Words by Amon Warmann
When we interview composers, we love to start with when they knew that writing music for film, TV, and/or video games was something they wanted to do. For Austin Wintory, that realisation came earlier than most, and when you listen to his work it’s hard to disagree that he chose the right vocation.
The Grammy-nominated and two-time BAFTA-winning composer has provided the music for the likes of, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, Journey, and more over his 16-year career. He’s playing in the game world once again for PS5' s launch title, The Pathless, and after telling us just how he got the composing bug early on we discussed how the project pushed him, working with the throat singing Alash Ensemble, and discovering music from dozens of different cultures.
When did it click for you that composing is something you wanted to do?
It's actually a very specific moment in my upbringing. When I was about 10 years old my parents connected me with a piano teacher. I had not had any musical anything prior to that. We had a piano and I started plunking out one finger melodies that I was picking up from the stuff I was watching. I was into games and movies, growing up on Star Wars, James Bond and Indiana Jones and all of the other things of that time. My parents suggested that I should start piano lessons to see if I'm interested in the instrument. What’s also peculiar about that is, as a kid, I was very picky and kind of never wanted to try new things but for some reason, I was open to learning the piano which was life-changing random luck. Growing up, I didn't have a favourite band, a favourite composer, a favourite singer. It was just off my radar. As much as I loved things like Star Wars, I couldn't have told you the composers name, John Williams. To me that music was part of the movie more than it was its own standalone entity.
I never contemplated the idea that composing was something that people did as a career. I’m someone who has always loved the art of storytelling and thought maybe I'll be a novelist, or maybe, I'll be a game designer, or I'll be a filmmaker, even though I didn't know quite how to articulate it at that point. Composing seemed to kind of combine several of those emotions all at once, and then the musical fireworks that Jerry [Goldsmith] in Patton seemed to be able to summon just had this instantaneous electrical effect on me. From that point forward, basically, everything I was doing was about how I aim towards this. Then by the time I got to high school, age 14 or so, it became this is what I'm going to do with my life. My actions were conscientious steps towards trying to learn the craft and to be able to pursue it for real.
I never contemplated the idea that composing was something that people did as a career.
I know you’ve previously worked on Abzû with the game developers at Giant Squid. When did you first hear about The Pathless and what excited you the most about scoring it?
Matt Nava founded the company and is the Creative Director. We worked closely together for three years on Journey, and when that game shipped and he left to start his own company, I was one of the very first people he told. We started on that game called Abzû, right out of the gate. At that point, there were like three or four of us before the full team became built out because the company barely existed. By the time The Pathless started, it was a full-fledged company. Abzû had been very successful. Three and a half years ago, Matt said I'd love to show you what I'm thinking for the next one. Abzû had been, in many respects, a kind of a continuation of what was going on with Journey from a mechanic's standpoint and from an aesthetic standpoint. It's a very different game emotionally, and obviously one's a single-player game and one is an optionally multiplayer game. But they have a lot in common even amongst their differences.
In contrast, while The Pathless was still going to have that genetic heritage, it was also way more ambitious. Journey and Abzû are both very linear games. The Pathless is an open-world game, so that alone throws a lot of what you learnt into the blender. Matt knew a lot of that and presented it to me in that very first conversation. And being an artist, there were already a few drawings and paintings and concept art that he could show me. So I knew the very basic things like the lonesome island in the middle of the ocean and the fact that it revolves around a hunter who has this eagle companion. Those details were already in his head, and he presented them and that was partly why one of the very, very first things we talked about in that first meeting was that it might be interesting to feature throat singing.
Matt told me that one of the big inspirations for the hunter and eagle dynamic was that he had been reading a lot about Mongolian falconry, which is this hunting tradition that goes back God knows how many hundreds of years, but they still learn and perfect it today. I remember we googled ‘Mongolian falconry’, and you get these unbelievable photos with these birds that have these five-foot wings. It just looked gigantic. I immediately started thinking about how we would incorporate that into the game. Even though there's nothing inherently Mongolian or Asian in the broadest sense about the game, it draws inspiration from all over the world. I thought that it was a very evocative and beautiful leaping point to start from.
