Horizontal Resquencing and Song Structure for Game Music Composers (From Spyder to Sackboy: GDC 2021)

Photo of BAFTA-nominated video game music composer Winifred Phillips, working in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everybody!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I was excited this year to present a talk at the Game Developers Conference.  GDC is one of the top conferences in the video game industry, and it was a fantastic event this year, full of expert sessions and lots of opportunities to learn and network.  As in previous years, I thought it might be best if I included the content of my GDC lecture in my articles here, so I’m now kicking off a six-part series of articles based on my presentation in July!  I’ve included the substance of my GDC presentation, supported by some of the multimedia materials I used to illustrate concepts during my lecture.  I’ve also enlarged upon most of those topics with a bit of further explanation that couldn’t be included in my original GDC presentation (due to time constraints).  So now without further ado, let’s get started!

A slide from the GDC 2021 lecture of video game composer Winifred Phillips, depicting her work with Sumo Sheffield on two simultaneous projects.Back in the summer of 2019, I started working with Sumo Sheffield on music for two different games. It was pretty intense work over the course of many months on two awesome projects with very different musical needs.  The list of musical requirements was quite long for both projects, and I spent a lot of time ping ponging back and forth between them. After they both hit retail in 2020, I realized how eye-opening that experience had been. Both games required complex musical interactivity, but each met that goal in very different ways.

In this article series, we’re going to be taking a look at those two projects: Sackboy: A Big Adventure for the PS5/PS4, and Spyder for Apple Arcade.

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Diegetic sound and music for the video game composer (GDC 2021)

Photograph of video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio. This photo illustrates Phillips' work on two popular video games developed by Sumo Digital.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hello there!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Next week, I’ll be giving a lecture during the Game Developers Conference 2021 event.  During my lecture, I’ll be talking about the music I composed for Sumo Digital for both the Sackboy: A Big Adventure and Spyder video games.  My lecture is entitled, “From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music,” and will take place on Friday July 23rd at 3:40pm PT.  Although GDC is still an all-virtual affair, the event does provide lots of opportunities for experts within the game development community to share their knowledge, coupled with forums enabling game audio folks to network and learn from each other.  In addition to my prepared lecture, I’ll also be participating in a live Speaker Q&A that will take place right after my presentation.  It should be a lot of fun!  Really looking forward to sharing my experience working with Sumo Digital simultaneously on these two fantastic games.

The famous logo of the Sackboy: A Big Adventure video game, as included in the article by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips.

This was an incredibly rare and awesome opportunity for me to compose music for two projects simultaneously in development by the same company.  Because of this, I found the comparisons between the two games fascinating.

My talk will delve into the mechanics of the dynamic music systems in both games, An image of the official Spyder video game promotional poster, as included in the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.showing how a comparison between these two projects can shed some light on the utility of the top interactive techniques and strategies.  While comparing this list of interactive music techniques provided me with a lot of material for my GDC lecture, there were other ways in which the two projects were similar.  I thought I’d share some brief thoughts on one of the other common threads I found between these two Sumo Digital games.

As composers, we’re often asked to provide a general atmosphere that adds either character to gameplay or distinctive flavor to menus.  If it’s a horror game, maybe we’re being asked to provide a crushingly heavy drone of doom during tense exploration, with soul-shuddering tone clusters bubbling up from the darkness and then sinking back down into the murky depths.  For a whimsical game, we might be creating airy, open textures with little mischievous accents from the mallets or woodwind section… or maybe we’re creating a brightly whimsical melody for an opening menu or splash screen.  If it’s a fantasy roleplaying game, we may be providing softly ambient tracks for exploration, with a pensive flute wandering gently through Gaelic figures.  Or maybe we’re creating a thunderously epic main theme for an opening menu, designed to emphasize the world-shattering stakes of the adventure to come.

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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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Getting your big break – 2021 edition (Video game music composer)

This photo depicts game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio at Generations Productions LLC on the musical score of the Sackboy: A Big Adventure game from Sumo Digital. Winifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose credits include games from five of the biggest franchises in gaming (Assassin's Creed, God of War, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, The Sims).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and this past year has been particularly busy for me.  I’ve released several projects this year, including Sackboy: A Big Adventure (my latest, pictured above) – and I’m very pleased that my Waltz of the Bubbles composition from Sackboy: A Big Adventure just won a Global Music Award, and is nominated along with the rest of the game’s soundtrack in this year’s NAVGTR Awards!  In between projects, I’ve given three virtual talks this past year at the Game Developers Conference in March, the VGM Academy Live event in April, and the GDC Summer event in August.  Popular events like these are great opportunities to touch base with the community and exchange ideas about the art of game composition and the business of being a video game composer.

All during this time, I’ve been keeping up with this blog, writing monthly articles that explore different topics of interest to us as game composers.  In addition to the regular monthly entries, every year I write an article that tries to answer the question, “how does an aspiring composer break into the video game industry?”  This is the question I’m personally asked most often, and it’s one I always struggle to answer.

Part of the reason for this is that my own “breaking into the business” story is so unusual.  My first video game project happened to be a triple-A blockbuster (God of War from Sony Interactive), The logo of the original God of War video game from Sony Interactive Entertainment. Game music composer Winifred Phillips was a member of the music composition team for this video game.and I was able to land the gig because an example of my work landed on the desk of a music supervisor for the project at exactly the right time.  What are the chances of that?  It’s akin to being struck by lightning, and I certainly can’t advise young composers to depend on that kind of lightning to strike.  But I don’t want to leave hopeful young composers in the lurch either.

