Interview: Winifred Phillips, Composer

More and more women are getting involved in the gaming industry being everything from programmers to composers. Winifred Phillips is one of the latter, having worked on music for titles such as God of war, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for The Da Vinci Code and the curently under development, Shrek the Third. Recently, she has also recorded a Super Mario Bros. tribute theme, featured on the album "The Best of the Best: A Tribute to Game Music".

With so many references within the game world, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to chat with Winifred about her music.

Gamer's Intuition: What got you into composing for games? Do you game yourself?

Winifred Phillips: I'm a long-time gamer. I started out on the PC and got hooked on all those great games that come in a series - like King's Quest, Space Quest, Might and Magic, and Civilization. Tomb Raider lured me to consoles, along with Final Fantasy VII, and I just kept going from there. Now I game on both a PC rig and consoles. I also really enjoy my PSP and DS. I'm sure that everybody who loves games has thought about making them at some point.


GI: What's the best thing about composing music?

Winifred: For me, the best thing about composing music is the chance to help tell great stories. Music can shape an emotional experience that takes a listener on a journey, just like a good story does.

I work with a music producer named Winnie Waldron, and she believes music can create vivid mental pictures which makes it important for us to carefully match those pictures with the story of the game we're working on.

I've been lucky to compose music for games inspired by great stories like "The Da Vinci Code", "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Shrek the Third". I've also been able to work on titles that transform classic mythology like "God of War" and the best thing about composing music for all these projects was the chance to tell their stories in the language of music. It was a real privilege.


GI: I've always felt that game music is very special. Since it's so influenced by all the genres of the world it's hard to put it into a genre of its own - what are your thoughts on this?

Winifred: The great thing about games is that they are set in worlds that are much larger than life. As a gamer you get to go to fantastic places and do monumental things. As a composer, I get to write music for all sorts of intense, epic situations. I think that the games themselves make game music unique. Whatever the musical genre, there is always the sense of a larger purpose in game music. Maybe that's because the gamer helps shape the story. There's no more important decision than the one you make yourself - no biGIer story than your own. Games are powerful, and that makes game music powerful too.


GI: Do you know all about the game before you get to work?

Winifred: I read through the game design documents and look at gameplay footage to get a feel for the game before I start working on it. Sometimes I'll even be able to start playing the actual game itself before I begin my work, which is a great resource for ideas. Also I've been lucky - a lot of my projects have been adaptations of well-known stories. Some have had famous characters like wacky chocolate factory owners and loveable ogres, and others have had great historical and mythological underpinnings as the basis of their stories. With those projects I had the opportunity to do in-depth research, which provides a lot of great musical ideas.


GI: Can you describe the process of composing for a game?

Winifred: Every game requires a different approach. I couldn't use the same compositional method with "God of War" as I did when I composed music for "Shrek the Third". No matter what game my music producer Winnie Waldron and I are working on, we're always trying to tune into the natural momentum of the gameplay. To us, all movement is rhythmic. The way characters move on-screen, the speed at which they walk and run, the specific way they use weapons and tools, perform attacks and blocks, navigate platforms and hazards… it all comes together to form the natural rhythm of the game. I try to write the music so that it meshes well with that rhythm.


GI: What are your biGIest inspirations and which composer do you look up to the most?

Winifred: Considering my last project, I'd have to say that the music of Harry Gregson-Williams has been very important to me. But there have been a lot of composers and songwriters who have inspired me. Each project I work on requires new musical styles, which means that I'm always listening to all kinds of music. I discover new musical heroes all the time.


GI: Tell us about the work you did for the Mario Bros tribute. What meaning did it have for you?

Winifred: I was asked to create a video game cover track for a new album released by GameMusicCentral.com. The album, which will be available on May 1st, is called "Best of the Best: A Tribute to Game Music", and is a compilation of popular video game tracks performed by successful contemporary game composers. The choice regarding what track to cover was left up to me. Some of the other tracks on the album are from games like "Legend of Zelda", "Myst III: Exile" and "World of Warcraft". So much extraordinary music has been created for games over the years! I had no idea what to do. Fortunately, Winnie suGIested the Super Mario Bros. theme to me. Her idea was brilliant!

