Composer Interview: GDC Showcase Game Music Q&A

Pictured: video game music composer Winifred Phillips, at the Moscone Center in San Francisco giving her GDC speech. This photo is included in the article about the GDC Showcase event in 2021.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

This March, the GDC held their first-ever Showcase event.  This online gathering provided the game development community a chance to get together and share expert knowledge in the time window usually occupied by the full-fledged Game Developer Conference in San Francisco.  Completely free of charge, this event featured talks fromThis image includes the time and place details for the GDC Showcase lecture, Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense, given by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips. the GDC Vault: a repository of lecture videos from the long history of the conference.  During Showcase week, GDC curated a selection of lectures from their illustrious history and spotlighted those talks in live-streams accompanied by enthusiastic text discussions in an accompanying chat box.  One of my lectures from a previous GDC event was featured during this GDC Showcase, and I was happy to participate in the chat discussion, answering questions and providing additional resources.  My lecture was entitled, “Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense,” and you can watch the entire video of my lecture for free at this link in the GDC Vault.

While the videos remain a part of the GDC Vault, those chat discussions from GDC Showcase are no longer available in any form.  I found the chat conversation during my lecture session to be lively, intelligent and tremendously worthwhile, so I preserved the text of the discussion and I’d like to share portions of it here. As we all know, these sorts of text-chat discussions don’t really allow for lengthy answers, and often the questions fly by so fast that there’s little time to elaborate on ideas.  With that in mind, I thought I’d expand on some of the topics brought up during my GDC Showcase session.  You’ll see that I’ve organized this article under topic headings, quoting the original chat excerpts and then adding a few additional thoughts to flesh things out.

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Game Composers and the Importance of Themes: Recurrence and Rationale in Game Music (Pt. 4)

Photo of composer Winifred Phillips at work in her music production studio at Generations Productions. Phillips' work includes several famous and popular games and game franchises, including God of War, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, Assassin's Creed, and The Sims.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and welcome to the fourth installment of my five article series based on the presentation I gave this past March at the first-ever completely online Game Developers Conference!  My talk was titled “From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes” (you’ll find the official description of my talk at the end of this article).  In my presentation, I explored the thematic content in music I composed for several top video game projects, including Assassin’s Creed Liberation (Ubisoft), God of War (Sony Interactive America), LittleBigPlanet (Sony Interactive Europe), Homefront: The Revolution (Deep Silver), Speed Racer (Warner Bros Interactive), Spore Hero (Electronic Arts), and The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes (Wild River).

If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, you can find them here:

In the last article, we discussed theme fragmentation and variation.  So now let’s consider how themes can best enhance different types of gameplay.

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Variation and Fragmentation in Game Music: Game Composers and the Importance of Themes (Pt. 3)

This is a photo of composer Winifred Phillips in her production studio at Generations Productions. Phillips is known for her music for several well known games and game franchises, including LittleBigPlanet, God of War, Total War, Assassin's Creed, and The Sims.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hi!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and welcome to the third installment of my five article series based on the presentation I gave at this year’s online Game Developers Conference that took place this past March.  My talk was entitled “From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes” (I’ve included the official description of my talk at the end of this article).  In my presentation, I discussed the music I composed for several video game projects, including Assassin’s Creed Liberation (Ubisoft), God of War (Sony Interactive America), LittleBigPlanet (Sony Interactive Europe), Homefront: The Revolution (Deep Silver), Speed Racer (Warner Bros Interactive), Spore Hero (Electronic Arts), and The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes (Wild River).

In the last article, we took a look at how thematic material was employed in subtle ways within two of my video game projects – Assassin’s Creed Liberation and Homefront: The Revolution.  We considered how repetition can reinforce the significance of musical themes, particularly when they are associated with specific narrative ideas, and we talked about how repetition can work to make musical themes memorable and meaningful.  But we all know that repetition can get stale if we don’t approach it creatively.  So that brings us now to the topic of variation – how to keep themes feeling fresh.

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Composing Iconic Theme Music for The Dark Eye video game

This photo shows video game composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio on music for the latest game in The Dark Eye franchise. Phillips has composed music for titles in five of the most popular franchises in gaming (Assassin's Creed, God of War, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, The Sims).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips.  Today I’d like to share some news about one of my latest projects as a video game composer: the newest installment in an internationally-acclaimed fantasy RPG franchise known as The Dark Eye.  During our discussion, we’ll break down the structure of one of the most important pieces of music I composed for that game.

