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: Examining the Craft of Video Game Music Composition

Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio. This photo illustrates the awards and accolades received by the music of the Spyder video game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Last year, I participated in an online discussion session during a popular live-stream chat event hosted by Video Game Music Academy.  The lively conversation that took place there seems worth sharing at this point.  What follows is a partial transcript of the most substantive conversation from that hour-long session.  I was interviewed by public school music teacher Daniel Hulsman.  At the time, one of my projects had just released – the Spyder game for Apple Arcade – which had won a Global Music Award that year and was also nominated for a NAVGTR Award (pictured above).  Much of the discussion focused on that project, but it also touches on my work in other games, and the topics broaden out to encompass more of the top issues pertaining to the craft of video game music composition.  You’ll see that I’ve also included a few videos here and there to supplement the transcript and illustrate the discussion.

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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.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

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: Interactivity in Game Music (Pt. 5)

This photo includes video game composer Winifred Phillips working in the Generations Productions music studio. Phillips' credits feature entries in such popular and famous game franchises as Assassin's Creed Liberation, God of War, LittleBigPlanet, The Sims, and Total War.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everybody!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and welcome to the fifth and final installment of my article series based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.  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 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).

If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, you can find them here:

In the previous installments of this series, we discussed the importance of repeating musical themes, using the variation technique and fragmentation to support different gameplay types.  So now, let’s explore what happens when musical themes are employed within more complex interactive music systems.

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Game Composers and the Importance of Themes: Recurrence and Rationale in Game Music (Pt. 4)

Photo of composer Winifred Phillips at work in her music production studio at Generations Productions. Phillips' work includes several famous and popular games and game franchises, including God of War, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, Assassin's Creed, and The Sims.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and welcome to the fourth installment of my five article series based on the presentation I gave this past March at the first-ever completely online Game Developers Conference!  My talk was titled “From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes” (you’ll find the official description of my talk at the end of this article).  In my presentation, I explored the thematic content in music I composed for several top 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).

If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, you can find them here:

In the last article, we discussed theme fragmentation and variation.  So now let’s consider how themes can best enhance different types of gameplay.

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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: 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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