“I was into comics, video games, movies and novels – and I was split on if I wanted to be a writer or a paleontologist,” Austin Wintory tells me about his childhood ambitions. It’s a hugely surprising revelation, given how accomplished Wintory is as a composer – the assumption being that something related to music would have always been what he aimed for as a career. Music as a calling is something that many composers seem to have in common, as Wintory admits: “A lot of my composer colleagues – when they reflect on their own childhood – it seems like music was kind of in the air and it was almost inevitable for them, but that wasn’t the case in my childhood.”

What was it that nudged Wintory towards composing, then? “I stumbled into some piano lessons; my piano teacher asked me, ‘what do you want to learn? What kind of music are you interested in?’ I said, ‘I have no idea – I’ve never made music a big part of my life’. So he said, ‘well, let me introduce you to some of my favourite music – and maybe it’ll help give you some thoughts on what we could study’. He showed up with a stack of Jerry Goldsmith film scores on vinyl – and it radically altered everything.” The late Jerry Goldsmith’s scores are iconic, with a hugely varied list of soundtracks to his name – his most well known scores having been for Alien, Gremlins and The Omen films – as well as several Star Trek movies (including arguably the best overall – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) being further examples of his work. 

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that being exposed to Goldsmith’s scores changed Wintory’s perception of what music could be – and what it could do. “From that point forward, playing piano was all well and good – but my actual goal was then to write music. That immediately became the focus – and that never changed.” And sure enough, as Wintory says, that focus hasn’t changed, “30 years later!”

I’d arranged to chat to Austin Wintory regarding his work on Journey, the PlayStation 3 adventure game which won numerous industry awards, as well as being nominated for a Grammy – the very first game soundtrack ever to be put forward for the prestigious music award. The game itself was released in 2012 to great acclaim – with the soundtrack being a big part of the game’s wonderful, affecting ambience. It’s a piece of work that truly put him on the map, so to speak – and as part of the game’s 10th Anniversary celebrations, Wintory was able to re-record and somewhat re-imagine the Journey soundtrack from a non-interactive point of view, with the London Symphony Orchestra – which has been released as ‘Traveler: A Journey Symphony’. It must have been quite an experience to get this together – but how did it all fall into place?

Wintory tells me, “The London Symphony Orchestra had actually reached out to me looking for something to do together – which was a complete shock, with me being a longtime fan of theirs – and they’re bucket list orchestra work for most composers!” However, given the nature of much of Wintory’s work – by his own admission, he tends to write “weird, non-traditional music – even when I’m using orchestral instruments.” 

Yet Journey’s important milestone provided the perfect opportunity. “As we got towards the end of 2021, I realised that Journey’s 10th anniversary was going to hit in about six months,” he reveals. “Those wires all crossed and I thought, ‘what if I did a 10th anniversary re-imagining of the album?’”. He continues, “So I just emailed the London Symphony Orchestra folks and said, ‘hey, I have an idea. Would you have time between now and March to record this?’”. And of course, the rest is history.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, as Wintory reveals, “With the hurdles of the pandemic and all the implications that had for recording sessions, scheduling – and even just flights – it was totally nightmarish to put together, but I spent the better part of the back half of the year planning these sessions and figuring out what the hell I’m going to do. Just a couple days before Christmas, I went to London for a week – and change – and did all these sessions with the orchestra. It was just absolutely amazing.” 

Something else that’s amazing is the deep emotional impact that Journey had on thousands of players; an intimate, somewhat life-affirming adventure that’s brief but unforgettable, Journey is a game with a unique mechanic, in which you may – or may not – encounter other players on the same, ahem, journey as yourself. It’s at once deeply personal and also potentially a shared experience; one which really does linger in the mind long after the credits roll. Is Wintory surprised that it has such longevity, especially given the often transitory nature of many games? Ten years is an awfully long time and yet players still fondly reminisce about their time spent in the game.

WIntory says, “Somehow [ten years] is simultaneously the blink of an eye and yet, it feels as if I’ve just lived so much life in that span.” We all have, I think; everyone has changed immeasurably over what was a very eventful, sometimes difficult decade worldwide. “It also feels like an eon ago because I was a completely different human being and artist!”. Do any of your other game soundtracks continue to garner such attention, I ask? For example, Abzu – which is a beautiful (and, in my opinion, affecting and meaningful in the same way as Journey) underwater adventure? Wintory answers, “Journey is very unusual from every other thing that I’ve worked on in that it never goes away. Most things age out; people become interested in new things. I’m thrilled that you mentioned Abzu. That came out in 2016 – people don’t mention Abzu every day to me. I still hear about it; people tag me on things [on Twitter] and the soundtrack album still gets quite a lot of love on Spotify – but compared to Journey, well – nothing is as sort of persistently in my life.” 

