A Day With Grammy Nominated Video Game Composer Austin Wintory

A Day With Grammy Nominated Video Game Composer Austin Wintory

Wintory is known for his work on indie game soundtracks like 'Journey' and 'The Banner Saga' Glixel / Getty, Todd Williamson Archive

Wintory is at his least constrained ever working on 'Deformers,' Ready at Dawn's goofy online brawler

Wintory is at his least constrained ever working on 'Deformers,' Ready at Dawn's goofy online brawler

Composer Austin Wintory is an unusually humble guy despite his enormous success. His work is extensive and varied, from the ragtime piano of indie hit Monaco to the waltzes of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and the sweeping orchestral scores of The Banner Saga, Abzu and Journey. That last one earned him a Grammy nomination in 2013, famously the first (and still the only) nomination for a video game score. Wintory may be the most widely respected and in-demand game music composer right now, and he’s certainly already joined Halo composer Marty O’Donnell, Final Fantasy’s Nobuo Uematsu, and Nintendo’s Koji Kondo as a household name among gamers.

I meet with Wintory at his workspace in Burbank to chat about his newest project, Ready at Dawn’s goofy food fight brawler Deformers. In contrast to the bearded indie game makers he so often works with, Wintory is clean-cut and even-keeled – except when he gets excited, which happens frequently when he’s talking about his work. Then, his volume and cadence increase by leaps, words spilling out like he’s forgotten he needs to breathe. His space reflects that: a deliberately plain door, a pinball machine in the corner, boxes heaped next to a tired leather couch, musical instruments lying around, some in cases and others looking like they've just been used.

I want to talk with Wintory about his process, his fame, and the role of music in video games overall, but he's not one for reminiscing. Instead, you get the sense that he lives entirely in the present, and subjects other than his current work – including his past successes – are just, well, noise.

“Amazingly, it’s been five years [since Journey]. It’s astonishing to me that I still talk about it, people still ask about it, and it’s been five years. That’s crazy to me,” he says. “The explosion of the release was so much bigger than anything I’d ever imagined, and just the calls that came after that, people I never had met and hadn’t worked with – it’s still surreal to me.”

The recognition and momentum Wintory gained from the award-winning Journey probably don’t seem crazy to his fans and admirers. His own awards include recognition from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), the Academy Of Interactive Arts & Sciences’ D.I.C.E. Awards, and the Spike Video Game Awards. But it was the Grammy nomination that made history. “I mainly just got lucky,” he explains. “It’s not, in other words, that I think I wrote like, this brilliant music that changed the world. It’s that I had the great fortune of writing music that was sufficiently adequate, on a game that people really took to. And that creates opportunities.”

Opportunities like the current one – to branch out and try something completely different on Deformers, which Wintory says he was eager to do.

The good, the bad, the Deformers
California-based Ready at Dawn’s previous works include games in the God of War franchise and the gravely serious film-grained 2015 vampires-and-werewolves shooter The Order: 1886. In stark contrast to both, Deformers is a competitive online multiplayer game in which players take control of animated blobs shaped like food and animals and body check one another in whimsical, large scale sumo matches.

It was born from the mind of Andrea Pessino, Ready at Dawn's founder and CTO. He and Wintory bonded over a shared love of music when the composer was working on The Order's theme music. When Pessino asked Wintory to do the music for Deformers, Wintory leapt at the chance to attempt something new – something without a dramatic narrative limiting what he could try with the music.

"Pessino said, 'There's no story. There's literally no narrative component whatsoever, so you can do anything you want,'" Wintory says. "As someone whose reputation lies in scores like Journey and Abzu, which have a lot of shared DNA – they both have that kind of mystical, meditative quality – or like The Banner Saga, which is very sullen and dark but also very orchestral in a traditional way... this felt like a stretch, and a fucking fun time."

