Journey’s composer on storytelling through music
After scoring Journey, Austin Wintory raised eyebrows by announcing his next project: the Leisure Suit Larry reboot. At his most recent gig, he drew the Animex Game Festival at Teesside University to a close, providing an energising and sometimes moving insight into his work and the role of the game composer.
“I regard what I do as a form of story-telling,” says Wintory. “Part of my process is trying to avoid having a process. I try to let whatever it is I am trying to do be borne of its own. I think of music as already existing and it’s my job to avoid hindering it coming into the world. There’s a composer I’m very close with and we workshop each others’ music. Whenever we have severe criticism of the others’ work our ‘go-to’ line is ‘this feels like you composed it’. If it feels like an expression of your ego, it’s avoiding the heart of the matter.”
Wintory isn’t afraid to opine on the deeper questions about music. And he admits to contorting himself into an existential tailspin over the nature of being as he tries to capture the essential musicality of every project he works on. “I look at game design, sculpture, theatre and architecture and those are all reasons why humans are awesome. Music is not an example of why we are awesome. It’s an example of our curious nature. Unlike every single artform, we discovered music. We are reorganising the naturally occurring world of acoustical physics. I like the definition of music as ‘organised sound’. Because of its primal nature, music seems to be magically empowered to communicate information in a way no other artform seems able to do.”
Wintory was thoughtful and engaging but funny as hell too, underscoring a scene from an indie film he’s working on with his own wistful harmonica melody before flipping the mood of the piece with the sinister Dark Knight soundtrack.
Composer Austin Wintory also put together the soundtrack for iOS game Horn.
His choice of music has personal resonances. As the first person to have his game music nominated for a Grammy, Wintory joined Dark Knight composer Hans Zimmer in missing out on the Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media in 2012. The example is meant to show that music has a unique power, he says. “Music can provide both an idea, which we can call the text, and the emotional content behind it – the subtext. As a composer that’s what I trade on.”
Wintory has been exploring the emotional power of music in games ever since taking a call from Jenova Chen, game director of Thatgamecompany, who was then a Masters student working on an intriguing final project – Flow. Chen wanted to see if he could make a game that was relaxing as well as engaging and drafted in Wintory to write the score.
Since then the composer’s projects have included titles such as Phosphor Games’ Horn, the first iOS title to use recordings of a live orchestra. “I knew it had to be an adventure, but I liked that it had this wistful quality so I came up with a quasi-Irish tune. “That gave me what I needed in terms of adventuring, but I was more interested in the ‘ruinsy’ nature of it. There are four penny whistles in the orchestra – an unusual choice. That’s an example where I am taking an abstraction of an idea and starting to put it into play. Those ideas really matter – they have storytelling implications of their own. I wanted the music to be top heavy, so the high range was emphasised. We had more violins than usual and these four penny whistles, so it felt almost like a bird.”