A Composer's Guide to Game Music


A Composer's Guide to Game MusicWinifred Phillips Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017 ISBN: 978026253449

There is no doubting the strength of Winfred’s Phillips’ credentials as a game composer, she is the creative mind behind the musical scores to a string of major titles that include Assassin’s Creed III, God of War, Total War Battles: Kingdom and Little Big Planet 2. If you are already familiar with these scores it will come as little surprise that a quite orchestral approach to composition forms the major backdrop for discussion within this exploration of music for computer games.

Phillips adopts a highly personalised approach to contextualising the points she is making with frequent references to her own work and this level of first-hand knowledge may well be one of the richest veins to tap into within the book. She includes many notated examples along the way and this perhaps suggests that the book is aimed at formally trained musicians. However, she rarely refers to these directly which keeps the book accessible to a broader range of interests though it also places a question mark over the need to include score-based extracts in the first place?

There are many valuable insights on offer that are bound to be of interest to the budding game composer but, equally, Phillips is quick to qualify from the outset that her book is not really about how to compose for game. Instead, she is far more concerned with highlighting the great variety of challenges that lie ahead for those who aspire to carve a career within this particular avenue of the games industry.

With this in mind, this should be a timely and much welcomed text and my own experience would suggest that many emerging composers are not as aware of the challenges of composing for non-linear narrative as they will probably need to be. Nor are they typically familiar with the other specialists they will be working with or the different technologies, workflows and vocabulary that will come into play. Phillips makes a concerted attempt at covering as many of these practicalities (and more) but the sheer breadth of topics that she includes leads to quite superficial coverage in some areas. I also suspect that in trying to address such a broad spectrum of game industry components she may have taken herself out of a comfort zone here and there.

There is a significant omission in the lack of a rounded historical perspective on the evolution of game audio. Whether for music or SFX, the technologies that have enabled sound within computer games have progressed at a remarkable rate. This has impacted in so many ways, not least by firmly divorcing the role of composer from that of programmer but also through the emergence of technologies that enable emulation of the real, synthesis of the unusual and a move towards soundtracks that are both adaptive and immersive. Considering the significance of being able to create soundtracks that are responsive to player interaction, one would also imagine that there would be considerable coverage on both composition for non-linear narrative and audio-middleware. Though Phillips does present chapters that address these to some extent her definitions are confusing when considered within a context of expanding game audio research.

Karen Collins differentiates between music as being interactive or adaptive and this does appear to have become an accepted norm in game audio research. Music is interactive when the player is directly responsible for triggering and controlling notes or phrases and it becomes adaptive where it is responsive to various aspects of the game state (intensity, pace, health, score, progress etc.). Indeed, a good adaptive soundtrack will be subtly informing the player of many useful elements of game play on a rolling basis. Although Phillips initially acknowledges this alternative perspective she then moves on to describe this all as being interactive music based on personal preference. For those who are turning to this book for scholarly pursuit this is more than likely to be confusing if not problematic.

There is also surprisingly little on audio technologies and some of that which is presented is simply out of date. Fmod Designer is referenced regardless of having been superseded by Fmod Studio several years ago and though Wwise gets a quick mention there is nothing on Fabric for Unity for example. There isn’t really any meaningful discussion over the relative merits that each middleware brings to the creative table and in a similar vein there is very little coverage on the relative merits of key digital audio workstations or orchestral sample sets.

There are limitations to this book that might limit its appeal to composers and scholars in search of specific information on practical technique or critical theory. However, for those unfamiliar with the challenges in composing music for computer games, this might make a useful primer to turn to before additional sources are brought into play.

Ben Challis