Austin Wintory is a name in the composing industry who, before 2012, most people may not have ever heard. And it’s not for his lack of effort. Having been in the industry a relatively short time, he has already racked up nearly 90 film and video game credits, with about a dozen more currently in production.
But what has firmly planted the man’s name onto the map is his score for the Sony PlayStation 3 game “Journey”. Not only did his soundtrack crack the Billboard Top 200, becoming the second-highest charting video game soundtrack in history, but Wintory has also been nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media” – the first-ever nomination for a video game!
Read on, as we spend some time with Austin Wintory and explore the origins of this soundtrack that seems to only become more popular with time.
So, how shocked were you to receive all these accolades for “Journey”? Have you even gotten used to it yet?
I think it’s safe to say that how shocked anyone who was not me is eclipsed by how shocked I was. It was totally inexplicable, because the only game that charted higher was a “Guitar Hero” compilation, and the whole thing about “Guitar Hero” is that it is composed entirely of pre-existing songs that everyone already knows.
I really do not have the vocabulary to describe my surprise over it. Video game scoring is an emerging artform and something that we largely don’t know how to do yet. So it’s doubly great to be recognized for something that is pretty much still in its infancy.
Tell me a little bit about what went into your “journey” with “Journey”. As I do not have a PS3, I have never played the game, but when I listen to the soundtrack, I’m drawn back to what “Myst” could have been.
It’s funny, really. People have so many reference points when talking about “Journey” – they’re all over the map. And I can tell you, I certainly played “Myst” back in the day, but I don’t remember the music at all…I don’t actually remember there being music in “Myst”. But in any case, I don’t think there is any invalid response or comparison.
But the short answer to your question is that it was a long, organic process. Thatgamecompany hired me on Day 1 of the project. The game did not exist in any form at that point; there wasn’t even any concept art! It was literally just a notion of a game that they wanted to make. So, I was able to write music and create ideas and explore things in tandem with their own experiments for the entire three years that the game was in development.
And that was a real blessing, to be able to live in the game like that for so long. It was not a mechanical process, where you sit down and say, “I need a cue that functions this way and has this kind of emotional quality, this sense of rhythm, blah blah blah…” It really was more like the game telling me what to do, and I was rewriting and rewriting to keep up with its evolution.
I think it is also a very rare kind of soundtrack in that it doesn’t push you to think or feel in a particular way. It has a gentle atmospheric quality that could be rendered as background music, something bobbing around in the character’s head, or the voice of God, so to speak.
You’re absolutely right. The thinking behind it was that I did not want to feel like I was dictating to the player. I like to create an environment for them to experience it any way they want to. Of course, we are storytellers and we are creating a narrative that needs to be followed. It’s not procedural, but I don’t want to command that the player feel a certain way. And that is actually something VERY difficult to do.
Obviously, I want them to feel an emotion within a certain range, but let it be their own experience. It needs to be individualized, especially for a game like “Journey”. That’s my philosophy anyway, but “Journey” especially is built around that idea. But yeah, it’s tricky!
Have you studied New Age or meditative music in the past?
“Studying” it would be too formal of a description, but I have actually released a meditative album several years ago that was based on sacred poems and chants by the world’s last surviving Tetzkatlipoka Aztec medicine man. He lives in Mexico City, and we made recordings of him singing. And I turned that into an hour-long meditative album called “Sounds of Darkness”.
But certainly, my first foray into anything like that would be the game “flOw”, which was itself a deliberately meditative experience. But the truth is, most music you would call “meditative,” I find horrendously boring, uninteresting, and uninspired. So my goal became to avoid being boring but somehow be meditative. It’s just as hard as writing a complicated fugue for the climax of an opera.
From where did your inspiration spring for the music to “Journey”, since you said everything was worked on at the same time?
It was a shared experience. I don’t really have a solid answer for how it worked. An example would be, they would block out an area of the game and say that this is what they were going to work on next. Then we would discuss what the significance of that area or level would be to the larger story.
So then I would go and write a piece of music that was generally inspired by it, but not in a specific moment-by-moment way, just as an over-arcing theme. They would listen to the music, then go and tweak the game design around what I had written.
Then I would see their revised part of that world, and I would think it looked so much better than my music, so I would rewrite the music to catch up to them, and it basically became a game of Leap Frog. At the end of the day, I credit all the music to the game itself and the collaboration with Thatgamecompany and with Sony. Everything about the game was really back-and-forth. There was never really a one-directional of inspiration.
Did you make an active effort to remain culturally neutral with the score you created?
Oh, definitely. The game is non-human and does not contain any known culture. If somebody said to me that they wanted to go into a more Asian-desert theming, or North African, or wanted to break out the duduks or the ouds, I would have said, “That’s it! I’m done. I’m not going to be a part of this project!” That’s such a superficial analysis, and this game is none of those places. It’s an unfortunate pitfall that is easy to get trapped in. At best, it’s redundant, because you’re giving them information that they’ve already gotten visually.
“Journey” really needed to not be ethnically ANYTHING, especially because there was no form of language in it. And doing that would have given it a language. The idea was just to create something as universal as possible. I occasionally played around with some of those ideas, where I would try to thread something in just out of curiosity, but I ultimately ended up taking all of that stuff out and allowed music to arise naturally from the emotional quality of the game. I tried to capture that as purely as I could.
And in that respect, it would seem your job as a composer was much heavier than any other video game, based on that fact that there was no dialogue.
Yeah, I was in a state of nervousness for three years thinking that I’ve either got to write the best score I’ve ever written, or it’s got to be the worst damned score I’ve ever written! Either way, there was going to be no hiding it. If it was going to fail, it had better fail with the most spectacular sense of disaster, like The Hindenburg. But, that was the nice thing of being with it for three years; I got to really refine the ideas and put in every bit of effort to make it good.
Austin Wintory’s soundtrack for “Journey” is currently available at iTunes and Amazon.
Keep up with Austin Wintory on Facebook, Twitter and at his official website.