Austin Wintory’s New Video Game Music, for the Banner Saga
The composer Austin Wintory’s office in Burbank, Calif., contains a desk, a chair and a life-size model of R2-D2. A windowless adjoining room, with an electric piano and two computers, is where Mr. Wintory, 29, says he spends up to 14 hours a day working on his music.
On the walls are pictures from past projects, the most familiar among them“Captain Abu Raed,” a prizewinning movie at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. But it’s a large, orange poster for the video game Journey that has pride of place. A year ago, Mr. Wintory’s soundtrack for Journey became the first video game score to be nominated for a Grammy Award, alongside film work by John Williams, Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer.
“For a brief second, I stood shoulder to shoulder with three of my childhood heroes,” Mr. Wintory said in a Skype interview from his office. “I will never be able to articulate how important that was to me.”
It was not only a personal achievement. Although Journey did not win — the award went to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for “The Girl with Dragon Tattoo” — the recognition was evidence of growing mainstream appreciation for video game music and its composers. In its 30-year evolution, game music has progressed from background bleeps and bloops to sweeping orchestral scores with cinematic aspirations.
But while contemporary scores broadly set the mood and tone of games, the challenge for composers now is to narrow their focus to individual moments. Mr. Wintory considers his next project — a warm, earthy score for the role-playing video game The Banner Saga, set for release this month — a step in this direction. The score incorporates dynamic cues that react to the player’s actions during a battle scene. If a player starts to win or lose a fight, the music will subtly shift between tense and triumphant. That the music reacts to the player is a relatively new concept. “At its best,” Mr. Wintory said, “game music turns the player into a co-storyteller.”
Sophistication in game music mirrors the evolution of the games themselves, both technologically and artistically. Contemporary game development is dominated by big-budget operations: Blockbusters like Call of Duty andGrand Theft Auto commonly cost $100 million or more to make and often yield much higher sales. Some games reel in big Hollywood names: Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe recently starred in Beyond: Two Souls, while the Oscar-winning writer Stephen Gaghan (“Traffic,” “Syriana”) worked on Call of Duty: Ghosts.
Larger budgets mean video game scores can be recorded with the aid of full-time composers. The cost of producing a score can range from nothing — Mr. Wintory said he once composed a score on a borrowed piano — to over $1 million.
Video game music has been eligible for Grammy nominations since 1999, when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences included the term “visual media” in the title of the category covering soundtrack scores. The Academy Award-winning composer Michael Giacchino, whose credits include the television shows “Lost” and “Alias” and the Pixar films “Ratatouille” and “Up,” began his career writing video game scores in the 1990s. He called Mr. Wintory’s nomination the first step on the road to full acceptance for the video game industry.
“Austin has achieved a breakthrough for video game composers,” Mr. Giacchino said by email. The nomination recognized, he said, “that game music can be as vibrant and story-driven as any film score.”
For a composer keen to test the limits of music, Mr. Wintory apparently showed little interest in music growing up. Raised in Denver, he said he was unconcerned with music before the age of 10; he didn’t play instruments, listen to bands or nag his parents to take him to concerts. His sole reason for taking piano lessons was to learn the opening to Mr. Williams’s theme from “Star Wars.” His music teacher obliged, bypassing Beethoven and Mozart and teaching his young pupil the scores of Jerry Goldsmith instead.
Neither his mother, a former dance instructor who left work to raise Mr. Wintory and his sister, or his father, an orthopedic surgeon, shared that newfound passion. The closest relative with whom he seemed to have a musical connection was his grandmother, who taught violin and piano and played in the Fort Smith Symphony in Arkansas. But Mr. Wintory said his parents eagerly supported his interest in music, as they had with his earlier childhood endeavors: writer, game designer, paleontologist and, for a brief time, being a Ghostbuster.
Mr. Wintory studied composition at New York University, poring over the liner notes of movie soundtracks in his spare time before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a film composer. His first projects were collaborations with directors he had met at school: Paul Solet’s film “Grace,” which had its premiere at Sundance in 2009; and the Jordanian director Amin Matalqa’s “Captain Abu Raed.” It was a chance encounter with a video game design student at the University of Southern California that gave him his first opportunity to create music for an interactive medium.
After hearing the concept for Journey, Mr. Wintory recorded himself singing a brief passage imagined for the cello, which would become a refrain in the main score. He spent three years refining what eventually became a little more than one hour of music. “I wrote and rewrote endlessly over that period of time,” he said. “Every section had to be perfect. The game kept changing, so I had to keep up. I’ve probably played Journey more than any other person I know.”
Journey, a downloadable independent video game for the PlayStation 3, was described by its creators as “an interactive parable,” an adventure in which you wake up alone in a desert and must travel to a mountaintop. Its score steers clear of the jam-packed, air-punching tracks often heard in adventure games. A subtle, introspective mix of cello, flute, harp and viola is interspersed with slow-building percussive rhythms. The cello — somber, subdued — is like a character itself, shadowing the player through the sparse landscape. It is music in a starring role. And, in turn, Journey was a star of the 2013 Game Developers Conference, picking up a number of top awards, including game of the year.
As the importance of game music rises, composers and developers are starting to work closer together to shape the feel of a game from its earliest stages.
Alex Thomas, a developer of The Banner Saga, a turn-based strategy game inspired by Viking culture, originally wanted to score the game along with his fellow creators. But none of them had professionally scored a game. “It would have been a straightforward approach of looping music played over conversations or combat, like most games now,” Mr. Thomas said. “But when Austin got involved, what had begun as a side note changed to an integral part of the storytelling.”
Mr. Wintory said he spent hundreds of hours playing the game as it was being made and learning about the lore and history of its fictional world. “He understands game design, programming and technical implementation, and he makes music that is part of the game instead of sitting on top,” Mr. Thomas said. “There aren’t many writers, designers and composers who are able or willing to work at that capacity.”
In addition to writing music, Mr. Wintory travels frequently for speaking and conducting engagements — at one point, he conducted the Journey score with the Colorado Symphony before flying to Australia to conduct a video game music concert with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. His speaking arrangements at high schools and colleges have taken him to Amsterdam; Cologne, Germany; Edinburgh; Montreal; San Francisco; Kansas City, Mo.; and Washington in the last year alone.
In his rare spare time, Mr. Wintory reads (“The Leonard Bernstein Letters” is next in his queue); spends time with his wife of six years, Megan, and their two cats, Marimba and Smittens; and works on his book, a nonfiction introduction to his profession. “It’s not a memoir,” he said. “It’s more about living an artful lifestyle.” He said he hopes to have it finished by his 30th birthday, next September.
In his studio, Mr. Wintory talks through ideas for future projects: another film with Mr. Solet, “Dark Summer,” and an album collaboration with Chipzel, a D.J. and musician in Northern Ireland, that will combine music generated using retro video game sound chips and big band.
“The highly ingrained traditions of film composition don’t mean much in games,” Mr. Wintory said. “It’s more of a reckless Wild West. Games are still crazy teenagers, and I love that. Anything goes.”