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Video Game Composers: Thematic Approaches to Game Music (GDC)

Video game composer Winifred Phillips previews her upcoming GDC 2022 lecture, "Composing for Lineage M: Modular Construction in Game Music." Phillips draws connections to several of her previous GDC talks, including videos of 3 of her GDC lectures.

Winifred Phillips, Blogger

March 4, 2022

9 Min Read

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everyone! I'm video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I'm excited to share that I'll be giving a talk at the upcoming Game Developers Conference! My talk is entitled, "Composing for Lineage M: Modular Construction in Game Music," and it's taking place on Wednesday March 23rd at 10:30 am PT (1:30pm ET). In my presentation, I'll be focusing on my experience composing music for a game in one of the most successful video game franchises of all time – the Lineage MMORPG franchise from NCSoft. During my talk, I'll be sharing details of the music composition process for this awesome project, including how thematic content was incorporated into the matrix of musical components that formed the structure of the Lineage M musical score.

I won't be getting into much detail about the substance of my upcoming GDC presentation in this article. However, it occurred to me that musical themes are a popular discussion topic that has come up in many of my past GDC presentations. With that in mind, I thought I'd offer a short review of the subject, including some content from a few of my previous GDC talks. I've confined this discussion to my GDC sessions that are now available to view for free in their entirety via the videos list in the Game Developers Conference Official YouTube channel. You'll see that I've embedded the full-length YouTube videos of those talks below, in case you'd like to see the lectures in their entirety. For each of these presentation videos, I've also included a few short lecture extracts that touch upon the relevant subject matter. So let's get started!

How thematic content benefits from a linear approach


I was deeply gratified to learn that my presentation from GDC 2021 was one of the most highly-rated talks by GDC conference attendees – my lecture was entitled "From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music." While my presentation focused heavily on structural considerations for dynamic implementation, I also touched upon the role of thematic content within games, and the role played by linear structure in enabling a thematic approach:

"Dynamic music differs from linear music in fundamental ways.  Linear music is a single contiguous unit with a beginning, middle and end, but dynamic music is a modular assembly of component parts. The art of interactive music creation and implementation is not just about understanding and deploying interactive music systems.  It’s also about looking at the nuts and bolts of these systems and seeing lots of divergent possibilities."

"Linear music has a set beginning, middle, and end. Linear music can more fully explore its ideas without needing to worry about how a dynamic system might impact an instrumental arrangement, juggle the progression of musical content, or truncate melodic lines. These issues are solvable, but linear music certainly provides an added breadth of creative freedom. Is it possible to preserve these advantages while instilling dynamic functionality into our tracks?"

 Preserving the integrity of melodic themes within a dynamic implementation framework is a difficult challenge, and it was a lot of fun to explore this topic in my lecture last year! You'll find this specific topic discussed at 26:55 in the video below:

How thematic content benefits from repetition and variation


My presentation from the Game Developers Conference 2020 centered on thematic content in game music. As a more in-depth exploration of the topic, I was able to use multiple examples from my past projects to illustrate various ways in which themes could be used within games. Entitled "From Assassin's Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes," my GDC 2020 talk explored the musical scores from these famous franchises in order to emphasize the importance of their melodic content. In these projects, themes proved to be one of the best ways to enhance the emotional impact of gameplay. One of the recurring topics during my GDC 2020 talk centered on the power of thematic repetition. Here are a few extracts from that discussion:

"Game music has a unique ability to define the identity of a game, and help players remember it. But in order for the music to remind players of the game, we have to make sure that we compose the music to be as memorable as possible. That’s where themes come in."

"Repetition is powerful – whether it’s a bold and dynamic melody line, or a subtle chord progression. If an element pops up during music composition that seems perfect for recurrence, we have to be ready to recognize that and act on it."

"We all know that repetition can get stale if we don’t approach it creatively. So that brings us to the topic of variation – how to keep themes feeling fresh."

"When variation isn’t enough and we need to go further, we can break our themes apart and use fragments of them instead of the whole."

Thematic repetition and variation are important tools for a game music composer, and allow us to extend the utility and viability of thematic content, even within the limitations of a dynamic implementation framework. You'll find the whole discussion of theme and repetition at 15:30 in the video below:

How fragmentation extends the utility of themes


In addition to my formal lecture during GDC 2020, I was also delighted to participate in an informal Q&A session during the GDC Summer event, conducted by expert session moderator Alissa McAloon (currently the Editor-in-Chief of GameDeveloper.com). During the wide-ranging discussion, we touched on the topic of thematic development in games. In our casual, off-the-cuff discussion, we were able to explore some of the finer details of thematic composition in games:

"I like to break themes down. State them in a very recognizable and dynamic way when it’s an important, set-piece moment in the game, and you want to create a musical signature for the project. But then you can break it down into fragments. Motives, small segments, just a few notes… something that might not be consciously recognized as a part of that theme. Then you can sprinkle it elsewhere and it just communicates in a subconscious way to the player. It asserts the game’s musical identity without really being overt about it. And you can also use them as figures. Ostinatos. You can restructure a theme to be an underlying pattern, with other original material on top. That’s a way to also assert the theme, without it being a foreground element. It’s not front-of-consciousness, but it's still there, asserting an identity. I think that’s always a great thing to try to strive for – to sprinkle a sense of identity into everything you’re doing."

You'll find this discussion of themes in video game composition at 11:42 in the video below:


I hope you've enjoyed this retrospective encompassing the discussion of themes in a few of my previous GDC lectures. I'm really looking forward to presenting my GDC 2022 lecture, "Composing for Lineage M: Modular Construction in Game Music." My lecture will take place on March the 23rd at 10:30 am PT (1:30pm ET). Also, if you're planning on attending GDC 2022 virtually via the All Access Online Only Pass, you'll be able to watch my GDC presentation via the conference's virtual platform! 


Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer whose most recent project is the music for one of the latest blockbuster releases in the Lineage series (one of the highest-grossing video game franchises of all time).  Recent projects include the hit PlayStation 5 launch title Sackboy: A Big Adventure (soundtrack album now available).  Phillips’ popular and award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score was recently singled out by GameSpot as their favorite in the franchise, naming it one of the "best video game soundtracks you can stream."  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: God of War, Total War, The Sims, Assassin’s Creed, 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 three 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 is now featured 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 @winphillips.    

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