Ask most people about “videogame music” and they might mention the catchy loops of Mario, Tetris or Sonic the Hedgehog. But ask a modern gamer, and there’s a decent chance you’ll hear Austin Wintory’s name.
Wintory, 29, is one of the better-known names in game music right now, having received a Grammy nomination last year for scoring the PlayStation 3 game Journey, a first for music made specifically for a game. However, he eschews the term “videogame composer” for reasons explained in a recent Q&A with Re/code.
One of Wintory’s earliest game scores was for Flow, the first game from Journey creator Jenova Chen. His latest is for the indie role-playing game The Banner Saga, the first chapter of which debuted earlier this month, and he said the process for scoring the two games could not have been more different.
“Flow was 100 percent me on everything,” Wintory said. “Every sound you hear, I created. … In the case of the Banner Saga, it’s the exact opposite. I wrote every note of music and I did all the arranging, but then we were hiring a big orchestra, and there’s a lot of logistical work to be done in advance of that.”
“If you add up all the musicians and all the various technical crew, the music had four times as many people as the rest of the game,” he added.
No matter the size of the operation, Wintory tries to compose so that his music both matches the needs of a game and can be enjoyed on its own.
[If] they have no idea it was written for a game, and they enjoy it, all I care about is that they enjoyed it.
– Austin Wintory
“All music, no matter how or for what it’s written, can be quickly recontextualized with interesting results,” he said. “I can put an opera overture in a film and create something interesting. … If someone listens to the Banner Saga or to Journey and they have no idea it was written for a game, and they enjoy it, all I care about is that they enjoyed it. I would love if they experienced the game, because the emotional experience of that music is directly derived from the emotional experience of the game, but at the same time, I work hard to make albums their own experience, and not just an archive of what was in the game.”
For that reason, he rejects the label “videogame composer” for himself, even though all the works with which he is most strongly identified are games.
“The idea of labeling a composition based on medium makes no sense,” he said. “If people hear a piece of music and say, ‘This sounds like videogame music,’ I would say to them, ‘Go on. What does videogame music sound like?’ What they probably mean is, ‘Oh, this sounds like Zelda’ or ‘This sounds like Tetris.’”
That side of the genre still has some serious staying power, of course. Covers of classic gaming music are a YouTube mainstay, and Kickstarter projects like The String Arcade and Video Games Live regularly raise thousands for modern variations on nostalgic themes.
But even though the classics may color one’s definition of “videogame music,” a new and younger crop of composers can now be heard across all types of games, from small indie productions to AAA blockbusters. Off the top of his head, Wintory said some of his favorite composers included Jessica Curry (Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, Dear Esther), Danny Baronowsky (Super Meat Boy, Canabalt), Grant Kirkhope (Goldeneye, Kingdoms of Amalur), Jason Graves (Tomb Raider, Dead Space) and Kevin Riepl (Gears of War, Aliens: Colonial Marines).
“A lot of games are microscopic compared to a game like Tomb Raider, but what’s great about the industry right now is that that does not imply anything about the music,” Wintory said.
What, then, makes today’s industry different from the past? Why are game soundtracks like Journey so different from the iconic tunes created in the ’80s by composers like Koji Kondo (Mario, Legend of Zelda) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy)?
“Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu started work as the industry was first being created from nothing,” Wintory said. “The composers that are emerging now grew up playing games. … It’s not that different from film, which has been around for many generations now. There are many composers who are fired up about writing film music because they’ve watched movies their whole lives. We’re really at that point, now, with games. It’s just so new.”