Spore Hero (Winifred Phillips)

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Developer Will Wright, the mind behind the venerable SimCity franchise, had big plans for his first game project in years. Spore (2008) promised to allow players to guide the evolution of a new species from single-celled organisms to spacefaring colonizers, providing an impressive scope and lots of pre-release hype even though reviewers found many of the individual parts to be shallow or underwhelming. Though Spore itself required a PC to run, publisher EA had its Montreal arm cook up a spinoff for the then red-hot Nintendo Wii console. The resulting Spore Hero (2009) melded some of the mechanics of the original game with bigger emphasis on plot and exploration, and attracted decent notices–especially in comparison to the horrid shovelware that would eventually undermine the Wii as a platform.

The original Spore had a much-touted “procedural music generation engine” supposedly crafted by ambient musician Brian Eno of all people, though actual set tracks were contributed by a handful of Maxis staffers including Kent Jolly and Sim series veteran Jerry Martin. Spore Hero, with its more linear and Zelda-like structure, demanded a more traditional and cohesive score, and for that EA Montreal turned to composer Winifred Phillips. Phillips had worked with a Will Wright property before to great effect in SimAnimals earlier in 2009, and Spore Hero represented a leap forward in terms of visibility and player base.

Phillips anchors her score with a main theme introduced in the first track, a delightfully quirky melody with a number of clever orchestrations and pastoral touches that, appropriately, wouldn’t sound out of place in SimAnimals. It’s a malleable idea that crops up in many places throughout the score as hints or counterpoint, even in the relatively militaristic and straightforward concluding track “Hero Theme.”

There are a number of concessions to the sci-fi theme of Spore Hero, primarily in the use of spacy synth textures throughout many of the tracks like “Critters,” which layers on ambient washes with quasi-theremin effects straight out of a 1950s drive-in, or “SporeZone,” which flits between electronic textures and more organic music highlighted by what sounds for all the world like an electric sitar or mandolin, or “Sporeexplore,” featuring electric beatboxing. They’re joined by a diverse set of much less science fiction instruments, like the mouth organ, giving the most lighthearted songs an interesting feel of the pastoral with a layer of sci-fi glitz at times and one of wholesome Americana at others. It’s a creative and often engaging blend, if slightly schizophrenic at times.

The action music tends toward relatively lighthearted romps with dashes of darker colors, often interepersed with fragments of the main theme or David Newman-esque flights of fancy. Tracks like “Monster Mayhem” and “Beast Brawl,” full of manic tonal action and specialty gag instruments aplenty wouldn’t be out of place in one of Newman’s comedy projects or an animated short. At its darkest, in “Nemesis” and “Spore War,” the action music adds choral and electric guitar textures, the latter culminating in an aggressive and distorted version of the main theme that manages to be engaging, straightforward, and yet simultaneously slightly silly.

Overall, Phillips largely succeeds in merging seeming disparate parts–quirky specialty instruments, SimAnimals pastoralism, synth textures, and moments of straightforward action–into a cohesive whole. There are some places where the synthesized instruments let her down, particularly in the brass section (a recurring problem with synthesized scores of all kinds), and some places where the various pieces don’t quite gel. But it’s still highly enjoyable music on the whole, with something to offer fans of all the genres on display in a tonal package with a consistent central musical theme.

The music from Spore was never released in any form, but Phillips was able to release an hour of highlights from her Spore Hero score as a digital download not long after the game’s release (available from iTunes here). The success of Spore Hero would lead to further assignments for Phillips, movie adaptation Legend of the Guardians and stealth series spinoff Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation among them, and if it doesn’t quite reach the same heights of innocent joy that SimAnimals scaled, it is nevertheless a highly quirky and engaging listen.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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SimAnimals (Winifred Phillips)

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The latest in a long and storied series of Sim games, SimAnimals places players in control of a forest rather than a city, but with all the requisite tools and gameplay mechanics still in place. Along for the expedition was composer Winifred Phillips, best known at the time for her contributions to God of War and fresh off a remarkably creative take on Speed Racer that remains sadly unavailable.

Phillips conjures up a unique soundscape for the forest, mixing the pastoral sound one would expect with jazzy colors straight out of Gershwin. As in the opening “Sim Animals Theme,” this style suggests a bustling ecosystem while lending a contemporary flair and upbeat tempo to the proceedings. Explored throughout the album in tracks like “Free Play” and the dazzling end credits suite, and anchored by strong rhythmic pianos and mallets, the sound is a delight.

As in Speed Racer, many of the tracks utilize sound effects as instruments, though in a much more ambient sense. Birdsong and running water wind throughout tracks like “Trailhead,” anchoring the sometimes urban music firmly in the forest. One could make the argument that the music would be stronger without these effects, but they’re generally subtle enough to be enjoyed or ignored as the listener prefers.

The music does at times depart from the strong style Phillips has defined for the title. Darker tracks such as “Danger Woods” and the first part of “Dry Gulch” take a more menacing tone — appropriate in the context of the game, but less effective as stand alone listens surrounded by lighter material. Luckily, these songs are a tiny minority of the music.

SimAnimals is by and large an intricate, delightful score. While the sound effects and darker passages may be off-putting to some, the pastoral jazz fusion that forms the majority of the music is involving and perfect for its setting, as evinced by its licensing to appear in several television commercials that seek to create just such an atmosphere. Phillips’ talent for creating interesting sounds and developing them in surprising ways has paid off with further work, including Spore Hero, the video game version of Legend of the Guardians, and even an Assassin’s Creed title, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation — all of which are well worth the time to seek out (and are widely available to purchase).

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