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A Musical Journey: Austin Wintory on Composing thatgamecompany’s Masterpiece

March 15, 2012 Written by Sebastian Moss

Journey blew us away, but we weren’t just stunned by the incredible visuals and game design – thatgamecompany’s latest title easily has one of the best soundtracks on any game, with the beautiful music perfectly complementing the PSN title. To find out about the background of the music, and when we can get our hands on more, we talked to Austin Wintory, composer of Journey and flOw, as well as films like Grace and Captain Abu Raed and upcoming indie title Monaco.

Hi Austin, could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your work as a composer?

Hi! I started composing as a kid, around age 10, and became pretty serious about it a few years later as a teenager. I wrote music for the high school orchestra and then later went to college to study classically. After that I began working in films and games and the concert hall and have been doing it ever since!

How did composing for Journey differ to your previous work at thatgamecompany on flOw?

Totally different in just about every way! The team was larger (though I still worked very closely with Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen, as had been the case on flOw). But otherwise basically everything is different. I worked much more closely with Sony (the wonderful music team of Keith Leary, Monty Mudd, Ted Kocher, and the sound designer Steve Johnson), which I loved. And obviously the goals of the game are totally different, so that’s reflected in the music. flOw is more of a meditation whereas Journey is a definite narrative.

thatgamecompany is a small studio, but has Sony’s backing – did that give you access to a bigger orchestra or better equipment?

We certainly wouldn’t have been able to record an orchestra without Sony’s support. My equipment is my own, as a freelance independent artist, but the facilities at Sony for mixing and mastering and such were available to us and we took full advantage!

You spent three years creating the music for the game – when did you finish composing Journey’s score?

I finished composing around New Years of 2012 or so. Maybe slightly earlier than that. Everything after that was making sure the implementation and mix was correct. We worked very hard on lots and lots of details to make sure it all was adding up.

Will we ever be able to hear the early versions of your music? I know the beta had music that wasn’t entirely the same, and you have released Woven Variations with Tina Guo on YouTube.

Oh absolutely I make mockups of all my music so that it was always in game. You can easily render approximations of the final recordings, so it was never a matter of guesswork on how it might sound. “Woven Variations” was a total side project. A mini cello concerto that I did with just under a year of composing still to do. It ended up influencing the game, which was unexpected! But it was never meant to be part of the score. Its own piece, drawn from it, but distinctly different.

Were you given full control over the score, or did thatgamecompany have an input?

Well, both! TGC and Sony both had lots of great ideas and together, as a team, we made it what it is. I always felt very respected though and if ever I felt strongly about an idea they would support it. But it’s a team effort so TGC and Sony’s ideas were always VERY important to me.

You’ve previously said that Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (monomyth) was an inspiration for both the game and your music. Did the circular nature of the hero’s quest influence your music?

Absolutely. There is a full arc to the score in the game that is very much derived, philosophically, from Campbell’s work. Nothing literal, but in principle and concept.

There are 17 stages of monomyth, does your music focus on some of these stages?

No, I didn’t bring anything to it that wasn’t already in Journey itself. The game is obviously inspired by Campbell, but not so literally based on his writings. As such, my music is based solely on Journey and more like a spiritual descendent of Campbell. But no literal translations like that.

With players in control, games are obviously far less linear than movies. Does this make composing for them harder?

It’s not necessarily harder, but it’s totally different. I think if I weren’t a gamer myself it would be harder. I actually love it!

Do you prefer composing for games or for films?

No I really love them both. They’re different. The types of people who make each are different and the definition of a “great” film score or “great” game score are often different. So I love the challenge. Helps keep things fresh!

Music in games still isn’t nearly as widely recognized as that in films – turn on a classical radio station and you’ll hear The Lord of The Rings soundtrack, but never that of a game. Why do you think that is, and does it trouble you?

Well we’re still in our infancy. It took films a LONG time before any sort of recognition happened. Games are at the leading edge of that. It’ll happen, I have no doubt. It’s directly parallel to games as a whole coming into general acceptance by the population. Fortunately for us, gone is the long-held stereotype of ALL gamers being someone with braces in their parents’ basement. Now we’re starting to reach everyone. Make games for everyone. As that happens, so too will broad cultural appreciation.

Would you like to work with thatgamecompany again in the future?

I would work with thatgamecompany, or Sony, in a heartbeat. Down to the last person, I really love working with all of them. They’re genuinely inspirational people who I greatly admire.

So what’s your favorite game that you haven’t worked on?

Oh yes big gamer and I’d say in recent years BioShock was my top answer that. That, and Mass Effect 1 and 2 (haven’t played 3 yet!). Those were wonderful, though BioShock in particular. Garry Schyman is a friend of mine and thought he did a brilliant job with that score.

If you could pick one game series to compose for, what would you choose?

I guess, based on my previous answer, that’d be Mass Effect? I’m also a big fan of Uncharted. But again, like when you asked if I’d work with thatgamecompany … my actual motivation isn’t so much the games themselves as the people I work with. Music is all about people for me. Whether that’s the musicians or the producers or developers or directors or whoever. I love making music because I love sharing music. In the case of Uncharted, I am fan of the series, but I also just really love everyone at Naughty Dog. The Lead Designer for that series is named Richard Lemarchand and he’s a very dear friend and one of the most inspiring people I know.

When can we expect to see the soundtrack’s release?

I can’t say just yet but if you follow me on Twitter (@Awintory) or sign up for my newsletter you’ll be the first to know!! Plus I’ll be sending out a free bundle of music inspired by Journey/flOw to anyone who signs up!

[Images courtesy of Us and the Game Industry]