Inside The Gaming Studio – Austin Wintory, First Video Game Composer Nominated For The “Best Soundtrack” Grammy

Welcome back Inside the Gaming Studio. There has been a bit of a gap since the series launch, but that…

Patrick Dane

Contributor

Journey

Welcome back Inside the Gaming Studio. There has been a bit of a gap since the series launch, but that is because I have been busy lining up some incredible guests. But today I bring you something a little special.

Since the inception of this series, I have wanted to talk to a composer. Game Soundtracks are a form of scoring where I consistently find new and adapted ideas. Creating music for a space where it interacts directly with an audience member is quite unique to the medium. I find thatrather stirring and beautiful. So imagine the pace at which I contacted Austin Wintory once I heard his score had been nominated for Best Soundtrack at the Grammys.

It of course isn’t the first time Video Games have been to the Grammys. In fact, Chris Tin was our mediums first taste of Grammy gold back in 2011 with Baba Yetu from Civilisation 4. That song won ‘Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist’. The song is truly an astonishing achievement for video games. Literally goosebump inducing. But Austin Wintory has raised the bar even higher by being nominated for overall ‘Best Soundtrack’. He now will be attending the Grammys while his name is called next to John Williams, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, Ludovic Bource, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. If you don’t follow composers, it really doesn’t get more A-grade than that.

Austin has been nominated for the soundtrack of the PS3 exclusive Journey. And I was lucky enough to catch the man right at the epicentre of this moment in gaming history. Sitting down to chat over the phone, we covered some pretty interesting topics ranging from the tools of a composer, composing Journey, the future of gaming, other modern composers and of course, that Grammy nomination. If ever you thought about scoring a video game, there is plenty to learn here. But even if you are as musically challenged as me, there is plenty here to chew over anyways.

So please, join me Inside the Gaming Studio With Austin Wintory.

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The Tools To Make A Score

When I am scoring a film, I watch the movie over and over and over. I really try to internalise the pacing and rhythm. When I am scoring a game, I do the exact same thing because I want to be able to build the organic nature of the game into the music. Now of course it is interesting, because a lot of the time in games, I am working on it ahead of the curve enough that that can tip the other way and I can actually inform the rhythm and pacing of the game by the music instead of just trying to catch up with the game design. Certainly that happened a lot on Journey. There were areas that were almost designed around the music. Instead of vice versa, that is not that unheard of in games. I have worked on a few experiences like that. But I have also worked on games that are also more like film where they had a set concept for what they were looking for and I was trying to figure out the best way to do justice to that through music.

But ultimately. if I watch the film over and over again, you can be sure that I am playing the game over and over and over. I did an iOS game this summer called Horn. I didn’t actually own an iPad, so they were generous enough to mail me one. So I played the game endlessly. I would play it and then I would press play and listen to a mock up while I was playing just to see how it would work. When you hit on the idea of a player entering a space and how I accommodate the fact that players are going to play that different ways. That is one of the things I do a lot as a play tester. In Journey I would say “Okay. If if the player is standing at point A and I want music to be accompanying that, then I need to somehow emotionally contextualise the experience until they reach point B at which point something changes. I need to figure out everything that could possibly happen between those two points. What if they just do a speed run and they just plow their way through as fast as possible. I would just play it again and again and again with a stop watch. What is the shortest time that this is physically possible to do this in? It helps that I am pretty good at the game. I can do a pretty reasonable test at what a hardcore gamer would do. Then I would say, okay, what if I do the opposite? They just meander endlessly and they get lost and this cue just keeps on looping for like an hour? What would that sound like? And in many cases, I am not a fan of the idea that all game music should be a loop. That is like putting the cart before the horse. That is deciding the tool you need before you know that situation. It’s like turning up to a carpentry job with a phillips head screwdriver just planning to use it however you can. No carpenter would do that.

In many cases, especially in Journey, I was a big fan of saying “lets not loop! Lets just have a one off cue. And the time around which the most likely approximate time that most players are going to spend traversing this area and if it runs out of time, that is okay. They can live for five seconds without music and it won’t kill them.” That way there is a nice organic flow to the music. The piece can actually end like a piece of music. But every cue is treated differently. There are plenty of cues that loop and some that do that. There are some that almost have an algorithmically driven, you can call it a choose-your-own-adventure style set up, where it is a branching cue that can go a variety of ways depending on what the player is doing. Pretty much every technique I have dabbled in is used at some point in Journey. Every single piece of music was treated with its own set of parameters. There was no one-size fits all approach in any one moment of the game. That is why I than god I had three years to work on it. The way I put that much detail into every little second.

