Hit play to hear revered games composer Austin Wintory talk over his own compositions about (among other things) his non-musical childhood, his favourite games and platforms, and his work on Sloclap's upcoming martial arts-focused action RPG Absolver.
Somehow, music wasn't really a part of Austin Wintory's life until about age 10. He owned a couple of soundtrack albums like Star Wars because he loved the films, but it was science and other forms of art that were prized in the Wintory household. As such, it wasn't until a piano teacher introduced him to the film scores of Jerry Goldsmith that Austin's love of music and composing took over his life. "I instantaneously aligned my life to that. I said 'I want to do that or the rest of my life'," he says. "I was instantly captivated… that became the obsession immediately."
He began composing music immediately (to the detriment of his piano playing), writing for and conducting his high school orchestra at 14. However, despite his taking computer science classes, the idea of scoring games as a career never took hold until he sat down in front of Cavedog Entertainment's cult RTS Total Annihilation, which was scored by Skyrim and KOTOR composer Jeremy Soule. "I remember thinking, 'This is real music. There's no liability to this'," says Wintory. Once school was complete, there was only one real choice: he was off to university to study music composition.
It was at the University of Southern California that Wintory met Jenova Chen, and that's how Flow came about. Radically unlike the all orchestral pieces he had written before, it was his first attempt at "truly electronic music". The pair iterated heavily, with Wintory bringing 10 years of composition experience to bear on the project. Even so, he felt the genre leap was like wearing outrageous clothes in public, or trying on a new persona. "The first time you do it it's sort of terrifying, because you think 'this is just so novel'," he says. "But it was very freeing – I never thought of music the same way again. It totally rewrote my DNA as a composer. Not to mention, it obviously kick-started a relationship with Jenova and thatgamecompany that completely and totally changed the landscape of my life and my career."
Then, a dozen or so years ago, he took the plunge and moved to Los Angeles to pursue music, but with absolutely no idea what his prospects were. He needn't have worried: soundtrack work for Journey, Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine, Sunset, The Banner Saga, Assassin's Creed Syndicate, and Abzû – among others – followed. "I've been very fortunate that I've been able to put food on the table," says Wintory.
Wintory's latest project is Sloclap's upcoming martial arts-focused action RPG Absolver, which Devolver Digital is publishing. Former Ubisoft employees, Parisians Sloclap approached Wintory about the game, and he was instantly interested. "Their game had a million things about it that jumped out to me as very compelling," he says.
He singles the game's creative lead, Pierre Tarno, out as a phenomenal collaborator who wasn't interested in a yes man. Instead, he was seeking someone who would bring their own ideas to the table, someone who would possibly take the music in an unexpected direction. Absolver was pitched to Wintory as visceral and thoughtful, and despite its action RPG trappings, it has a lot in common with strategy games, Wintory reckons.
A big orchestral score didn't fit its mood, so Wintory went more eclectic and esoteric. "[The score] draws from a lot of weird off places, with the ideas being it has to have a lot of teeth, it has to have a lot of physical impact," he says. "But below the surface of that, this game is about empathy, and it's about the idea that 'let's fight and make each other better by doing so'."
Tarno sums Absolver up as "about friendship through combat", a phrase that had Wintory thinking of the relationship between Rocky and Apollo Creed. "It's almost like taking the multiplayer mechanics of a game like Journey and saying 'how do we put that kind of empathetic infused gameplay into a fighting game?', which was extremely intriguing to me!" says Wintory. "So the score has to somehow wrap its head around that as well.
"Who knows if I've succeeded, but that's the idea."
Quick quotes from the audio interview above
On the Mario theme:
"I think the original Mario theme by Koji Kondo is probably one of the most significant contributions to the zeitgeist of our culture of any person from any era of any discipline within games. It is basically universally known. It is as known as the two note theme to jaws, or the shrieking strings in the shower scene in Psycho."
"I was one of those kids that had an NES an SNES and I would go to the arcade and play all the cabinet arcade games as well. But as soon as the whole idea of being a PC gamer became a thing, that was very much where I was, and I would build my own PCs to be able to keep up with whatever the latest… I identify first and foremost as a PC gamer."
On composing for games:
"I have colleagues that write music for games that aren't really gamers, and I've never understood why the job is even appealing to them. I don't know how it even makes sense. I wouldn't have any idea what I was doing or how to even gauge if the music was working if I couldn't go in and playtest the game and see for myself. It's be like reading a script and trying to score the movie solely off what's on the page with no regard to what they ended up shooting, how they edited it… all that makes such an enormous difference. To make the script your guiding light is to cut yourself at the knees… I have been a gamer and passionate about games my whole life, it informs every note that I write."
"I just remember thinking 'I hope people like it. I hope it makes sense! I hope they respond in any way…" To my complete amazement it still seems to matter to people. That's the most ambitious goal I could ever have for anything in my life: to make something that was worth making, because you have no idea if it was – that's up to other people. I get personal satisfaction from the work I do, but it takes it to a whole new level if somebody else is able to make it their own. They bring it into their life in a way that means something unique to them…. that's the greatest contribution I could make to someone's life… It's all just kind of astounding, and surreal to this day."
On writing brilliant music:
"I don't know what gave you that idea! I don't know that for sure. I don't know that I've written anything ever that could qualify as that. Even something as popular as Journey I have a million things I wish I could change."
◆ Absolver is out August 29 on PlayStation 4 and PC.