Interview with Gaming Composer Austin Wintory

Journey composer, Austin Wintory, has blessed our ears again with TWO new musical soundtracks, one for the combat game Absolver and the other for the strategy game Tooth and Tail. We had the opportunity of talking to Austin about composing music, his creative processes and what games he’s been playing this year.

Interview with Gaming Composer Austin Wintory
Two games you have composed for have been released recently, Absolver and Tooth and Tail, can you tell us a little about each game what inspired you to take these on as projects?

AW: Each story is pretty different actually, and it’s coincidence that they seem to have had such coinciding releases. For Absolver, I was cold-called by the developer (Sloclap),  after they were familiar with my work. They showed me the game in an initial skype interview and I was instantly hooked. They were doing so much right, and the project director Pierre was someone I felt immediately connected with. So off we went!

In the case of Tooth and Tail, this was a recurring relationship. Andy Schatz / Pocketwatch Games and I had worked together on their last title, Monaco and he had become a close friend. So continuing into this project was basically a given. It evolved a lot but basically the game is a real-time strategy, distilled down to the basics so as to playable on a controller. It eschews a lot of the intimidating  ‘hardcore’ elements of the RTS genre and goes for depth within simplicity.

With Absolver and Tooth and Tail, how much of an opportunity do you get to play the games before you compose their music?

AW:  For me, playtesting the game while working on the game is basically a  must. Occasional circumstances (like local hardware limitations or extreme security concerns) preclude it, but almost always I end up playing the game a lot during my process. It’s the only way to ensure the music is being executed correctly in-game. I don’t write scores in a  creative vacuum, inspired by some vague notion of the game.  They are written FOR the game, in all its specifics and eccentricities.

Interview with Gaming Composer Austin Wintory - Tooth and Tail
When creating The Banner Saga OST,  you brought in individuals from the YouTube music community to contribute. Is bringing outside talent into the gaming industry important to you and can you tell us about any individuals in the Absolver and Tooth and Tail OSTs we should look out for? 

AW: That idea, on The Banner Saga, was directly a result of the fact that the game was crowdfunded. I liked the idea of sourcing the musicians from the internet, since the game’s funding itself was too. For Absolver I leaned most on two different musicians: Tom Strahle and Kristin Naigus.  Tom is a guitarist who plays seemingly every guitar-like instrument out there (guitars, mandolin, banjo, dobro, electric bass, etc) and I had him use quite a few of his instruments for the score. Similarly, Kristin is a wind player (mainly an oboist, and in fact she was the featured soloist on Abzu), and in this case I had her primarily playing various “ethnic” whistles and flutes (like the bansuri) and a little bit of English Horn. Both of these musicians were used because of the many instruments they play, and the mastery with which they play them; I’d worked with both many times and so it was an easy choice.

For Tooth and Tail, that score uses so many different musicians, plus an orchestra and a brass band, that it’s  really quite hard to break it down succinctly. But basically, think of it like actors: everyone is cast to play to their strengths.

Absolver and Tooth and Tail are two very different games and embrace different styles of play. Due to the way different genres engage the player differently, how do you compose your music to match these differences in engagement?

AW:  It’s no different than any other game; I just look at the gameplay and try to wrap my head around what a player’s experience will be. Once I  have that I start experimenting and throwing music in-game. Usually the first few attempts are just awful, but they team me about the essence of the gameplay. From there I can then let the music start to organically emerge in a hopeful symbiosis or even harmony with the gameplay.

Interview with Gaming Composer Austin Wintory - Absolver
Widening the questions a to your other works,  are there any times when your music has inspired the developers to alter any mechanics or gameplay decisions? 

AW: this is actually pretty common in my past experience! Never more so than on Journey,  where whole sections of the game were inspired by or changed to adapt to my music. But even a game I’m currently finishing, with SF-based developed Funomena (called Luna) has had lots of that in it. It’s a really wonderful, organic back and forth that lets everyone add their voice to the project.

When composing for film, the story is linear so the music can follow its structure and timings. However, in videogames the player controls the sense of time and pacing. How to do you overcome the challenge of composing music for an interactive medium?

AW:  It’s honestly difficult to summarize, but bear in mind that just because games are often non-linear, it doesn’t mean they have entirely player-led structure or narrative. Most games are actually quite linear once you boil it down.  So in the end, film and games share the idea of being a good storyteller, and that rules above all. Yes the interactive aspect makes games very distinct from ALL prior forms of composing, but it’s relatively easily tackled if you understand story structure.

Interview with Gaming Composer Austin Wintory - A battle in Tooth and Tail
Reading your previous interviews, and watching your YouTube videos, you seem very humble of your work. But to indulge in your success a little, Journey’s OST  has reached monumental popularity within the gaming community and has been nominated and won several awards outside the community. Why do you think Journey’s music resonated with so many gamers and non-gamers? 

AW: I honestly have no answer to that. I got lucky with Journey.  The game is utterly brilliant and the music has virtually no auditory competition (like dialogue or massive sound design), so the score ended up getting disproportionate attention.

As a final question, what video games have caught your attention this year? What have you been playing recently?

AW: I recently played the X-COM 2dlc called “War of the Chosen” which I rather loved. Also some Polish friends of mine recently sent me a steam key for Darkwood, a rather brutal and creepy horror / survival game and it has really impressed me. I’m ashamed to say I’ve installed but not yet played both PyreandWhat Remains of Edith Finch but I’m excited to finally get into both.

Both games are available on Steam: Absolver for £24.99 and Tooth and Tail for £14.99

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