The Player Playing With The Music and The Music Playing the Player

The thought of the music actually driving the players experience is something that has no real analogy in any other medium. Where something is so interactive that it is almost a core game mechanic. I mean look at a game like Sound Shapes. There isn’t a movie equivalent to something like that. I mean that is really exciting. At the end of the day, in one form or another, it always boils back down to storytelling and trying to be an expert story teller, even if it is something like Sound Shapes. There is still musical progression happening there. So it is basically very difficult to generalise is the final word on that, but I do love it. I love it all. I love all the challenges of creating a nice musical narrative versus something very deeply interactive. Where in the case of Journey, to somehow do both.

Catchy Melody vs. Immersive Tone

I have no preconceived agenda when starting a new game of which of those two extremes that it should fall under. Or…Take a game like Fear for example, the music is even more atmospheric and subliminal than even Portal 2. Where as Portal it really is part of the fabric of that game. The way I see it, one of the truly wonderful things about games, but this is actually true of films as well, is each of them is so different. The parameters for what writing a good score is going to be different from one project to the next and that is actually enormously stimulating because it really prevents it from ever feeling like you are doing the same thing instead of just going through the motions.

To Each Their Own Score

All of those things you are talking about, melody, whether it simply be a mean of tracking musical progress or something that can be very memorable. Like an actual concise theme or tune of some kind. These are all tools. Sometimes, that is the tool that is appropriate and at other times it is not. It is really no different than something like rhythm or harmonies and things like harmonic progression and harmonic rhythm and all these musically technical concepts. They are really just tools that enable you to address what the situation requires. Just the two games with Thatgamecompany that I have done represent polar extremes in this way. In Journey, the goal was to have a central thematic DNA that form the core of the score. It is something that is memorable so that as its coming back into the game, you feel the sense of progression in that theme as a mirror of your own metaphorical life progression. Where as something like Flow, it is very moment by moment, experiential music where it was very overtly stated that this shouldn’t be melodically driven because it should be about being in the moment. There are musical progressions taking place but I try to make them as subtle as possible so that it was never boring but instead felt like suspended animation. So putting the music from Flow into Journey, and vice versa, would effectively ruin those two games. They are scores that I feel reasonably proud of visually.

The Acoustic Space Of A Soundtrack

Every single detail of the music, I work really hard to make as organically a consequence of the exact moment in the game that it is going to be featured in as possible. So everything from what the music is in the abstract to how it is produced needs to feel like it is organically from wherever in the game you will be hearing it. No, of course there is no definitive objective right or wrongs there.

For example, in the open desert level in Journey, the first moment you walk out into the actual open desert, and you see the mountain and the meatior in the sky, I have a gentle wave of electronics and then a bass flute solo comes over. The bass flute has a lot of reverb. It’s got an open and reverberous quality to it. I could have easily done something the exact opposite and made it very dry and brittle and very in your face. I think that could have also felt at home in that very bleak desert landscape. But it was a choice that was made. I really liked this idea that it had this spiritual quality to it of really ringing infinitely. But that is not necessarily the only choice I could have made. But to answer your question. It absolutely was made because of the context. The decision was not made in a vacuum of “Oh, I just like this sound”, I just tried to make a sound that I felt belonged.

Modern Practitioners to Learn From

Gary Schyman is a friend of mine and he really kind of exploded in games after he did Bioshock and to me, even though that was about five years ago, I think that was a pretty landmark score. I thought it was a lot of dignity and classiness and there was a lot of pathos in that score that made that game, for me, not just a first person shooter but an almost literary work. I was just so in love with Bioshock, I thought it was such a compelling game. The short reason for that is that I have never felt bad for guys trying to kill me before. That game made me feel bad for the guys trying to kill me. I thought Gary’s score was a huge part of that. He has written a handful of great scores since then like XCOM and Dante’s Inferno. His technique as a composer is terrific. I think he is some one young composers need to be throughly aware of. But there is a lot. Chris ValscoGerard Marino, who is a friend of mine. He works really hard and puts a lot of effort and a lot of energy into what he does. But then there is the indie community as well. Danny Baranowsky is great, and is somebody I only recently got to know. He is a wonderful guy and a fascinating composer. He has a very interesting process. We are so different from each other. Then there is the latest shining star Darren Korb who did Bastion. These are all people that young composers need to take a look at. They represent also the extreme diversity and breadth that games offers you as a composer.