Going back to your initial question, Matt told me quite a bit in advance. He’s a good friend and a huge inspiration to me, and his work actively makes me want to be a better composer. I think he's one of the best artists in the game industry. So it wasn't so much about what he could tell me that made me want to say yes to the project. It was more of an automatic yes, and I can’t imagine ever feeling differently. I just find myself thinking differently when I work on his projects. I have that sensation when you feel like you're kind of firing on all cylinders, and you really feel like I'm kind of on a roll today. Most of the time I feel like I'm an imposter and everyone is going to find out. But Matt’s work has a tendency to speak to me. It's not even necessarily about him personally, although he's a great leader, a great collaborator and friend. But I just find that I engage with what comes out of his imagination really easily. And so it was just kind of like, well, can we start today? There was not much more than concept art, but I wanted to start writing.
When it comes to my actual DAW, I don't have a set template. I build a new one for each project that basically only has the sounds that I want to use.
Once you’ve got that green light from Creative Director, Matt [Nava], where do you start when you’re coming up with ideas for the score?
I tend to try to do everything differently from project to project in the hope that different music comes out from the last time. I can't hope to write something new unless I actually physically approach it differently. If I had the same exact process every single time, I'd probably end up writing music that sounded very similar. I'm trying to outflank myself and come up with new ways of approaching it just to kind of stir up new shit, basically. Sometimes I go straight to the piano, sometimes I'll sing ideas. Depending on how much time I've got – could be days, weeks, or even months – sometimes I'll just immerse and intentionally not commit anything to paper. If an idea pops up and it's actually good, then it'll stick around in my head. Then, of course, other times we'll take the opposite approach where I'll think oh, I'm going to forget, so I better write this down. So it varies.
In the case of The Pathless, there were these initial sounds that I was really gravitating towards. I really loved the throat singing and I was put in touch with this group called The Alash Ensemble from Tuva, they are these three amazing world-class musicians who can perform all manner of different types of throat singing that are specific to the Tuvan tradition. They also all play various Tuvan folk instruments. I started listening to their albums so I could learn what they were doing, and not just see it as a gesture or a sound effect. I really wanted to try to learn it more deeply because it's basically a language. I also gravitated towards this Swedish instrument called the Nyckelharpa. They call it the steampunk violin. It’s very mechanical and surprisingly technically complicated, especially for an instrument that has been around for 900 years. I'm always looking around for new sounds and I just came across a YouTube video of a group of them playing together and thought it feels simultaneously advanced and yet ancient. It had all these qualities that I loved. And like we were talking about earlier – constraints often breed more volatile creativity.
One of the things I often do at the beginning of the project is to ask myself what's the absolute minimum I can use? I don't think of it as I will default to using the orchestra and maybe I can pepper some interesting colours in. It's more like…I’ve got the Nyckelharpa, which I like, throat singing and these Tuvan folk instruments. Do I need anything else? I don't just think of those instruments as additives in some basic template. Even when it comes to my actual DAW, I don't have a set template. I build a new one for each project that basically only has the sounds that I want to use.
I played some of these things for Matt, and then very soon after I wrote a theme that was almost like a mini-suite. It's actually on my YouTube channel – I called the piece ‘Pilgrimage’. It was a melody that I thought could serve as a foundational main theme and a general palette. I liked using strings – I know that Matt really likes that and it had worked really well on Abzû. Strings have this unique ability to be very mystical feeling and timeless. It's a European tradition that's been adopted by the rest of the world, but we don't think of it like that. They somehow transcended that origin, and they can feel very magical very easily.
I really liked the emphasis on a little merry band of soloists, and so there's a lot of emphasis on bass clarinet, and alto flute. And there was a pair of Nyckelharpa’s, a Chinese Pipa, and some very simple percussion. No orchestral percussion – it was more like African and Middle Eastern percussion. I hadn’t quite clued in to the idea of poly-culturalism as a thing yet. I was just finding things that felt like glorified folk music, but not from anyone folk tradition. And I just found myself taste-testing my way into that intuitively before at some point I said actually, I want to commit to this as an idea.
