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The Game Show Interview: Game Music & Game Design

Continuing transcript of the uncut interview of game composer Winifred Phillips by Meena Shamaly, host of ABC Classic’s The Game Show (Part Two).

Winifred Phillips, Blogger

May 14, 2024

14 Min Read

Hey everybody!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Welcome to part two of my three-part article series based on my interview with Meena Shamaly, host of the popular Game Show program on ABC Classic (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation).  Meena is a prolific performance artist, composer and producer, in addition to his role as the host of the Game Show, and I was delighted to be interviewed for his awesome series!  An audio recording of the uncut interview is hosted right now on the ABC Classic web site.  These articles include the full written transcript of that interview, along with some great supporting links and media files that help to expand on the topics discussed.  In part one of this series, Meena and I reflected on the journey a new composer takes to break into the video game industry, along with the “always say yes” philosophy that can help new composers as they pursue their first break.  In part two, we’ll talk about composing in unorthodox ways to help us stay at the top of our game as composers, and we’ll also discuss the unique role that music plays in video games.  Here is part two of my interview with Meena Shamaly of ABC Classic’s Game Show, beginning with a discussion of how two very different projects from my early career shaped everything that came later… Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and God of War.

Winifred: So now my career has two very divergent paths. People who know me from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and things like that – they approach me for projects like Shrek the Third, or The LittleBigPlanet games, or SimAnimalsSpore Hero, things like that. And on the other side, people who know me from God of War are coming to me for things like the Assassin’s Creed Liberation game, or Homefront, or Jurassic World Primal Ops, or The Da Vinci Code. And that has allowed me to swing back and forth and do very divergent things. It’s made my career very fulfilling for me, because I get to stretch and change. I don’t ever feel like I’m in a box, because I get to express myself in such different ways. It’s rare! It’s a rare thing to be able to do that, so I’m quite grateful that my career started that way.

Meena: Much like an interactive video game story, you and I are now presented with two paths – the path of the mature antihero with a lot of action combat, and the path of the fun… shall I say family-friendly (laughs) kind of protagonist! So let’s explore this half of Winifred Phillips. The journey with LittleBigPlanet and Sackboy and SimAnimals.

Meena: Let’s start with LittleBigPlanet, because that’s been a big part of your life as a game composer.

Winifred: That’s so true, yeah.

Meena: And again, those are also big games that require multiple composers, but – you know – Winifred Phillips keeps popping up.

Winifred: I’ve really been happy to be a part of the LittleBigPlanet franchise. I’ve been with the team since the LittleBigPlanet 2 game, and I’ve worked on lots of the different iterations of the game – LittleBigPlanet 2LittleBigPlanet 3LittleBigPlanet Cross ControllerLittleBigPlanet Toy StoryLittleBigPlanet KartingLittleBigPlanet PS Vita, and now Sackboy A Big Adventure. So it’s been amazing! One of the things that’s really neat about working with the LittleBigPlanet games, and now the Sackboy games, is that we’re encouraged as composers to be eclectic and strange, and try new things. It’s all about mash-ups – about throwing together ideas and instruments that you wouldn’t normally hear within the same track, within the same genre. Just challenging expectations. In the world of Sackboy (for people who aren’t familiar with the game) – you’re playing as this little knitted doll-like character with very loose arms and legs who runs around these environments that look like they might be craft projects. They’re full of buttons, and cardboard, and little stickers, and cut-out clouds, and everything seems like a pop-up book where things fold out. It’s got that feeling to it. It’s enormously whimsical. So the idea of it being crafty is woven into the core of what LittleBigPlanet is.

Sackboy lives in Craftworld, so everything is powered by the imagination. That philosophy of Play Create Share (which is at the core of the LittleBigPlanet franchise, and now the Sackboy games) – that also informs the creation of the music. Because the music has to have this idea of throwing together disparate elements. Letting loose your creative juices. Doing things that you wouldn’t have expected would come out of yourself. That’s been tremendously exciting for me. I love how supportive the team at the LittleBigPlanet franchise are of those of us who are creating music for it. Really being urged to stretch and try new things and create new art for their games. I think that’s part of why the games are so enchanting for players. I think everybody really feels that spirit of creative play. It informs every part of these games.

