APRIL 11, 2015
TOMB RAIDER pulled her in. As she listened to Nathan McCree’s music for the 1996 game, Winifred Phillips decided she might compose music for games herself. So that’s what she did.
A pianist and vocalist by training, Phillips had already written music for radio dramas, and continued to, but she made the jump to games in 2004, soon hitting it big as part of the award-winning composition team for PlayStation 2’s 2005 God of War. She’s worked steadily as a game music composer since then, and last year, her soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation received long-list 2015 Grammy nods in three categories. Still, the transition to video games was hard, as was the work Phillips found in the complex, multi-billion dollar industry. A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, Phillips’s 2014 book, offers a level-headed worker’s tour of a fantasy-fueled world — the moral of the story: dreamers beware.
Phillips is working in an era when game music is at a far remove from its early roots of simple sounds and limited capabilities. In 1970s video arcades and the nascent home game industry, programmers dominated the field, as Karen Collins explained in her outstanding 2008 book Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design. They faced systems with limited memory capabilities, a narrow range of sounds, imprecise tuning, and play-defined constraints (such as timed levels in Frogger). They also created memorable sounds with what seems like casual ease. Programmer Al Alcorn used sounds from the sync generator for Pong (1972), pulling together the Atari game’s iconic beeps “in half a day.”
By the late 1980s, the field had opened up for musicians. Equipment, software, and programming advances enabled better sound quality and texture, and a more efficient use of memory increased sound capability during game play. The composition process became more accessible, too: with new keyboard-based systems, musicians no longer needed hardcore programming experience. As Phillips makes clear, however, today’s aspiring game composers still must be willing to “dive headfirst into the hi-tech pool.”
Tomb Raider, the game, became Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the 2001 blockbuster movie, and although Phillips herself has not yet worked on a game with a similar path, you’ll see her here in the ramped-up games-as-industry world. Writing of her second publicly released game project, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Phillips explains that Tim Burton “personally approved” the music that she wrote — that’s a far cry from Alcorn’s simply constructed beeps for Pong. Still, she isn’t writing a high-art manifesto. The composer’s “first responsibility,” she explains early on, “is to create strong music that enhances the overall experience for the game player and contributes to the artistic quality of the project.”
The gaming population has expanded significantly with social and mobile media, and people often play those games without sound. But Phillips thoroughly covers why music matters — it can reinforce a game’s architecture and provide feedback on player behavior. It also can help pull people into the gaming world. Publishers often are served a “vertical slice” or representational sampling of music. Consumers might get a “teaser trailer.” And — although not commonly used anymore — players still may find “attract mode” music in their gaming world. That’s a relic from gaming’s arcade heritage when idle machines played bits of their programs — and yes, it proves that music also can serve as a distraction or an irritant.
Every game genre and subgenre carries strongly held expectations. Some, such as shooter and strategy games, are fairly narrowly defined. They tend to feature rock or “elite” tracks (a grab-all term for jazz, religious, and orchestral music). Others pull from a far wider range of musical traditions. Platformers — “games in which the player jumps on things” (or, Phillips adds, “also falls off”) — have just about any kind of music that can be found. The greatest challenge for all, however, is relational. Players expect that music will serve as an audience, “watching the gameplay” — as Phillips explains it — “and commenting periodically on the successes or failures of the player.”
That audience function helps cement a player’s connection to the gaming world, even when the music offers something other than cheer and empathy. In Total Distortion (1995), the Kent Carmical and Joe Sparks track “You Are Dead!” laughs at a player’s termination (“Thought you were hot, guess what you’re not.”). But the lyrics, funny and personable, repeatedly acknowledge the player. As the song says goodbye — “I hope you improve your lousy score” — it also prompts you: “Try again.”
Responsiveness can be faked, to some degree, Phillips explains, with self-contained, linear tracks serving up “alternating moments of tension and release” that reflect the highs and lows one expects will be present in gameplay. Making interactive music, which actually responds to a player’s actions, is especially difficult, however — “some of the most labor-intensive work that a game composer can undertake.” The challenge in part is technological. Composer tools, even with the many advances, remain a complex pastiche of imperfect options. But there are compositional concerns too. An altered tempo reflecting an accelerated or decelerated state of gameplay might not sound good at all possible rates, and when one track overlays or picks up from another, similar questions arise: Do they go together? Do they blend? And is the final effect “interesting”?
That last concern puts us flush up against one of the key creative anxieties of our age. Phillips is explaining “generative” music — a subcategory of the interactive where algorithms combine units of musical data — and, as she links the present collaborative, industrial arts complex with a precedent example (wind chimes), we begin to wonder whether “the composer” or “the author” is or ever was alive. Phillips insists the individual creator still matters — she is less angst-ridden than some, more yoga master — and she calmly guides the reader through new and old world compositional problems. One can “become too enthusiastic about the study of music theory,” she cautions in an early section, and one can also be overly resistant to the needs of the game. At one point, advocating adaptation so as to avoid “repetition fatigue” from looping, she writes: “[I]f our emotional attachment to our initial instrumental treatment causes us to be unwilling to experiment with these possibilities, then we may never fully realize the potential of our motifs.”
I’ve more than once considered posting that last statement as a writing motto over my desk. Still, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music isn’t likely to have much reach beyond a specialized audience. It doesn’t have the necessary historical or philosophical webbing for a general readership and, like many user’s guides and textbooks, it teaches through categories that don’t always cohere. Look for it instead on a do-it-yourselfer’s shelf or — messing beautifully with STEM advocates — in a digital arts classroom. It will define for students “Shepard Scale” (that musical illusion used in Super Mario 64 whereby a scale seemingly ascends ad infinitum). It also will introduce them to more prosaic concerns such as business card design, workflow troubleshooting, and the “elevator pitch” — a short speech one conceivably could deliver during an elevator ride with a prestigious industry insider (presumably one headed to the top floor).
A modest reach isn’t bad, however. Right before A Composer’s Guide was released last year, it came out that Japanese gaming composer Mamoru Samuragochi had been living a lie, pretending to be deaf and passing off work by another composer as his own. Samuragochi had been a rock star in a field that often has clamored for mystique, and against the backdrop of that disintegrated image, Phillips’s book stands in relief. It simply aims to be transparent and generous, and to offer a sensible, clear, and methodically minded explanation of how work happens in an illusory world.