, along with most of the multimedia materials I used to illustrate concepts during my lecture.  So let’s get started!

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Hybrid Linear-Dynamic Music for Game Composers (From Spyder to Sackboy: GDC 2021)

This captured image from the GDC 2021 lecture of video game composer Winifred Phillips includes details of a discussion of the music of the video game Spyder.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’d like to welcome you to the sixth and final installment in my article series based on my GDC lecture – From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music!  Last year I had the privilege of working with Sumo Sheffield on music composition for two projects in simultaneous development – Sackboy: A Big Adventure for PS5/PS4, and Spyder for Apple Arcade. (Above you’ll see a photo from one of the sections of my GDC lecture in which I’m discussing the Spyder project).  Both the Sackboy and Spyder projects incorporated highly interactive music into their design.  While both projects included the basic dynamic models of horizontal and vertical structure, they each brought new twists and quirks to these ever-popular music implementation methods.  Since I spent a lot of time bouncing back and forth between the two projects, I got a chance to see how malleable interactive music systems can be when employed creatively.  Now, I’m glad to share my best experiences and observations creating music for these two awesome projects!

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Hybrid Dynamic-Diegetic Music for Game Music Composers (From Spyder to Sackboy: GDC 2021)

During the Game Developers Conference 2021, video game composer Winifred Phillips delivered a lecture that included a discussion of her music for two projects, including the project pictured here (Spyder for Apple Arcade).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hi!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Welcome to installment five in my series of articles based on my lecture, From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music.  In delivering my presentation at this year’s edition of the popular Game Developers Conference, I based my lecture content on my experiences composing music for two projects in simultaneous development at Sumo Sheffield – Sackboy: A Big Adventure for PS5/PS4, and Spyder for Apple Arcade.  (Above you’ll see a photo from one of the sections of my GDC 2021 lecture in which I’m discussing the Spyder project).  The music design for these two games included multiple dynamic systems that were both complex and ambitious in scope.  While they both relied on some of the most tried-and-tested strategies for musical interactivity, they were also quite innovative in their own distinctive ways.  While composing music for these projects, I had the opportunity to see how flexible dynamic music models can be.  I learned a lot from the experience, and it was really interesting to explore the similarities and differences during my GDC 2021 lecture!

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Hybrid Horizontal-Vertical Structure for Video Game Composers (From Spyder to Sackboy: GDC 2021)

This screen from the GDC 2021 lecture of video game composer Winifred Phillips was taken during the discussion of how success is recognized by the dynamic music system.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m very happy you’ve joined us for this latest entry in my series of articles for video game composers, based on the lecture I gave during the Game Developers Conference 2021 – From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music!  Over the previous year, I had the privilege of working with the expert development team at Sumo Sheffield on music composition for two fantastic projects – Sackboy: A Big Adventure for PS5/PS4, and Spyder for Apple Arcade.  (Above you’ll see a photo from one of the sections of my GDC 2021 lecture in which I’m discussing the Sackboy project).

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Pure Vertical Layering for Game Music Composers (From Spyder to Sackboy: GDC 2021)

This image is captured from the GDC 2021 presentation of award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’d like to welcome you to the continuation of this series of articles based on my lecture from GDC 2021 – From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music!  Using the example of two of my projects from the previous year, I explored the contrasting models of dynamic music design employed in two games –  Sackboy: A Big Adventure for PS5/PS4, and Spyder for Apple Arcade.  (Above you’ll see a photo from one of the sections of my GDC 2021 lecture in which I’m discussing the Spyder project).  Both Spyder and Sackboy were developed by Sumo Sheffield and featured whimsical characters and situations.  Each of the two projects had a long list of music requirements and strategies that were dramatically different.  In composing music for these two games, I learned a lot about the flexibility of dynamic music systems.  Since I worked on music for both games simultaneously, it was fascinating to make comparisons between the two projects after the fact.  Preparing my GDC presentation became an exercise in understanding how flexible video game music can be.  If you haven’t had a chance to read the previous two installments of this series, you can read first about Horizontal Resequencing and Song Structure, and then Horizontal Resequencing & Dynamic Transitions.

As we discussed in the previous article, interactive music design is highly contextual. The circumstances dictate our choices.  No single method can be considered the best way, or the right way. Working on these two projects at the same time, I came across this idea over and over again.  

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