He composed the main theme in Deformers like he was scoring a Sergio Leone western whistle track, mariachi trumpets and all. The game is structured into matches of three rounds, and the music changes not just based on the map – western style for the desert, flamenco for the jungle ruins, a waltz for the circus tent – but from round to round as well. It was composed and implemented so that the music within each world will never play out the same way twice.

"We decided to divide the music into 'pools' of a given aesthetic," Wintory says. In each round of a three-round match, the music changes significantly by pulling elements from that pool. Each possible track is exactly two minutes long (so that it begins and ends in sync with the round timer), but there are endless variables within them. "It's actually sculpted so that the music as you get to the end of the third round is substantially more crazy and epic than it was in the beginning of the first round, and there's actually a shape to that," Wintory says. "To me it's always important to be telling a story, even in a game that has no story.”

He wouldn’t want to admit it, since he tends to chalk his success up to mostly luck, but that attention to detail has helped propel Wintory to where he is.

Even Deformers’ accompanying soundtrack album can’t be just a soundtrack album. "What makes for a good album is completely different from what makes for a good score," Wintory says. "And I care about the album being a good album." So he wrote his own story involving Deformers’ cartoonish characters – a sushi blob named Sue, the watermelon Mel, the stack of pancakes called Stax, and so on – rearranged the music to accompany and illustrate that story, and enlisted friend and prolific voice actor Troy Baker to narrate it in the style of Peter and the Wolf. The album will be out the same day as the game, with physical versions to be announced.

No talent wasted
Wintory is happy to give credit to anyone who’s not himself, from Ready at Dawn’s Pessino (who he calls an “enabler”) to famed accordion player Ksenija Sidorova, who’s featured prominently in Deformers’ score. He says his recording process is often collaborative, his starring musicians are encouraged to tweak and tailor his compositions to their own styles.

“All that matters is what goes into the microphones. Whatever path we have to take to get there, I’m open to, and especially things that take me somewhere that are no longer restricted by the limits of my knowledge and imagination,” he says. “[Ksenija] just simply knows more about accordion than I ever could. It’s her job to. Not availing myself of her ideas is a tremendous waste of her talent.”

As we sit in front of Wintory’s sprawling desk and multiple computer monitors, he plays me video from recording sessions and multiple versions of each finalized track and theme from Deformers. He gushes for hours – over learning so many new things about the accordion, over experimenting with the silly hodgepodge of instruments and sounds in music inspired by The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and about the pleasure of working with Pessino and Ready at Dawn.

As the conversation turns back to awards, I finally begin to understand the practical purpose of Wintory’s very genuine modesty: it’s a preventative measure, a defense, a mental levee to stop his ego from flooding the room, because he believes his work would suffer as a result.

“Ultimately, awards don’t matter,” he says. “It feels good as this brief moment of like, wow, a body of people apparently think this is OK, and that feels nice in this moment. But tomorrow, inevitably, I’m going to go to the studio, and I’m going to get to work again, and none of that matters all of a sudden, because it doesn’t make this music easier to write. It doesn’t make this music appease the developer more, or work in the game better.”

He feels paranoid, in fact, that internalizing all the awards and praise might affect his process. “Let’s say I write a piece of music that I have no idea the quality of, and then it gets nominated for a Grammy. If I say, 'they honor great music,' then that means I wrote great music. And I don’t think it’s a huge leap to say great music is surely written by great composers,” he says. “It follows that therefore I am a great composer.”

The second he allows himself to make that leap, he fears he'll start writing bad music. "All the checks and balances and pulling your hair out and saying ‘Is this really as good as it can be?’" he says. "Why would you go through that if you say, 'well, a great composer wrote it. It must be great.'”

Wintory says that the thought of repeating himself, of composing the same style of music for the same kind of game over and over, would be “boring.” So too, apparently, is vanity. And if it takes an unusually deflated ego for Austin Wintory to keep doing what Austin Wintory does, his fans and colleagues – and likely Wintory himself – must concede that it’s worth it.