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

Image of video game composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio, regarding images from the DC Dual Force project.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hello there!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m glad you could join us for the continuation of our four-part discussion of traditional “scoring-to-picture” techniques within a video game project.  We’ve been examining the music needs of cinematics, cutscenes, and trailers, with an eye towards pinpointing specific goals that music can achieve. Those goals include:

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

In our previous articles we thought about how music can accentuate the believability and importance of characters, and how music can help players absorb and digest information.  So let’s move on to the third item on our list of goals:

Identity

Now that we’ve discussed how linear music can help a game convey both information and characterization, let’s take a look at one of the most ubiquitous uses of linear music in game development – the trailer.

This illustration supports a discussion of game trailers, as included in the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.

Many game trailers use licensed music that has nothing to do with the game, and some game trailers simply employ in-game music that has been edited to fit the visuals.  However, there are times in which a game developer will commission custom music specifically for a trailer.  I’ve taken on these commissions repeatedly, and they’re always an interesting challenge.  During these commissions, I may be scoring the trailer of a video game that also features my music during gameplay, but that isn’t always the case.  Regardless, my job as a trailer composer is to help reinforce the game’s identity, in the hopes that viewers will be excited to play it.  The trailer essentially tells viewers what the game is, and why they should care.  Essentially, the composer’s job is to do the same.

I went into a bit more detail on this topic in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, so here are a couple of excerpts that pertain to trailers:

A Composer's Guide to Game Music is an award-winning book covering the art and business of game music composition. The book was written by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer).

“If we are asked at the end of the project to create original music for a game trailer or commercial, this request is likely to pertain to the marketing and public relations efforts of the publisher rather than the development work of the team. Sometimes, in the effort to orchestrate a buildup of excitement prior to the release of a game, a series of trailers or commercials are created. In many circumstances, these videos feature music already written for the game and do not require any new material. However, it is possible that the public relations and marketing departments will need us to supply new music for this purpose.”  (Chapter 9, pg. 154-155)

“When the game developer and publisher begin using our music heavily in their trailers to reinforce the identity of their brand, we can take that as the most sincere compliment we’ll receive from the development and publishing team. They consider our music to be an iconic expression of their game.”  (Chapter 6, pg. 113-114)

As we’ve discussed, the music in a trailer is often constructed as a method of reinforcing the identity of the game.  As an example, let’s talk about the trailer for DC Dual Force, a digital collectible card game featuring the heroes and villains of DC Comics.

An image illustrating the card selection from the CCG DC Dual Force, as discussed in the article written by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.

The DC Dual Force trailer premiered during the DC Fandome event –  a one-day online convention packed with all the top DC-related announcements and news pertaining to related projects (including the forthcoming DC Dual Force game).  The game starred all the best and most awesome DC characters – such as Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, and The Flash.  So, of course, the game warranted a thoroughly epic trailer.  Of course, DC fans are well aware of the famous musical motifs for these popular characters, but the game’s trailer wouldn’t have access to any of those.  Nevertheless, it was my job to create an original musical score that would stay true to the identity of these great DC characters and resonate with fans.

A depiction of heroes from the DC Dual Force video game. This game is discussed in an article about music used in trailers, cutscenes and cinematics, as written by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.

After studying the history of music for DC Comics projects, I focused on brass-led, triplet-driven heroism for the instrumentation.  For structure, I leaned heavily into the kinetics of the trailer, constructing the music to move in concert with the way the visuals were cut, and the way characters and objects flew in and out of frame.  Everything I did with the music was designed to instill tons of assertive oomph into the trailer, to correspond with the identity of the franchise.  Let’s see how that worked:

Now as a contrast, let’s look at a very different trailer that nevertheless pursues similar goals.  Horse Club Adventures is a game franchise based on the expertly hand-painted figurines created by Schleich.  Developed in Germany by Wild River Games, this equestrian video game series premiered in 2021.  Because of the tremendous international success of the first game, Schleich and Wild River released a new entry in the franchise in the fall of 2022.

