April 4, 2015
– Winifred Phillips has had a productive career as a composer, penning soundtracks in the God of War, LittleBigPlanet, and Assassin's Creed series, among many other works in and outside of the gaming world. That's on top of writing an excellent book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music. Despite her packed schedule, she graciously took the time to answer some of our questions, the fruits of which can be enjoyed below!
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? What kind of musical training do you have? How did you become involved writing music for video games?
I'm a classically trained musician. I spent the first half of my composing career employed by a National Public Radio series called Radio Tales, which dramatized classic sci-fi, fantasy, and horror stories for the radio. Writing music for that series was a great education — I learned a lot! My first video game projects were God of War for Sony Computer Entertainment America and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for 2K Games.
Are there any musicians you'd really love to collaborate with that you haven't already?
I think every composer would love to work with Mozart or Beethoven — if only that time machine were handy! In my career as a game composer I haven't had the opportunity to collaborate directly with other composers, although I have enjoyed participating as part of music composition teams for God of War and the LittleBigPlanet franchise. However, when I'm a part of a team, I'm composing my own tracks independently, and then the music supervisor pulls together all the tracks composed individually by the team members and then assembles them into the final game soundtrack. It's always fun to hear the final product of those compilations!
Do you have any favorite video game music or composers? What's your absolute favorite game soundtrack? And perhaps one more — do you have a favorite RPG soundtrack?
A lot of music from old-school classic games sticks in my head. I'll never forget that chase music from Alone in the Dark or the success music from Wing Commander 4. As far as a favorite RPG soundtrack is concerned... it's really hard to choose, because there are so many I enjoy, and they are all so different. In terms of which may have been the most influential RPG score for me, I'd say that the Final Fantasy VII end-game boss battle would definitely be at the top of that list. The choral explosion in that track really took my breath away.
Who are some of the musicians and industry figures that have left the biggest mark on you and your work?
So many composers have inspired me over the years, from the symphonic works of time-honored classical, romantic and impressionist composers, to more modern experimental composers who stretch the boundaries of our musical vocabulary and challenge us to reevaluate what music is and how it can communicate. Popular music also often expands our musical sound palette through experimentation, and I try to listen to lots of different musical genres and styles. I listen to a ton of music, and I'm usually the most excited about the musical genre that will be the basis of my next composition project. I like to learn and grow as an artist.
You've made your musical mark in many established series, like Assassin's Creed and LittleBigPlanet, often in cases where you came in after another composer had set a "tone" for the franchise. What's that experience like?
I try to honor the musical style that fans of the franchise would naturally expect from another installment in their favorite game series. However, most of the franchise games I've worked on have required a new musical approach be adopted for that particular installment in the series. For instance, Assassin's Creed Liberation was set in 18th century New Orleans, which was a completely new time period and location for the Assassin's Creed series. That led me to make a lot of unique musical choices for the Liberation score. In the LittleBigPlanet franchise, the audio team encourages all of the composers to be unique and step out-of-the-box, because that's what LittleBigPlanet is all about — eclectic artistry, visual and aural mashups of unexpected elements, all designed to provoke creativity from the players.
Related to the previous question, what's one franchise you'd love to work on, if there were no boundaries and you could pick absolutely anything. Why would you pick that one?
Of course, I'd love to work on lots of the current franchises, but if you ask me about "absolutely anything"... I played a lot of classic games growing up, and I really remember Missile Command. That game fired up my imagination. I liked to pretend that I was actually defending all those poor defenseless cities from absolute destruction. The game had no music, so if anybody ever puts together a modern remake of that game, I'd enjoy the chance to create a score for it.
What lead to your desire to write your book? How did you decide how to set it up?
My music producer Winnie Waldron suggested I write the book — this was right after I'd finished music composition for LittleBigPlanet PS Vita. At that point, I'd worked on a lot of game projects, and Winnie thought that I had a viewpoint and some experiences that could be useful for other aspiring game composers. After mulling it over awhile, I started getting excited about the idea of sharing some of the things I've learned over the years. Thankfully, The MIT Press was enthusiastic about the book when I proposed it to them, and they worked with me as I completed it. Winnie served as the first editor on the book, and so I had a lot of great support while I was writing.
What advice would you give to those wanting to become a writer of music for games?
I write about this in my book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music — I go into a lot of detail about what an aspiring composer should do to learn the craft and get work in the industry. It's crucial for an aspiring composer to have a great music demo reel, followed up by clear and consistent communication with developers and respectful persistence when pursuing job opportunities. It can be very complicated, and I explore the subject in depth in my book.
Do you think there's a difference in the the styles and methodology of a Japanese-style/Northeast Asian RPG soundtrack versus a western-developed one? If you personally were writing a soundtrack for, say, Final Fantasy, do you think you would approach it differently than a western-developed project?
I'd always approach music composition according to the direction I was receiving from the development team, and I imagine it could be very different from a Japanese/Northeast Asian team. Not having the pleasure of working with such a team yet, I couldn't predict how that experience might differ from my past projects.
An easy question! Are there any RPGs or MMORPGs you're especially fond of?
I played tons of games in the Final Fantasy and Might and Magic franchises when I was a kid. More recently I've enjoyed the Mass Effect, Fable and Elder Scrolls series.
Perhaps some are still a secret, but are you currently working on any new projects — books or soundtracks?
I've recently finished work as a member of the music composition team for Total War Battles: Kingdom — it was great working with Creative Assembly on music for that game! Now I'm starting work on some other projects I can't talk about just yet. (Editor's note: interview conducted late February) In the first week of March I'll be giving two speeches at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, so that will be exciting! Plus, I'll be doing a book signing that Friday at the Game Developers Conference bookstore, so please feel free to come and say hi!
Finally, is there anything in general you'd like to share or say to readers and fans?
I'm very grateful for the support of the gamer community, and I love hearing from people who have enjoyed my music or my book. It really makes my day! Also, I'm very pleased to have been able to speak to the excellent readers of RPGFan. Thanks so much!