Indeed, Wintory still travels far and wide to conduct the Journey music in concert – and he says: “The fact that it’s just it’s never gone away has made it feel like it can’t possibly have been 10 years, because I feel like I’m still in the tail of the release of Journey. I’m talking about it all the time. Promoting it. Doing marketing. It sort of feels like I’ve never left that mode – because people still keep talking about it. It’s utterly wild and surreal.”

Was there a sense, back when it was being put together, that Journey would be this incredible milestone for video game music? “I’m not a good oracle or bone reader,” Wintory admits, “but Journey has definitely stood the test of time.” Were there fears that a linear, as opposed to more reactive, score – Traveler: A Journey Symphony being the former – would not be accepted by audiences? “You never know – ther was part of me that thought, maybe people are gonna say ‘the original album is what we like, don’t mess with it’. There’s always a certain contingent of people that when a new movie remake is announced, they always roll their eyes and go, ‘do we really need a new one? The original works!’”.

  

He continues, “I thought ‘maybe I’m going to get a bit of a reaction like that’. I don’t have a good counter argument to that; I am trying to create a companion piece and I have an underlying philosophy; I tried really hard to make it fresh and distinct.” He’s right – what’s the point simply serving up the exact same collection of music when that already exists? As he states, “It doesn’t retread the original – well, occasionally – but mostly, it’s a reimagining more than a real orchestration. It embraces the idea of ‘let’s be true to Journey’, particularly the philosophy behind the game.” Give people what they deserve, not what they want – right? Wintory agrees, stating that the intention was to give fans, “More than the actual note for note original score; try to offer up a fresh perspective.”

Ultimately, it’s because of the fans that this re-orchestration exists, as Wintory notes, “Fundamentally, the reason I did the whole thing was just as a statement of gratitude – to the people who’ve spent the last 10 years being so supportive and generous of the original album – and the game itself.” 

Wintory is very thankful of the opportunities that his work on Journey has given him, as he – somewhat modestly, I feel – reveals, “I wouldn’t really have a career without the [Journey] fans. So I hope to give something back and put it out into the world – it feels like my own thank you note to them.”

So what’s next for Wintory? “The one that I’m able to speak most openly about is a really exciting project. It’s a musical called Stray Gods.” A musical video game sounds fascinating; especially one that has such an accomplished composer as Wintory involved. He continues, “I’ve been working on it for three years already! We’re deep in the midst of cast recordings, we have a mind-blowingly great cast. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done; ambitious on a level that is just bonkers.”

Intriguingly, this incredibly ambitious idea was Wintory’s own pitch for a musical game. “I have a friend who has made a couple of really powerful and poignant games: Monument Valley and Florence. One day he called me up and said ‘What if you pitched me a game?’ We’d never worked together, but we’d always wanted to.” And so the idea came from that – Wintory reveals that, “the first words out of my mouth were, ‘I’ve always wanted to make a real musical – one that’s also a video game.’”

How would that look, though? “What that means,” Wintory continues, “is embracing the video game medium via music that’s meaningfully and tightly interactive. I don’t ever just write music that just ambiently loops in the background.” That’s certainly the way it was done traditionally; Wintory clearly envisions game music in a different way to many composers, however, calling that kind of passive, looping soundtrack “a massive opportunity missed”.

Wintory continues to divulge information about Stray Gods; the fact that, though there have been musical numbers in games, there’s never been one that actually feels like musical per se; the player doesn’t really have any agency over the songs themselves. Yet musicals have a unique storytelling method, in which meaningful narrative beats are told lyrically and musically – so his idea, then, is a narrative-based game in which “The player has to be in control of the music.” Yet, as he also says, “No one’s done that – and I know why now! It’s a mind-blowingly difficult thing, but it’s been really exciting.”

It sounds incredible – and so full of potential to be an experience that’s utterly unique; not just as a fresh type of game, but unique for each player – in a different way than even Journey felt like a unique experience for everyone who played it. Wintory confirms this, as he says “With some of the songs, I just don’t see how it’ll be possible for any one player to ever truly see every possible thing that the game includes. There are so many thousands of permutations that can occur that you know, I’m sure there will be YouTube channels that aggregate the major differences, but there’s so many minor ones too.” 

It’s clear that this project has been a dream for Wintory. “There’s going to be so much more to say when it comes time to release,” he says, “but that’s been really exciting and it’s a totally different thing from anything I’ve done. I’m not particularly known as a songwriter as it were, but I’ve absolutely loved writing new songs. It’s just been so much fun.”

With all of the success and opportunity that Wintory has seen over the last decade, it’s perhaps surprising – and refreshing – that he’s still so humble about the Journey soundtrack’s continued resonance with fans. The vinyl release of ‘Traveler: A Journey Symphony’ was the most successful video game-related campaign that BandCamp ever had, which Wintory admits he was, “Blown away to read. Journey was surreal in every sense, and here we are, ten years later, revisiting it – and everything is still sort of surreal.”

Traveler: A Journey Symphony is available now via BandCamp. Many thanks to Andrew Krop and Kyrie Hood for assisting in arranging this interview – and thanks also to Austin Wintory for his time.

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