Gamasutra: Winifred Phillips’s Weblog – Composer Interview: Analyzing the Craft of Video Recreation Music Composition


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By Winifred Phillips  |  Contact Comply with

Hey, everybody!  I am online game composer Winifred Phillips.  Final yr, I participated in an internet dialogue session throughout a well-liked live-stream chat occasion hosted by Video Recreation Music Academy.  The vigorous dialog that befell there appears price sharing at this level.  What follows is a partial transcript of essentially the most substantive dialog from that hour-long session.  I used to be interviewed by public college music instructor Daniel Hulsman.  On the time, one among my initiatives had simply launched – the Spyder recreation for Apple Arcade – which had received a World Music Award that yr and was additionally nominated for a NAVGTR Award (pictured above).  A lot of the dialogue centered on that undertaking, however it additionally touches on my work in different video games, and the matters broaden out to embody extra of the highest points pertaining to the craft of online game music composition.  You will see that I’ve additionally included a number of movies right here and there to complement the transcript and illustrate the dialogue.


Daniel: I used to be listening to the Spyder soundtrack, and it’s a very enjoyable one. One factor I observed about that recreation is that it leans actually closely into that really feel of the spy style. However clearly that’s a difficult factor? The place it’s obtained a very sturdy style sound, however it nonetheless sounds distinctive and enjoyable?

The official logo of the Spyder video game for Apple Arcade, as included in the article written by video game composer Winifred Phillips.Winifred: I’ve really needed to do plenty of initiatives like that, the place there’s a longtime franchise or an mental property. With the Murderer’s Creed recreation, it’s the Murderer’s Creed franchise, and that’s a very particular sound with an extended historical past and plenty of followers. With my different initiatives just like the Da Vinci Code, or Charlie and the Chocolate Manufacturing facility, or Shrek the Third – it’s an mental property that exists and for which there are expectations. For Spyder, it was all in regards to the nineteen sixties-era motion spy thriller, and that was plenty of enjoyable for me as a result of I obtained an opportunity to actually dig into analysis for it. That’s at all times my first step, if I’m going right into a undertaking that’s traditionally primarily based. So I did plenty of analysis into music from the 19 sixties… notably for spy films… the soundtracks from the sixties and early seventies. Simply attempting to soak up the influences, in order that it turns into a vocabulary – a built-up reservoir of methods and instruments and concepts and instrumentation. Then you possibly can make use of that in direction of the concepts that you just need to categorical personally. It’s important to attain essential mass, by way of the quantity of analysis you’ve completed. At the very least for me, I get to a degree the place I really feel that, ‘okay, now I’ve sufficient beneath the hood happening.’  I really feel like I can communicate in that language, as a result of I’ve had sufficient immersion studying so as to have the ability to replicate it – but additionally nonetheless say the sort of issues I need to say.

Observe: Since this interview in 2020, the music of the Spyder online game has been acknowledged with a World Music Award and a nomination from the NAVGTR Awards from the Nationwide Affiliation of Video Recreation Commerce Reviewers.

Image depicting the award and nomination received by the music of the Spyder video game, from the article written by Winifred Phillips (game music composer)

Daniel: That feels like essentially the most enjoyable analysis ever, similar to watching previous spy films and listening to the music from them. It sounds wonderful. However there could possibly be a double-edged sword for some individuals – the paralysis by evaluation. You analysis a lot that you’ve got a tough time getting began. So how are you aware while you’re at that essential mass… the place it’s time to shift gears, buckle in and get to work?

Winifred: Properly, deadlines assist with that.

Daniel: (laughs) That is smart, yeah.

