On the day the 55th annual Grammy awards revealed its list of nominees, Journey composer Austin Wintory decided it'd be less stressful to just head home than wait at the studio for an official website to refresh and tell him whether he'd been nominated. Just after he got in the car, his phone blinked; it was a congratulatory email from Christopher Tin.
Tin enjoys the distinction of first composer to win a Grammy for a video game song ("Baba Yetu," the Civilization IV theme, won Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist at the 53rd Grammys). A bewildered Wintory quickly phoned Tin -- and fittingly, learned from him that his score for Thatgamecompany's Journey was nominated in the Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media category.
"When he won that Grammy two years ago, it was the first time ... the game itself wasn't being acknowledged, it was the piece he had extracted from the game," says Wintory. "So it was really wonderful that of all the people, by chance the trailblazer would be the one to call me... how perfect."
This nomination puts a video game score in consideration alongside the soundtrack for films like The Artist, The Dark Knight Rises and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a momentous statement by any measure. But for Wintory, an ineffably humble and chatty man with an endless reserve of what feels like awe at the role he's gotten to play in Journey's overwhelmingly positive reception, it seems like icing on the cake.
We spoke just ahead of the 2012 Spike Video Game Awards, for which Journey leads nominations with seven -- including one for Best Score and one for Best Song. Amid all this acclaim, Wintory seems equally pleased to recall the early feedback he'd begun getting from press, other developers and colleagues in the audio community at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year. "That stuff, it feels like you're with your people," he says.
"I do think it's awesome there's a mainstream pop culture outlet for video games," says Wintory of the VGAs, which he'll attend with colleagues Robin Hunicke and Kellee Santiago. Despite the mixed opinion some fans have about a heavily-sponsored, Hollywood-style event acting as games' most visible award show, "I'm always happy about anything if I'm with people I care about, so it doesn't really matter what the context is."
For Wintory, the reception for Journey has exceeded his wildest hopes, and surprised him, too. "We'd been living in kind of a vacuum, making it," he recalls. "I felt very strongly about the game, out of my own reverence for TGC... but as much as I genuinely loved it, I had actually no idea if anyone was going to respond to it."
But since the game's release, Wintory has received "hundreds and hundreds" of emails, any one of which would have been "life-changing," he says. "I'd never in a million years... I mean, of course you hope, but to reasonably expect that something you work on would actually impact somebody in that way! The response has been so beyond what would have been my wildest hopes, dreams and expectations for it."
Soul to soul
The team's aim with Journey was to create a game that encouraged players to connect with one another in a pure and nonjudgmental way as they travel through a desert toward a mountain peak, an analogue to Joseph Campbell's classic "Hero's Journey" monomyth.
"Jenova [Chen] and the designers of the game went out of their way to make this... almost soul to soul contact," Wintory says -- he believes that intention helps explain why he hears from players who've said the game helped them remember a lost relative, bond with a spouse or even to develop a new sense of value about their own life.
"I never in a million years saw people imagining those kinds of experiences, living in the game in that sort of way," he marvels. Even without the recognition of the Grammys or any other awards ceremony, Journey "would have still been the most gratifying experience of anything I ever worked on before, because of those responses from people. I just don't know what an artist could possibly hope for in their life more than that."
Wintory's done far more film scores than game scores (he first collaborated with fellow USC alum Chen on flOw, as the latter's Master's thesis). But he describes himself as a lifelong passionate gamer, even before he got into music at the age of 10. "By that point, I'd already been playing games for as long as I could remember," he says.
Chen asked Wintory to dinner to discuss what would become Journey, and to ask him to collaborate. "Jenova doesn't start with some cool new technology; it's always, 'what's the emotional takeaway that I want the player to have,'" he describes. "It's remarkable that's sort of unique among game developers."
That tactic -- deciding on the intended impact first and then determining the tools and structure from there -- has much more in common with music composition than with traditional game development, part of why Wintory's approach to classical composition marries TGC's attitudes to design so well.
"Among composers... you don't start typically with, 'okay, I have strings, what do I want to do with them?'" He says. "It's the old saying, that if you just walk around with a hammer, then everything in the world looks like a nail. If it's all about your tools, it's different than looking at a scenario and asking 'what tools do I need in order to deal with that scenario.'"
As good as it can be?
Over Journey's relatively long development cycle, Wintory worked on the project daily, revisiting and revising his music as the game evolved. And yet the process of working with Chen highlighted how much the designer respects the artistic process, Wintory says. "I kept feeling, 'this game is so much better than this music; I have to rewrite this,'" Wintory recalls. "And every now and again I'd call Jenova up, and ask him, 'did you get a chance to listen to this latest thing I uploaded?'"
"And he'd say, 'I have a question for you: Do you think it's as good as it can be?'" Wintory laughs. "And I'd always be like, 'no, I guess not, I need to work on it some more.' He just appeals to you as an artist, where if you think it's done, it's done. I'd never worked with someone like that."
The fundamental unique factor in composing for games is that the music needs to be conceived itself as interactive from the beginning -- a development for music itself that's only unique to the last 20 years or so. Journey's Grammy nomination is interesting in that it refers to an album that Wintory essentially extracted from the intuitive and algorithmically-responsive soundscapes of the game.
"I didn't create an album to stick into a game; I had to create a game score, and then figure out how to reverse-engineer it into an album,' he says. "That is what took three years to do, that's what I desperately wanted to happen, that it would feel like I am sitting right behind you composing in realtime and matching everything to your experience."
"That's why I get so excited about games," Wintory continues, "it throws everything you know about music up in the air. Music is one of those art forms, like theatre and only a couple of others, that is bound by time; you're at the mercy of the passage of time. So to create music for a game is to apply a nonlinear aesthetic onto something that is fundamentally linear, and it's like... holy shit, this is really kind of insane."
"To think of not just having the audience's emotional input, but to have them directing the flow of events in the music is as far from traditional classical music as possible," he adds.
Wintory says he feels incredibly fortunate to be participating so visibly in what he sees as the exciting "Wild West" that games can offer those that create music. Getting other musicians less-acquainted with games as a medium to understand and receive that concept "has gotten easier every year," he says.
He still dreams of seeing game music widely performed as part of traditional concert programmes in a way that isn't about the fact it's game music. "A week ago in Colorado, the Boulder Symphony played a piece of mine from Journey in a concert of otherwise all classical music -- it wasn't a game night or a pops concert," he says. "I got up and spoke to the audience before they played, and as I was explaining the thrill of nonlinear music and why, as a composer, that's so exciting... the audience was the expected orchestra audience, but they were really interested."
"That dismissing, as soon as they hear the word 'video game'... I didn't sense any of it," Wintory says. "The idea that they were receptive to what they were going to be hearing, to me, it was one of those humanity-affirming moments."