Interview with Journey’s Composer Austin Wintory

At the Grammys this year, the gaming industry will finally have representation in the form of composer Austin Wintory. He has been nominated for Best Score Soundtrack – Visual Media for the PS3 game Journey along with some important names like Hans Zimmer, Trent Reznor and John Williams. Journey has received numerous accolades this year including best PS3 game at this year’s VGAs. We were lucky to get a quick interview with the rising star to talk about everything from Star Wars to Leisure Suit Larry,


That VideoGame Blog: Firstly, Congratulations on the Grammy nomination!

Austin Wintory: Thank you, it’s still kind of blurry. I wish I had something more interesting or profound to say other than thank you, but it’s still in that “oh, right, that happened” phase.

TVGB: How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be a Musician? What kind of music did you enjoy listening to growing up and what were your influences?

AW: I was ten and it’s sort of a strange story because I didn’t really listen to music or have it as a part of my life before that. I was into video games, movies and comics, all these different narrative art forms and things that were centered on creativity and somehow music wasn’t part of that. I didn’t listen to any bands or classical music, I only had the Star Wars LP but that’s because I was a fan of Star Wars, not a fan of John Williams. Then out of the blue, I started piano lessons and my instructor asked me what I wanted to learn and I didn’t know what to tell him. So, he played his own favorite music which was the film scores from Jerry Goldsmith and I immediately thought I have to do this for a living. I didn’t know anything about music, but I knew I wanted to be a composer. Most composers come at it the other way, they are a musician and then they fall in love with creating music, so they become composers. I was the complete opposite.  I got really serious about it in high school, then I studied it in college, got my degree in composition and I’ve been doing it ever since. It was a weird arc, but it’s the one that makes the most sense for me.

TVGB: In the press release it says that you are a strong advocate of music programs in schools, particularly in early education. Why do you believe it’s so important to have music programs in schools?

AW: I think that having music as a child is a fundamental right of being a child and it’s not something that should be treated as a luxury item. The mistake that people make is the assumption that having music in the schools is going to encourage students to grow up to become musicians, as if we’re trying to indoctrinate them into thinking that being musician or an artist is like this chosen path. It makes sense people would assume that because it’s always the artists advocating to have art put in the schools. The truth is that it’s not part of the agenda and it’s no different than that I believe science should be a core part of the curriculum. That’s not because I believe every student should grow up to be a scientist and no one would assume that when I say that. All the school subjects should serve to encourage students to awaken as a human being which is what education is all about. It’s not about drilling facts into you, it’s about giving you a sense of what this spaceship earth is all about and that we’re all kind of locked on together, hurdling through space. Music, and the arts in general, are no less of a fundamental right and the problem is that we seem to be caught counter intuitive vicious cycle where we feel dissatisfied in our students performance in subjects like math or science, so we cut the arts in favor them, which is completely backwards because the arts feed into math and science. You actually shortchange the student’s potential in those other subjects by cutting the arts. My attitude is that I don’t want to punish students for the poor policies of school administrators, which is why I work with this non-profit where we partner schools and get education restored the way we feel it should be.

TVGB: You said you were a gamer, so what kind of games do you play and what is your favorite game ever?

AW: I played everything growing up and the only games that I didn’t play were sports games, like I didn’t play Tiger Woods or Gran Turismo. I did most of my ravenous gaming in the 90’s and so all the Lucas Arts adventure games were a huge part of my life and I was also really into real-time strategy games like the Command and Conquer series and flight simulators which is a genre that isn’t explored much these days is. I really loved all games, but the adventure games were the most creatively stimulating. People often ask what my favorite game of all times is and usually I answer that it’s Grim Fandango because that game is the height of adventure games for me. It was Tim Schafer’s final grand Lucas Arts projects before he went off and started double fine productions.

TVGB: Was there a particular video game soundtrack that inspired you?

AW: It depends because I wouldn’t credit a game score with making me want to become a composer, but there were a lot of game scores that I was really in love with. I remember one of the first game scores that I ever heard where I thought a really serious composer wrote this. IT was Jeremy Soule’s score for Total Annihilation and I was really into real-time strategy games so when I heard that score I was like this guy is no joke. He’s continued to prove that over the years most recently with his score for Skyrim. Also, Grim Fandango also has really special music, Pete McConnell did the score for that and all the Lucas Arts gamers, and it’s just gorgeous writing. In more recent years, the score that sits atop everything else is probably BioShock. Garry Schyman brought an intellectual sophistication to that game and really made it a far more emotionally compelling experience.

TVGB: How did you get into the gaming industry?

AW: My first real gig was flOw and it came about in sort of a fantasy way, where I met Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago as all three of us were students at USC. flOw was Jenova’s master thesis and I wrote the music for it. I met him through another student who recommended me based on the music I did for his student game.  We did it, we put it online, it went viral and then Sony reached out and asked us if we’d like to turn this into a PS3 game. We all were shocked and said sure, but it was pretty surreal. I was still in school, going to classes and then had a PS3 game to work on at night. It came out, the game did really well, which led to other projects and eventually reuniting with thatgamecompany to create Journey.

