John Broomhall talks with the audio team behind Journey's award-winning sound design
Keith Leary is music manager at Sony Computer Entertainment America’s Product Development Service Group, and he’s recently had cause to celebrate.
That’s because the work by him and his colleagues on Journey’s audio recently scooped two sound-focused video games BAFTAs. Leary worked as score producer and mix supervisor on the oft-lauded Journey, and here discusses his work on the critically celebrated PS3 game.
Congratulations on winning both Original Music and Audio Achievement BAFTAs among the five in total that Journey picked up. Why do you think the game has been so well received and its aural experience garnered so much praise?
Keith Leary: Firstly, the story, influenced by The Hero’s Journey, is a universal story that resonates with everyone. It’s about discovery, learning, experiencing and understanding who you are and what your purpose is.
Secondly, the emotional highs and lows seem to have an almost spiritual impact on the player. Thirdly, the empathy you feel when you meet and share your journey with another player is uncanny. This is one of those very rare projects where all the stars aligned perfectly. The brilliant game design, art, sound and music all came together to create something magical.
I think one of the main reasons Journey’s aural experience works well is that no sound or music is there for its own sake; there’s a reason for every single sound and note that plays. It’s not about the quality and appropriateness of the sound design and music; it’s all about eliciting the right emotional response.
There’s also a psychological aspect to the soundscape where we introduce certain instruments and sounds in such a subtle way that players generally won’t actually ‘hear’ them because they’re so tied into the gameplay.
For example – and there’s a spoiler alert here – you only hear the harp when you meet somebody and get close to them. If you asked players whether they noticed, my guess would be they had no idea, but, psychologically, the harp really contributes to the emotional bond created between two players develop.
There’s a sense of cohesion about the sound and music, like the sum is greater than the parts. How did that come about?
Leary: Composer Austin Wintory wrote a suite of pieces early on in an effort to find the right tone and feeling to support the story’s emotional arc. Lead sound designer, Steve Johnson worked closely with Austin throughout. Great effort was made to complement what each other was doing; everything had to fit the aesthetic.
For example, at a particular moment there might be some low rumbly sounds so music would stay away from those frequencies. Sounds with tones were chosen carefully to complement music. In the snowy mountain, music was used as a textural element, like an undercurrent to the wind, which then got gradually swallowed by the storm.
There are times where music drops out completely for a sound-driven moment, and other times where music is the storyteller with sound playing a supporting role. These were conscious creative choices. I have to admit having three years to get it right helped.
Another great example of collaboration between sound and music is the player singing/shouts – a combination of processed bird chirps, along with musical and vocal elements provided by Austin. Pitch sets were chosen for each game section so they harmonised with the score.
Variations were created for your character versus your companion so each has their own accents but speak the same language. These sounds evolve to reflect the emotional arc, feeding into whether the player feels more empowered or weak at certain points along their journey. Again, it’s very subtle, but it supports the emotional response.
What kind of interactive music approaches are used in Journey? What's going on under the hood?
Leary: We used several adaptive music approaches in Journey. In certain areas we took a layered approach, allowing the music to build organically as the player progresses. Other times we branched from one segment to another, the main philosophy always being to transition in a musical way.
It might mean waiting a few bars for a musically appropriate place, and/or creating a special musical phrase to go seamlessly from one piece to another – all beat synchronous.
As mentioned earlier, scoring the multiplayer experience was particularly effective, with harp and viola only appearing when another person is present, making the music a richer experience and thereby contributing to the emotional bond.
Of course, we didn’t know when two people would meet, so harp and viola had to play counterpoint throughout the entire score. A painstaking amount of detail went into making the music adapt smoothly at every turn, with the ultimate goal being to create the illusion that it’s all one seamless performance from beginning to end.
Journey's audio team:
Game director: Jenova Chen
Score producer/Mix supervision: Keith Leary
Composer: Austin Wintory
Lead sound designer: Steve Johnson
Music implementation: Monty Mudd and Ted Kocher
Audio programmer: Martin Middleton
[To read Develop's comprehensive Heard About audio profiles, click here]