The logo image for the Horse Club Adventures franchises, as discussed in the article by Winifred Phillips, award-winning game music composer.

As the composer of the in-game music for the franchise, I was commissioned to create music for the announcement trailer that would precede the release of Horse Club Adventures 2.  Here is another example of a trailer needing an original musical score that would stay true to the identity of a well-loved franchise and resonate with its fans.

Promotional image for Horse Club Adventures 2, illustrating a discussion of the composition of trailer music for this project. The article is written by game music composer Winifred Phillips.

Like the DC Dual Force trailer, the Horse Club Adventures 2 announcement trailer doesn’t present any appreciable narrative.  Instead, it focuses solely on the core gameplay mechanic of riding horses through an idyllic environment.  In composing the music, I kept the style narrowly focused on a relaxing folk-music sound, but structured the composition to build intensity based on the way the trailer is edited.  Starting with a flourish that emphasizes the company logos, the music weaves guitars, harps, ukuleles and bells into a peaceful rhythm that escalates when the riders urge their mounts into a gallop.  Piano arpeggios warm the texture as the trailer cuts to a wider view of the charming town, and then the music ramps up to an assertively thematic finish as the game’s logo appears.  Everything about the musical score leads directly to the logo reveal, reinforcing the identity of the project.  So let’s see what that’s like:

With that, we’ve concluded this examination of the ways that music can emphasize a game’s identity during a visual presentation such as a trailer.  In our next article, we’ll be exploring how music can support and propel a cutscene, cinematic, or trailer that is specifically focused on the narrative element.  Until then, thanks for reading!

 

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips works 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..

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

Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer, and the author of the book A Composer's Guide to Game Music. This photo depicts Phillips at work in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey, everyone!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’d like to welcome you back to our four-part discussion of traditional “scoring-to-picture” techniques within a video game project, and how these play into our work as game composers.  We’ve been looking at examples of cinematics, cutscenes and trailers to see how this kind of linear composition style accomplishes specific goals.  That list of goals includes:

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

In our previous article, we took a look at how music can best emphasize and support characters during cutscenes and cinematics. By using linear music for the purposes of characterization, we can accentuate the distinct traits of important characters, or provide insight into their state of mind.

Now, let’s consider when our music composition goals are less emotional, and more utilitarian.  In this article, we’ll be moving on from characterization to take a look at how information is conveyed in linear cinematics and cutscenes.  When the primary goal of a cinematic is to provide players with important details, we can assist by composing music to support the way information is disseminated.  This can help players to better absorb all the facts presented.

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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.

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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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Video game music composer: Getting your big break

In this article for video game composers, popular game composer Winifred Phillips is depicted in this photo working in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips (pictured above working on my career breakthrough project, God of War). Today I’ll be discussing a hot topic that we’ve previously explored, but that definitely deserves to be revisited periodically.  This is one of the most popular subjects that I’ve addressed in my previous articles here: How does a newcomer get hired as a game composer?

I’m asked this question frequently, and while I offered quite a lot of advice on this topic in my book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I’m keenly aware of how urgent the need is for updated guidance on this issue for aspiring video game composers.  Game music newcomers often feel adrift and alone in the game industry, and some good advice can be a welcome lifeline.  In my book, I described the career path that led me into the game industry and allowed me to land my first gigs, but I’m well aware that my experience was pretty unique.  With that in mind, I’ve collated some recent research and insights from some top game industry professionals in this article, in the hopes that some of these expert observations might prove helpful.  There are lots of original and provocative viewpoints presented here, so we should feel free to pick and choose the strategies and tips that will work best for us.

Also, later in the article you’ll find my presentation for the Society of Composers and Lyricists seminar, in which I answered the question about how I personally got my start in the games industry (for those who might be curious).  Finally, at the end of the article I have included a full list of links for further reading and reference.