TVGB: What’s the process for creating the score of a video game? Do they tell you exactly what they want or do they give you an idea and allow you to work creatively. How involved are you on a daily basis?

AW: I’m all about being involved in a deeply collaborative process, so I never work in a vacuum and just send the music and ask what do you think? The music is always coming from spending a lot of time talking to them about what they’re after, what they’re hoping to accomplish with the game and through tons and tons of play testing. It’s very important to me to have a deep understanding of how this game feels and moves. In the same way that when I’m scoring a film, I watch the film a lot, I don’t just start writing music and slapping it against the footage. It’s important to me that I feel like I’ve all but memorized each shot. The director and editor will know the move inside and out, and I’m always trying to catch up to their level of expertise. In the case of a game, you’re able to work on it for quite a long time so you really can come to know it well. There isn’t once square inch of Journey that I don’t know inside and out. A big part of that was almost daily play testing, so I was really able to sit there with it as it evolved. Everything was always written to very specifically go with a certain moment to make it as deeply interactive as possible for the player’s experience. It shouldn’t feel like you’re playing a game and hearing music at the same time, it shouldn’t be separable.

TVGB: Was the process different between flOw, Journey or other games?

AW: They are definitely pretty different from each other, but not because the compositional process was different, it was more that they are such different games because the emotional goals of the games were very different. Even though the two games are very different, the process is very much the same. This new game I’m working on, which is a remake of an old cult classic called Leisure Suit Larry, is as different from Journey as you could imagine. That’s the whole joy of it though because the last time I want to do is something that reminds me of Journey.

TVGB: How is it similar and/or different when you are creating a soundtrack for a movie as compared to a video game?

AW: They’re obviously very different in technological ways, but at the end of the day what they have in common are the most important aspects which are two main things, that I love working with creative and talented people and the fundamental hope to write meaningful music.

TVGB: How important do you believe your Grammy nomination is for the gaming industry?

AW: It’s so hard to say, my hope for this Grammy nomination is that would shine a light on the amazing work being done by colleagues in the gaming industry who have been doing terrific work for a long time now. Why I ended up being the lucky one to have this spotlight fall on my work, I don’t know, but my hope is that it’s a spotlight on games themselves and not specifically on me. BioShock, for example, is one of many scores that deserves wide spread recognition.

TVGB: How much of an honor is it to be nominated along with big names like John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Trent Reznor?

AW: Every single one of the other nominees is an Oscar winner, so it’s pretty ridiculous company to be keeping. I wouldn’t even regard myself as keeping their company, it’s more that we showed up on a list together. I will say, it was a lifelong dream to be a co-nominee of John Williams and not something I ever thought would happen. He is of an era which has come and gone, but that I have a huge admiration for. To be able to have this brief moment of overlapping with that era, in the form of him, is deeply meaningful.

TVGB: You’ve received a lot of accolades for your work in games like Journey and flOw and for your movies like A Little Help and Grace, is there a lot of pressure when dealing with new projects?

AW: You have to put all those things out of your mind. The studio where I work has several different rooms and all the various award trophies, as well as all the posters of games and films that I’ve done are in a separate room from me. All I have on the walls in my studio are paintings from the biggest specific artistic inspiration for me. Her name is Sonja Eisenberg and she’s a painter in her mid-80s who’s a German immigrant from the 1930s and a holocaust survivor. Her paintings are more of an inspiration for my music than any actual piece of music.  I never want to see all the awards while I’m composing because if I approach a piece of music with the mindset that I’m an award winning composer, it’s guaranteed that everything I write will be terrible. This is not to say that I’m not flattered because I feel very blessed, but it’s never motivating.

TVGB: What kind of projects would you like to work on in the future? What kind of games would you like to be a part of?

AW: I feel very lucky that I have a lot of work lined up. Leisure Suit Larry is one of them and  I recently worked on a game with Double Fine Productions. I also have an indie game coming out called Monaco and I’m really in love with it. I worked on it for over a year and it is all solo piano music, there’s no orchestra, so it’s like an old silent movie era style. That’ll be coming out early next year and it’s available for pre-orders on the Monaco website. There’s another game that I’m deeply immersed in called the Banner Saga which is a turn based strategy game based in a Viking mythology era.

TVGB: You’ve mentioned you’re a huge Star wars fan, with the new Episodes coming out, what are your thoughts?

AW: I don’t think that I or anyone else can say whether they should be made, if people want to make it, then all the power to them. Sometimes fans can become overzealous if they really love the original trilogy but they didn’t love the new trilogy and they think those shouldn’t have existed. You should cling to the fact that you loved those first three and the next three shouldn’t take away from them. You still got to have a meaningful experience with the first trilogy. With the Disney acquisition, it looks like Star Wars is going to unfold in the way of James bond or Star Trek as there’s always going to be new movies, stories and characters. That might mean like some movies will be great and some will just be okay.

TVGB: Thank you very much for joining us and good luck in the future!