Hey, everyone! 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.
Daniel: I was listening to the Spyder soundtrack, and it’s a really fun one. One thing I noticed about that game is that it leans really heavily into that feel of the spy genre. But obviously that’s a tricky thing? Where it’s got a really strong genre sound, but it still sounds unique and fun?
Winifred: I’ve actually had to do a lot of projects like that, where there’s an established franchise or an intellectual property. With the Assassin’s Creed game, it’s the Assassin’s Creed franchise, and that’s a very specific sound with a long history and a lot of fans. With my other projects like the Da Vinci Code, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Shrek the Third – it’s an intellectual property that exists and for which there are expectations. For Spyder, it was all about the nineteen sixties-era action spy thriller, and that was a lot of fun for me because I got a chance to really dig into research for it. That’s always my first step, if I’m going into a project that’s historically based. So I did a lot of research into music from the nineteen sixties… particularly for spy movies… the soundtracks from the sixties and early seventies. Just trying to absorb the influences, so that it becomes a vocabulary – a built-up reservoir of techniques and tools and ideas and instrumentation. Then you can employ that towards the ideas that you want to express personally. You have to reach critical mass, in terms of the amount of research you’ve done. At least for me, I get to a point where I feel that, ‘okay, now I have enough under the hood going on.’ I feel like I can speak in that language, because I’ve had enough immersion learning in order to be able to reflect it – but also still say the kind of things I want to say.
Note: Since this interview in 2020, the music of the Spyder video game has been recognized with a Global Music Award and a nomination from the NAVGTR Awards from the National Association of Video Game Trade Reviewers.
Daniel: That sounds like the most fun research ever, just like watching old spy movies and listening to the music from them. It sounds amazing. But there could be a double-edged sword for some people – the paralysis by analysis. You research so much that you have a hard time getting started. So how do you know when you’re at that critical mass… where it’s time to shift gears, buckle in and get to work?
Winifred: Well, deadlines help with that.
Daniel: (laughs) That makes sense, yeah.
Winifred: There’s always that ticking of the clock… it kind of feels like a hand at the small of your back, pushing you forward. That always helps to get moving. But for me, also, it helps if the research has gone well. I always know when I haven’t done enough, because otherwise there’s an anxious churning under the surface – I feel like I don’t have enough tools, I don’t have enough language to move forward, I can’t start yet! So then I have to keep digging, until it feels like there’s enough. If I’m doing it right, the research is just going to settle down into my subconscious, as a background to the work that I want to do. I think that’s a way to avoid the danger of feeling stymied or penned in by the research. If you’ve got enough of it, then you can set it into the back of your mind and just trust it – you can say, ‘okay, it’s there for me, but it’s not a rulebook. It’s not a ten-commandments. I can do what seems right for the project, but I can trust it’s there and it’s filtering through the work that I’m doing.’ Plus I can lean on it if I’m stuck for an instrumental technique… or for this particular project, a sense of the authenticity of the nineteen sixties. That big band sound… the rat pack feeling… the kind of funky, groovy, tasty flavors that were happening as you moved into the early seventies. That’s really informed my work for Spyder, and it was very inspirational.
Daniel: Yes! If you’ve really inundated yourself with that vocabulary, as you put it – instrument-wise, chords-wise, rhythms-wise – all those little pieces. When you sit down to come up with your own ideas, like you normally would… now all those things should be bubbling up to the surface, because they’re a part of your vocabulary.
Winifred: I think every musical genre is essentially a language. It has its own syntax and its own way of communicating. You’re conjugating the language of this musical genre. Our favorite musical genres are the ones we listen to all the time, so we can just express ourselves in that musical genre in a very intuitive way. We don’t have to think it through. I think the goal with research is to get to that point with a new musical genre – where it starts to feel intuitive. It starts to feel natural. Then the work becomes so much easier. So I get a little bit obsessed with the research, especially with a project like Spyder – because I want to hit that point.
Daniel: So there’s also something else I noticed. You’ve got this big band sound, right? Just part of the genre. And then you’ve got a lot of this time that the music isn’t at the forefront. So I was wondering how did you find the balance between that really peppy genre, and the fact that it’s going to be coming in and out?
Winifred: The team at Sumo Digital have a really great audio team there, and they came up with a great music design. Exploration in Spyder is a trial and error process. You’re trying to advance and get past obstacles. Creating music for games like that, you have to be aware of the fact that there’s going to be a lot of quiet contemplation and exploration. You don’t want the music to be in your face all the time. It just doesn’t feel natural. So we came up with a system with lots of short ambient pieces of music that would float in and out. There were over thirty of these for each level.
Daniel: Each level!
