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:
- Game Composers and the Importance of Themes: The Hook in Game Music (Pt. 1)
- Game Composers and the Importance of Themes: Repetition in Game Music (Pt. 2)
- Variation and Fragmentation in Game Music: Game Composers and the Importance of Themes (Pt. 3)
In the last article, we discussed theme fragmentation and variation. So now let’s consider how themes can best enhance different types of gameplay.
We typically see recurring musical themes used most frequently in story-driven games - especially during cinematics and cutscenes. For instance, when I composed the music for the Legend of the Guardians video game, I made sure that the main theme melody was prevalent during the game's start sequence and in the cinematic opening credits:
However, the role of thematic music goes beyond cinematic uses. While themes can propel a storyline, using themes more frequently can also reinforce the identity of the game we’re scoring, and serve as a musical signature for it. For instance, while the main theme was important during cinematic sequences, the main theme melody was also used during combat:
Themes can work during action, even in a game that isn’t driven by narrative. A good example is the music I composed for the Speed Racer video game based on the movie from the famous Wachowski siblings. It’s not a story-driven game, but nevertheless my main theme melody is all over the place – in the opening cinema, during the races, and even in the end credits:
These kind of recurring thematic uses can be employed during exploration too. In some of my music for the original God of War, I composed an atmospheric choral theme that was repeated in some of the grander and more awesome locations in the game:
Considering the rationale
As game composers working to incorporate themes into our work, repetition is our friend. Repetition makes a musical theme more memorable. With that in mind, it can be useful if we create a rationale for why a musical theme is recurring. For instance, in part three of this article series, we discussed the ‘Stand With Me’ theme that I composed for Homefront The Revolution. It tended to appear in inspiring moments of patriotism and self-sacrifice. Here's a reminder of how that worked:
So "patriotism and self-sacrifice" had become the underlying meaning that this musical theme was meant to convey, and this guided me in terms of when the theme should be repeated.
Likewise, in the second article of this series we discussed the "four chord" theme that I composed for Assassin's Creed Liberation (from the popular Assassin's Creed franchise.) With that simple four-chord progression, I knew I had a memorable hook that could help to reinforce the identity of the game and give it a strong musical signature, but I wanted a clear narrative association that would guide me when choosing when the theme should recur. With that in mind, I decided to use it during moments of revelation, when mysteries were solved and secrets discovered. Here are a couple of great examples of how the four-chord functioned as a theme representing ‘truth revealed’:
If we carefully consider the circumstances in which our themes recur, we have the chance to expertly associate in-game concepts and narrative ideas with our music. This helps the music to more forcefully assert a unique identity for the game, and deepen its character. In the final article in this five-part series, we'll discuss how musical themes can be incorporated into interactive music systems. Until then, thanks for reading!
From Assassin's Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes
(Game Developers Conference Session Description)
Through an exploration of her work composing music for games such as Assassin’s Creed Liberation, God of War, LittleBigPlanet and the upcoming RPG The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes, composer Winifred Phillips will examine the potential of thematic music to enable a game to stand out as special and unique.
By employing musical themes, a composer can infuse a game with a strong sense of character and originality.
According to research, music heard during activities is remembered vividly. Coupling this with the innately memorable nature of themes allows a game composer to create an indelible musical signature for any game. This talk will examine composition techniques that extend the life and utility of themes. Variation, development, figures, fragmentation, and motifs will be explored, along with examples of themes in combat, menus, cutscenes, and stingers. Finally, dynamic music construction will be considered, including workarounds to enable effective themes within interactive systems.
Using examples from several games, Phillips will discuss specific composition techniques designed to enhance the utility of thematic content. Attendees will learn how themes may be incorporated into specific game music asset types. Also included in the discussion: composition adjustments required by interactive music constructs.
This session will present inspirational ideas for composers seeking to create distinctive musical signatures for their game projects. Discussion of thematic use within different types of game music assets may be helpful for audio developers engaged in preparing music design documents. The talk will be approachable for all levels.
Winifred Phillips is a well-known 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 with performances by a top 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.