A Symphony of Death: Interview with Winifred Phillips

There is a new femme fatale in video games. Winifred Phillips isn’t a household name amongst gamers yet, but that may change soon as she has been stealthily maneuvering her way into being one of the premier video game composers of recent memory. She has won over 10 awards so far for her work in video games including just recently receiving a Hollywood Music in Media Award for her latest project, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation for the PlayStation Vita. Winifred took some time recently to sit down and answer some questions for FAN.

Freakin’ Awesome Network: First of all, congratulations on your latest award victory. How does winning this award stack up against your myriad of previous awards?

Winifred Phillips: It’s always tremendously gratifying when my work is recognized with an award or a nomination! Every project is different; they each pose different challenges, so making comparisons can be difficult. I’m especially proud of this latest Hollywood Music in Media Award for Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation because the Assassin’s Creed franchise requires such epic and atmospherically dark music, and the fans of the series have very high musical standards. I’m very glad I was able to compose a score that Assassin’s Creed fans enjoyed, and winning an award for the music was an added affirmation from my professional peers in the Hollywood Music in Media organization.

FAN: Do you play video games in your spare time? And if you do, have you played any of the games you have wrote songs for?

Phillips: I’ve played all the games that I’ve written music for – it’s a part of my job as a game composer. I need to see how the music and the gameplay work together, in order to make the right musical choices. I also play games in my spare time.

FAN: As a change of pace from the usual question of how you got your start writing music for video games, why did you become involved with video games? What drew you to the medium?

Phillips: I’ve loved video games ever since I was a kid, so it was just natural for me to want to be a part of video game development in some way. Since my natural abilities led me toward being a composer, it was logical that I would eventually end up writing music for games. I didn’t start out that way, though. My first job was creating music for a series of radio dramas being produced for National Public Radio. The series adapted classic stories for the radio medium, and many of them were in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres – which appealed to me very strongly. The series included great stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “Beowulf.” When I crossed over into video games with my first project, God of War, the transition was a fairly smooth one – I’d been creating music for epic stories, and God of War was certainly epic. My producer for the radio series, Winnie Waldron, agreed to produce my music as a part of the God of War music team, and she’s been producing my game music ever since.

FAN: Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is the first game in the series where players play as a female character all game long, how does it feel to be part of such a landmark moment in one of the biggest video game franchises of recent memory?

Phillips: I’m proud that I was able to contribute music to such an important game in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. On a personal level, I’ve always enjoyed playing games that starred female heroines, so creating music for Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation was a special treat for me. Aveline de Grandpré is a fantastic character, and I had a great time creating music for her.

FAN: The Assassin’s Creed series has to have been a unique challenge to write music for, as it takes place simultaneously in a sci-fi enriched present day and in a past culture, how did you approach this challenge of creating music appropriate to both the past setting of the game and the sci-fi feel of the franchise?

Phillips: Yes, the music definitely needed to simultaneously reflect the past and the present, with both a feeling of authentic antiquity and hi-tech touches. This presented a constant challenge, evaluating each track for opportunities to display both historical and contemporary elements. I implemented modern rhythms, synths and sound-design textures, combining these with period instruments from both the French and African cultures that were such a part of Aveline’s character and daily life. Each track was a process of experimentation, trial and error until I’d reached a good mix of musical influences. I really enjoyed the process.

FAN: Aveline de Grandpré is an interesting character, with her mixed heritage and unique attire that moves away from the traditional white hood and clothes of the other lead characters in the series, how did you approach writing music around her? Or rather, how much did her character affect how you wrote the music?

Phillips: Her character formed the foundation of the musical score I wrote for Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. As the daughter of a French aristocrat and an African slave, she lives in two worlds. She enjoys the privilege of an elite upbringing, and yet the African heritage from her mother has a profound influence on her point-of-view. She’s committed to aiding the disadvantaged and fighting against injustice, and yet she’s fully comfortable with maneuvering through the intricacies of wealthy New Orleans society in order to further her goals. Her music needed to incorporate both the sophistication of French baroque orchestration, and the vibrant rhythms and tone colors of African music. I also wove folk influences into the mix, to give a fuller picture of Aveline’s experience in 18th century America.

FAN: As music has been in video games longer than voice overs, how important do you think music has been to the evolution of video games as a storytelling medium?

Phillips: I think music plays a unique role in video games, as opposed to its role in other forms of entertainment such as television and films. In video games, music is often heard for longer periods of time, without the constant dialogue and sound effects that frequently obscure the music in a film or television program. This gives the music in a game both an added importance to the overall experience, and an additional responsibility to be true to the creative vision of the game’s development team.

FAN: Is there much of a difference in how you approach writing music for licensed video games compared to original video games?

Phillips: Not really. The initial research for licensed games will involve reading the source material upon which the game will be based, whereas for original IP I’ll depend more exclusively on the design documents created by the development team. Otherwise, the process is identical.

FAN: How did creating music for a small independent game like The Maw compare to your bigger game projects like God of War, LittleBigPlanet 2, and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation?

Phillips: The Maw was developed by a small independent team creating its own original IP, and there was a unique energy involved in working on such a project. The creative process was pretty freewheeling, and it wasn’t a high-pressure environment. In contrast, the teams for God of War, LittleBigPlanet 2 and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation were quite large, and the stakes were much higher. With God of War and LittleBigPlanet 2, I was a part of a music team made up of several composers, each assigned specific tasks. For Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, I was the sole composer for the entire musical score. It was an enormous undertaking, with a lot of pressure. It was also tremendously exciting.

FAN: Finally, do you have any words of advice for aspiring musicians that want to get into the video game industry?

Phillips: There are a lot of different paths into the industry, and they depend on the kind of music you compose and the types of games you’d like to score. Generally speaking, I think it’s best to develop your skills as a composer first, getting any training that will help you to create the strongest music possible. When trying to get your first job, I think it may be helpful to start with the small companies creating indie games. These may be good places for an aspiring composer to break into the game industry.

FAN: Thank you for taking time away from your schedule to have this interview, and best of luck to your future projects.

Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is out now on PlayStation Vita. Winifred’s award winning Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation soundtrack can be purchased from both iTunes and Amazon.