“Sound is Magic” – Insights for the Game Music Composer


From May 19th to the 20th of this year, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Research and Development department presented a two-day conference to explore the future of immersive sound.  Called “Sound: Now and Next,” the event featured a distinguished speaker list that included accomplished audio engineers, producers, educators, inventors, researchers, musicians and composers.  The event offered a wealth of fascinating presentations on the future of audio, and I recommend visiting the site and checking out the awesome video resources from the event, which include complete session videos made freely available for streaming from the site.

For game composers and sound designers, one of the best sessions was presented by Nick Ryan, an award-winning audio engineer/composer/audio consultant who is best known in the game industry for his sound design work on the Papa Sangre, Papa Sangre II and The Nightjar audio games for iOS.  These three games utilize binaural sound to immerse players in an audio-only interactive environment, which Nick Ryan calls “inhabitable audio.”

Nick’s presentation at the “Sound: Now and Next” conference was entitled “Sound is Magic.”  According to Nick, audio has a unique power to bring about an emotional and perceptual impact by virtue of the collaborative relationship between the sound source and the listener.  When a sound is separated from its original source (i.e. when it’s not possible to see the source that’s emitting the sound), listeners will instinctively use their imaginations to supply the nature of the sound’s origin.  This imaginative contribution on the part of listeners has the potential to draw them more fully into the experience.  “I profoundly believe that we are co-authors in everything that we listen to,” Nick tells us.


Nick Ryan, sound designer for Papa Sangre, Papa Sangre II and The Nightjar

Early in the presentation, Nick introduces us to his initial work in binaural / spatial audio by describing a project he produced in 2002 for BBC Radio 4. “The Dark House” was a popular interactive radio drama: a ghost story recorded on location in a large house.  The actors wore baseball caps with microphones embedded in the brims.  While the project was ostensibly a traditionally linear radio drama, it was structured so that the audience could decide from which character’s perspective the story would be told, and the audio mix would switch to the perspective of the character who had received the most votes.  In this way, the audio mix of the program changed drastically as the audience cast their votes during the broadcast.  The entire program is available for listening here:

Nick stresses that this project illustrates the power of adding interactivity to an audio experience.

Moving on to his work in video game development, Nick launches into a discussion of his work on Papa Sangre, a game set in a completely “non-sighted” realm of the afterlife, inhabited by vicious unseen monsters.  Sharing a few observations about gamers’ experiences in Papa Sangre, Nick points out that visually-impaired players would usually breeze through the game in an hour, whereas sighted players found it to be crushingly difficult.  Also, Nick describes a phenomenon whereby sounds associated with personal movement (such as footsteps) stimulated the motor cortex of the brain to be active, making listeners feel as though they were actually in motion. This motor cortex stimulation contributed to the immersive qualities of the gaming experience in Papa Sangre.  The effects of sound on the brain are tremendously fascinating, and I explored some of the effects of music on brain activity in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music – so I was especially interested to hear more about that phenomenon in Nick’s talk.  To learn more about Nick’s work on Papa Sangre (and another audio-only game titled The Nightjar), check out this sound design mini masterclass that Nick gave for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts:

Continuing with his presentation for the BBC “Sound: Now and Next” conference, Nick described a collaboration with Volkswagen and the famous electronica duo known as Underworld to allow a car to essentially drive a piece of music, associating an interactive musical composition with the turning, braking, acceleration and de-acceleration of the vehicle.  While it isn’t a game-related project, it is fascinating when considered in terms of the interactive music possibilities that could be translated into gaming applications.  Here’s the final video result of “Volkswagen Golf GTI Play the Road.”

And here’s a behind-the-scenes video that explores the making of this interactive music system for driving:

Finally, Nick brings the entire concept of “Sound is Magic” to a culmination by describing his collaboration with John Matthias to create a four movement piece for string orchestra entitled “Cortical Songs.”  A computer simulates the way in which human neurons naturally behave, sending these signals to tiny flashing lights on the music stands of the string players.  The musicians respond to these flashes as they would respond to a conductor issuing cues – as though the simulated neural activity was leading the orchestra.  The magic of the human mind is now expressed through sound, expressing Nick’s concept of Sonification — the aural expression of silent phenomena.  Here is an excerpt from a performance of the composition:

The “Sound: Now and Next” conference offered an abundance of inspiring ideas from top practitioners in their fields, and I urge everyone to check out the site and see some of the other presentations that are available online.  Also, be sure to check out the complete presentation given by Nick Ryan — “Sound is Magic.”



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.

