Dabe Alan / Austin Wintory
Musical DNA: how Austin Wintory wrote the song that helped create Journey
Jenova Chen, the designer of flOw and flOwer and co-founder of thatgamecompany, invited composer Austin Wintory to dinner, and during that meal the famed developer told Wintory about a game he wanted to create. Chen talked about Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. He talked about a game that would inspire feelings of loneliness in the player, but also a sense of poignancy, and a kind of stark beauty. Wintory hadn’t been ready to receive this huge amount of information about the game, and he asked the waitress to bring a long piece of receipt paper to take notes as Chen laid out his ideas about what would later become Journey. “It was extremely inspiring, Jenova is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” Wintory told the Penny Arcade Report. “He just exudes this thoughtful wisdom about his ambitions and life and where he thinks games can be, what they are, and where they’re going.” Chen had a challenge for Wintory: the designer wanted a musical theme to take to the team to help define the game. Chen was looking for something that would establish Journey's tone, and get everyone involved in the project on the same page creatively. Wintory doesn’t remember all the details of that conversation, but the composer does remember how much he was moved by the description of the game. “Whatever [Chen] said was magical. I walked out of the [meeting] and by the time I walked out to my car, the piece was in my mind. I left a voice mail to myself, literally singing the music to myself,” Wintory said. He then called his collaborator, cellist Tina Guo, and they went straight to his studio so he could write and record the piece the same day. “I kept the piece of paper, and took a picture of it for Facebook,” Wintory said, remembering that first bit of music. “It’s kind of funny, so much of the past three years of my life has been based around those eight or so measures of music.” Jenova Chen loved the piece, and it was later used in the game’s first trailer. It became a piece of “musical DNA” for the game. Development of the game stretched across three years, and Wintory worked on the music during the entire development process. “I’ve been dreading it ending, like it was going to cause post-partum depression,” Wintory said, laughing. “I just loved working on it.” The project offered many challenges. How do you create a score that can set the stage emotionally, but still respect the actions of the player? Wintory said the idea of a few bars of music that would loop would have been a tragic “missed opportunity.“ He had to make the music reactive, while still creating something that would elicit specific moods and feelings. “Extremely interactive music would be something like procedural audio that’s being generated in real time by some kind of system. Which is as unmusical as it can get,” he explained. “Perhaps I’m old school… I’ve had arguments with fellow composers, but I’ve found that music is emotional and meaningful when played by a person. Musicality is a human quality.” He’s not against electronic music, but it wouldn’t have fit the tone of Journey. He described flOw, a game with an all-electronic score that responds to the player in a direct way, as a kind of musical instrument. “How do you make something that has musical meaning, where a [musician] got to pour their heart into it, and connect that to the player in that moment?” he asked. The lessons he learned working on flOw were repurposed for Journey “The music is always designed and composed, from the beginning, by asking what will the interaction be with this piece. Is this something the player will activate? Is it used as a narrative device? Are we suggesting something to the player? Will they will react to the music? Should it exist in an atmospheric way to add subtext to the environment?” he said. “All of these things interweave, and you have this kind of subtext-minded piece, and then once the player does something, it reorients what the music is doing, and you have this moment.”The team wanted Journey to be a series of emotionally powerful moments for the player, and the music had to help that process along, whether those moments were planned in advance or controlled by the player. Some of the tricks to make the cues work were easy to figure out, some were subtle, and others took years to develop. “I’m not smart enough to have done this in less than three years. The more time we had, the more time I had to try different things. There is a huge pile of discarded ideas,” Wintory said. While there are electronic sections of the score, most of the music was recorded live, with actual musicians. “Every time you hear a cello, or a flute, and certainly the orchestra, that’s always 100 percent real,” he said. “There are no electronic performances of what could have been done live.” There will be an album of the game’s music, and Wintory has also worked with a series of artists to create an EP of remixed and alternate takes of the music from Journey and flOw, which will be released for free to those who sign up for the newsletter through his site. This free EP will feature many different musical ideas and takes on the original soundtrack, and will only be available officially for a limited time. “For me the goal is always to do something I haven’t done before, to write music I haven’t written. The way I describe myself is that I consider myself to be professionally curious. Collaboration is a huge part of that,” Wintory told the Penny Arcade Report when describing how much the music informed the development process, and vice versa. He’s excited about the game finally finding an audience, and he was delighted when I said I didn’t know what I had thought of Journey after my first playthrough. The team wrestled with the idea of what does or doesn't make a game, and Wintory said he's looking forward to reading the thoughts of people who didn't like the game. Austin Wintory has scored over 200 projects, spanning media from movies to video games. He’ll have no problem keeping busy now that Journey is finished. Wintory is also speaking about music as a narrative device at the Game Developers Conference this month. Of course, thatgamecompany is also free to start thinking about and working on other projects. Who knows? Perhaps Austin Wintory’s phone will ring, and Jenova Chen will invite him to dinner.