Winifred: Yeah, there’s a lot of these short pieces, and they were all spy-movie flavored. Some would be more orchestral. Some would be jazzier. The system of interactive music could trigger these short pieces in a semi-random order, depending upon what was going on. So the music always seems like it’s commenting, with a little bit of a nod and a wink, on what’s happening in the game – in a way that feels contextually meaningful. The music will settle back, and you’ll be just wandering around the submarine, listening to the little gurgling sounds and beeping. Then the music will suddenly wander in and comment on what’s happening. Then it will just ease out again in a way that feels very subtle and unobtrusive. Once the action music is triggered, it’s a dynamic music system built around vertical layers. So there are quite a few vertical layers that get triggered as you proceed. Once the action music starts, it really does pick up the momentum, and the feeling of purpose – because you’re heading towards some sort of culmination. The music really does push that idea. As you continue on, you get past obstacles and you solve more puzzles, more layers of the music are added. It keeps getting more complex until you reach the end of the level and everything kind of explodes. The end result is that the whole thing has a very slow build from the beginning of the level to the end. I loved the thoughtfulness and the meticulous attention to detail that the Sumo Digital audio folks had in making that system work. They did a fantastic job on it.
Daniel: If I’m remembering correctly, there was one part where – as the spider’s doing something around a radio – there’s music coming from it.
Winifred: This was one of the greatest ideas that the team had! You’re in the War Room, and there’s this old-time classic radio there. So I was asked to create a diegetic piece for the radio, and I wrote a lounge jazz piece with a scat vocal and a piano – very smooth spy flavor. It plays all during the War Room level. But at the same time we did have those thirty pieces of non-diegetic ambient music that had to be triggered when you wander around. This is while the diegetic music is also playing. So each one of those short segments had to be written so that it could be triggered alongside the diegetic music – linked to certain portions of the radio music. Triggered in those places, the nondiegetic pieces would make the music on the radio suddenly swell up with an orchestral texture. It would become more dramatic. Then the nondiegetic music would settle down, fade away, and you were still left with that radio music in the background. It was the first time I had a chance to blend diegetic and nondiegetic music together in an interactive system.
Daniel: That sounds complicated. (laughs)
Winifred: There were so many short pieces of music to create for the ambient system. It was a lot of work. But it was a great opportunity. I’d seen in other games the idea of essentially a grab-bag of short tracks that were triggered randomly. But not quite this way, and particularly not triggered alongside a diegetic piece. So that made for a really interesting challenge.
Daniel: Awesome! Is planning out structure a big part of your workflow? And how does that approach differ when you’re working with dynamic music, as opposed to more straightforward linear music?
Winifred: If you’re talking about a piece of dynamic music, then the dynamic system is really on your mind right from the start. At least for me it is. And it’s going to influence everything you’re doing. For example, with the LittleBigPlanet (2 and 3) vertical layering system, the philosophy behind it was that each of the six layers should be able to exist on their own, and also in combination with any other layer. So you write the music to be – let’s say – idea-rich. So there’s a lot of content in each layer.
Daniel: Keeping on the topic, would you do more counterpoint when you do vertical composition? I feel like you would have to, right?
Winifred: Hm. Yeah, that’s a really great observation. Yeah, you would want to have counterpoint. I tend to have quite a bit of it when doing vertical composition. But I think you also have to be aware of the fact that simultaneous events can become cluttered-feeling – if there’s a lot of movement in opposition… a lot of counterpoint that’s happening between different layers. I think it can be very functional and work well in vertical layering. But it has to be done in moderation, because in the six layer system you can have counterpoint happening everywhere.
Daniel: Counterpoint is a pretty tricky subject to learn, because there are a lot of rules and it takes obviously a lot of practice. The way I was taught counterpoint in college was through classical music, but I was just wondering… do you have anything that really helped you learn the skill of counterpoint, that you think people would maybe find useful? Beyond just classical music? Because I know classical music is a great place to learn it, but if it’s not your speed, then it could be tough to ingest those rules. You know what I mean?
Winifred: I know what you mean. Soundtracks and film scores can teach us about counterpoint. Particularly some of the older film scores… the grand days of John Williams, and James Horner, and Silvestri. That kind of music can really teach you a lot about independent moving lines. And gestures too. When I was first starting on the Shrek the Third game project, the musical direction included the idea that musical gestures would be very important – interesting little flourishes that accentuate movement and kinetics in the game. You call it a gesture because it does feel like when you’re talking and you gesture with your hands to accentuate a point. The music can flourish in that same way, and feel gestural. So that was something that I started doing first for the Shrek the Third project. And I find that direction from audio directors and the audio team on projects has pointed me in new creative directions, and urged me to learn more about my craft. So, I’ve definitely grown from project to project. I think that one of the best ways to learn is by jumping into a new project and then finding out that you need to do something you haven’t done before.
Daniel: Awesome – the layered system always fascinates me. Have you ever done something where the default was a good number of layers, but game events involved losing some, or stripping music down to its bones?
