Ever wondered what goes into scoring the music of a video game or how someone gets started in the industry? Well we did and we were fortunate to talk to Austin Wintory,one of the best composers in the business about his inspirations and his process. You might know him from his recent work on Journey or flOw or one of his many other film projects.
Could you talk a little bit about your musical background and what things pulled you into a career in music?
I knew that this was my passion and my sole career ambition from a young age. I became obsessed with the music of Jerry Goldsmith when I was about 10 years old and knew that composing would be my future. I started out by writing music (by hand!) for my high school orchestra in Colorado, and eventually went to NYU and USC for classical training. In New York I got started doing student films, and when I came to LA I started doing both student films and student games.
What music are you listening to currently? How would you describe your musical tastes?
I regard my education to be a continuous process, so I make sure to really mix it up. But my default tends to be classical music. In my car at the moment is a recording of Ravel’s ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony. But it’s just as likely to be a musical theater album, a film or game soundtrack, a dubstep album or really anything else!
What was the first video game you listened to where you realized the significance of the music in the game? Excluding your own work, what’s your favorite musical score in a video game? Beyond the normal imprinting of, say, the original Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda, I think the first time I really felt like great music existed in games was from the ‘90’s LucasArts adventure games. Michael Land, Peter McConnell and Clint Bajakian wrote one classic score after another for Monkey Island, The Dig, Grim Fandango, etc. These days my favorite is quite hard to say. I really love Garry Schyman’s first BioShock score. In the last year or so my favorite scores were probably LA Noire and inFamous 2.
You’ve worked in a variety of different mediums (film/concerts), is the approach for each medium different or do you have one standard process for composing music? The main difference comes down to the linear vs. non-linear use of music. Films are locked timelines, so the goal becomes the subtle and often transparent support of the narrative. Games are similar, except that the narrative is dictated by the player (to varying degrees). This means your music is not locked in time but potentially very different from one player to the next. This is my favorite component to scoring a video game. It’s very exciting and also incredibly challenging.
How did you get into scoring games for the video game industry and what were the early lessons you learned writing for an interactive medium? I did a few student games in my early college career. I consider my work on flOw on PS3 to be my first true experience in the video game industry. I think the early lesson was that there are no rules, and that’s REALLY exciting. Anything goes. It’s intoxicating!
How do you view the role of music in interacting with the player in-game? How do you go laying out what your needs for the score are going to be (how many individual pieces will be necessary)? Every game has different needs and different ways of defining if you were successful. The score to Journey would have been horrible in flOw and vice versa. I think it’s a matter of taking it one step at a time and trying to immerse myself in what the developer is trying to accomplish. The music then flows from that.
When starting work on the score for a game, what are the first things you need to have to start writing the music? How closely do you work with the designers to match the music to certain parts of the game? AW: It’s VERY deeply collaborative. So my first step is to internalize what it is I think the game is about and what it’s trying to communicate. In the case of Journey that was almost instantaneous. I really resonated with the concept so within an hour or so I knew precisely what I wanted to do. On flOw it was more of a path of discovery. But I don’t have a set method for figuring that out. It arises organically as part of the back and forth with the developers.
In your opinion, what’s been the biggest change in how music has been handled in the game industry in the last decade? The technology for implementation has skyrocketed, so we’re no longer facing any real restrictions in terms of bandwidth or fidelity. It’s like being in cinema at the dawn of sound. The wild west! Insanely exciting!
What was your reaction when you found out that some of your music would be included in the Smithsonian Museum’s Video Exhibit? Well obviously immensely ecstatic! The Gamer Symphony is a great group of musicians from the University of Maryland, and I think we’re mutually excited at presenting something a little different from your normal live game concert. It should be a really wonderful time!
In abstract games, including Flower and Journey, what sources or media do you draw inspiration from? How many iterations did you go through before finding that perfect score for Journey? I went through a seemingly infinite number of iterations; constant revision. As for the inspiration, it primarily comes through conversation with the team and their goals. But I also tend to look towards literature. In this case the obvious source was Joseph Campbell’s “Hero of a Thousand Faces.” But also novels, poetry, etc. I re-visited Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” while scoring Journey and I believe a lot of those themes really seep into the composing.
Is there any video game genre that you’d like to work on but haven’t? Conversely, is there a genre that you are avoiding writing for? I definitely am not avoiding any genre. They’re all wonderful from a composing standpoint, because they present opportunities to grow and stretch. I really am happy to work in any genre. As a gamer I pretty much play them all, and as a composer I really value the diversity so I’d be hard pressed to think of any one in particular that wouldn’t be appealing.
What advice do you have for aspiring composers and musicians? Be honest with yourself. Always listen to your heart because a lot of musicians get into games or film trying to chase down a paycheck. I urge against that, because the struggle of getting your foot in the door won’t feel worth it. But if you genuinely love games, you’ll love the struggle of pursuing them. It’s a very tough life with lots of uncertainty, but I personally thrive on that. I like having no safety net. I often tell myself that the best part of my job is that I wake up every day fired. There is no tenure, no golden parachute. If I don’t do my best work TODAY tomorrow is totally irrelevant. If that sounds good to you, you’ll be fine. If you enjoy the chase you’ll never back down.
What’s been the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career? The most important lesson is to know that no one has ever failed at being a composer. One can not get fired, in the broad career sense. People only quit and go on to other things. So if you just decide for yourself that you won’t quit, you’ll never fail. I know that sounds naïve and idealistic, but it really is that simple.
What future projects are on the horizon for you? Any future involvement with other video game projects?
My next video game project is called Monaco, produced by Andy Schatz and Pocket Watch Games. The game is radically different from Journey, as is the score. It’s all solo piano in a sort of ragtime / silent movie era style- so much fun. I’m also in talks with Chris Bell to write a score for a commercial-scale version of his game Way.
We'd like to thank Austin for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Alex for helping to facilitate the interview.
Hi, my name is Charles Husemann and I've been gaming for longer than I care to admit. For me it's always been about competing and a burning off stress. It started off simply enough with Choplifter and Lode Runner on the Apple //e, then it was the curse of Tank and Yars Revenge on the 2600. The addiction subsided somewhat until I went to college where dramatic decreases in my GPA could be traced to the release of X:Com and Doom. I was a Microsoft Xbox MVP from 2009 to 2014. I currently own stock in Microsoft, AMD, and nVidia.