Games 'Wild West' for music, says Journey composer

Games 'Wild West' for music, says Journey composer
Seth Tipps

By Seth Tipps

December 10th 2012 at 7:39AM

Grammy-nominated Austin Wintory on the challenges of the medium

The composer behind the music for Thatgamecompany's award-winning Journey says he feels priveleged to work in what he considers the "Wild West" that games offer musicians.

Austin Wintory's Journey score is the first complete game soundtrack to recieve a Grammy nomination.

Christopher Tin, whose song Baba Yetu from Civilizaton IV was the first song written for a video game to receive a Grammy, was the first to congratulate Wintory.

"When he won that Grammy two years ago, it was the first time ... the game itself wasn't being acknowledged, it was the piece he had extracted from the game," Wintory told Gamasutra.

"So it was really wonderful that of all the people, by chance the trailblazer would be the one to call me... how perfect."

Wintory first began working with TGC founder Jenova Chen when the latter was working on flOw as part of his master's thesis, but the colaboration between the two for Journey set new heights for what games could do with music.

"Jenova and the designers of the game went out of their way to make this... almost soul to soul contact," said Wintory.

"I never in a million years saw people imagining those kinds of experiences, living in the game in that sort of way."

For Wintory, even without all the critical acclaim Journey "would have still been the most gratifying experience of anything I ever worked on before, because of those responses from people. I just don't know what an artist could possibly hope for in their life more than that."

Part of the reason Journey flows so well with its score is that both start from a similar place in the creative process.

"Jenova doesn't start with some cool new technology; it's always, 'what's the emotional takeaway that I want the player to have,'" said Wintory.

"It's remarkable that's sort of unique among game developers."

"Among composers... you don't start typically with, 'okay, I have strings, what do I want to do with them?'" he explained.

"It's the old saying, that if you just walk around with a hammer, then everything in the world looks like a nail. If it's all about your tools, it's different than looking at a scenario and asking 'what tools do I need in order to deal with that scenario.'"

While this sort of similar approach between design and composition helps Wintory when it comes to matching the tone of the game, the biggest challenge of writing game music is one of time.

"I didn't create an album to stick into a game; I had to create a game score, and then figure out how to reverse-engineer it into an album,' he said.

"That is what took three years to do, that's what I desperately wanted to happen, that it would feel like I am sitting right behind you composing in realtime and matching everything to your experience.

"That's why I get so excited about games, it throws everything you know about music up in the air.

"Music is one of those art forms, like theatre and only a couple of others, that is bound by time; you're at the mercy of the passage of time. So to create music for a game is to apply a nonlinear aesthetic onto something that is fundamentally linear, and it's like... holy shit, this is really kind of insane.

"To think of not just having the audience's emotional input, but to have them directing the flow of events in the music is as far from traditional classical music as possible."

Exposing more people to the unique musical forms that come from meeting these challenges is difficult, but Wintory says it's getting easier.

"A week ago in Colorado, the Boulder Symphony played a piece of mine from Journey in a concert of otherwise all classical music - it wasn't a game night or a pops concert," he said.

"I got up and spoke to the audience before they played, and as I was explaining the thrill of nonlinear music and why, as a composer, that's so exciting... the audience was the expected orchestra audience, but they were really interested."

"That dismissing, as soon as they hear the word 'video game'... I didn't sense any of it. The idea that they were receptive to what they were going to be hearing, to me, it was one of those humanity-affirming moments."