It was probably a year in before I really felt like this is now explicitly the goal, and when I would latch onto and fall in love with the sound I would try to think of a complementary colour to it that was regionally unrelated. Like, I’m listening to this Chinese bamboo flute and it’s gorgeous…what if we pair that with an Irish Pennywhistle? I didn’t want it to feel like it's from one place or another. I like to draw a little bit from the actual musical traditions that this instrument is associated with, and yet also push it out of its comfort zone into something that's different. What if you have Chinese instruments playing music that's vaguely Celtic? Or what if you have really aggressive North African rhythms that are just so complicated, but they're being slid into percussion instruments from Scandinavia? I was just kind of playing this odd game of chess with the world in the hopes that it will amount to something that feels fresh.
It took an enormous amount of trial and error. I would spend all this time talking with musicians to play these instruments…but what if we modified the scale? Or what if we did that? Imagine if you took a musician from the Middle East and a musician from Northern Europe and a musician from Tuva and Mongolia and China, and Japan, and Senegal and South Africa, Tunisia, and the Appalachian Mountains and you put them on a spaceship, and then they lived there for 1000 years, and then their children's children's children's children's children said okay, now you play the instruments. It's like you get this descendant that's sort of authentically descendant, but it has clearly become its own thing at some point along the way. That was more or less what I was trying to do.
There are so many different elements and cultures included in your score. How challenging was it to make all of that gel? Did it ever feel like too much and you had to pare it down?
It’s not really different from my normal process. Even if I'm writing completely traditional orchestral music, sometimes I'll write something and it's very sparse. Or sometimes I'll write and I'll think that's too thin and I need to find ways to beef it up. Other times it'll happen where I'll just lay it on so thick and I'll go back and listen to it and it's exhausting, so I look for things I can delete. The Pathless was no different. There were plenty of times where there would be a solo Oud and I'd say that's nice. And then other times I hear a solo Luna and I’d say it's too thin, it's boring. And that wouldn't be restricted to any particular instrument. I can't recall really having a time where I thought that these instruments are not mixing well together. Someone with a different ear might hear it and go, that mix is weird, I don't know if those sounds go together. But in my mind, I've never heard like two instruments together and thought that doesn't work. To me, all instruments are like fruit. Have you ever had a fruit smoothie where any fruit didn't go? It can be 95 blueberries, one strawberry and mango and it's great. There’s no bad combo.
Here's a good example: When I was in college, we would have these composition exercises where they say you need to write a two-minute piece of music, and you get five instruments, and we're all gonna use the same five instruments. So as a class you have to decide, and they would always go with let's do a string quartet and flute or piano, bass drums… the line-ups were generic and there were endless piles of music written for that configuration. I grew up on people like Jerry Goldsmith and listened to the old Twilight Zone episodes of the ’50s, where their ensemble would be three Piccolos, a Tuba, and a Bass Drum. And I always thought about how they figured out how to get out of that! So for me, I always had that mindset – if you tell me it's gonna be three Alto Saxes, but all three of them have busted reeds, and we’re gonna have a Duduk and a Viola and that’s your ensemble, I would be like I can’t wait to get started.
I’m just yet to hear any combos I don’t like. There are combos that are easy to do in a very cheesy way. Electric guitar with an orchestra is just a hellfire of cliché waiting to sound horrible. So there's a few of those lurking in the world where you have to be very careful how you do it. But in terms of making them blend, they want to blend. Musicians want to want to play together. Do you know that band that kind of shot up out of nowhere called The Hu, from Mongolia? They're a throat singing metal band. And so you hear throat singing with these scorching guitar and bass solos and their absolutely on fire drummer, and there's absolutely nothing about it that doesn't work. The Nyckelharpa loves the throat singers and loves the Pennywhistle. You just have to not prevent them from loving each other in many respects.
The vast majority of the throat singing had no lyrics. Which makes me curious about the throat singing that does have lyrics and what they actually say… do you know?
There are three instances of text in the score. The Alash Ensemble sang lyrics in Tuvan, and then I also wrote a song for the end credits that are in Mongolian. In that case, I wrote the lyrics in English, and they are very basic and simple and so to speak to the message of the game. Ironically the game unintentionally feels very 2020, because the whole premise of it is that the hunter encounters this character called the Godslayer, and he's sort of a self-appointed messianic figure who is saying I can save the world, trust me, give me power, I will lead you to safety. The world is chaotic and demands order. And the whole idea is that the world is intrinsically pathless, and I will forge a path for people to follow and they will thank me for it. It's almost Trump-esque in a way.