An image depicting Agent 8: the greatest of all spy gadgets, from the video game Spyder (as included in the article by award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips).Winifred: There’s at all times that ticking of the clock… it sort of feels like a hand on the small of your again, pushing you ahead. That at all times helps to get transferring.   However for me, additionally, it helps if the analysis has gone nicely. I at all times know after I haven’t completed sufficient, as a result of in any other case there’s an anxious churning beneath the floor – I really feel like I don’t have sufficient instruments, I don’t have sufficient language to maneuver ahead, I can’t begin but! So then I’ve to maintain digging, till it looks like there’s sufficient. If I’m doing it proper, the analysis is simply going to calm down into my unconscious, as a background to the work that I need to do. I feel that’s a option to keep away from the hazard of feeling stymied or penned in by the analysis. In the event you’ve obtained sufficient of it, then you possibly can set it into the again of your thoughts and simply belief it – you possibly can say, ‘okay, it’s there for me, however it’s not a rulebook. It’s not a ten-commandments. I can do what appears proper for the undertaking, however I can belief it’s there and it’s filtering by way of the work that I’m doing.’ Plus I can lean on it if I’m caught for an instrumental method… or for this specific undertaking, a way of the authenticity of the 19 sixties. That large band sound… the rat pack feeling… the sort of funky, groovy, tasty flavors that have been occurring as you moved into the early seventies. That’s actually knowledgeable my work for Spyder, and it was very inspirational.

Daniel: Sure! In the event you’ve actually inundated your self with that vocabulary, as you set it – instrument-wise, chords-wise, rhythms-wise – all these little items. While you sit all the way down to give you your personal concepts, such as you usually would… now all these issues ought to be effervescent as much as the floor, as a result of they’re part of your vocabulary.

Winifred: I feel each musical style is actually a language. It has its personal syntax and its personal means of speaking. You’re conjugating the language of this musical style. Our favourite musical genres are those we take heed to on a regular basis, so we will simply categorical ourselves in that musical style in a really intuitive means. We don’t must suppose it by way of. I feel the aim with analysis is to get to that time with a brand new musical style – the place it begins to really feel intuitive. It begins to really feel pure. Then the work turns into a lot simpler. So I get a bit of bit obsessive about the analysis, particularly with a undertaking like Spyder – as a result of I need to hit that time.

The official poster image for Spyder - one of the top games on Apple Arcade. This image was included in the article authored by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips.

Daniel: So there’s additionally one thing else I observed. You’ve obtained this large band sound, proper? Simply a part of the style. And you then’ve obtained plenty of this time that the music isn’t on the forefront. So I used to be questioning how did you discover the stability between that actually peppy style, and the truth that it’s going to be coming out and in?

Winifred: The staff at Sumo Digital have a very nice audio staff there, they usually got here up with an excellent music design. Exploration in Spyder is a trial and error course of. You’re attempting to advance and get previous obstacles. Creating music for video games like that, you will have to pay attention to the truth that there’s going to be plenty of quiet contemplation and exploration. You don’t need the music to be in your face on a regular basis. It simply doesn’t really feel pure. So we got here up with a system with a lot of quick ambient items of music that will float out and in. There have been over thirty of those for every degree.

Daniel:  Every degree!

Winifred: Yeah, there’s a lot of those quick items, they usually have been all spy-movie flavored. Some could be extra orchestral. Some could be jazzier. The system of interactive music might set off these quick items in a semi-random order, relying upon what was happening. So the music at all times looks as if it’s commenting, with a bit of little bit of a nod and a wink, on what’s occurring within the recreation – in a means that feels contextually significant. The music will settle again, and also you’ll be simply A screen from the Spyder video game from Sumo Digital / Apple Arcade, as included in the article by Winifred Phillips (award-winning game composer)wandering across the submarine, listening to the little gurgling sounds and beeping. Then the music will all of a sudden wander in and touch upon what’s occurring. Then it can simply ease out once more in a means that feels very refined and unobtrusive. As soon as the motion music is triggered, it’s a dynamic music system constructed round vertical layers. So there are fairly a number of vertical layers that get triggered as you proceed. As soon as the motion music begins, it actually does decide up the momentum, and the sensation of goal – since you’re heading in direction of some form of end result. The music actually does push that concept. As you proceed on, you get previous obstacles and also you clear up extra puzzles, extra layers of the music are added. It retains getting extra complicated till you attain the tip of the extent and every little thing sort of explodes. The top result’s that the entire thing has a really gradual construct from the start of the extent to the tip. I beloved the thoughtfulness and the meticulous consideration to element that the Sumo Digital audio of us had in making that system work. They did a improbable job on it.

