Delighted you’re here! I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and earlier this month, I was honored to be interviewed for the BBC Radio 3 program Sound of Gaming, hosted by Louise Blain. BBC Radio 3 specializes in classical music, which means that the Sound of Gaming program is especially unique among that network’s program line-up. Focusing on exceptional musical compositions from the awesome world of video games, the Sound of Gaming show has been airing regularly since 2019, bringing classical music listeners into a whole new world of musical expression.
The show’s host Louise Blain is a top video game journalist, and the co-author of the popular book Guinness World Records 2014 Gamer’s Edition. In addition, she co-hosted the BBC Proms 2022 concert “Gaming Music at the Proms” from the famous Royal Albert Hall in London. In each of her Sound of Gaming programs, she also includes an interview segment called “The Cutscene,” during which she interviews a game music composer whose work fits into the overall theme of the program. Whether it’s a composer for moody stealth missions, or one who specializes in light-hearted mishaps, the conversation throws light on the musical style that’s explored in the rest of the program. In the June 3 2023 episode, the theme was “The Extraordinary,” and focused on games that ignite the fires of the imagination. During my interview for this program, I was delighted to discuss my music for three of my video game projects: Assassin’s Creed Liberation, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, and Jurassic World Primal Ops.
Our conversation included lots of details about how best to work with expert development teams and find creative inspiration. However, due to time constraints, a lot of these details couldn’t be included in the final broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Since these sorts of discussions fit into the usual content in these articles, I thought I’d include a transcript of the whole interview here! I’ve also included the complete music tracks from my projects that were played during the broadcast. I hope you’ll find the interview interesting!
Louise Blain: The deadly toothy consequences of what happens when life finds a way. That’s Winifred Phillips’ brilliant score to Jurassic World Primal Ops. I’ll be talking to her about what happens when music theory meets chaos theory. We’ll also be breaking down her scores for Sackboy: A Big Adventure and Assassin’s Creed Liberation.
Composer Winifred Phillips has been working on video game soundtracks since 2005 when she wrote the music for the original God of War. Since then, she’s gone from strength to strength, and we’ll start with her soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed Liberation. This was a big change for the series, with the first female assassin and a new location – the cultural melting pot of 18th century New Orleans. I’ll let Winifred take it from here.
(Music begins to play: Assassin’s Creed Liberation Main Theme, by Winifred Phillips)
Winifred Phillips: I’d been in contact with Ubisoft for a number of years. We’d been talking about the idea of working together on something, but nothing had kind of come together really. I think that being hired to do music for video games is very much about the right timing and the right project. So when the Assassin’s Creed Liberation project came along, it just felt like a good fit. Especially since I had done music before that was historically influenced. The Assassin’s Creed Liberation project is set in 18th century New Orleans, and it has that French Baroque quality running through everything in the game, from the fashion and the language, and the culture. So the music was meant to have that influence strongly running through all of the tracks. And that was something that I could bring to the project, because I had done projects before that had historical influences, and I like doing that kind of research and learning about the forms, the instrumental qualities, and the performance habits, and things like that. They just make composition a lot of fun for me. So that really was the impetus that pulls together and that’s kind of how I came on the project.
Winifred Phillips: (continued) It was tremendous fun! My focus of course is very much on the music, the musical components of any project, so I would always dig into music of the period and that would be where my focus remained. I don’t like to deviate too far from the inspirations that are driving the rest of the team, so I like to get my historical information from design documents that the team is preparing. They did some wonderful storyboards and art boards that showed all sorts of different visual influences and stylistic choices and a lot of history was running through all of those design documents. So I first started by reading those in depth and trying to get a sense of what was getting the team excited, what was sort of firing them up. Then that became what I focused on in my own research, in looking into the history of the time period, and also as it pertains to music, and how music fit in with the culture, so that really was a very important part of my work on the project. It had a lot to do with the cultural background of the main character, which really is the most important aspect of any narrative-driven game, anyway. The perspective character, the hero of the story, is the soul of the music and what gives it its character and its heart. So, for me, it was Aveline, the star of Assassin’s Creed Liberation.
Winifred Phillips: (continued) As the first female assassin in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, that was of course very exciting for me, to create music for that. But her background as a daughter of a French aristocrat and an African slave, that was very powerful to me. Two incredibly disparate and contrasting backgrounds with very rich cultural influences and history, and very specific musical styles and instrumentation. All of that was really fascinating to me, to explore as a composer. to be able to look into the rhythmic instrumentation that she would have responded to from her African background, and the Baroque French-inspired musical forms that would have been very much a part of her life as a member of high society in 18th century New Orleans.
