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Diegetic sound and music for the video game composer (GDC 2021)

by Winifred Phillips on 07/14/21 09:36:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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Photograph of video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio. This photo illustrates Phillips' work on two popular video games developed by Sumo Digital

By Winifred Phillips  |  Contact  |  Follow

Hello there!  I'm video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Next week, I'll be giving a lecture during the Game Developers Conference 2021 event.  During my lecture, I'll be talking about the music I composed for Sumo Digital for both the Sackboy: A Big Adventure and Spyder video games.  My lecture is entitled, "From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music," and will take place on Friday July 23rd at 3:40pm PT.  Although GDC is still an all-virtual affair, the event does provide lots of opportunities for experts within the game development community to share their knowledge, coupled with forums enabling game audio folks to network and learn from each other.  In addition to my prepared lecture, I'll also be participating in a live Speaker Q&A that will take place right after my presentation.  It should be a lot of fun!  Really looking forward to sharing my experience working with Sumo Digital simultaneously on these two fantastic games.

The famous logo of the Sackboy: A Big Adventure video game, as included in the article by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips.

This was an incredibly rare and awesome opportunity for me to compose music for two projects simultaneously in development by the same company.  Because of this, I found the comparisons between the two games fascinating.

My talk will delve into the mechanics of the dynamic music systems in both games, An image of the official Spyder video game promotional poster, as included in the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.showing how a comparison between these two projects can shed some light on the utility of the top interactive techniques and strategies.  While comparing this list of interactive music techniques provided me with a lot of material for my GDC lecture, there were other ways in which the two projects were similar.  I thought I'd share some brief thoughts on one of the other common threads I found between these two Sumo Digital games.

As composers, we're often asked to provide a general atmosphere that adds either character to gameplay or distinctive flavor to menus.  If it's a horror game, maybe we're being asked to provide a crushingly heavy drone of doom during tense exploration, with soul-shuddering tone clusters bubbling up from the darkness and then sinking back down into the murky depths.  For a whimsical game, we might be creating airy, open textures with little mischievous accents from the mallets or woodwind section... or maybe we're creating a brightly whimsical melody for an opening menu or splash screen.  If it's a fantasy roleplaying game, we may be providing softly ambient tracks for exploration, with a pensive flute wandering gently through Gaelic figures.  Or maybe we're creating a thunderously epic main theme for an opening menu, designed to emphasize the world-shattering stakes of the adventure to come.

For instance, as part of the musical score I composed for Lineage M (just released this month as the latest entry in the popular Lineage franchise), I composed an epic musical theme intended to convey both in-game character and distinctive flavor for the user-interface.  The theme reflects both the essential nature of the gameplay protagonist (a gothic warrior known as the Reaper) and the huge scale of the battle for the Kingdom of Elmore.  Here's a video from the Official NCSoft music channel on YouTube that shows how my Lineage M music is used during the game's opening title screen:

Carefully composed arrangements featuring acoustic and electronic instruments can go a long way towards adding character and identity to a game world.  However, in examples such as my theme for Lineage M, the effect is wrought purely by the dramatic underscore, composed of electronic or acoustic instruments that are essentially musical by nature.

But for the Sackboy: A Big Adventure and Spyder games, I ventured a little farther afield, and incorporated an assortment of non-musical sound sources into my musical arrangements.  These sounds were diegetically-inspired elements in the non-diegetic score.  That is, the sounds originated from non-musical sources, and were meant to give the impression that they exist within the in-game environment.  As we know, diegetic music is considered to exist in the fictional world, so that most of the characters can hear it and react to it.  A roving bard character in a fantasy game, or a blaring radio in an open-world city game... these would be great examples of diegetic music in a fictional world.  Non-diegetic music exists only for the benefit of the audience, and is not considered to exist in the fictional world.  By using sounds that seem to exist within the fictional world, but rolling those sounds into a non-diegetic musical score, we seek to make our music feel more intrinsically tied to the game world.  I used this technique in both Spyder and Sackboy: A Big Adventure, and I thought I'd share an example of this approach from both games:

Sounds of the deep blue sea

An image of the popular video game character Sackboy exploring the Kingdom of Crablantis, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer).For the Sackboy: A Big Adventure project, I was responsible for composing music that would accompany the famous Sackboy game character during his adventures in the Kingdom of Crablantis - a magical realm deep under the sea.  Having decided that my music would focus on the beauty and mystery of an aquatic world, I began by collecting, creating and incorporating diegetically-inspired sounds for the seascape.

These sounds included recordings of water drips and splashes, electronic noises that imitated gurgling, and swooping metallic sounds that evoked rippling light and gushing water.  I also captured a popping noise using the mouth of a bottle, which I applied in both pitched and non-pitched versions within the musical score.

First, here's a recording of some of these sounds, isolated from the musical compositions in which they were used:

Now, here's a short excerpt of the beginning of a level in the Kingdom of Crablantis.  Notice how these aquatic, diegetically-inspired sounds help the music to blend better with the undersea environment.

 

Futuristic spy gizmos of the past

A depiction of the video game character Agent 8 from the Spyder video game, used as an illustration in the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.For Spyder, the principle was the same.  I assembled, recorded, and manipulated sound to create effects that seemed to best represent the fictional world of the game's hero.  In this case, that hero was a tiny metal spider spy who used ingenuity, stealth, and gee-whiz gadgetry to save the world, one mission at a time.  The sounds I assembled for this purpose were a mix of science-fiction flair, spy-thriller tech, and bleep-bloop comedy.  As such, the sounds were not particularly musical, but I folded them into the music in order to make the score feel more closely tied to the story, and reflective of the character of our hero.  First, here's a short collection of sounds that I employed in my score, isolated from the rest of the music so that we can hear them clearly:

Now, let's check out how these sounds functioned in the game.  Here's an excerpt from the main menu, which is a circumstance in which the sounds can be heard very clearly and are quite evocative of the "Spy Headquarters" aesthetic that the menu system evokes:

 

Conclusion

So I hope that you found this discussion about diegetic sounds interesting.  Incorporating sounds that seem to belong to the fictional narrative is one of the greatest ways to tie our music more closely to the action of the game.  During my GDC 2021 lecture, I'll be exploring the interactive music systems of these two games, comparing and contrasting the dynamic implementation strategies.  Really looking forward to it!


Photo shows game composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio.Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer whose whose most recent project is the music of the latest blockbuster release in the Lineage series - one of the highest-grossing video game franchises of all time.  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 in 2019 with an 80-piece orchestra and choir. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in six of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: Lineage, 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 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 will soon be 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 @winphillips.    


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