The latest entry in the award-winning Dark Eye video game franchise will be released this coming Spring 2020 under the title The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes.  Before we begin discussing this project and one of the pieces of music I composed for it, let’s take a look at the announcement trailer that was recently released by the publisher Ulisses Games.  The trailer prominently features a sizable portion of the main theme I composed for the game:

As you can see from the gameplay captured in the trailer, The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes is an isometric real-time roleplaying game.  The developers have compared the gameplay of Book of Heroes to top RPG games from the classic era like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights.  The game offers both solo missions and cooperative adventures designed for up to four players.  Most importantly, the developers stress in an interview that their game will be faithful to the awesome fantasy world of the renowned RPG franchise – it will be “the most Dark Eye game ever.”  Composing a main theme is a heavy responsibility, since main theme tracks tend to be regarded as especially important in a composer’s body of work.  Just this week (Nov. 9th) I was interviewed on the Sound Of Gaming radio show on BBC Radio 3, and the main theme for The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes premiered on this broadcast, spotlighting my work as a game composer.  The entire show is available to listen at this link from now until Dec. 8th.  A main theme is not only a prominent showcase of a composer’s abilities, but also serves a crucial function within the main score of the game. So let’s explore that idea further.

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Composer Winifred Phillips answers Reddit’s questions in viral Ask-Me-Anything about video game music

Photo of popular video game composer Winifred Phillips, taken as 'proof photo' for her recent viral Reddit Ask-Me-Anything that hit the Reddit front page, receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes and garnering Reddit's gold and platinum awards.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m the author of the book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.  Recently my publisher The MIT Press requested that I host a question and answer session on Reddit’s famous Ask Me Anything forum, to share my knowledge about game music and spread the word about my book on that topic.  I’d be answering questions from a community consisting of thousands of gamers, developers and aspiring composers.  It sounded like fun, so last Thursday and Friday I logged onto Reddit and answered as many questions as I possibly could.  It was an awesome experience!  Over the course of those two days, my Reddit AMA went viral.  It ascended to the Reddit front page, receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes and garnering Reddit’s gold and platinum awards.  My AMA has now become one of the most engaged and popular Reddit gaming AMAs ever hosted on the Ask-Me-Anything subreddit.  I’m so grateful to the Reddit community for their amazing support and enthusiasm!!  During the course of those two days, the community posed some wonderful questions, and I thought it would be great to gather together some of those questions and answers that might interest us here.  Below you’ll find a discussion focused on the art and craft of game music composition.  The discussion covered the gamut of subjects, from elementary to expert, and I’ve arranged the discussion below under topic headings for the sake of convenience.  I hope you enjoy this excerpted Q&A from my Reddit Ask-Me-Anything!  If you’d like to read the entire AMA (which also includes lots of discussion of my past video game music projects), you’ll find the whole Reddit AMA here.

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From the video game music of EA’s Spore Hero to Avengers Endgame: Composing the Hero Theme

Photo of composer Winifred Phillips working on the video game music of Spore Hero from Electronic Arts.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

The famous Avengers Endgame logo, from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.Hi!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips, and sometimes my game music shows up in places I never would have expected.  A little over a week ago, while I was eagerly watching an awesome trailer for the just-released blockbuster Avengers Endgame, I was suddenly stunned to hear my own music in it!  (I’ve embedded the Avengers Endgame trailer that features my music at the end of this article.)  What made this moment even more jaw-dropping for me was that I had originally composed this music for the video game Spore Hero (a game from Electronic Arts’ popular Spore franchise).  Just as a reference, here’s what the characters look like in Spore Hero:

Detail from cover image of popular video game Spore Hero (from the article by Winifred Phillips, video game composer).

The style of Spore Hero couldn’t be further away from that famous Avengers style, as expertly displayed in the Avengers Endgame trailer.  Yet the same music was used for both projects.

The famous faces of Avengers Endgame depicted in the official poster (an illustration from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips)

The Spore Hero music I was hearing in the Avengers Endgame trailer was my “Hero Theme,” which functions essentially as a leitmotif within the Spore Hero score – it’s the central recurring melody in the game.  By virtue of the theme-and-variation technique, the melody undergoes a gradual transformation from invitingly cute to heroically epic.

The Avengers Endgame trailer featured the most dramatic iteration of this theme.  When I recovered from the initial surprise, it occurred to me that a mini-postmortem of this particular melodic theme might be the best way to explore an interesting topic: how does a single theme transform itself from an amiable melody to an avenging one?