Winifred Phillips: (continued) All of this was marvelously inspiring, to be able to bring together these sorts of musical forms and ideas that really don’t get combined and mashed up in this way. That was really the heart of what I did as the composer for this project.
(Music plays: “Poverty” from Assassin’s Creed Liberation, by composer Winifred Phillips)
Winifred Phillips: (continued) I think there’s something marvelous about the idea of a historical game that also has a modern component – because it gives the story a sense of perspective. And it puts it in context within our perspective as the player, as the audience to this story. So this science fiction idea of entering a sort of virtual reality Animus and being able to step into the shoes of a historical character and live their life, making choices that allow us to move through their journey – that was a lot of fun. And of course the franchise of Assassin’s Creed has established a sound palette that corresponded with the science fiction element of the Animus.
Winifred Phillips: (continued) There were a lot of synth-driven sounds and very dronish textures, a kind of surreal, almost elevated state of mind – an altered state of consciousness that was associated with being in the Animus. So I had a good time playing with that, but also combining it in a more floaty, organic way with some of the instruments that were associated with Aveline and her culture. There were a lot of solo violins floating through the Animus, as well as those warm and liquidy synthetic textures that wrap around it, and those little gritty elements of high tech that jitter their way through the mix and then float back down again, like it’s some sort of virtual sea. It was really interesting to explore that, and to try to bring something new to it, but also be true to the tradition.
(Music plays: “Animus” from Assassin’s Creed Liberation, composed by Winifred Phillips)
Winifred Phillips: (continued) One of the things that was amazing about this project – they really let me run with it, and they gave me a lot of room to bring my own ideas to the project. I think their only direction was that it needed to be true to the history. I mean, of course, the Assassin’s Creed franchise is very focused on history. Just as a rule, it’s driven by the idea of traveling through time and living history through the perspective of other people’s lives. So that really was the main concentration of the guidance I got from Ubisoft. But other than that, I was allowed to experiment with different instrumentation and really look at how these disparate cultural influences could be combined in ways that made sense to me as a composer and an artist. And bring my own voice into it, so that I could express Aveline’s feminine qualities in that way, which I thought was really interesting to do – as she was the first female assassin in the franchise. So I got a chance to really personally express my ideas about music from within this well-established franchise, and they gave me a lot of creative freedom in that way. So I really appreciated that.
Louise Blain: My guest today, Winifred Phillips. Winifred, we’re going to quickly free-run away from the rooftops of 18th century New Orleans and into a very different world, and that’s the hand-crafted universe of Sackboy: A Big Adventure.
Louise Blain: This episode of Sound of Gaming, we’ve been talking about embracing the extraordinary, and the imagination of this game is just incredible. I couldn’t stop smiling when I played it. And you’re part of a team of composers on this project. You’d already worked in Sackboy’s world before, in LittleBigPlanet, but what was your approach this time around?
Winifred Phillips: Working on this franchise with Sackboy has always been amazing. The core philosophy of these games is all about creativity. You’re a hero in the Imagisphere! And the Imagisphere is created by human creativity – by all of the people in the world combining their dreams and hopes and imaginations into a fantastic world – a sort of whimsical universe that you get to run around as a little sackboy. And it’s just so much fun to create music in that world. But it very much influences the core philosophy of what the music needs to be.
Winifred Phillips: (continued) We’re challenged to create something new. It’s all about mashups and about being very eclectic and very experimental, combining musical genres that have not been combined before, and seeing what we can do with these sorts of unusual combinations. That’s really at the heart of the music for the Sackboy games. And that’s what makes it fun for me. I’ve always had a great time creating music for these projects.
Louise Blain: In this month’s Cutscene, I’m talking to Winifred Phillips about her joyous work on Sackboy: A Big Adventure. I’m possibly about to leave you with an almost indelible earworm!
