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.

In the first article of this series, we explored how retro gaming has made an awesome impact on the game industry, leading to the release of a port of the original Lineage PC game for mobile devices under the name Lineage M.  We also discussed the brand new gothic DLC content for this game, entitled Lineage M: The Elmor. 

Art excerpted from a video game trailer, included to illustrate the article by game music composer Winifred Phillips.

I shared my experience being hired to compose new music for DLC content supplementing a game originally released over 24 years ago. We discussed how traditional interactive music approaches were adapted to this game’s retro music system, and how a modular approach was crucial to the music implementation strategy for this project.  You’ll find all these ideas discussed in detail in part one of this article series.

Continuing our discussion of modular music system, let’s pick up with the idea of structural compatibility.  If all the internal elements of a game’s musical score are designed to be compatible with each other, this is a great way to enable the modular approach.  In the gameplay music for Lineage M: The Elmor, everything was designed for compatibility.  For instance, I composed all of the gameplay music for Lineage M in E minor at 130 beats per measure – it’s all structured around those two immovable factors. This enables the modular construction, and there are pros and cons to this approach. Having a cohesive tonal center and pacing helps to instill aesthetic unity into all the in-game tracks. But we need to take care that there’s still diversity and variation, despite the common tempo and key signature. So let’s look at some of the ways that issue was addressed for the music of Lineage M: The Elmor.

This map of the gameplay terrain from a popular DLC release is included in the discussion by popular game music composer Winifred Phillips.

The city of Escaros is located in the larger kingdom of Elmor, and the playable landscape includes five distinct territories: The Cave of Sorrows, the Plains of Silence, the City Walls, the Sacred District, and the City Center. For each of these territories, I composed a group of musical sections, each lasting 8 measures. The sections could be taken in any order, and were frequently juggled to help keep the music feeling fresh.  The philosophy behind this approach bears a strong similarity to the Horizontal Resequencing method of dynamic construction, long favored by game audio experts for modern interactive music design.  I discussed this idea in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music (The MIT Press):

The cover of the MIT Press book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music, authored by popular game composer Winifred Phillips.

“In music, we mentally picture the ephemeral concept of time as a horizontal phenomenon, moving inexorably from left to right (like the notes on a musical staff).  Likewise, most audio editing software visually presents audio as a waveform moving horizontally from left to right.  The fundamental idea behind horizontal re-sequencing is that when compose carefully and according to certain rules, the sequence of a musical composition can be rearranged.  This process occurs while the music continues to move forward on the horizontal axis of time, allowing a continuous free-flowing transformation of musical content.”  (Chapter 11, page 188).

For each of the five territories that comprise the city of Escaros, I prepared an assortment of 8-measure musical segments.  Because the music had been purposefully divided into these distinct sections of equivalent length, they were capable of being freely rearranged.  This helped to instill variety into the music over time.  The sections were also designed so that their instrumentation could be taken apart with fine detail, allowing them to be stripped down to a spare atmospheric mix, or built up in complexity and momentum. Each of these instrumental recordings could also be mixed and matched between the sections – so they weren’t functioning solely as individual music compositions, but also as sets of modular components. The sections cross-fertilized each other, not only within the gameplay territories, but also between them. For instance, a melodic phrase or instrumental performance from The Cave of Sorrows might reappear during the City Walls sequence, or in the Sacred District. It was a flexible system that instilled a sense of unified musical identity across the game’s new playable territories.

An illustration conveying the importance of musical cross-fertilization between in-game locales, included in the article by Winifred Phillips (BAFTA-nominated game music composer).

So let’s start examining the music of those five gameplay territories, starting from the foundation of the modular structure.  Here’s a brief taste of the most low-keyed, ambient content in the modular system, organized by gameplay territories:

Now let’s add some rhythm on top of a few of these sections, so that we can see how they’re distinguished by the territory for which they’re written. Rhythmic changes help to introduce variety into the musical structure, even though the meter and tempo remain fixed. Notice that the meter sometimes shifts from straight common time to compound quadruple meter, but this doesn’t bring about any alteration to the tempo, and it doesn’t change the downbeat placement.

In addition to rhythmic changes, many of the sections incorporate melodies – and sometimes countermelodies – into the modular system. These melodic lines were written for particular territories in the city of Escaros such as the Cave of Sorrows or the Sacred District. We’ll be checking out how all of this functions in-game later in this series of articles, but first let’s get a taste of some melodic content from this music system.

Finally, the instrumental performances of these melodies were treated as modular components, so they could be easily transplanted from one section to another. In order to best understand the structure of these recordings within the modular system, we’ll need to discuss the role of stemming in the modular approach, and the division of single instrumental performances into multiple modules.  Since this is a more complex topic, we’ll tackle that discussion in the next article.  Until then, thanks very much for reading!

 

Game composer Winifred Phillips works in her music production studio in this photo.Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer whose most recent project is the music for one of the latest blockbuster releases in the Lineage series (one of the highest-grossing video game franchises of all time).  Recent projects include the hit PlayStation 5 launch title Sackboy: A Big Adventure (soundtrack album now available).  Phillips’ popular and award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score was recently singled out by GameSpot as their favorite in the franchise, naming it one of the “best video game soundtracks you can stream.”  As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in five of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: God of War, Total War, The Sims, Assassin’s Creed, 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 is now featured 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 @winphillips.

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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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.

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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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Game Developers Conference: Ask Me Anything about being a video game music composer

Promotional photo used in connection with the Ask Me Anything session with video game music composer Winifred Phillips, taking place as a part of GDC Summer 2020.

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Hey everyone!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  GDC 2021 is coming this July 19th to the 23rd, and I’m excited that I’ll be giving a talk during this year’s conference!  My talk is called, From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music, and I’ll be sharing more details about my talk as the conference gets nearer.  Once again, GDC will be a fully virtual game industry event this year.  I think all of us who have participated in GDC’s awesome online events over the past year have really enjoyed the experience.  Considering the long list of structural and logistical changes that had to be made, it’s amazing how smoothly everything went!

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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.

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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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Video Game Music Composers: The Timed Challenge (Pt. 2)

A photo of game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio on the musical score of the Spyder video game from Sumo Digital.  Winifred Phillips is an award-winning video game 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

So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  Welcome to my two-part article series on the process of composing music for timed challenges in video games!  Since timed challenges are a popular gameplay mechanic that has featured prominently in my most recently released project (The Spyder DLC missions), I thought it might be interesting for us to take a closer look at what makes a timed challenge tick!

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Video Game Music Composers: The Timed Challenge (Pt. 1)

Working on the music of the Hades' Star video game, video game composer Winifred Phillips is here pictured in her music studio at Generations Productions.

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Welcome!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and in this month’s article, I’d like to go into some depth about an interesting aspect of our work as game composers – creating music for timed challenges.  In timed challenges, players must complete a set of tasks within a limited window of time.  Over the years, I’ve created music for lots of timed challenges featured in highly divergent projects, from the darkly strategic space battles of Hades’ Star (pictured above), to the wacky assembly-line mayhem of the Fail Factory VR game, to the brand-new DLC release from one of my most recent projects — the Spyder video game. It was this most recent release that actually got me thinking a lot about how difficult timed challenges can be for game composers.

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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.

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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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