Daniel: If I’m remembering appropriately, there was one half the place – because the spider’s doing one thing round a radio – there’s music coming from it.

A screen depicting the War Room level of the Spyder game on Apple Arcade, from the article by Winifred Phillips, composer of music for video games.Winifred: This was one of many biggest concepts that the staff had! You’re within the Warfare Room, and there’s this old-time basic radio there. So I used to be requested to create a diegetic piece for the radio, and I wrote a lounge jazz piece with a scat vocal and a piano – very easy spy taste. It performs all throughout the Warfare Room degree. However on the similar time we did have these thirty items of non-diegetic ambient music that needed to be triggered while you wander round. That is whereas the diegetic music can be enjoying. So every a type of quick segments needed to be written in order that it could possibly be triggered alongside the diegetic music – linked to sure parts of the radio music. Triggered in these locations, the nondiegetic items would make the music on the radio all of a sudden swell up with an orchestral texture. It could change into extra dramatic. Then the nondiegetic music would calm down, fade away, and also you have been nonetheless left with that radio music within the background. It was the primary time I had an opportunity to mix diegetic and nondiegetic music collectively in an interactive system.

Daniel: That sounds sophisticated. (laughs)

Winifred: There have been so many quick items of music to create for the ambient system. It was plenty of work.  But it surely was an excellent alternative. I’d seen in different video games the thought of primarily a grab-bag of quick tracks that have been triggered randomly. However not fairly this manner, and notably not triggered alongside a diegetic piece. In order that made for a very attention-grabbing problem.

Daniel: Superior!  Is planning out construction an enormous a part of your workflow? And the way does that strategy differ while you’re working with dynamic music, versus extra easy linear music?

Winifred: In the event you’re speaking a few piece of dynamic music, then the dynamic system is admittedly in your thoughts proper from the beginning. At the very least for me it’s. And it’s going to affect every little thing you’re doing. For instance, with the LittleBigPlanet (2 and three) vertical layering system, the philosophy behind it was that every of the six layers ought to be capable of exist on their very own, and in addition together with another layer. So that you write the music to be – let’s say – idea-rich. So there’s plenty of content material in every layer.

Daniel: Protecting on the subject, would you do extra counterpoint while you do vertical composition? I really feel like you would need to, proper?

An illustration of the complexity of game music composition, as included by video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her article about the VGM Academy Live conference.Winifred: Hm. Yeah, that’s a very nice commentary. Yeah, you’ll need to have counterpoint. I are inclined to have fairly a little bit of it when doing vertical composition. However I feel you even have to pay attention to the truth that simultaneous occasions can change into cluttered-feeling – if there’s plenty of motion in opposition… plenty of counterpoint that’s occurring between completely different layers. I feel it may be very useful and work nicely in vertical layering. But it surely must be completed sparsely, as a result of within the six layer system you possibly can have counterpoint occurring all over the place.

Daniel: Counterpoint is a reasonably tough topic to be taught, as a result of there are plenty of guidelines and it takes clearly plenty of observe. The way in which I used to be taught counterpoint in school was by way of classical music, however I used to be simply questioning… do you will have something that actually helped you be taught the talent of counterpoint, that you just suppose individuals would perhaps discover helpful? Past simply classical music? As a result of I do know classical music is a superb place to be taught it, but when it’s not your velocity, then it could possibly be robust to ingest these guidelines. You recognize what I imply?