(Excerpt plays of Winifred Phillips’ cover version of Madonna’s Material girl, from Sackboy: A Big Adventure)
Winifred Phillips: It was such an amazing opportunity to do this! I really was very grateful to the team at the Sackboy: A Big Adventure game for giving me the chance to create a cover version of this song that everybody knows. It’s a really iconic song in American culture – and in the world. The chance to do something that would fit into Sackboy’s universe and the idea of the Imagisphere was just amazing! And so much fun. The idea of fitting popular music into Sackboy universe isn’t a new one. There’s always been lots of interesting licensed music in Sackboy games. But for this particular game, the team had focused on the idea of creating cover versions of existing songs that everyone would know, and doing it in an unusual and interesting way. So I was given the opportunity to create the cover version of Material Girl and I ran with it – with the idea of it being a Viennese waltz-style composition.
Winifred Phillips: (continued) The most fun part about that was it’s essentially a stealth cover, because for awhile when you’re listening to it, you have no idea what you are truly hearing, and that it is in fact Madonna’s Material Girl. But in creating it, in structuring it, I was very careful to follow the original song structure of the initial pop song, so that it would essentially be true to what the original song was, and yet also be very very different. So when I’m watching people play the game later on, and they go through that particular level in Crablantis, and they finally realize they’re hearing Madonna’s Material Girl, the sense of incredible surprise is just amazing! It’s such a stealth cover. And when people realize what they’re hearing, there always seems to be some sort of exclamation, or just something that bursts out of people, because it’s just so unexpected! And that’s really what made it fun for me.
Louise Blain: We’re going to listen to Waltz of the Bubbles, and there’s a real sense of wonder to this track. Is there anything that we should really listen out for?
Winifred Phillips: I loved composing Waltz of the Bubbles, that was so much fun to do. The idea behind it – at the core of it – was truly the idea of wonder, of descending into another world. And there’s something so beautiful about the idea of an underwater universe. Part of my work on Sackboy: A Big Adventure as a whole and particularly in the Crablantis levels was the idea of embodying water into the musical composition.
Winifred Phillips: (continued) I used a lot of diegetic sound in my composition, so you’ll hear a lot of water-inspired sound design elements – drips, splashes, gurgling and popping. And it’s rhythmically woven into the musical composition, and some of it is pitched to work well with the chord progressions and the harmonies, and to feel at one with the music. So the whole thing pulls together as a soundscape you’re exploring, which was something very whimsical and very much in keeping with Sackboy’s spirit of exploration and play. So that was fun for me, and a lot of fun even in terms of the vocal element of the composition. The idea of creating something that had an almost ethereal quality that would mirror the sparkling and the light textures that would be flowing down through the layers of water and reaching you in a sort of twinkling way. That was really fun to explore.
(Music plays: Waltz of the Bubbles, from Sackboy: A Big Adventure)
Louise Blain: Waltz of the Bubbles, from Sackboy: A Big Adventure, by my guest today, Winifred Phillips, who’s still with me. Now, let’s go from wholesome to horror now, Winifred, and we’ll talk a bit about your score from Jurassic World Primal Ops.
(Music begins playing: “Apex Predator” from Jurassic World Primal Ops, by Winifred Phillips)
Louise Blain: Now this is a universe that’s built on complete chaos, and you’ve talked about how you really wanted to create music that would make us feel genuinely uneasy. Tell me about the Goldilocks Zone in music, and how you wanted to escape it.
Winifred Phillips: That’s a great question, and it was really interesting in my composition work on this project. It actually goes into some of the core ideas of psychology. Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was one of the first psychologists. He was the first scientist to call himself a psychologist, and he created a bell curve that he called the Wundt curve. It’s the idea that any stimulus in our lives falls into an array of categories, starting with something that’s very simple and familiar. And when things are too simple and familiar, they’re boring! But as things move into more complexity and more novelty, they become more interesting, and those sorts of interesting elements are pleasurable for us. We enjoy them. So we rise up and up and up, until we get to the middle of the bell curve, where things are just in such a satisfying place in terms of being complex in just the right way, and novel in just the right way. And we find that very pleasurable – we enjoy that!
Winifred Phillips: (continued) But then, as things move further and become more and more complex and more and more novel, it starts to work on us in a way that doesn’t feel pleasurable. We start feeling anxious and tense about it. We start to stress about it. It increases our trepidation. It makes us feel like we’re in danger, like we’re not safe. And that’s moving out of that Goldilocks zone into the outer end of the bell curve. And this was fascinating to me in my music composition work for Jurassic World Primal Ops. It’s a game about hunting and being hunted by Jurassic monsters. About being in danger, and about something following you and potentially eating you that is the worst creature we could possibly imagine. So it’s the epitome of tension and stress and anxiety. How, as I create music, can I push the player who is experiencing this in the game towards that far end of the Wundt curve, where they’re feeling stress, they’re anxious, they’re trepidatious about what’s happening, they’re invested in that way in the experience they are having in the game? So I focused on the idea of Chaos Theory. This is actually something that is talked about in the Jurassic Park / Jurassic World franchise – the idea that unpredictability is everywhere, and you never know what’s going to happen next. It’s built into our existence – the idea that everything is unpredictable.
