Austin Wintory isn’t new to videogame music – he worked on thatgamecompany’s fl0w for example – but it’s Journey that has propelled him into the limelight for us. With the game releasing this week, I caught up with the man responsible for much of the emotive quality of what we’ve been confidently proclaiming as being the best game for years.
Part of that is because the audio, and in particular the music, takes forefront throughout the entire game. “I think they’re equals in terms of the overall mix,” Austin says when I ask him why the music sometimes feels like it overpowers the sound effects, “but the scope of the sound effects is generally pretty subtle.”
Austin worked closely (“very closely”, he tells me) with thatgamecompany’s Steve Johnson for the entire three year development. Johnson’s the sound designer, and they worked around each other throughout, “constantly keeping each other in the loop.” Austin truly understands what makes great audio, though, and the music complements the sound perfectly.
“Music is hugely important as a narrative device,” he tells me, “but the sound design is there to really make the world feel tactile and real.”
JOURNEY: Apotheosis (5.59)
I asked Austin about the way the game always seems to preempt what you’re doing, at least in terms of how the music reacts to the player’s actions. Without spoilers, there’s one area where the player takes a large dive after a rapid section, and the music always fits perfectly.
“I never wrote a piece of music without detailed instructions from thatgamecompany on how to implement it,” he says. He tells me it helps that he’s a gamer (and even has a bit of programming background) and thus feels that he could communicate “relatively easily”. “Once a mockup of a piece was in the game,” he continues, “I could reiterate on it and continuously refine both how it felt, and how its being triggered by the system.”
“The goal of course was to make it totally seamless, so that it feels like the music is unfolding in real time, as if being written by an unseen (and very fast!) composer,” he says. “Not sure if I succeeded but that was definitely the goal.”[drop2]fl0w was a little more simple, although the audio was still clearly a focus. I ask Austin how the experience was different from working on one of the PS3’s earliest titles to something with much higher expectations.
“All of us had matured a lot since doing flOw, so our goals were different,” he replied. “Generally speaking flOw is less ambitious than Journey, so we really worked hard to try and make something meaningful and poignant. I am incredibly proud of and grateful for flOw, but this was bigger and more adventurous on every level.”
I ask about Journey’s thematic influences. “There is only one theme in Journey, and it evolves through the whole game,” said Austin. Many scores represent different characters with individual instruments, I comment, so wonder how this age-old technique was carried over to Journey.
“In this case the game is all about you, the player,” he says. “Your interaction with the world, with others, and with yourself as a self-reflective experience.” He tells me there’s one main theme – which you can hear very straightforwardly in the track Nascence and is also featured in the trailer – and the cello solos are used as a symbol of the player throughout the game.
“Musically it’s like a big cello concerto where you are the soloist and all the rest of the instruments represent the world around you, including other players,” he says.
JOURNEY: I was Born For This (End Titles) (4.31)
The game’s architecture is obviously influenced by many things – the Far East, the Mayans – did this influence the choice of instruments used? “Not really,” came the reply. “In fact I gradually eliminated localising concepts from the score to make it as universal and culture-less as possible. Inevitably there are fragments but by and large, I just wanted to make something that felt right, without needing to justify any choices based on references to cultures, etc.”
Back to the cello, then. The track Threshold has a stunning cello melody, which matches the game’s optimistic feeling all the while containing a feeling of the unknown and potentially less friendly things to come. I ask whether it difficult working out what emotions you wanted to portray when there was no dialogue and no concrete meaning to the action?
“I wouldn’t say it was difficult,” Austin replied, “other than that the entire thing was difficult! But it was difficult in that special ‘I love what I’m doing’ way. I am a huge fan of thatgamecompany and was in awe of the game every single day we worked on it. So what was most difficult was feeling like my I could measure up to it. I was deathly afraid through the whole process of the music being this glaring weak point in the game.”[drop]I ask what it’s like as a composer to work on such a project, where the music has to add as much to the experience as the visuals and gameplay. “I’ve been very lucky to have worked like this a few times,” Austin replied. “I had two back-to-back Sundance films (called CAPTAIN ABU RAED and GRACE) that both pretty similarly leaned on their scores. It’s really wonderful to be an active part of the storytelling.”
“But also love being super subtle and supportive. Whatever produces the best storytelling.”
And the soundtrack? Austin tells me it’ll feature all the most important music in the game, but arranged in a way that’s somewhat different from its in-game usage. “I reworked the music to actually make for a decent listening experience,” he says, “because on its own it didn’t work for me at all. Doing a straight audio capture of the music in-game would produce the WORST album imaginable. At least that’s how I feel.”
“So the album will take you back to the game, I hope, but in a way that actually has its own arc and sense of story.”
I also learn that there’s an “enormous pile of discarded music” for the game, and that Austin is finishing up on a game called Monaco that Andy Schatz is developing. “It’s a LOT of fun,” he says. “Totally the opposite of Journey. Rambunctious solo piano in an almost Ragtime style!”
Many thanks to Lewis Gaston for his invaluable assistance with this article, and, of course, to Austin Wintory, who was a pleasure and a gentleman throughout. Journey is out now via the PlayStation Network, and Austin’s website is here.