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Cultural Influences in the game music composition of Secrets of Skeifa Island

A case study of music for the game Secrets of Skeifa Island, focusing on cultural influences derived from the game’s Nordic setting, and how that research shaped the music composition process.

Winifred Phillips, Blogger

December 12, 2023

9 Min Read

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everyone! I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips. One of my latest projects was the music for the game Secrets of Skeifa Island. Developed by Wild River Games and published for the Nintendo Switch, Secrets of Skeifa Island allows players to wander a lovingly designed Nordic-inspired landscape. The game centers on a quest to find a mysterious white ghost horse, uncover an ancient legend, and reveal a mythical realm hidden somewhere on the island. My music for this game has already won two NYX Game Awards (Best Game Soundtrack and Best Music for a Nintendo Switch Game). Film Score Monthly awarded this music a rating of 4 stars, calling it “enchanting!” and Cinelinx described the music as “delightful!”

This was my fourth time composing music for a project developed by Wild River Games. My previous games for Wild River had required me to dig deep into historical research. From Celtic orchestral drama, to courtly baroque, to medieval tavern music, to American bluegrass, my work with Wild River Games had spanned a wide array of styles. Now, Secrets of Skeifa Island was going to point me in an entirely new musical direction. I thought it might be interesting to share some thoughts on my research and composition process for Secrets of Skeifa Island. Think of this as a brief case study. I hope it’s useful for those of us embarking on challenging game projects requiring musical genres from world cultures.

When I started work on Secrets of Skeifa Island, the music direction for the project was straightforward. I was asked to infuse every piece of music for the game with a Nordic style. Secrets of Skeifa Island is set in modern times. The location for the game consists of a small, charming island that is home to a small fishing village and a modest farm. Everything about Skeifa Island is designed to be thoroughly pleasant and atmospheric, inviting leisurely exploration and sight seeing.

With that in mind, I contrasted the idyllic setting against the top examples of “Nordic music” that I could find. Right away, I could see that I had a bit of a problem to solve. If you’ve never explored the genre of contemporary music in the Norse heritage, I urge you to give it a whirl. It’s famous for its brooding drones, haunting horns and lamenting flutes. Most of it is performed by costumed warrior-musicians. They’re frequently covered in face-paint, wearing great big antlers, and decorated with intricate Viking runes. Modern Nordic music is essentially the aesthetic of Lord of the Rings blended with Death Metal. Add the grim iconography derived from Norse mythology, and the result is very dark. Very, very dark.

Clearly, this wasn’t going to be any help in looking for musical inspiration for Secrets of Skeifa Island. Stepping away from a contemporary examination of Nordic music, I started thinking about a more historically-driven musical style. I focused on the countries that make up the Nordics (Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden). Much of their traditional music was written for dances. Since I was specifically interested in music that might be heard in a tiny fishing village on a small windswept island, I narrowed my focus towards a couple of specific dance music genres.

The Norwegian Halling dance is an awesome visual spectacle. Part dance, part sport, the Halling is an ego-driven test of stamina, expert balance and enduring strength. Young men (and sometimes women) bounce and leap, spin for long periods, perform flips and gymnastic roundhouse-style kicks, and even spin on their heads like break-dancers – all in the effort to outdo each other. The distinctive bouncy tempo makes for lively dance music. It seemed perfect for the kind of village gatherings one might expect on Skeifa Island.

The Swedish slängpolska dance, on the other hand, is a less competitive and more convivial couples dance. Two dancers spin gently in each other’s arms, shifting their hold positions in several ways that can involve different underarm passes and turns. During the dance, these spins can accelerate and continue for quite a long time. Expert slängpolska dancers are able to keep both their equilibrium and their footwork under control. The slängpolska was once a very popular couples dance, performed in small family cottages all over Sweden.