So I wrote lyrics that were basically ‘While walking a road that’s surrounded by fog / a voice calls me down the road and yet the truth is off the path down into the fog itself’. Like, seeking enlightenment by jumping off the path and going directly into the unknown. I wrote very basic lyrics knowing that it was supposed to feel a little bit more poetic and proverb-like, and would sound much better in Mongolian than in English because I'm not really a lyricist. But the text of The Alash Ensemble would actually be improvised during the session. They frequently are making sounds that are imitating things like camels, and there’s a lot of traditions that are meant to evoke wind and all these various things. So there's not a compulsion to always have text when singing. At one point I asked them what if there's a lyric that feels like a call to adventure, so they improvised a text that just feels like a proverb. Even as a non-speaker, you can hear why the choice of word is more important than the meaning of the text because it has that poetic quality.
I also said we should do a text honouring the importance of the eagle in the game itself, and so the lyric that they improvised was ‘An eagle needs wings to fly / an eagle needs wings for life’. And they would circle that over and over and over, singing it different ways. I used it in a few places – including one of the big boss battles – because I absolutely loved how it sounded. Normally I'm a stickler for text. I feel like if you're going to use text, it should speak to the meaning of the thing and add another layer of subtext. But in this case, because of the improvisational nature of it, I said I'm okay if the text is itself improvised.
Was there any sequence that you were especially excited – or terrified – to score?
When you get to sit alongside the team for the whole project, you really see the way it grows and it's mostly a slow, iterative, steady process. But there are moments when there are periodic leaps forward. When I come down to the studio and visit and look over everybody's shoulders to see what they're doing, it'll be coming along, coming along, coming along, but then somebody will finish a new feature that unlocks procedural weather generation in the world. And then from one day to the next, the game just seems to take this leap forward in quality and depth. As a result, I’m kind of perpetually intimidated because I just see it and I'm like damn, what they're doing is so special – how can I live up to this? But everyone helps each other, everyone supports each other, and I’ve always told the team that anybody's welcome to offer feedback on the music. If somebody has an idea on how to make it better, I don't care if you're the third assistant programmer. Let this thing be the beneficiary of the best of all of us.
Like all the best games, and the ones I've been lucky enough to work on, there are invariably a few specific moments where something really interesting happens, and there's a really cool musical opportunity to really say something. Midway through The Pathless, there's one moment where the main character kind of gets the shit kicked out of her. She thinks she’s doing well and then her hubris gets punished, and it’s the low point in her arc. And I said how amazing it would be if there's this long walk where the music just really slowly builds and then gives way, and it's just hollow and empty and you only have low strings and bass clarinet. She's having a hard time finding hope and reminding herself why she does any of this.
So I said can we have this one area where we just languish in this almost depressing sound to really make us feel what she's going through before something else can potentially whisk us away into something? And they're like let's do it. I really love to create those little moments. One of my big inspirations is the first Red Dead Redemption, where you cross over into Mexico and they have that song that ballad that comes in. Everyone always remembers that moment. It's a two-minute sequence and it’s one of the most significant moments in a 100-hour game. We should aspire to those moments, and look for places where it’s not just systems anymore but music that’s honouring the story and the character arc. Those sequences always terrify me because when you’re making a big, bold statement it better be good because there’s no hiding.
One of my big inspirations is the first Red Dead Redemption, where you cross over into Mexico and they have that song that ballad that comes in. Everyone always remembers that moment.
The Pathless is one of the first games on PS5. In what ways will the next generation of consoles augment the music in-game over the next few years?
We were unfortunately not able to really take advantage of the new tech on the music front because we were not aware that we were going to have the distinction and the great privilege of being a PS5 launch title until pretty far in, and the game had been overwhelmingly designed as a PC/PS4 game. But in terms of the future, one of the things that's always exciting about new technology is that if you flash forward to 10 years later, people are using it in ways that even the original designers hadn't fully anticipated. Because when something is truly powerful, it has the potential to do things beyond the specs that are laid out in front of it. So that's what excites me. It’s the fact that I have no idea what we're going to discover.