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That Grammy Nomination

With regard to the Grammy, There have been a lot of scores in the last 12 years in which the academy have regarded theoretically ‘eligible’ for nomination that were certainly worthy of it. Like that aforementioned Bioshock for a perfect example. And there is no reason on earth why Bioshock shouldn’t have gotten a Grammy nomination.

It’s very humbling. It really truly mystifying to me that I should be the one to really crack that because there has been an enormous amount of wonderful work done in this industry in the last twelve years in which this was theoretically possible. So with regards to the Grammys, my real hope is that while of course I feel extremely humbled and honoured by this, it has been a joyus experience unlike anything I ever encountered. When Journey came out in March, I thought, “life simply doesn’t get better than this”. I have completely redefined that context in this last week. My real hope is that it makes people who have never otherwise thought about video game music, it might lead them to go seek out things like Bioshock or Chris Tin‘s Grammy winning video game music for Civilisation 4. So if it casts a light on the people I feel very grateful to call my colleagues, to me that is a real honour. If that is my accomplishment through this, that to me is wonderful. It sort of shines a spotlight on the whole industry.

Games As An Artform

I am sure it is very predictable on the whole ‘art-games’, especially given that I worked with Kellee Santiago, who became the defective spokesman for that concept in the whole Roger Ebert thing. My attitude about how my Grammy nomination figures into the ‘art’ thing, my assumption is that all it will do is reaffirm opinions on both sides. I am really passionate about games as an art form. And you say, “Ha! See, look, evidence.” It will be just as easy for people to say “the Grammys are a load of crap anyways, so what difference does that make?” People who already have that opinion will probably find that opinion reinforced. They will read into it whatever they want to read into it anyway. Because as prestigious as the Grammys or the Oscars or the whatever else are, there is no true objective arbiter of quality, so people are going to make of it what they want to make of it.

As for the future of that debate, I am firmly of the belief that, where as film was the dominant art form of the 20th century, games will be of the 21st century. If people are lining around the block to see Star Wars on May 25th 1977, these experiences will be driven by games in the 21st century. Which is not to say that there is going to be a displacement of films. I think film is going to continue to be a major part of our culture, and I sincerely hope that it is because I love them dearly. But I think what represents the spear point, I think games will take that place. So my hope that in this art form…which frankly is a silly debate. I don’t understand why anyone would ever say that games aren’t art. I don’t understand what they gain from games not being art. Say we are debating and you say “Games area beautiful art form” and I say “No they are not! Here is my ten reasons why.” and then I convince you, “You know, you are right. They are just fluff. They are just entertainment. They will never be high art (quote)”. How have I made the world a better place by convincing you that? How? Nevermind in a broad sense. How do I benefit from that? So I have never understood why people have taken such strong stances on it, because I don’t understand where the dismissiveness is going to help anybody, but in particular, the person doing the dismissing. I mean, I am not offended by it. I am really perplexed by it.

The Future of Gaming

So my hope that moving forward is that in 50 years from now, we will look at a game like Journey and think, “Wow, what a pile of crap that was. We didn’t know anything then.” So we look back and it is just this quaint little experiment but that level and depth that we are now reaching fifty years later are vastly beyond what we could have dreamt of doing during Journey. That is the world I want to live in. One that really casts Journey into being this cute little thing. As much as it doesn’t feel like that now as a game, my hope is as an artform, that is where we are headed with such profundency, that games like it and Dear Esther, that are genuinely fantastic works of art, they feel like these little buoys in the water. But there is this actual land mass that we are headed towards.

And I would love to echo that final statement from Austin. With all the graphics, production values and the multibillion dollar industry, it can be hard to remember how early games are into their life span. As a medium it is really only around 30 years old. To put that into context, if we were comparing it directly to the history of film, that would put us roughly in the 1920s or 1930s. While that time has it’s own merits, it was still waiting for Citizen Kane and Casablanca to really rip the medium open and grow into what we now have today. It is entirely possible that games won’t hit their ‘golden age’ for fifty years.

That is a truly exciting idea. It’s not every generation that you get to see a medium grow from the ground up.

If you haven’t played Journey, you should. And if you would like to buy the soundtrack, you can at Itunes. You should definitely do that too.

The next article is not too far down the road, but let it be known, you ar ein for a couple surprises over the next few months.