The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow


Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips.  Welcome back to our four part discussion of how game music can enhance presence in virtual reality video games! These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s gathering of the famous Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.  My talk was entitled How Music Enhances Virtual Presence (I’ve included the official description of my talk at this end of this article). If you haven’t read the previous two articles, you’ll find them here:

In my GDC talk, I discussed Virtual Presence in connection with seven of the virtual reality games and experiences that I’ve scored, which have either released within the past year or will be released within the coming months.  These include Audioshield (Audiosurf LLC), Bebylon Battle Royale (Kite & Lightning), Fail Factory (Armature Studio), The Haunted Graveyard (Holospark), Life Hutch VR (Next Stop Willoughby), Scraper: First Strike (Labrodex Inc), and Shattered State (Supermassive Games).  Using examples from these games, I discussed a model for how gamers develop the psychological attachment necessary to most effectively achieve Virtual Presence. The psychological model consists of three stages:

This image depicts the three components to the model of psychological attachment -- engagement, engrossment, and empathy (from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips).

In the previous two articles of this series, we discussed the roles of engagement and engrossment, so now let’s look at the third and final stage:


As we all know, when we feel empathy we’re experiencing compassion towards other people. However, according to the researchers from University College London, when we’ve achieved empathy as a component of Virtual Presence, we’re not feeling compassion for other characters – but rather, for ourselves.

An image accompanying a discussion of empathy as a component of psychological attachment needed to attain Virtual Presence (from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).As the main character in our own virtual adventure, we feel empathy for our own in-game situation, and for the character that we currently inhabit. Once we’ve achieved that fullest expression of personal empathy, we’ve reached the final stage that enables Virtual Presence. As game music composers and game audio experts, how can we best help players achieve this specific form of personal empathy?

Music is great at triggering and stoking this emotion in some tried-and-true ways. We simply have to get players to root for themselves. We have to build them up, and make them feel emotionally invested in their own success. Let’s take a look at a couple of simple but effective examples.

The logo of the Fail Factory VR game for the Oculus Go, from the article about Virtual Presence by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.First, let’s take a look at Fail Factory, developed by Armature Studio and released for the Oculus Go and the Samsung Gear VR. In Fail Factory, players assume high-stress jobs in a giant robot factory. Keeping up with the rapidly accelerating assembly lines and conveyor belts is a constant challenge, resulting in lots of wacky failures. While the pandemonium is a big part of the game’s appeal, it’s still important to keep players motivated to succeed. Players need to empathize with their own character’s accomplishments. Since this kind of emotional investment enhances Virtual Presence, it becomes very important to boost player assurance and self-esteem.

As composers, one way we can uplift player confidence is by musically reinforcing moments of success. In Fail Factory, I encouraged players to root for themselves by composing some overtly-confident music for those times in which players receive their gameplay results and view their scores. While the music still conveys the silliness we’ve come to expect from the musical score I composed for the rest of the game, the music I composed for gameplay results places the emphasis on confidence and swagger. Let’s see what that was like:



As another example of affirming music, let’s check out some gameplay from one of my other VR projects – the upcoming Bebylon Battle Royale game, currently in development by Kite & Lightning for VR.

In this article for video game composers, Winifred Phillips discusses her music for the Bebylon Battle Royale VR game.Confidence is a running theme in Bebylon Battle Royale. That’s because the characters in the world of Bebylon are coping with a pretty humiliating fact-of-life – they’re babies. Immortal babies in the future, trying to assert their dominance, and become the epitome of cool. When composing the music for Bebylon Battle Royale, I focused on musical styles that emphasize self-assurance and swagger. Here’s some video that Kite & Lightning released of one of their baby characters getting his groove on to music I composed for Bebylon Battle Royale:



So now we’ve considered how empathy can contribute to the psychological attachment necessary to achieving Virtual Presence.  In our next article, we’ll consider the role of game music in regulating and attenuating mood in order to create the right psychological circumstances for Virtual Presence to take hold of the players’ consciousness.  Thanks for reading!


How Music Enhances Virtual Presence

Compilation of images depicting popular game titles for VR platforms that are included in the GDC 2019 lecture of game composer Winifred Phillips.

(Game Developers Conference Session Description)

Virtual Presence is defined as a state in which gamers fully accept the virtual world around them and their existence within it. This talk, “How Music Enhances Virtual Presence,” will explore how highly effective game music can enhance the sensation of Virtual Presence in VR gaming.

The talk will begin with an exploration of both the Flow Theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the research of Dr. Paul Cairns on psychological engagement in video gaming. By understanding how the mental activity of players interacts with the way a game is designed, composers can create music intended to induce psychological states conducive with the formation of Virtual Presence.

The talk will include a discussion of techniques aimed at drawing attention to mission objectives, facilitating effective concentration, enhancing emotional empathy and intensifying player focus. The discussion will also include an exploration of some inherent drawbacks to Virtual Presence, including its fragility when exposed to negative emotional states, and its possible susceptibility to inducing the “event boundary” phenomenon. Musical solutions to these problems will be explored.

Phillips’ talk will offer techniques for composers and audio directors who seek to employ music as a tool to enhance Virtual Presence for their players.


Using examples from several games, Phillips will explore how music can influence the mental states of players through specific effects documented in scientific research. Study data will be discussed in regards to the interaction between music and cognition. Phillips will offer strategies and tips for composers seeking to use their music to influence the player’s mental state, thus facilitating the formation of Virtual Presence.

Intended Audience

This session is intended to inspire and stimulate composers seeking to employ their music towards enhancing player engagement and enjoyment, with a particular emphasis on VR games. Includes overview of Flow Theory and the psychological components of Virtual Presence, which may be useful to other disciplines within game development. Talk will be approachable for all levels (advanced composers may better appreciate the specific composition techniques discussed).


Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips in her game composers production studio.Popular music from composer Winifred Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score is currently being performed live by a top 80-piece orchestra and choir as part of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which kicked off in June 2019 with its Paris premiere. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in five of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims.  Phillips’ other notable projects include the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution, and numerous virtual reality games, including Sports Scramble, Audioshield, Scraper: First Strike, Dragon Front, and many more.  She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality games. Phillips’ is a sought-after public speaker, and she has been invited to speak about her work as a game composer at the Library of Congress, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and many more.

Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.