I've got a few things I'm interested in. I've done scores in the past where there's an invisible cloud that the player can't see, and as they pass through it's like dust gets stuck on their character. Except its not dust – it’s violins. And the player picks up the residue that we sprinkle throughout the world. So why should we not create an almost surreal, new type of music that’s sort of in the world of the game, and yet not in the world? It's not actually a sound effect that the character can hear, but it is triggering based around how you interact with the space in a way that's adding to a dimension of player agency that's unique from the normal ones. I'm dying to kind of push into that territory.
A lot of the things you’ve talked about are a project of composers being brought onto projects sooner to have more impact on the project. Are there any other changes you’ve noticed since you started composing for games?
I think a lot of the best changes that I can add to that list are a child of that idea. Because there's a longer timeframe, for example, I think there's a lot of developers that are really open to bolder, more unique approaches. They can live with it longer and they can digest it more, and they can take certain ownership over it. I recently wrote an article where I said one of the things that I think is interesting about adaptive audio and interactive music is that the player gets to almost feel like they co-authored it. It makes it a lot harder for them to resist falling in love with it because it’s like that's their baby. So they're proud of it. They're excited about it.
The same phenomenon happens with your collaborators when you're involved in it with each other for so long. The Oud in The Pathless was 100% Matt's idea, and it ended up becoming very central to the score. That’s the spirit of embracing less generic, less straightforward scores that I find is happening. The more people realize the advantage of having the composer there early, the more they seem to be excited about doing novel things. It also lets you go way deeper on the interactive front because you're not just plugging the holes in the dam. You're actually able to design systems, test them, break them, and look for their flaws, especially on a game like The Pathless or Assassin's Creed Syndicate, which is also an open-world game I worked on.
It's such a challenge because you work so hard to develop what feels like the perfect combat system, and also to have beautiful music serenade them as they explore the rooftops and look over the vast vistas of the city. And then you have to go and test what happens if I go and jump up on the roof in the middle of a fight. These two systems are now suddenly flying into collision with each other, so how do we sort that out? The more systems you add the more challenging that exponentially becomes. That's so exciting to me because no composer had to deal with problems like that until the last couple of decades.
What’s the best advice or feedback a video game director has given to you?
I've been lucky to have a few really powerful moments. I remember on Journey, Jenova Chen had this kind of Jedi way of working where I would give him a piece of music say “what do you think?” And he would go, “well, do you think it's done?” He put it on me. And of course, 90% of the time I'd be like, “I guess not". But then I would reach a point where I'd say you know what, I believe in it, this is done. And he would say “then it's ready”. I've never experienced anything like that. It really ground home that notion that it's okay to really believe in it and not just rely on this external validation. You get used to the idea of being told it's not done until the director signs off on it. Sometimes they actually look to you to be the one to say this is what it ought to be. Every director is different, but you want to make sure that you find that right balance. I still always ask loads and loads and loads of questions. But sometimes I also will say I really believe in this. It can still be unfinished, but Jenova really made me ask those questions in a way that I do ever since then.
There’s a filmmaker named Paul Solet that I’ve done five or six features with, going back to the very earliest days of my career all the way through to a movie that came out just a couple months ago. We’ve been consistently working together for the last 15 years. His whole thing is the one rule is that there must not be rules. I try to bring that to everything that I do but especially his projects because he is always like I don't want this to feel like anything else. The very first film we did together was a horror film called Grace, where the majority of the score is built from the processed sounds of a newborn infant. I flew to the set where they were shooting and sampled the location. There's a scene where there's a really horrible thing happening to the lead actress in the film, and although she says she’s fine, we know that in her mind she isn’t. So I had this idea to have the actress come into my studio and scream “I'm fine!” in a really exacerbated way, and then I lined it up exactly with her line. So I made this subtext of what she's really feeling kind of disappear in the actual line of her delivery so that the boundary between score and sound design was really starting to get very blurry.
Paul really embraced so much experimentation on that movie in particular. We did a session at Abbey Road for it, and we went to a store and just bought every noisemaker that mimicked newborn infants. We had roaring animal sounds. We really wanted to create something that didn’t sound like Bernard Herrmann or Chris Young or one of several stars of the genre. The creative process for that score – which we did in 2008 – fundamentally altered me as a composer from that point forward. I've really never been the same person since then, so I owe him a lot. He's still the most loyal, continuous director that I work with, and we're always trying to come up with new shit like that on each new project.