In my work on the music of Secrets of Skeifa Island, I studied and applied techniques from a broad array of Nordic folk traditions. However, these two particular dance styles proved especially inspirational. Now that I had this foundation upon which to build, I began thinking about music composition and arrangement. It quickly became clear to me that style-appropriate instrumentation and performance technique would be immensely important in this project. This consideration pointed me towards some rare and interesting instruments that were evocative of village culture and history on Skeifa Island.

From Iceland, the langspil was especially important in my work on Secrets of Skeifa Island. The langspil is a type of simple three-stringed dulcimer that can be plucked, hammered or bowed. This allows it to perform mesmerizing drones. Its evocative medieval sound conveys both a sense of history and an aura of compelling enigma – qualities that were very useful for this project.

From Norway, the langeleik is a zither performed with a plectrum (a short stick). The player applies a strumming action to produce a drone on as many as 8 drone strings. Melodies are performed on an additional fretted melodic string. Since this instrument is very important in the performance of the Norwegian Halling dance, I used it frequently in the score for Secrets of Skeifa Island.

From Finland, the kantele is a plucked zither belonging to the instrument family known as the Baltic Psaltery. A small 15 string kantele is typical of the instruments that would have been used for local folk music. The kantele has an especially delicate and bell-like sound. Its shimmering reverberance hangs pleasantly in the air, and lends a magical quality to this quaint and idyllic natural setting.

From Sweden, the nyckelharpa is a keyed fiddle. It looks a bit like an extra-large viola that has been given the Frankenstein treatment. The nyckelharpa’s tones are triggered by a set of wooden keys built into the side of the instrument. The tone on a nyckelharpa is produced by bowing, which creates a very unique and vibrant sound. Nyckelharpa is an important traditional instrument for the slängpolska dance in Sweden, so it figured prominently in my arrangements for Secrets of Skeifa Island.

The talharpa is a Scandinavian instrument that may have originated in Sweden, or perhaps Norway – history remains unclear on this point. As a bowed lyre, the talharpa comes in a variety of sizes, and can have anywhere from two to four strings. This instrument has an intrinsically primitive nature. Its open-air strings aren’t supported by either a fretboard or an unfretted fingerboard. The Talharpist moves fingers across these open-air strings to select pitches. This often produces a sound full of rough character and unrefined personality. I used both a bass and treble talharpa for Secrets of Skeifa Island. As an instrument with tons of quirky charisma, it was one of my favorites during this project.

The bone flute is perhaps the oldest musical instrument, used by our cave-dwelling ancestors. This, along with various other wooden flutes, rounded out my woodwind section. I also used the runebomme ceremonial drum (from the Sámi people of Norway) to add an authentic texture to the rhythm section.

After all this research into musical style, history, and instrumentation, I turned my attention to composition for Secrets of Skeifa Island. Let’s now check out how all these elements came together! Here’s a video that includes several musical excerpts from my score for Wild River Games’ Secrets of Skeifa Island. You’ll notice that the music includes lots of variations on the dance rhythms and modes found in traditional Nordic folk music. My score for Secrets of Skeifa Island also employs the numerous authentic zithers, lyres, fiddles, dulcimers, flutes and percussion instruments that were discussed in this article.

Composing the music for Secrets of Skeifa Island was a fascinating challenge, and I hope you found this discussion interesting! You can read more about game music composition in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. Thanks for reading!

Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer. Music from one of her latest projects, Secrets of Skeifa Island, won two NYX Awards in 2023 (Best Game Soundtrack, Best Music for a Nintendo Switch Game). Last year, her music from the Jurassic World Primal Ops game won both the Global Music Award and the NYX Award, and was nominated for a Society of Composers & Lyricists Award for Outstanding Score for Interactive Media, and a Game Audio Network Guild Award in the category of Music of the Year. Other recent releases include 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 was featured in the performance repertoire of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which made its Paris debut with an 80-piece orchestra and choir. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in many of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: the list includes Assassin’s Creed, God of War, Total War, The Sims, 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 four 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 has been published 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, Facebook, Instagram, and Threads.

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