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Hybrid Horizontal-Vertical Structure for Game Music Composers (From Spyder to Sackboy: GDC 2021)

by Winifred Phillips on 11/18/21 11:13:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This screen from the GDC 2021 lecture of video game composer Winifred Phillips was taken during the discussion of how success is recognized by the dynamic music system.

By Winifred Phillips  |  Contact  |  Follow

Delighted you're here!  I'm video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I'm very happy you've joined us for this latest entry in my series of articles based on the lecture I gave during the Game Developers Conference 2021 - From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music!  Over the previous year, I had the privilege of working with the expert development team at Sumo Sheffield on music composition for two fantastic projects - Sackboy: A Big Adventure for PS5/PS4, and Spyder for Apple Arcade.  (Above you'll see a photo from one of the sections of my GDC 2021 lecture in which I'm discussing the Sackboy project).  Both Spyder and Sackboy included ambitious dynamic music systems that deployed multiple techniques to instill the greatest interactivity into these musical scores. There was a long list of common strategies between the two projects.  However, there were also quite a few fundamental differences in the music design of the two games.  For my GDC 2021 presentation, I compared and contrasted the dynamic music models of the two projects.  The experience of jumping from one dynamic music approach to another was both challenging and invigorating for me during my composition work on the two games.  It provided me with a lot of great material for my presentation, and I'm happy to share these observations in this series of articles.

If you haven't had a chance to read the previous three installments of this series, you can first read the article about how song structure can be integrated into a horizontal resequencing framework.  Then the second article expands the discussion of horizontal resequencing with an exploration of the role of dynamic transitions.  In the third article, we take a look at how vertical layering is deployed in its purest form.

So far, we've discussed these first three items in our list of six dynamic music implementation techniques, focusing on practical applications from the two projects developed by Sumo Digital.  We left off with an exploration of how the Spyder video game used pure vertical layering during level exploration and during missions in order to indicate player progress and keep the music from feeling repetitive.  While horizontal resequencing slices a track up into segments to accomplish the same tasks as vertical layering, it must do so by fragmenting the composition.  A pure vertical layering approach can instill the same sense of progression and variety without needing to slice up the music into segments.

But what if we want to do that anyway?  What if we want a hybrid horizontal-vertical system?  
Is that possible?  Can we have both segments and layers at the same time, in the same track?  And will that allow us to get the most interactivity out of our game music? Can we essentially have the best of both worlds?

Turns out, both Spyder and Sackboy: A Big Adventure answered that question with a resounding “yes.”  However, each project addressed the issue differently.  In this article, let's focus on Sackboy’s hybrid horizontal-vertical approach.

The Dynamic Implementation bullet list, included in an article series based on the lecture given by video game composer Winifred Phillips during GDC 2021. The list includes dynamic implementation strategies.

For the "Sink or Swing" level of Sackboy: A Big Adventure, I composed an original symphonic-style waltz.  The three/quarter time emphasized the awesome kinetics as Sackboy swung gracefully across the level. As Sackboy progressed, the Waltz of the Bubbles used both horizontal segments and vertical layers for musical interactivity.

A header image used during a discussion of the Waltz of the Bubbles track composed by award-winning composer Winifred Phillips for the video game Sackboy: A Big Adventure.

The track was broken into seven horizontal segments that progressed as Sackboy traveled through the level.  Periodically, the overall mix changed to either subtract or add the vocal choir on top as a new music layer.  This worked to inject some variety into the mix. Let’s see what that was like:

 

The vertical layering technique also inserted itself into the game mechanics by virtue of the iconic Sackboy ‘success’ melody.  Those of you who have played the popular Sackboy: A Big Adventure game will recognize the six notes in this game cinema:

 

The music team for Sackboy: A Big Adventure deployed this success melody across the entire game, in every level regardless of the musical style.  Whenever Sackboy picked up a collectible known as a Dreamer Orb, this short and iconic melody would play.  It's a testament to the care and cleverness of the game's implementation scheme that the success melody married so well with the game's musical score, no matter the circumstances.

Sackboy discovered a Dreamer Orb. This illustrates a discussion of how the dynamic music system recognized success within the video game Sackboy: A Big Adventure. The article is written by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer).

Whenever the success melody sounded, players would hear it in a separate vertical layer that merged harmonically with whatever horizontal segment might playing at the time.  During gameplay, this melody becomes instantly memorable and famous due to this repetition, and therefore makes a definite impression when triggered.  So let’s take a look at that:

 

You can see that the interactive music system here accomplishes three goals:

Goal one: the horizontal segments indicate the player’s progress through the level.

Goal two: vertical layers create variety by adding choir to the overall mix, introducing novelty that helps to keep the music feeling fresh over time.

Goal three: an additional vertical layer supplies a 'success' melody that serves as a reward when objectives have been achieved.

So we can see that horizontal and vertical techniques work well together.  They worked for both Sackboy: A Big Adventure and the Spyder game, which I was working on at the same time.  In the next article of this series, we'll discuss how the Spyder video game utilized a hybrid horizontal-vertical dynamic structure that incorporated diegetic elements:

The Dynamic Implementation bullet list used in the six-part article series based on the GDC 2021 lecture given by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips.

Until then, thanks for reading!

 


Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips, included in the biography section of her article about video game music.

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).  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 five of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: 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 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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