Austin Wintory – Games & Symphonies Barcelona 2024 – Interview

At the end of April, the Orquestra Simfònica del Vallès in collaboration with Games & Symphonies, celebrated ‘Video Games in Concert!’ at the Palau de la Música de Catalana in Barcelona, Spain (read special article here).


The concert was conducted by Adrián Ronda, with the participation of the Cor Jove Amics de la Unió (Marta Dosaiguas, conductor), the singers Julie Elven and Mirella Díez, and the guest composers Carlos ViolaBorislav Slavov, and Austin Wintory.


Our colleague Reme Díaz was present at the concert, and together with Gaby López, conducted an interesting interview with Austin Wintory, which you can read below.


Austin Wintory: the composer who was born for this

The afternoon begins to fall and the Palau de la Música Catalana is still inhabited by curious people who come out to contemplate the magical architecture of the building and people who ask the security guards ‘what’s on at the Palau tonight?’ ‘A video game music concert, ma’am.’ And the lady walks away with a pout in her face, thinking what music like is doing in a place like this.


The musicians and the choir begin to arrive for the dress rehearsal and we are waiting in the hall, eager to finally have face to face with the soloists and composers that we admire so much, thinking ‘ma’am, you don’t know what you’re missing’. And then, they appear alongside the alma mater of the Games&Symphonies project, Adrián Ronda (whom we once again have to thank enormously for the help and kindness with which he welcomed us to this event), who greets us and then introduces us to the guests.


To our surprise, Austin Wintory not only recognizes us but hugs us effusively as if we meet an old friend. It is like that, indeed. Austin is one of those close, kind people, always with a smile, of whom even though the years pass (twelve exactly, since the Úbeda PlayFest in 2012), you always think that it was yesterday when you left the conversation halfway. And with that feeling, despite the fact that the clock was ticking against us, he made time for us in his agenda before the rehearsal to sit down and talk in the cafeteria of the Palau, accompanied by Ángela Bermúdez and Borislav Slavov himself (with whom we could speak later and of which we will also offer you an interview shortly).


When we first met, Journey wasn’t your first soundtrack, but it was kind of your breakout soundtrack.

It changed everything about my life, for sure.

Austin Wintory - Games & Symphonies Barcelona 2024 - Interview


Since Journey, every time you make a new soundtrack, have you experienced some change in your way of working? In what way?

Absolutely, yes. I kind of intentionally try to not work the same way each time, because I fear I’ll just end up repeating myself over and over, and the goal is to write something new. The goal is to write something that’s so new to me that I didn’t even know I could do that. But if I have this very kind of process that’s regimented each time, then it feels like I’m just going to get too comfortable, too safe. I try things all different ways every time. I mean, it’s hard to generalize other than just say that, but basically, yes, I was doing that before Journey, and then happily I’ve had opportunities, because of the game and its success, to try lots of new things. So, the music turns out differently each time, but it has to start with the process.


Journey was a massive success, especially between creatives and maybe users like us. Did you ever get to feel some kind of pressure because of that level of success you achieved with Journey?

Well, every project is sort of scary in its way. I wouldn’t say … I mean, the thing that was unique about Journey is that none of us expected it to be anywhere near that successful. It was such a small game. We thought, oh, we hope people find it, we hope they like it, and they feel that it’s something different.


So, you never felt any kind of anticipation when you were making the game with Thatgamecompany?

I genuinely did not. I genuinely thought it would be amazing if anybody knows that this exists. And I can tell you that when we finished it, I felt happy that we had made the game we wanted to make. It didn’t feel like it was all ruined, and that we were just hoping that someone could appreciate the effort. We actually did feel like ‘okay, we actually kind of more or less did what we hoped we would do’. What we don’t know is if anybody else will actually like that, though. And, yeah, to this day, I mean, the fact that it’s 12 years later and people still ask me questions about Journey is amazing because most of the time we work on a thing and then it disappears. Well, that’s why it’s unusual, and we’re so grateful.


In games like Abzu and The Pathless, me as a user, I see those games like trying to recapture the Journey magic, as I like to call it. I see the music is different, but the games are similar but not in a bad way. How do you approach those projects so similar in those kind of mechanics, so similar to Journey but more evolved?

I think they’re different in far more meaningful ways than they are similar. They’re similar in superficial ways. So, like Abzu and Journey are natural companions, but they’re opposite in my mind because Journey is all about making someone feel special out of being alone and Abzu is all about this overwhelmingly beautiful environment. Well, to me, that’s two opposite starting positions. One is bursting with life. Abzu was all about finding a soul in this overwhelming world, whereas Journey was like, I’m all alone here, can that feel beautiful in its loneliness? So, to me, the gameplay is similar, but actually the emotional aspect is very different. And then obviously Pathless is a whole other, I mean, there’s boss fights and things like that and Pathless is a whole other beast entirely.

Austin Wintory - Games & Symphonies Barcelona 2024 - Interview


And also, the kind of cultural and ethnic ingredients that you see in the concepts, I guess, when they show you the concepts before even starting the music.

Oh, absolutely. I can be different this time and I always look for something to help make it different. Like, the goal is to be different. So, I’m asking, what makes this, what will force this to be different? Like with Pathless, the director, Matt Nava, was very inspired by these Mongolian hunters that used falcons. That was part of the idea with this hunter with the bird. So, I started thinking about Mongolian and Tuvan music, even though there’s nothing actually about the game that’s Mongolian, he just was inspired by this image. But I thought, I can also be inspired, their music is beautiful. And, you know, also, people always use throat singing as a way to evoke, like, something messed up or evil or scary because it’s so alien sounding compared to, like, classical soprano or something. So, I thought, ‘what if that’s our hero sound? What if the sound of a throat singer is the opposite of the way we normally hear it, but it’s the sound we associate with our absolutely amazing hero of the story?’ That’s interesting, that takes me somewhere, and then three and a half years later, something comes out.


