GDC 2017: How video game composers can use music to build suspense

Winifred Phillips, video game composer, giving a talk as part of the Game Developers Conference 2016 in San Francisco.

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The Game Developers Conference is coming up soon!  Last year I presented a talk on music for mobile games (pictured above), and I’m pleased that this year I’ll be presenting the talk, “Homefront’ to ‘God of War’: Using Music to Build Suspense(Wednesday, March 1st at 11am in room 3006 West Hall, Moscone Center, San Francisco).  In my talk I’ll be focusing on practical applications of techniques for video game composers and game audio folks, using my own experiences as concrete examples for exploration.  Along the way, I’ll be discussing some very compelling scholarly research on the relationship between suspense, gameplay and musical expression.  In preparing my GDC 2017 presentation I did a lot of reading and studying about the nature of suspense in video games, the importance of suspense in gameplay design, and the role that video game music plays in regulating and elevating suspense.  There will be lots of ground to cover in my presentation!  That being said, the targeted focus of my presentation precluded me from incorporating some very interesting extra research into the importance of suspense in a more general sense… why human beings need suspense, and what purpose it serves in our lives.  I also couldn’t find the space to include everything I’d encountered regarding suspense as an element in the gaming experience.  It occurred to me that some of this could be very useful to us in our work as game makers, so I’d like to share some of these extra ideas in this article.

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Aleatoricism for the Game Music Composer


I recently read a research paper about game music that I came across via Google Scholar (always an excellent resource if you’re looking for food for thought).  The paper was entitled “Game Scoring: Towards a Broader Theory,” written by Mack Enns of the University of Western Ontario towards his Master of Arts degree.  While the paper’s intention is to show how composing music for gaming is “distinct from other types of scoring,” the author repeatedly asserts that game music “remains always inherently ‘aleatoric.'”

This was the first I’d heard anyone put forward a theory such as this, and it’s definitely a bold statement.  Is all game music intrinsically aleatoric?  In my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I discuss aleatoricism as “music in which some elements are left to chance.” (Chapter 2, pg. 30).  This means that some components of the music are left to the metaphorical roll of the dice.  Mack Enns further applies this concept to games by asserting that all game music “involves both chance operations and a degree of improvisation… the “performer” of a game score is not a musical performer but a “ludal” one, that is, a “gamer”…”

So, according to this, the gamer is essentially performing the music.  Well, let’s think about that a moment.  The gamer does perform actions which trigger musical reactions, so one might imagine the gamer operating as a sort of “conductor” for the musical score, indirectly cueing the music to begin, or determining which musical segments will be triggered at any given time by virtue of gameplay choices. But a performer and a conductor aren’t really the same thing… so the idea of the improvising “gamer” as the chance element in a game music composition may not hold up in all games.  But does it hold up in some?

Just to take a look at what the improvising performer brings to aleatoric music, I’ll first give you an example from one of the more famous aleatoric compositions by John Cage, after which we’ll take a look at some top video game examples.  In John Cage’s “Living Room Music,” a group of performers are instructed to use household objects as rhythmic instruments, but no instruction is given regarding the best objects to choose, or the desired tonal quality to be produced by the objects.  That’s left entirely to chance.  Here are two performances of “Living Room Music.”  The first, performed by the MET Orchestra Percussionists, uses a combination of fingertips and glasses.

As a contrast, the second version, performed by Square Peg Round Hole, uses a collection of cardboard boxes (music begins at the 1 minute mark).

You can see that the choices of the performers have a dramatic impact on the sound of the resulting composition.  Does a gamer have a similar awesome impact on the musical content of a game by virtue of the choices made during gameplay?  That’s a harder idea to mentally digest, but Mack Enns proposes that if we also include the game’s sound effects as a part of the musical score, then we can more easily perceive the gamer as an aleatoric musical performer.  “Game scoring,” Enns writes, “includes a recognition, accommodation and, even, an orchestration of sound effects which ordinarily
might also be considered “extramusical” to the untrained ear.”

So, if we’re willing to accept the game’s sound effects as a part of its musical score, then the entire experience becomes an aleatoric performance… but that presupposes the idea that sound effects should be accepted as musical events.  If we don’t perceive the sound effects as musical, then are there still circumstances in which the gamer can be considered an aleatoric musical performer?  It seems to me that the role of the gamer as a musician would depend on the nature of the game being played… and there are certainly games in which the player fills the role of the performer in a composition governed by chance.  Let’s take a look at a few popular video game examples.



In the game Flow, players become a small organism glowing in a watery universe.  In this game, the sound effects are musical.  When your organism eats a glowing mote in the water, a tone sounds. Progressing through the game, the tones create a musical latticework according to the player’s choices, essentially weaving the fabric of the game’s musical score as the gamer plays.  This seems like a good example of an aleatoric score in which the sound effects could rightly be considered musical, and the player can be identified as an aleatoric performer.



Electroplankton is the most overt example of a game that casts the player in the role of a musician.  The game consists of an assortment of minigames that allow the player to participate in music creation through many clever graphical interfaces and procedures.  For instance, in the “Beatnes” game, the player is introduced to the art of “Live Looping” by rhythmically tapping the screen to trigger sounds that thereafter loop repeatedly with the beat, allowing the player to create more complex repeating layers of sounds as the music progresses.



Rez is a rail shooter in which the player navigates a virtual environment within a computer network, destroying viruses and firewalls in order to rescue an artificial intelligence named Eden.  There are no sound effects in Rez – every action of the player is punctuated with a musical tone or rhythmic effect that melds with the electronic soundtrack to create the overall musical score.  When players “shoot,” they’re essentially playing the music.



The gameplay of this popular puzzle game is less directly musical, but still has a very strong effect on the progress of the musical score.  Players of Lumines manipulate falling blocks (in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Tetris).  The music consists of looping segments, during which the overall composition seems to halt any forward progress and dwell on a short internal segment repeatedly until the player racks up enough points to trigger the music to move ahead.  Because the player’s actions influence the progress of the music rather than its content, it seems that this game casts the player in a role more similar to a conductor than a musician.



In the Flower video game, the player collects flower petals, which emit bell-like tones as they fly up into the air.  These tones join with the game’s musical score with a delicate, “wind-chime” effect.  The player is able to sound these bells each time a new flower petal is collected, and these sounds serve to provide foreground interest for the music and a sense of shape and forward movement to the composition.


So, after reading Mack Enn’s paper and considering his thesis, I think it’s certainly reasonable to identify certain games as having soundtracks structured in such a way as to allow the player to become an aleatoric musical performer.  I’m not sure I’d agree that all games are structured this way, and the idea of considering all sound effects as musical is a highly experimental concept.  Nevertheless, it’s interesting to consider!  Let me know what you think in the comments, and feel free to post any other “aleatoric” game scores you’d like to share!


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.