Winifred: Oh yeah, sometimes a game development team will ask me to submit the music in lots of stems – that’s the individual instruments, recorded separately. And I’m always interested when I’m asked to do this. There’s a lot of interesting stuff under the hood, so to speak. Sometimes when I’m creating the music for a game, the music design isn’t entirely fleshed out – because the game itself is in flux. The levels may be changing, or characters are being added, or deleted. By the time I’ve finished music, the game could still be in flux. So, the idea of taking the music and thinking of it as a set of tools that can be implemented to suit the needs of the game as it evolves. There was a VR game called Shattered State that I did for Supermassive Games. Again, it’s a spy thriller. You’re a ‘central intelligence agency’ type of character, and you’re making decisions about how to counter a terrorist threat. My music was structured around repetition and building layers – creating a groove that then grew and became more complex as time went on. We designed it so that the interactive components could be maximized based on the shape of the game at the time. So that’s a big part of what the audio team does.
Daniel: When you work on a license like Assassin’s Creed, how do you manage to preserve the musical heritage of the game, while also bringing your own touch to it?
Winifred: That’s a good question. For Assassin’s Creed, I remember listening to quite a bit of the music that had been created in the franchise prior to the game I was working on (Assassin’s Creed Liberation). So I was aware there’s this combination of historical accuracy that emphasized and underlined the time period, along with an undercurrent of science fiction flavor. Because you’re in the Animus, it’s a virtual reality environment; you’re essentially in the future, living in the past. So the music tries to help you remember that. But one of the greatest things about Assassin’s Creed is that each game tends to be set in a completely different time period. The game I worked on was set in 18th century New Orleans, with the French influences and the Baroque influences. Plus the main character, Aveline, was both African and French so her background was just so rich and inspirational. There were so many musical forms to research, understand, and combine. I got a chance to do a lot of synthesis of ideas, to see how French Baroque and African instrumentation could combine and accentuate each other – and reflect who Aveline is. It was very original… very unique in terms of a perspective for that particular game.
Daniel: It seems like no matter what you’re working on, you do a great deal of research – and synthesis I think is a perfect word for what you’re describing! Is there a checklist that you always go through when you are doing your research phase?
Winifred: When I’m working, I think about instrumentation first – understanding the instruments to maximize their expressiveness. That is a big part of my research. I go on YouTube and watch really expressive and talented virtuoso performances to understand the sense of expressiveness that each instrument can bring to a musical composition. For Spyder, I was watching jazz keyboardists quite a lot, and bassists. The minimoog sound, and the electric keyboard sounds, and those funky basslines. It’s a very particular funky groovy flavor. As another example – for Assassin’s Creed Liberation, the music is split into two categories. You’ve got the Baroque feeling, so of course I’m listening to a lot of Bach for that. Because if you want to get right down to the basics of Baroque, there’s the skeleton, the bones of it. But then the harmonic colors of that African sound from the same time period – that was also something very important for me to reflect in as truthful a way as possible. Honoring the tradition of it. So that was important for me to understand. For Spyder, it was all about the jazz chords, those kinds of harmonic relationships that informed the way in which the jazz communicated for that time period of the sixties and early seventies. So, for each project, it’s an entirely different musical language… and it just has to be a matter of quietly listening to it and feeling your way.
Daniel: To become a composer in games and animations, where is a great place to start?
Winifred: If you’re starting out and you’re looking for a way to begin creating music, it depends very much on the kind of music you want to make. But the opportunity to just jump in and do something is invaluable. If you can jump in with a student team, or a game jam – just volunteer your services on any kind of simple project – starting small is best. Small victories are very encouraging. The chance to just do something, and prove (if only to yourself) that you can do something. That’s very helpful, when you first start. When I first started, I jumped into a bunch of volunteer projects, things that never got made. A Half-Life mod. An MMO that never got off the ground. Stuff like that, where I created music and got really excited. I felt like I’d entered a world that was completely new to me. I think back on that time as being really valuable, even though those games never came out. It was still something that allowed me to learn about myself, and to understand how much it meant to me to become a game music composer. So it lit a fire under me. I think that is a way to begin.
Daniel: Is transcribing as many songs from the genre as possible something that will help you understand the genre?
Winifred: Well, this is one of those situations in which your personal relationship with music becomes really important. I’m a listener. That’s the way I feel most comfortable absorbing and internalizing music. Understanding performance, and the kind of human nuance that can be brought to bear. But that certainly can’t be true for everyone, and some people might look at music in terms of its notation and absorb it that way. So, to transcribe music as a way to understand it, I think, could be very helpful to those people. If it’s interesting and compelling to see music spread out before you on that score paper, then that has to be the way in which you investigate it. The question to ask yourself is, ‘Is transcribing this music going to thrill me? Am I going to be inspired by doing this?’ If that’s true, then have at it!
Daniel: Well, we are just about out of time here, so I wanted to just say it’s been such a great time talking to you. We’ll have to do it again sometime! Thank you so much for sharing your experience and your perspective with us!
Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer whose latest project is the hit PlayStation 5 launch title Sackboy: A Big Adventure (soundtrack album now available). Popular music from Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score is featured in the performance repertoire of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which made its Paris debut in 2019 with an 80-piece orchestra and choir. 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: Assassin’s Creed, God of War, Total War, The Sims, and Sackboy / LittleBigPlanet. 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. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.