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Gamer's Paradise: Why Composer Austin Wintory's Video Game Scores Hit All The Right Notes

That gamecompany’s 2012 PlayStation Network release Journey will probably go down in history as one of the signs of the turning of the game industry’s cultural tide. Though it was a downloadable indie game about a meditative, spiritual desert quest, it swept nearly every applicable awards show, earning a litany of Game of The Year nods, five BAFTAs and six Game Developers Choice awards.

Its music, the work of composer Austin Wintory, brought in much acclaim, including best music at the nationally-televised Spike Video Game Awards and even a Grammy nomination. The game’s score, sometimes glittering and winsome, other times warm, orchestral swells, plays a key role in immersing players into Journey’s remarkable sense of place -- but Wintory is often almost frustratingly-humble about what he insists was a collaborative development effort to create something special.

A scene from Journey.

During the airing of the Spike VGAs, an on-camera host congratulates him on his award for the music. It’s everyone’s award, Wintory insists on television. But it’s the music award, so it’s in large part yours, the host suggests. It’s everyone’s, the composer again insists.

“I have a certain skepticism over awards to begin with, because they have a tendency to distract us from the main reason why we do what we do,” he says. “It’s never that I want to be a naysayer, because it’s surreal and an honor… but I’m really grateful all of that was solidly nine months after release, as we could observe player reaction.”

It was the grateful emails from fans transformed by Journey’s world and minimalist narrative of a collaborative hero’s journey that were the most gratifying. “People were sending emails that Journey was life-changing for them—hey don’t realize the extent that Journey was life-changing for me.”

After such a degree of prominence and acclaim, you’d expect Wintory would become a hard person to track down, but that hasn’t been the case. Since then, the composer has only thrown himself more generously and joyously into other game projects -- by the end of 2012, it was revealed Wintory had signed on to lend the soundtrack to the in-development, Kickstarter-funded reboot of cult 1987 PC title Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, the ignoble adventures of a luckless, aging perv trying to score in the fictional mecca of Lost Wages.

“The idea of wanting to work less because of the recognition that Journey got? That’s bizarre to me,“ Wintory laughs.

Well before Journey launched early in 2012, Wintory had become excited by a little stealth-action heist game called Monaco, which won the grand prize at the Independent Game Festival in 2010. “I love contributing to a whole larger than myself,” he says. “I also do write concert music, where your music is ‘the thing’ people are there for. If you’re creating a symphony, or an opera… where it’s truly music for its own sake, then you are the larger whole. The culture of game developers and producers is one I love and feel very at-home with.”

Monaco, the brainchild of indie Andy Schatz’s Pocketwatch Games, is a production on a much smaller scale than Journey, which was made by a small but well-heeled studio with the support of Sony’s Santa Monica team and all the backing of the PlayStation brand.

In a situation like that, “you’re investing in the project and the people with whom you are working,” Wintory says. “With a game made literally by a few people, you are investing in the people above all.”

Thatgamecompany co-founder Kellee Santiago introduced Wintory to Schatz, who’d just been looking for some advice on how to license some independent music for Monaco. But Schatz’s vision for the game and its music (“he said, ‘old-timey early-20th century ragtime solo piano”) appealed to the composer, who despite claiming to be not so strong a pianist, used to substitute every now and then for his piano instructor playing piano-bar tunes in hotels and the like.

In Monaco, Wintory saw an opportunity to try something unique -- “when the hell is anyone ever going to ask for this kind of music ever again!” But the result ultimately became something very much his own. The top-down heist game, which distinguishes itself through pleasantly-lurid neon and acclaimed cooperative multiplayer, is inspired by the moustache-twirling “naughtiness” of silent films and the melodrama of theater piano, and as the game progresses, culminates in what Wintory calls “a nastier kind of jazz.”

“What you’re hearing in the recording is not a microphone listening to a piano performing the music,” Wintory explains. “I had a friend who’d bought a shitty upright piano on Craigslist that sounded a hundred years old, warbly. I sampled that piano so I could sort of digitally play it, and then I ended up also using other piano samples. I wanted the sound to evolve from that to a much more lush, Steinway grand piano sound by the end, so that it’s not the same exact color throughout… it’s technically digitally-created, like the 21st-century version of a player piano.”

“It was a joy the whole time,” Wintory adds of working with Schatz on Monaco. Even though Monaco was ultimately delayed -- despite its 2010 IGF win, the full version of the game just released last week -- the timing turned out fortuitous for the composer’s oeuvre. “I’m so grateful Journey had this massive, blinding experience in the spotlight, and then the next sort of big release I have gets to be something that’s as hard a left turn from it as anything I can imagine. It’s like cleansing the palate after a beautiful meal.”

Increasingly, Wintory’s colleagues in music composition are attracted to the opportunity to work in games, which often see a much more hands-on and engaged audience than the lean-back experience of enjoying a film score. The glamour, decreased competition and opportunity for innovation is making many in the music world curious about gaming. Yet in Wintory’s  view, the fundamental skill required in game composition is a passion for the medium of digital play.

“Being a gamer and enjoying play testing the game so you can think in terms of the mechanics, and see it through the lens your collaborators see it, is always number one on the list,” he says. “That means loving games.”

“Interactive entertainment has no precedent in human history,“ Wintory marvels. Monaco’s dynamic music communicates tense restraint if the player is hiding, then naturally transitions to a wild crescendo if all hell breaks loose. “Never before could we make music that dynamically reacts to what the audience is interested in. It’s broader implications are culture-changing, and we’ve barely even seen the tip of the iceberg yet, much less come to grasp the whole thing.”

“We’re exploring something fundamentally, radically new, and that’s not about the notes I’m composing so much as the overwhelming excitement in being a participant in something this novel,” he adds.

In the Hollywood world, some still erroneously view games as stepchild territory for talent, a place to hibernate or experiment rather than to treat as art. “To that, I say, ’how is your world in which [games are] not art better than a world in which they could be? Why would you want to live in that world?”

Ultimately, he says, he’s passionate about game music “not to make a living in today’s world, but hopefully to crack through some wall to another world.”