One of 2012’s most memorable games was Journey, developed by Thatgamecompany (creators of Flow and Flower). Players take control of a robed figure in a seemingly endless desert, traveling towards a distant mountain. While it’s gameplay and story were exquisite, Journey is just as renown for it’s atmospheric soundtrack, which became the first video game soundtrack ever nominated for a Grammy. Austin Wintory, who had worked with Thatgamecompany on prior projects, composed Journey.
I reached out to Mr. Wintory regarding an interview, and he was more then open to answering some questions via email. It was a pleasure communicating with him, and I sincerely hope we can properly meet one day and discuss music and gaming. Speaking of music and gaming, here’s what he had to say:
How did you get started composing?
When I was around 10 I discovered the film scores of Jerry Goldsmith and was basically instantly captivated by the notion that in today’s world a composer could write boundlessly imaginative music, and earn a living doing so. I was also very much into film and so the idea of combining those was also tantalizing. I later went on to get a proper composition degree and obviously by that point, the commitment to this path in life was well-cemented.
Walk me through your creative process.
I honestly don’t know that I could. I try to make it proprietary to each project. How I go about writing changes based on the whims of the composition itself, so much so that by the time I’m done I often feel like I have no idea how I actually wrote any of it. Wish I could give you a more specific answer than that. My process is basically to have no set process, at least no in the ritualized sense.
How different is composing for a game than composing for a movie?
I am asked this quite often. The differences are innumerable but their similarities are probably more important: they both require a strong sense of storytelling, and a great passion for music as an accompanimental device. Their biggest separation is the capacity for game scoring in interactive music, which is nothing to dismiss easily. But for today, their similarities are simply that one must do all they can to write truthful, meaningful and honest music.
Do you think the evolution of game music has been positive?
Absolutely! Ours is still an art form in its infancy, but I can’t imagine not feeling like our growth has been an inspiring one!
Was it challenging to score the incredibly unique setting of Journey?
To say the least, though not because of the setting. The emotional goals of Journey were incredibly ambitious, and to have even the slightest hope to match them felt impossible. It was a long (3 years!) process and by the end it wasn’t so much that we finished as it was that needed to be done. So it seems I’d still be working on it without the constraint of a release date. That’s true for most everything I do, but nothing quite like on Journey.
Do you have a certain setting in which you are inspired the most?
I have a studio where I work that’s about two miles from where I live. It’s a simple place; I can record there but it’s really primarily a writing space. I do all of my composing there and it works quite nicely for me.
List some of your favorite games.
Grim Fandango has long stood at the top of my list. Past that, it’s near impossible to say. The first Bioshock was deeply compelling, and this past year Gone Home and The Last Of Us both affected me greatly. I also really, really love Thomas Was Alone. Whether I’d call any of these (other than Grim Fandango) a true *favorite* I’m not sure, but I do love them!
List some of your favorite game soundtracks.
Basically, any on the list above (particularly Grim Fandango and Thomas Was Alone). I also greatly love Jess Curry’s work and so any list is incomplete without Dear Esther.
How did your score for Journey evolve as the development of the game evolved?
I could write you an entire essay about this, and I have elsewhere. I’ll just simply say, yes. Emphatically, yes! 🙂
Thoughts on gaming as an art form.
I have only to say that when someone suggests games are not art, I pose this question: name me one reason why your reality, in which games can’t be art, is superior to mine in which they can be?
Thoughts on indie games in general.
The internet has empowered the indie developer in a way that has no real parallel elsewhere. Film and TV have no real comparison, in terms of the potential scope and reach of indie games. They feel like a promised land. I feel incredibly lucky to work with such noteworthy, provocative developers like Tale of Tales, Funomena, Jake Roberts, Pocketwatch Games, thatgamecompany and of course, the newly-formed Giant Squid, among others.
Outside of composing, were you involved in the development of games like Journey, Monaco, Abzu or The Banner Saga?
Definitely yes, though it varies to what degree. On Journey I was deeply involved in development, though I would never lay claim to any particular aspect of the development. More just that music was a core part of the process from day one. The same is true for Abzu and more or less The Banner Saga. Monaco was much more fully-formed when I got involved, though I did playtest quite a lot and thus was at least somewhat helpful to Andy Schatz in that sense. Our new game will likely see me much more deeply involved in core development.
Would you say that a game’s music is becoming more a part of the overall experience than ever before?
Not really, in that it’s ALWAYS been a core part of the game’s experience. If that weren’t the case, I can’t imagine the music of Tetris, Mario, Zelda etc.. would be so important to us!
Journey’s score was the first video game score ever nominated for a Grammy. When you first discovered that your own score was nominated for a Grammy, what went through your mind?
I found out over the phone from Christopher Tin so the first thought I had was that it was beautifully symbolic that he be the one to tell me; his nominations and subsequent wins for “Baba Yetu” had undoubtedly paved the way for Journey with the Recording Academy, and so I could think of no one more fitting to tell me of my nomination.