A Composer’s Guide To Game Music – Winifred Phillips

Original Book Review by Alan RogersBook cover

Music for video games has developed over the last 20 years or so as the technology behind the video games themselves has become more complex. Today, many video games contain orchestral scores and have much in common with film scores of the films coming out of Hollywood and beyond. Because of these similarities it’s easy to assume that the issues and challenges faced by the game and film (or TV) music composer are the same. Award-winning composer Winifred Phillips’ music first appeared in God of War in 2004 and she has gone on to compose music for games such as The Da Vinci Code, Shrek The Third, Spore Hero, LittleBigPlanet 2, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, and many others. In her new book, A Composer’s Guide To Game Music, Phillips expertly details what’s involved in becoming a video game music composer, highlighting the specific challenges a composer for games faces.. By the end of this excellent book, any reader contemplating a career as a video game music composer will understand clearly the personal and technical abilities required to succeed and anyone with a more general interest in video gaming or how music is used in film, television and video games will better appreciate how different composing music for video games is from any other media type.

A Composer’s Guide To Game Music is divided into a number distinct sections, each one pretty much self-contained and covering different aspects of what it takes to make a career as a composer in the video game industry. In first few chapters Phillips discusses a number of personal qualities she thinks are the important assets of a successful game music composer. As well as having a passion for music composition, a love of video gaming, an enthusiasm to embrace new technologies and having the determination to succeed as a business person are all covered. Obviously, any composer’s ability to create melody, harmony and rhythm is key to being a successful composer and Phillips goes on to highlight a number of things which will enable the a composer’s “creative juices”. A broad musical education – whether it’s through a formal education, private lessons or being self-taught – and the ability to understand music in terms of what it’s trying to achieve (“music appreciation”) are highlighted. The “take home message” is that immersing oneself in music will fuel creativeness.

Moving on from this, perhaps, obvious beginning, the bulk of the book goes on to concentrate on the more technical aspects of composing music for video games. Phillips’ definition and discussion of the concept of “immersion” – where a gamer no longer perceives the fact that they are playing a game – and how music can be used to enhance this state for the player is an early highlight of the book. Personally, what’s particularly impressive here is the author’s use of scientific studies as a starting point; for defining how the gamer’s experience of total immersion within a game arises. Phillips then, step-by-step, takes the reader though each level of the process that leads to total immersion. It’s obvious from the use of these supportive academic studies that Phillips is well read in the psychological and social aspects on the effects of music on the individual. The use of scientific texts in support of the book’s ideas and arguments is a tool the author uses throughout. Another particularly strong example is in the section where the link between music, gamer personality and music genre use in games. In this part of the book, studies are quoted that associate different music genres to the large number of identified game genres (eleven genres are listed, including shooter, platformer, survival horror, racing, etc). As part of her thesis, Phillips summarises what’s called the “Demographic Game Design Model”, a model describing the gamer personality type most associated with a particular game genre. The author then links the findings from this study to another study which looks at whether specific personality characteristics are correlated with specific genres of music. As a culmination of this section, a link is made as to why music of a certain genre may be found associated with specific genres of game, and why game developers request one type of music for a specific game over another. It’s all very interesting stuff.

There are chapters on “The Importance of Themes” and “Roles and Functions of Music in Games” (though, here, many of the ideas discussed are equally applicable for discussions on the use of music in film and television). These chapters include definitions and descriptions of the concepts of leitmotif and idée fixe and how themes are used to enhance gamers getting into specific frames of mind, how game-specific geographical locations are established and how game developers can reinforce specific game branding (e.g., Warcraft, Super Mario Bros., etc.) There are numerous music notation examples, including short quotations from several well-known game music themes. However, although these notation examples (and the figures in general) are labeled in the figure legends (e.g., Figure 4.7, etc) there is no reference to them in the body of the text itself. A correction for any subsequent edition would be to include the figure numbers within the text at the appropriate points. Also, information on where cited notation examples can be found in exampled scores (e.g., specific reference to album tracks) would help less musically adept readers to listen to the musical examples being discussed.

Another strong section of Phillips’ book is where she discusses the musical needs of video games, highlighting the specific requirements of the music for an interactive game. There are clearly explained descriptions of the various aspects of the game – e.g., cinematic sequences, tutorial segments, puzzle sections as well as music for the game play itself – that need music. But there’s also the additional needs outside the game itself, where a composer may be called upon to write appropriate music. These additional jobs could range from composing music for demo videos used to sell the idea to decision-making game producers, music for teaser trailers and even specific music to entice a gamer to a game when the game is located within an arcade. There’s then a fascinating section on the technical approaches to create the music for the game, particularly how a composer must be aware of the interactive nature of the video game. Phillips describes the properties of the music that are required for it to be completely adaptable to the myriad of possible scenarios in the game play. This is particularly important because of the complex nature of today’s games. The explanation on how to keep music used for a “linear loop” from being noticed as being a repeated musical sequence and thus removing the gamer from being completely immersed in the game is particularly enlightening.

The final chapters of the book deals with the sorts of hardware and software a composer needs to have in their studio to get started as a game composer. There is also consideration of the tools required (from a business perspective) to be a freelance composer in a very competitive industry. Although I found the chapter that covered the hardware and software technology requirements and the audio technology used in game development that the game composer is likely to come across a bit over my head, the final chapter discussing the business skills needed to succeed as a freelance/contract composer was very interesting. Phillips’ discussion on the skill-set requirements to succeed as a freelance game composer (e.g., expressive speaking, designing an effective website, following up leads, establishing and maintaining contacts and personal relationships, etc.) is very useful and is a great resource for any freelancer in any discipline who needs to think with a business head.

I’ve had a number of email conversations with Phillips over the last few months and it’s easy to sense that she routinely applies her video game business ethic that she describes in the final chapters. Phillips’ enthusiasm and love for video game music composition is clear to see from reading this book, particularly in the tone of her writing. Each chapter is filled with clearly explained text supported by her own experiences. She writes in a style that is very inclusive; there is no “I” or “you” but rather “we” and “us”, as though the reader is accompanying Phillips on a journey of discovery. This makes for a very enjoyable tour through all aspects of video game music composing and the reader comes out at the end of the book understanding better what highs and lows a games composer experiences and has a better appreciation of the needs of game developers when they sign on a composer.

Although the text on the inside of the book’s dust jacket explains that A Composer’s Guide To Game Music offers “indispensable guidance for musicians and composers”, Phillips’ book deserves a wider audience. Even with no formal music training and no real interest in video gaming, I found that there is much to enjoy. The content is well-balanced so that those who have an interest in composing music for video games and people who have a more general interest in the use of music in games, film and television can learn a lot from this book.

Rating: ****½/5

275 pages, ISBN 978-0262026642

Published by The MIT Press

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