Meena: That’s a really beautiful opportunity to always be challenged to do the unorthodox. What has been the funniest, strangest, weirdest, most outlandish experiment anyone has ever asked you to pull off? Or you have asked yourself to pull off?

Winifred: Oh, I think that would have to be Victoria’s Lab from LittleBigPlanet 2. It was one of the first tracks I was asked to create for the LittleBigPlanet franchise. The level stars Victoria, and she is sort of a manic inventor! At least, this is how she was initially conceived by the development team. She’s very creative, as the whole franchise is, but she’s also dangerous, and she’s creating all these robots, and she’s super unpredictable! So the music was supposed to have that flavor to it – essentially finding the danger of Victoria as an unpredictable manic character. That was fun for me!

Winifred: So I started looking into things that I could do, and I was combining rock guitar with silly vocals and beatboxing and calliope and all kinds of wild instrumentation – pop bottles, and found-sound, and sound design. Just a sense of everything that you could imagine thrown at it! Trying to make that feel really unexpected and surprising. Plus it is very much a vocal driven track. There’s sort of an operatic lead vocal that essentially personifies Victoria herself, and then there’s an almost Andrew Sisters type vocal group behind her that’s keeping an energy going with all of this syllabic singing that’s happening. A lot of elements went into it! It’s almost chaotic, but you have to structure it so that it feels satisfying, so that you can follow the line. And of course, Victoria’s voice really creates a central point of focus. So that was immense fun to create.

Winifred: Then, I submitted it to the team, and it was implemented into the game. As a composer, you don’t have as direct an experience participating in that process. I get a chance to see early concept art and video of the game in action, but I don’t get to see the final product while it’s being implemented. But then later, I was contacted by the audio director of the project, who let me know that they had revised the level a bit – specifically to accommodate the music that I had submitted.

Meena: That’s amazing!

Winifred: Incredibly rare! It’s an incredibly rare thing to happen, which I was dumbfounded by. Because when I finally saw the level, not only was she a manic inventor with lots of maniacal robots rolling around, but she’s also now a baker! And we have cookies and cakes and cherries and icing dripping from walls, and roses! It was a garden, there were all sorts of roses everywhere! I think they had keyed in on the whimsy that had been woven with the danger. They’d represented both elements that were in the music, represented them visually in the gameplay – and it was amazing to me!

Winifred: I never felt quite as centrally a part of the development process as I felt for that one, because the music essentially had a chance to participate in the game design – without me knowing that was what was going to happen. But it did! And it was just so fulfilling! So that’s a really deeply meaningful memory for me.

Meena: That is beautiful! That may be one of my favorite stories! Whenever I hear a composer say that the development team actually changed their level, or changed their game, in response to the music, that to me really speaks volumes about the power of music in video games! Even before it reaches the gamers! That’s just fabulous! I love hearing that! It’s amazing!

Winifred: It was really amazing for me. It is a rare thing to happen. And understandably so! Game development is a very complex process. It involves a lot of people. They can be big teams! And it’s a complicated mechanism that’s being created. It has to respond to player actions, so it’s very complex in terms of its internal construction. The idea of a composer being thrown into that mix and influencing the structure of the design is a rare thing, and it’s really special for me that that happened there. So I have very warm feeling about that particular game, and the LittleBigPlanet and Sackboy folks as a whole. They’re magnificent people!

Meena: And in that complex machinery of game development, you decided at some point to help break it down for other people hoping to write video game music, with a book aptly titled A Composer’s Guide to Game Music! What drove that decision for you? To say, “hey you know what? I need to put this out there!”