You just mentioned lately the concept of the term sound designer. Do you prefer sound designer or composer when referring to your work?

Oh, well, I mean, maybe you mean the term music designer, because sound design is, for sure, a totally different thing. The only time I ever did sound design was on Flow, because all the sound in that game was me. I collaborated with people, but everything top to bottom started with music, and then the singing in Journey, the little sort of chirps, that sort of blurs the line between the music and the sound design. It’s like the point where they touch, and so we worked very closely. I designed all the bass sounds, and then he would manipulate them further. But that’s it. Every other project I work on is music alone. Now, what you mean is music design, which is the idea of, it’s not just writing notes, but it’s trying to figure out how they go into the game, where the game and its playback of the score start to become one thing. And it’s not just, I sit down and music is going in parallel as if I have a radio on, but it’s actually woven into the experience. That I would call music design instead of sound design. Well, it’s sort of like, they’re all different jobs. In some games you have a composer, you have a music designer, and you have a sound designer, all three individual people. On most of my projects I’m doing two of those three, and collaborating with the sound designer to make sure that they all come together nicely. But I’m not really creating sound. I’m not recording footsteps, and gunshots, and wind in the trees, and all that. It’s very much a different profession.

Austin Wintory - Games & Symphonies Barcelona 2024 - (c) Lorenzo Duaso


Back to Journey again, it started some period of nominations and awards. Since then, how did you approach when you get nominated? Do you get nervous? What do you feel?

No, I don’t… I’ve been very lucky that awards organizations, or like my colleagues, most awards are voted on by your people you know. Your peers. So things like we were in San Francisco at the Game Audio Network Guild, or obviously you just won the BAFTA (referring to Boris Slavov, who accompanied us during the interview). These are awards that are decided by our community in some form or another. So it’s always very touching to be noticed. It’s very different from a more general public vote, where it generally is which game sold the best, which has not necessarily had the best under-the-hood artistry. Now sometimes, I mean Baldur’s Gate also sold like mad, so this is a rare one where it really achieves all the boxes, right? But Journey came out the same year as Mass Effect 3, Assassin’s Creed 3, Dishonored, Crysis 2, all of those good games.


And yet, Journey achieved the first Grammy nomination for a video game soundtrack.

Yeah, it was a very strange, still very odd to me to this day, only because it wasn’t the first time games could be nominated. They were eligible since 1999. So the fact that Halo and Bioshock and so many others never got nominated is to me a negative reflection on the Recording Academy more than it is anything positive about me and Journey. But either way, it’s an honor, yet also it doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t make the music easier to write. In fact, in some ways, it might make the music harder to write, because if you actually let yourself believe ‘oh, I’m this great award-winning composer’ you don’t push yourself as hard as you did before that. So I’m a big believer in… Like, for example, I’ve been lucky. I’ve won awards. I keep them all in a separate room that I never go in. And I don’t ever go and see them, because the blank page is better when it’s truly blank. And if you’re like, it’s blank, but there’s a logo of the Grammys in the corner, it’s going to mess with the process. It’s not pure. Like all the things he [Borislav Slavov] said in his speech at the BAFTAs, if you’re not letting your heart be open, then you’re not going to do your best work. And I don’t think your heart can be fully open if you’re looking ahead to how are the ways this is going to make people clap for me? That’s not what this is about. That’s not why we make it. I keep that stuff very far away, even though I don’t want to be one of those people. It’s a lie if I go ‘it’s bullshit, it doesn’t matter’, and then talk about it as if it’s nothing. It means a lot when your peers vote for you. We [Borislav and Austin] sat together at the Game Audio Network Guild Awards, and that was a very shocking night because they gave Stray Gods a few awards and I didn’t see that coming. And that is very touching. And so, I say thank you to everyone there, and I let them know it means the world, and then I put them in another room and I avoid them because it is too easy to sort of let it feed this ego that poisons the mute. Because I can tell you for a fact that I never anticipated anyone just knowing anything about Journey. It seemed too obscure of a concept for a game. I was looking at what was selling all the top games and they were so unlike Journey. All those awards came as a huge surprise.

Austin Wintory - Games & Symphonies Barcelona 2024 - (c) Lorenzo Duaso


Your first video game? The first video game you recall you ever played?

Well, the very original Super Mario is my oldest video game memory. I played a lot of games in that era, but I distinctly remember playing with my sister and my father when I was four or five years old.


And the first video game music you remember also was… ?

Well, it would probably be that because I knew it. But the first game music that I remember, I went to the piano to learn to play, was Michael Lamb’s theme from the original Monkey Island. Because I remember that theme struck me as as good as any… Because I remember playing it for my piano teacher when I was like 11 years old. And all he could hear was the bad electronic, you know, fake like pan flute and stuff. And he thought it didn’t sound good. But my brain was not hearing that. I was hearing through that to the music, which all of us growing up in that time period would do.

Austin Wintory - Games & Symphonies Barcelona 2024 - Interview


The last one. Any genre, any franchise, any type of game you would like to compose?

Well, I have an answer to that, and I’m very lucky to say a project I have recently started is kind of my dream in this way, but I can’t talk about it yet. But it was one of those things that would be very much against the NDA (laughs).


Interview and pictures by Díaz y Gaby López

Concert pictures by Lorenzo Duaso