We had a great time working on the Super Mario Bros. theme. However, creating a new recording of that tune was also incredibly challenging. Nearly every gamer knows the music, and loves it in his or her own unique way. So we decided to try to be as true to the original version as possible, while still bringing to the recording a personal touch that would make it new. Since I'm known as a classically trained vocalist, I did a version of the theme that is almost completely vocal. The arrangement is quite similar to the original - the melody and harmony lines are carried by my multitracked voice instead of a synth. I purposefully kept the music in the range of the original. Also, as a salute to the early-gaming era, I laced classic videogame sound effects throughout, along with some wacky spoken effects and party horns, kazoos and crowd noise to elevate the festive mood that I was trying to create. The original Super Mario Bros. is one of those games that's best enjoyed with friends, I think. It's terrific as a group experience. I tried to recreate the feeling of cheering for your friends, cheering for that classic game we all love, and ultimately, cheering for Mario himself. I wanted to celebrate the spirit of pure innocent fun that is at the heart of the original Super Mario Bros. game.


GI: Composing for a hit game such as God of War has of course brought you much fame, but which soundtrack up till today are you the most proud of?

Winifred: My music producer Winnie Waldron and I both agree on this - we're both proudest of our work on "Shrek the Third". We can't wait until the game is released on May 18th!


GI: Since the game industry is dominated by men, and women who game have a hard time finding acceptance, have you ever come across the same type of prejudice in your professional work? If so, how do you handle it?

Winifred: I haven't come across any blatant prejudice so far, although I know there is a concern regarding the lack of women in the industry. I'm a member of the Women in Game Development Special Interest Group of the Independent Game Developers Association, which is working to raise awareness of the issue and provide a forum for discussion and problem-solving. I also think that there has been an elevated awareness of women gamers lately, particularly as they relate to PC games and the Wii console. Web sites like Gamer's Intuition go a long way to help foster awareness of that female demographic. There seems to be a lot of confusion on the part of the video game development community regarding what a female gamer really wants. Hopefully an influx of female game developers will help games become more inclusive for women. Winnie and I are both looking forward to contributing our abilities to this continuing process.


GI: What's your favorite game soundtrack of all time?

Winifred: I can't possibly choose a favorite - there are too many that I love! Game music has made extraordinary strides both technologically and artistically. The best game composers out there are now creating immensely interactive orchestral music that reacts in real time to the actions of the player while still creating the same emotional punch of a blockbuster film score. It is difficult for me to separate my feelings about a game score from my feelings about the game itself - that's how perfectly intertwined the best game music has become. But if you ask what's the most significant game soundtrack of all time, I'd have to say Mario Bros. While the music production in the game certainly doesn't hold up to a contemporary game score, it is incredibly important to the field of game music. The Super Mario Bros. soundtrack is one of the first truly memorable game scores. It helped to define the art form of the game soundtrack, and some of the musical techniques in Super Mario Bros. are still in use today. All game composers owe a debt to that little plumber!


GI: What game genre do you like to compose to the most or are they all the same when it comes to the music?

Winifred: I like all the game genres, and I want to compose music for them all! I've done action, platforming, puzzles and adventure. I'd love to do an RPG, a strategy game, a sandbox game, a fighting game, a racing game, a shooter… and so on! Not to mention whatever game genres get invented in the future!


GI: Game music has just recently been getting the attention it deserves in the western world, how does it make you feel to know that millions of people all over the globe hear your music, not only in the games themselves, but import CDs and go to game concerts such as PLAY?

Winifred: It is fantastic that video game music is getting so much attention through concerts, as well as web sites like GameMusicCentral.com, which promises to be a great community for people who love game music. I'm really proud to be a game composer at this particular point in the history of video games. Game music is just beginning to be recognized as a true art form. I think that game music will become more and more ambitious, as developers explore the enormous power of music in games.


We would like to thank Ms. Phillips for taking the time to talk to us, and to David Tractenberg as well for putting us in touch.

Related links:
Winifred Phillips Website
Game Music Central