Winifred: Yeah. I think part of it was – there wasn’t a book in existence at that time that was pointed towards composers, with a focus just on that discipline. There were books that existed, that would help out someone who was trying to break into the industry, who was a musician or composer… but they tended to focus on the entire discipline of game audio. And a lot of the discussion focused on the art and technology associated with sound design, and audio design. That end of things. Which of course is useful for a composer to know – but it doesn’t really address the questions that we have about what we want to achieve as game composers.

Winifred: When you’re playing a game, there are two things you’re essentially hearing. I’ll break it down a little further. Three things you’re essentially hearing. You’re hearing the atmosphere of the environment you’re existing in. Say you’re wandering an outdoor location. You might be hearing the wind, and the birds, and any incidental sounds that might be happening there. And then there’s a second layer of sounds – sounds that you’re making, both in your movement, and by interacting with the environment. So they’re more incidental sounds that are being triggered by you – by your agency as a player. And that’s all essentially sound design. There’s a professional on the game development team who is responsible for that, so they’re creating all sorts of audio recordings that can be worked into the structure of the game and can be triggered by your actions, or by where you are in the game. So that essentially weaves an aural universe around you. And then there’s the third element – that’s the music. That music typically tends to be what’s called non-diegetic. It doesn’t exist in the fiction, so you don’t think the music you’re hearing is coming from something in the environment, unless there’s some overt radio sitting there, and the music is supposed to be coming out of it.

Meena: Like the old Tomb Raider!

Winifred: Right, absolutely, yeah! That’s a good example of diegetic music in action! But most of the time, it’s non-diegetic. It’s music that’s kind of like a film score or television score. It’s weaving an emotional tapestry for you. It’s giving you a sense of emotional momentum. Maybe it’s helping you out, in terms of what’s important that you need to pursue. It’s telling the story with a musical language, so that you can remain emotionally involved even though a game is typically a longer experience than a film or a tv show – which tends to be a single sitting type affair. Whereas a video game can be tens or hundreds of hours. And music really plays a very important role in keeping a player emotionally invested, and helping them to hang onto the thread of narrative when they are in the game for that long a period of time.

Winifred: So it’s an entirely different discipline. It has its own technical challenges, in terms of getting the music to feel like it’s flowing with your own experience as a player, so that it’s essentially telling your story. So that is a challenge for game composers, and we try all sorts of different techniques and technologies to make that happen. But when I was first coming up as a young game composer, most of the books were focusing on the first two kinds of audio you’d experience: the incidental sounds and the environmental sounds. That’s mostly what these books were about. They might talk about music, but not a lot! I mean, it didn’t feel like the heart of the book was there, it was just kind of an ancillary part of the overall thing. And I kind of yearned for something that was going to guide me, and it didn’t really exist at the time. Around that time, I started thinking maybe I’m the person to write that book, because it didn’t exist then. This was actually right before I was hired for the Assassin’s Creed Liberation project. I had started working on the book, and I had an agreement with the MIT Press to turn in a draft of that book, and then I was hired for Assassin’s Creed Liberation. Which was actually unexpected! And so I set the book aside to work on that project, which was massive and amazing! And working with Ubisoft was just world-changing for me!

Winifred: Then I went back and completely rewrote the book, because of course there was a lot that I had learned from that, and a lot that I wanted to share!

Meena: Yeah! (Laughs) I can imagine!

Winifred: Yeah! When I started thinking I wanted to write the book, that’s why I called it a Composer’s Guide to Game Music, because it really was important for me to stress that this book was pointed towards composers. At least at the time in which I was writing it, there weren’t any books that were pointed specifically towards composers. I think that now as time has gone on, there are more books out there, and there are more that are pointed towards composers, and thinking about our discipline, and the kinds of questions that we ask as we’re trying to do our work. But at the time, there really wasn’t anything very specific, so that’s why I wrote it.


We’ve reached the end of part two of my interview with the Game Show’s Meena Shamaly.  I’ll be continuing this transcript in part three, so watch this space!  And if you’re enjoying this interview transcript, please tune in to Meena’s series, airing every friday on ABC Classic and online via the ABC Classic web site!

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