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How Music Can Intensify Video Games, Part Two

Welcome back to our two-part exploration of the role of tension and intensity in a musical score, and the techniques that can best and most effectively accentuate our audience’s nervous excitement.  If you haven’t read Part One yet, please read that article first, and then come back for the continuation of our discussion.

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, composing music for the triple-A first person shooter HOMEFRONT: THE REVOLUTION in her music studio.In Part One we explored how popular narrative genres such as horror benefit from a tense musical score, and we studied effective techniques for horror music composition as a model for musical tension-building in any narrative genre. We learned about some techniques from the world of sound design that can add intensity and emotional pressure to our music. We listened to a couple of musical examples that I composed as a member of the music team for Homefront: The Revolution (pictured right).  We also consulted the opinions of some top experts in the field to better understand how amplifying tension can make any story feel like a more awesome, satisfying experience.  Now, let’s move on to the more musical meat-and-bones of the topic: the actual harmonic textures and chord structures of our compositions.

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How Music Can Intensify Video Games: Part One

Tension has always served a crucial role in music composition and performance.  My next two blog articles will focus on how music works to shape tension and intensity in a dramatic presentation such as a video game.

Composer Winifred Phillips, working on music for Homefront: The Revolution in her music studio.During these blogs, we’ll be consulting with lots of top experts on the subject, and I’ll be sharing my experiences in regards to the tension-filled music that I composed as a member of the music team of Homefront: The Revolution – an open world, triple-A first person shooter game that was just released by Deep Silver/Dambuster Studios.  Along the way we’ll check out some excerpts from music tracks I composed (in my music production studio, pictured right) for Homefront: The Revolution, and we’ll talk about multiple techniques to build tension in a piece of music, with the goal of inciting the most emotional intensity possible in our audience. With that in mind, let’s start things off with a great quote from philosopher Henry David Thoreau:

“The fibers of all things have their tension and are strained like the strings of an instrument.”

Image illustrating anxiety (from the article by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips)Thoreau not only saw the connection between music and tension, but also made a good point about the stresses and strains in our lives – we all possess our own inner emotional pressure. The more fervently we pursue our goals and struggles, the higher the tension grows. Taken to the extreme, it can feel as though our insides are wound up as taut as clockworks. As game composers, our job has always been to induce players to care about what’s happening in the game, and that includes inciting and escalating the nervous anxiety associated with an awesome investment of emotion and empathy.  So let’s explore the best ways we can make players feel the tension!

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Cool and Inspiring Ideas for the Game Music Composer

As game composers, we need a little inspiration now and then.  This blog will share some fun thoughts and ideas that have the potential to stir our creative juices, or just help us to think about game music in a different way.  First, we’ll get a perspective on what the classical symphony performance has in common with the act of playing a video game. Then, we’ll learn about a method of turning a video game into a musical instrument for performance art.  And finally, we’ll hear about a sonic toy that lets us trigger game sounds and music as a spontaneous aural performance to accompany roleplay gaming. I hope these ideas will get us thinking about the relationship between game music and live performance. At the very least, some of these ideas may tickle our creative fancy, so let’s get started!

Andrew Norman’s Play (Boston Modern Orchestra Project)

andrew_normanFirst, let’s consider the viewpoint of acclaimed symphonic composer Andrew Norman (pictured left), who is currently nominated for a Grammy in the category of “Best Contemporary Classical Composition” for his symphonic work entitled Play. The nominated recording was performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, as conducted by Gil Rose. As a composer, Andrew Norman is no stranger to accolades, having previously achieved the finalists list for the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2012 for his string trio The Companion Guide to Rome.  What’s most fascinating about his symphony Play, aside from its bold and experimental approach to musical composition, is the philosophy with which it was created. As it turns out, video games played a key role.

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Arrangement for Vertical Layers Pt. 3: A Game Composer’s Guide

music-keys-notesWelcome back to my three-part blog series on techniques of arrangement for interactive game music! In this blog series, I’m exploring the discipline of arrangement in relation to interactive game music, using examples from my music for the LittleBigPlanet franchise.  In part one, we covered the purpose of the arranger, the value of a strong arrangement, and what differentiates traditional arranging from creating an arrangement for an interactive piece of music. We then discussed techniques for arranging an effective melody in an interactive construct. In part two we extended the discussion to countermelody, exploring techniques that function well when creating a secondary melody for use within interactive music. If you haven’t read the first two parts of this series, please click below to catch up:

Okay, all caught up now? Ready? Let’s go!

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