Music, Audio and Immersion (for Game Composers and Sound Designers)



Since I’ll be giving a speech at the Montreal International Game Summit in November about “Music, the Brain, and the Three Levels of Immersion,” I thought I’d use this blog as an opportunity to look at three other perspectives on the role of music and sound in the Immersion phenomenon – in which we lose all sense of reality and surrender ourselves completely to the gameplay experience. My speech in Montreal will include some ideas that are detailed in chapter three of my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, and the connections between aural experience and the immersion effect will be correlated to some specific research studies that are explored in my book. However, there are certainly multiple ways to approach the topic, and immersion is a complex subject to tackle, particularly when we’re attempting to understand what role audio and music may play in the experience.

In the article, “Papa Sangre and the Construction of Immersion in Audio Games,” author Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo attempts to understand the immersive power of the audio-only game Papa Sangre, while also touching upon the effects of gender exclusion on the ability of non-represented genders to become immersed. The author’s conclusions about the internalized nature of audio-only immersion are intriguing.

In part three of the article, “Video Game Technology: Immersion Through Sound,” author Hugo Aranzaes makes some interesting points regarding the effect of increased audio channels (surround sound systems) on the immersive power of sound, particularly in the case of First Person Shooters, in which such positional audio information can be used strategically during gameplay.

Finally, an article by Connor Bridson provides a highly personal and subjective viewpoint about an equally personal and subjective experience – the horror game. Entitled “Immersion in Horror Video Games,” the article contends that audio in an atmospheric horror game occupies a greater position of importance than visuals in the experience of immersion.

Sound Games


Can sound be used as a primary gameplay mechanic? In this blog post, I’ll be showing you videos of a number of recent games that have tried to answer this question – they’re all fun and fascinating in their own ways.

As an audio content creator for the video game industry, I’m definitely intrigued by the trend of using audio as the primary mechanic in a video game. In an audio-driven game, the players have to use their ears in order to play – sound takes over the responsibility to deliver crucial gameplay messages to the player. Instead of audio providing support to a primarily visual experience, the audio-driven game turns that paradigm on its head, forcing the visuals into a supporting role for a primarily aural experience. To explain it another way, consider those players who sometimes prefer to turn off the sound of a game and simply rely on the visuals. In an audio-driven game, that would be impossible. On the other hand, players could conceivably turn off the visuals (or simply close their eyes) and still successfully play the game and enjoy themselves while playing it.

Papa Sangre is one of the purest examples of this approach. The game has almost no visual content at all, instead presenting only a rudimentary black-and-white dial for changing direction, and the image of two feet that propel your character forward when tapped sequentially. With this bare-bones interface, you navigate a lush aural environment. As a new arrival in the land of the dead, you navigate through total darkness, searching for your lost love. The game was created by Paul Bennun and the team at Somethin’ Else. Here’s a video demonstrating a few minutes of gameplay (best enjoyed wearing headphones).

While Papa Sangre is designed as a story-rich experience, Ear Monsters is a more casual game that relies on sound to drive gameplay. Gameplay involves killing invisible monsters by locating them based on their vocalizations. Again, the visual presentation is utilitarian and static, while the audio portion is more vibrant and active. Brian Schmidt of Ear Games created this game – he posted an interesting blog about the making of an audio game to the Gamasutra site. Here’s a tutorial demonstrating how to play Ear Monsters:

On the other end of the spectrum, a few games have experimented with the use of audio by the player as the primary method for controlling gameplay. One of my favorite examples of this is PewPewPewPewPewPewPewPewPew, created by Josh Schonstall and Ian Brock of IncredibleApe. As the name suggests, players control a sidescrolling shooter by saying “PewPewPew” into a microphone, which triggers the character to fire weapons. The game is hilarious to watch – here’s a video:

Another game I want to mention is more of a work of performance art. It could never actually be released to the public, although the public can play it when it’s displayed as an interactive art installation during game festivals, game music concerts and museum exhibitions. The game is called Cello Fortress, and was created by Joost van Dongen. In this multiplayer game, one of the players is always a cellist, who controls various forms of weaponry by virtue of specific musical articulations on the cello. Fast notes control guns, chords control flamethrowers, low notes control mines, etc. The cello player improvises a musical performance while also attempting to destroy a group of opponents, who control tanks by using traditional console controllers. It’s fascinating to watch – here’s a video:

Finally, I had the opportunity to compose music for a gameplay sequence in God of War that functioned as an audio-driven minigame. During the Desert of Lost Souls sequence, the player is tasked with locating an enemy during a blinding sandstorm. The enemy is the mythical Siren, who sings to lure unsuspecting warriors to their deaths. In this case, the player must disregard visual stimulus and focus on the location of the singing voice in the desert, following the sound until the Siren is reached and can be killed. I composed and performed the song of the Siren.  Here’s a link to a video of that gameplay sequence:


Have you heard an audio-driven video game that you’d like to discuss here? Please share your experiences and impressions in the comments below!