Winifred: I do know what you imply. Soundtracks and movie scores can educate us about counterpoint. Notably a number of the older movie scores… the grand days of John Williams, and James Horner, and Silvestri. That sort of music can actually educate you numerous about unbiased transferring traces. And gestures too. After I was first beginning on the Shrek the Third recreation undertaking, the musical route included the concept musical gestures could be essential – attention-grabbing little thrives that intensify motion and kinetics within the recreation. You name it a gesture as a result of it does really feel like while you’re speaking and also you gesture together with your fingers to intensify some extent. The music can flourish in that very same means, and really feel gestural. In order that was one thing that I began doing first for the Shrek the Third undertaking. And I discover that route from audio administrators and the audio staff on initiatives has pointed me in new artistic instructions, and urged me to be taught extra about my craft. So, I’ve positively grown from undertaking to undertaking. I feel that probably the greatest methods to be taught is by leaping into a brand new undertaking after which discovering out that it’s essential do one thing you haven’t completed earlier than.

Daniel: Superior – the layered system at all times fascinates me. Have you ever ever completed one thing the place the default was a superb variety of layers, however recreation occasions concerned dropping some, or stripping music all the way down to its bones?

Winifred: Oh yeah, generally a recreation improvement staff will ask me to submit the music in a lot of stems – that’s the person devices, recorded individually. And I’m at all times after I’m requested to do that. There’s plenty of attention-grabbing stuff beneath the hood, so to talk.  Typically after I’m creating the music for a recreation, the music design isn’t fully fleshed out – as a result of the sport itself is in flux. The degrees could also be altering, or characters are being added, or deleted. By the point I’ve completed music, the sport might nonetheless be in flux. So, the thought of taking the music and considering of it as a set of instruments that may be carried out to swimsuit The official logo and cover art of the Shattered State VR game from Supermassive Games, as included in the article by game music composer Winifred Phillips.the wants of the sport because it evolves. There was a VR recreation referred to as Shattered State that I did for Supermassive Video games. Once more, it’s a spy thriller. You’re a ‘central intelligence company’ kind of character, and also you’re making selections about counter a terrorist risk. My music was structured round repetition and constructing layers – making a groove that then grew and have become extra complicated as time went on.  We designed it in order that the interactive elements could possibly be maximized primarily based on the form of the sport on the time. In order that’s an enormous a part of what the audio staff does.

Daniel: While you work on a license like Murderer’s Creed, how do you handle to protect the musical heritage of the sport, whereas additionally bringing your personal contact to it?

Winifred: That’s a superb query. For Murderer’s Creed, I bear in mind listening to fairly a little bit of the music that had been created within the franchise previous to the sport I used to be engaged on (Murderer’s Creed Liberation). So I used to be conscious there’s this mixture of historic accuracy that emphasised and underlined the time interval, together with an undercurrent of science fiction taste. Since you’re within the Animus, it’s a digital actuality surroundings; you’re primarily sooner or later, residing up to now. So the music tries that can assist you keep in mind that. However one of many biggest issues about Murderer’s Creed is that every recreation tends to be set in a very completely different time interval. The sport I labored on was set in 18th century New Orleans, with the French influences and the Baroque influences. Plus the primary character, Aveline, was each African and French so her background was simply so wealthy and inspirational. There have been so many musical kinds to analysis, perceive, and mix. I obtained an opportunity to do plenty of synthesis of concepts, to see how French Baroque and African instrumentation might mix and intensify one another – and replicate who Aveline is. It was very authentic… very distinctive by way of a perspective for that exact recreation.

Daniel: It looks as if it doesn’t matter what you’re engaged on, you do an excessive amount of analysis – and synthesis I feel is an ideal phrase for what you’re describing! Is there a guidelines that you just at all times undergo if you end up doing all your analysis section?

