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Interview: Composer Austin Wintory On Journey

The man with the plan.

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.”

A press shot of Austin mid-composing.
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.”

The music definitely helps to convey the feelings that the developers wanted.
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.

  1. Spotter5
    Since: Forever

    Love love love the ending credits. Thanks for including them> I’m going to listen to them a lot. Can’t wait for this to be released to buy.

    Comment posted on 15/03/2012 at 13:50.
  2. cc_star
    Team TSA: Writer
    Since: Forever

    Still love FlOW, often leave my XMB sitting on that just to hear the theme
    ThatGameCompany also did amazing work with Flower

    Journey is awesome too, love how light & playful it is in the earlier areas of the game before it turns…. *spoiler* and the end credits are phenomenal

    I want to buy them all!

    Comment posted on 15/03/2012 at 13:55.
    • Kevatron400
      Drake, baby.
      Since: Dec 2008

      Haha I do the same thing! I wish that flOw track was longer!

      Comment posted on 15/03/2012 at 17:29.
    • bunimomike
      Since: Jul 2009

      Same here. The flOw XMB music is utterly sensational and so serenely relaxing I often catch myself sticking it on when I’m half asleep on the sofa.

      Comment posted on 16/03/2012 at 11:27.
  3. nofi
    One for all.
    Since: Forever

    Here’s an expansion on the ‘discarded’ music comment, that was cut from the article:

    “There is an enormous pile of discarded music, but always rightfully so. In fact, I threw out my own music far more often than because of feedback from thatgamecompany or Sony. Like I said, nothing was ever written in a vacuum from its in-game implementation, so it was always clear really quickly if it needed to be changed or ditched.”

    Comment posted on 15/03/2012 at 14:35.
  4. Cadabena
    Since: Jul 2009

    I haven’t finished it yet, but having read nothing about the game prior to playing, I didn’t realise my partner was real and quit after about half an hour to go to bed. Now I feel like the worst person on Earth :(

    Comment posted on 15/03/2012 at 14:52.
  5. Gastos84
    Since: Apr 2009

    Can’t wait for the OST to be released. Such beautiful music. Was listening to Threshold again last night and it’s that kind of music that you just lose yourself in. I ended up putting it on loop. It’s like medication.

    Also does that brilliant thing when you’re able to visualise elements of the game as you listen. Love it.

    Comment posted on 15/03/2012 at 15:00.
  6. Kevatron400
    Drake, baby.
    Since: Dec 2008

    Great interview! I love AW’s music. I even referenced his stuff on flOw in my dissertation a couple of (in fact nearly three, god!) years ago. Can’t wait for the soundtrack to come out – it’ll actually be the first game soundtrack I’ll ever have bought.

    Comment posted on 15/03/2012 at 17:30.
  7. Kennykazey
    Since: Mar 2010

    The soundtrack of Journey truly is among the best of them and I look forward to it’s release.

    Comment posted on 15/03/2012 at 20:58.
    • Kennykazey
      Since: Mar 2010

      *its, sorry.

      Comment posted on 15/03/2012 at 20:59.
  8. TSBonyman
    Since: Dec 2009

    So he’s also the man responsible for the heavenly flow theme? I’m glad tgc brought him back to do Journey. Looking forward to the OST – Are game soundtracks from psn transferrable to other devices, like ipod?

    Comment posted on 15/03/2012 at 21:12.
    • bunimomike
      Since: Jul 2009

      Flower was. I listened to it, yesterday, on my PC (MP3s, I believe).

      Comment posted on 16/03/2012 at 11:27.
  9. chall5
    Since: Oct 2009

    when will the OST be available ?

    Comment posted on 23/03/2012 at 11:46.
  10. GerardoPro17
    Since: Nov 2012

    Steve Johnson, the sound designer, is not from Thatgamecompany, he’s from SCE Santa Monica Studios.

    Comment posted on 18/11/2012 at 02:58.