Winifred Phillips: (continued) So I worked on making the music of Jurassic World Primal Ops extremely unpredictable, using a lot of unconventional techniques from music theory, like quartal chords, polytonality, whole tone and octatonic scales, frequent meter changes, and kinetic fragmentation that makes you feel a sense of hyperactivity and unpredictable energy. Things that would make the music move towards that far end of the Wundt curve – and enhance the idea of tension and stress – would get our players more invested in the experience, more immersed in what was happening. So that was really fascinating to explore as a composer – going into these lesser explored areas of music theory. The idea that you can use a classically harmonic melody that would feel familiar to listeners, and yet set it against a polytonal structure underneath that’s asserting more than one key at a time, that takes us away from our comfortable settled sense of where the harmonic center is in the composition, and moves us more towards a sense of uncertainty about where the harmonic weight is moving – where we’re going next. It allows us to superimpose the familiar with the unfamiliar.
Winifred Phillips: (continued) That’s one of the real strengths of polytonality and atonality. It carries familiar elements into the unfamiliar in music. The idea that quartal chords can move us away from the tonic center and make us feel unsure of what key we’re in – that kind of thing is really interesting to play with as a composer. The idea that we can pivot unexpectedly and move the tonic of our composition into a new structure, a new harmonic center, without much warning, that gives a sort of visceral jolt to the listener and keeps them on edge. That’s really an interesting thing to work on as a composer and experiment with. Of course, all of these things have to have their own structure and make sense within their own world! You don’t want to just keep throwing these sorts of techniques at people until it feels like noise! It still has to have its own internal logic. So it’s a lot of trial and error and experimentation to make these things work., but its really interesting! It’s the idea of creating your own musical language from within the bounds of music theory, and it’s really fulfilling and challenging as a composer to work like that.
Louise Blain: And in terms of that internal logic, something like a key theme –we’re going to listen to the main theme now – is that really what kind of grounds you on this journey?
Winifred Phillips: That’s really true! The idea of this kind of musical composition, as it relates to the Wundt curve, is that it does push people towards feeling uncomfortable. And you can get to the point where it feels like it’s too much, where it’s pushing people too hard towards the end of that Wundt curve, where you’re feeling too stressed, and it just gets to be too much! So you have to have something that unifies it all, and gives you a sort of light at the end of that chaotic tunnel. The recurring theme in Jurassic World Primal Ops functioned very much in that way. It was the melody that is stated right at the beginning of the game in the user interface when you’re navigating menus. It’s the most settling musical theme in the game, and it really states the optimistic message that drives the mission you’re on as a dinosaur hunter, essentially. You’re working for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, trying to track down dinosaurs and rescue them from poachers and mercenaries, so they can go to a reserve where they’ll be protected. And also train them, so that they can help you in rescuing more dinosaurs!
Winifred Phillips: (continued) So that’s a really hopeful message, and the music needed to have a hopeful theme with uplift and optimism that would convey that idea. Then I could take that theme and have it recur in unconventional surroundings, against more chaotic and atonal underpinnings, so that it would remind you of the optimistic mission you’re on, even while you are in the midst of chaos and combat. So that was an interesting thing to be able to come back to over and over again, and really unify the musical score – give it an identity.
Louise Blain: I always love that, I love that at the end of it there’s kind of a positive theme of “life will find a way,” and hopefully people won’t get eaten by dinosaurs on route. We’ll close out with music from that now. Thank you so much for taking the time to guest on Sound of Gaming.
Winifred Phillips: Oh, my pleasure! Thank you!
(Music plays, “Jurassic Companion” from Jurassic World Primal Ops, composed by Winifred Phillips)
Louise Blain: Music from Jurassic World Primal Ops, by my guest, Winifred Phillips. You’re listening to Sound of Gaming, on BBC Radio 3, and BBC Sounds, with me, Louise Blain.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this transcript of my interview with the Sound of Gaming radio show on BBC Radio 3! 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. The music she composed for her latest video game project Jurassic World Primal Ops 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, and Instagram.