Winifred: After I’m working, I take into consideration instrumentation first – understanding the devices to maximise their expressiveness. That may be a large a part of my analysis. I’m going on YouTube and watch actually expressive and proficient virtuoso performances to know the sense of expressiveness that every instrument can carry to a musical composition. For Spyder, I used to be watching jazz keyboardists quite a bit, and bassists. The minimoog sound, and the electrical keyboard sounds, and people funky basslines. It’s a really specific funky groovy taste. As one other instance – for Murderer’s Creed Liberation, the music is break up into two classes. You’ve obtained the Baroque feeling, so in fact I’m listening to plenty of Bach for that. As a result of if you wish to get proper all the way down to the fundamentals of Baroque, there’s the skeleton, the bones of it. However then the harmonic colours of that African sound from the identical time interval – that was additionally one thing essential for me to replicate in as truthful a means as doable. Honoring the custom of it. In order that was necessary for me to know. For Spyder, it was all in regards to the jazz chords, these sorts of harmonic relationships that knowledgeable the way in which by which the jazz communicated for that point interval of the sixties and early seventies. So, for every undertaking, it’s a wholly completely different musical language… and it simply must be a matter of quietly listening to it and feeling your means.

Daniel: To change into a composer in video games and animations, the place is a superb place to start out?

Winifred: In the event you’re beginning out and also you’re on the lookout for a option to start creating music, it relies upon very a lot on the sort of music you need to make. However the alternative to simply leap in and do one thing is invaluable. In the event you can leap in with a scholar staff, or a recreation jam – simply volunteer your providers on any sort of easy undertaking – beginning small is finest. Small victories are very encouraging. The possibility to simply do one thing, and show (if solely to your self) which you could do one thing. That’s very useful, while you first begin. After I first began, I jumped right into a bunch of volunteer initiatives, issues that by no means obtained made. A Half-Life mod. An MMO that by no means obtained off the bottom. Stuff like that, the place I created music and obtained actually excited. I felt like I’d entered a world that was utterly new to me. I feel again on that point as being actually precious, despite the fact that these video games by no means got here out. It was nonetheless one thing that allowed me to study myself, and to know how a lot it meant to me to change into a recreation music composer. So it lit a fireplace beneath me. I feel that is a option to start.

Daniel: Is transcribing as many songs from the style as doable one thing that can assist you perceive the style?

Winifred: Properly, that is a type of conditions by which your private relationship with music turns into actually necessary. I’m a listener. That’s the way in which I really feel most comfy absorbing and internalizing music. Understanding efficiency, and the sort of human nuance that may be delivered to bear. However that actually can’t be true for everybody, and a few individuals may have a look at music by way of its notation and take up it that means. So, to transcribe music as a option to perceive it, I feel, could possibly be very useful to these individuals. If it’s attention-grabbing and compelling to see music unfold out earlier than you on that rating paper, then that must be the way in which by which you examine it. The query to ask your self is, ‘Is transcribing this music going to thrill me? Am I going to be impressed by doing this?’ If that’s true, then have at it!

Daniel: Properly, we’re nearly out of time right here, so I needed to simply say it’s been such a good time speaking to you. We’ll must do it once more someday! Thanks a lot for sharing your expertise and your perspective with us!


Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips, in her music studio at Generations Productions LLC..Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated online game composer whose newest undertaking is the hit PlayStation 5 launch title Sackboy: A Large Journey (soundtrack album now obtainable).  In style music from Phillips’ award-winning Murderer’s Creed Liberation rating is featured within the efficiency repertoire of the Murderer’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which made its Paris debut in 2019 with an 80-piece orchestra and choir. As an completed online game composer, Phillips is finest identified for composing music for video games in 5 of essentially the most well-known and in style franchises in gaming: Murderer’s Creed, God of Warfare, Complete Warfare, The Sims, and Sackboy / LittleBigPlanet.  She is the creator of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, printed by the MIT Press. As one of many foremost authorities on music for interactive leisure, Winifred Phillips has given lectures on the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Recreation Builders Convention, the Audio Engineering Society, and plenty of extra. Phillips’ enthusiastic followers showered her with questions throughout a Reddit Ask-Me-Something session that went viral, hit the Reddit entrance web page, obtained 14.9 thousand upvotes, and have become one of the vital in style gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit. Comply with her on Twitter @winphillips.    

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