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Resources For Video Game Music Composers

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips, at work in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

I’m pleased to announce that my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, is now available its new paperback edition! I’m excited that my book has done well enough to merit a paperback release, and I’m looking forward to getting to know a lot of new readers!  The paperback is much lighter and more portable than the hardcover.  Here’s a view of the front and back covers of the new paperback edition of my book (click the image for a bigger version if you’d like to read the back cover):

award-winning video game music composer Winifred Phillips' book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music, is now available in paperback.

From the article by Winifred Phillips (composer of video game music) - depiction of the book cover of A COMPOSER'S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC.As you might expect, many aspiring game composers read my book, and I’m honored that my book is a part of their hunt for the best resources to help them succeed in this very competitive business.  When I’m not working in my music studio, I like to keep up with all the great new developments in the game audio field, and I share a lot of what I learn in these articles. Keeping in mind how many of my readers are aspiring composers, I’ve made a point of devoting an article once a year to gathering the top online guidance currently available for newcomers to the game music profession.  In previous years I’ve focused solely on recommendations gleaned from the writings of game audio pros, but this time I’d like to expand that focus to include other types of resources that could be helpful.  Along the way, we’ll be taking a look at some nuggets of wisdom that have appeared on these sites.  So, let’s get started!

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: tools and tips for composers

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips, working in her music production studio on the music of the SimAnimals video game.

By video game composer Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to this three article series that’s bringing together the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC 2017 audio talks about interactive music!  These five speakers explored discoveries they’d made while creating interactivity in the music of their own game projects.  We’re looking at these ideas side-by-side to broaden our viewpoint and gain a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. We’ve been looking at five interactive music systems discussed in these five GDC 2017 presentations:

In the first article, we examined the basic nature of these interactive systems. In the second article, we contemplated why those systems were used, with some of the inherent pros and cons of each system discussed in turn.  So now, let’s get into the nitty gritty of tools and tips for working with such interactive music systems.  If you haven’t read parts one and two of this series, please go do so now and then come back:

  1. Video game music systems at GDC 2017: what are composers using?
  2. Video game music systems at GDC 2017: pros and cons for composers

Ready?  Great!  Here we go!

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: pros and cons for composers

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio working on the music of LittleBigPlanet 2 Cross Controller

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our three article series dedicated to collecting and exploring the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC 2017 audio talks about interactive music!  These five speakers shared ideas they’d developed in the process of creating interactivity in the music of their own game projects.  We’re looking at these ideas side-by-side to cultivate a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. In the first article, we looked at the basic nature of five interactive music systems discussed in these five GDC 2017 presentations:

If you haven’t read part one of this article series, please go do that now and come back.

Okay, so let’s now contemplate some simple but important questions: why were those systems used?  What was attractive about each interactive music strategy, and what were the challenges inherent in using those systems?

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: what are composers using?

By video game music composer Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, presenting at the Game Developers Conference 2017.The 2017 Game Developers Conference could be described as a densely-packed deep-dive exploration of the state-of-the-art tools and methodologies used in modern game development.  This description held especially true for the game audio track, wherein top experts in the field offered a plethora of viewpoints and advice on the awesome technical and artistic challenges of creating great sound for games. I’ve given GDC talks for the past three years now (see photo), and every year I’m amazed at the breadth and diversity of the problem-solving approaches discussed by my fellow GDC presenters.  Often I’ll emerge from the conference with the impression that we game audio folks are all “doing it our own way,” using widely divergent strategies and tools.

This year, I thought I’d write three articles to collect and explore the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC audio talks.  During their presentations, these five speakers all shared their thoughts on best practices and methods for instilling interactivity in modern game music.  By absorbing these ideas side-by-side, I thought we might gain a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the current leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. In the first article, we’ll look at the basic nature of these interactive systems.  We’ll devote the second article to the pros and cons of each system, and in the third article we’ll look at tools and tips shared by these music interactivity experts. Along the way, I’ll also be sharing my thoughts on the subject, and we’ll take a look at musical examples from some of my own projects that demonstrate a few ideas explored in these GDC talks:

So, let’s begin with the most obvious question.  What kind of interactive music systems are game audio folks using lately?

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