So every year, I revisit the subject, trying to learn what helpful advice might be offered by virtue of the common wisdom that exists at the time.  In expert articles and community posts, the subject is ceaselessly examined and reconsidered.  It’s an evolving conversation that shifts in subtle but appreciable ways from year to year.  So this is the 2021 edition, in which I share the interesting observations I’ve gathered from online sources during the previous year.  Hopefully, this article will provide some guidance and support for those who are embarking on their own game music careers. But first, in case anyone might like to hear a fuller retelling of my own “breaking into the business” story, here’s an interview I gave in 2011 with GameSpot in which I recount how I landed my first gig.  The relevant discussion begins at 4 minutes and 15 seconds:

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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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Game Composers and the Importance of Themes: Repetition in Game Music (Pt. 2)

Pictured: video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio. Phillips is the game music composer for The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes game, developed by Random Potion for Wild River Games. Her credits include titles from 5 of the most well-known game franchises, and she is one of the foremost authorities on video game music, having presented lectures at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and the Society of Composers and Lyricists in NYC.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and this is the second installment of my five article series based on the presentation I gave at the first-ever digital edition of the 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 this end of this article).  In my GDC 2020 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 discussed the concept of the “hook” as it relates to thematic composition, and we explored how an awesome hook can function best from within a main theme track.  In our discussion, we used both a famous example from the Star Wars franchise, as well as the main theme from one of my own recently-released game projects – The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes.  Both examples included a fairly dynamic foreground melody, which made it a great example for our discussion of the role of the hook in thematic construction.  So let’s now consider what happens when we eschew such an attention-drawing melodic element and instead take a more subtle approach.

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Game Composers and the Importance of Themes: The Hook in Game Music (Pt. 1)

This photo includes game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her production studio. Phillips is the game music composer for The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes game, developed by Random Potion for Wild River Games. Her credits include titles from 5 of the most well-known game franchises, and she is one of the foremost authorities on video game music, having presented lectures at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and the Society of Composers and Lyricists in NYC.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Last March, I gave a presentation at the very first online Game Developers Conference.  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 this end of this article).  This coming August, I’ll be participating as a speaker in the upcoming GDC Summer online conference.  My session this August will be a wide-ranging Ask-Me-Anything Q&A, and I’m really looking forward it!  In anticipation of that conference session, I thought it might be useful for me to share the content of my March GDC talk in a series of articles.  I’m happy to now begin a five-part article series based on my GDC 2020 presentation in March!

In my GDC 2020 presentation, I discussed musical themes, and I shared some stories about my work composing music for lots of great game projects. I’ll be sharing the same stories here.  Those projects include Assassin’s Creed Liberation (Ubisoft), God of War (Sony Interactive America), the LittleBigPlanet franchise (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).

But before we start digging into practical examples, let’s take a quick look at one of the best and most iconic themes in the history of music for media. I’ve included a short excerpt below. Notice how we hear a melodic phrase once, then we hear it again, and it’s exactly the same as before. So the melody is saying, “hey – you liked that? Here, have another!”

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Video Game Composers: The Importance of Themes (GDC 2020)

Award-winning game music composer Winifred Phillips spoke at the Game Developers Conference in 2019.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  As most of us are no-doubt aware, the Game Developers Conference 2020 has been postponed.  This means that the yearly conference’s rich and diverse schedule of lectures will not be performed live next week during GDC 2020 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.  I was really looking forward to presenting my lecture, entitled “The Importance of Themes: Creating Musical Signatures for your Games.”  Having given GDC presentations every year since 2015, I consider the Game Developers Conference to be an indispensable event for both my career and my personal enrichment as a game music composer.  While the postponement is a set-back for the entire game development community, I’m glad to share some awesome news!  A portion of the GDC 2020 lecture schedule will still take place as planned – albeit from a much different venue.  Instead of in-person presentations, GDC plans to stream many of their previously scheduled GDC talks during GDC week as part of a “virtual conference.”  This means that I can share my lecture as a GDC Virtual Talk.  Best of all, all of the GDC Virtual Talks will be available for free!

Image illustrating the Game Developers Conference in 2020, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.My virtual talk will focus on the best ways to create memorable thematic material.  Catchy melodies can help to enhance a game’s distinctive character and originality, which can subsequently lead to a more memorable gameplay experience.  In preparing my presentation, I conducted quite a bit of research.  Because of time constraints, not all of that scholarly research made it into my final presentation. I was sorry to have to cut those materials – I thought it was pretty interesting stuff! So let’s now discuss some of that extra info in this article.  We won’t be delving into the actual subject matter of my lecture, since I’ll be saving that material for my actual presentation that will be included in the slate of GDC 2020 Virtual Talks. But the general relationship between music and memory is a fascinating area of study.  If our music can help games to stick in the minds of players, then it should be useful for us to understand some expert scholarly viewpoints on the relationship between music and memory.

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Video Game Composers and the Importance of Research: The Music of Sports Scramble

Working on the music of the VR game Sports Scramble, Winifred Phillips is here shown in her professional music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey, everybody!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  As game composers, it’s inevitable that we’ll eventually be asked to create music in a genre with which we have little or no experience.  Some projects may throw several unfamiliar musical genres our way.  It can be a scary prospect.  I’ve worked on many projects that have required me to quickly learn new musical styles and techniques, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about how research can help us cope with these sorts of unexpected demands.  This article will explore the role of music research, including how it can initiate us into the mysteries of unfamiliar musical styles, and ways in which it can lead us in unanticipated (but not unwelcome) directions.  I’ve had lots of experience delving into diverse musical genres and doing music research for projects both big and small over the course of my career.  For this article, I’ll be describing my recent experience composing the music for the Sports Scramble VR game, developed by Armature Studio and released earlier this year for popular VR platforms such as the Oculus Quest and the Oculus Rift/Rift S.

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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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