Austin Wintory on composing Absolver, a game about 'friendship through fighting'

The Grammy-nominated composer behind Journey and Banner Saga opens up about the close-knit world of music and games.

Austin Wintory, who has been working as a composer since 2006, is best known for his work on Journey. It was the first videogame soundtrack to earn a Grammy nomination, and it would lead to him being hired for Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded (where he was given free rein to completely re-record the music on what was otherwise a pretty faithful update), as well as The Banner Saga, Abzu, and other titles.

Right now, Wintory is working on the soundtrack for Absolver, Sloclap’s massively multiplayer fighting game that encourages players to help each other improve. I spoke to Wintory over the phone about Absolver, and about his career to date.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

From your perspective, what is Absolver, exactly?

There were two things that jumped out at me when I first saw Absolver. The first was that they were making what, on the surface, looks like a fighting game, a melee combat game… but it plays nothing like most games in that genre. It’s almost like a fighting game with a hint of strategy game built into it. There’s a deck building component to how you build your arsenal and tactics, for example… It’s a thinking fighting game, and I love that. I thought ‘I’ve never seen someone try this before.’ And [Sloclap has] gone through all these different iterations on exactly how to execute that. Even things like how you construct your user interface around something like that, it’s been interesting to watch that evolve. All of that immediately jumped out at me, because that lends itself to all kinds of interesting musical opportunities, honestly.

"The idea is 'let's compete, the net result of which will be that we both get better'... That very much spoke to me."

The second thing was the emotional undercurrent of the game. The idea that this is not about fighting in this brutal, Mad Max, fight-to-the-death, ‘we live on the frontier of this post-apocalyptic hellscape’ [scenario]. It’s a beautiful world, beautifully rendered. The art of the game is quite lovely. It almost has an animated film kind of quality to it. There’s this notion of ‘friendship through combat.’ That’s the phrase that our creative lead, Pierre [Tarno], said to me in our first conversation.

There’s an empathy to this game. There’s this image in our trailers of you beating an enemy, and then reaching out a hand to pull them back up. The idea is ‘let’s compete, the net result of which will be that we both get better. Let’s make each other stronger. Let’s make each other more capable.’ And that very much spoke to me.

This game has some massively multiplayer elements: people get together, they work together, they fight each other. Journey was a game about meeting people too, but you’d just make noises together. Does having voice chat, possibly talking over the top of your music, influence the way you work?

This is a challenge of working on multiplayer games. It’s a perpetual issue. I go back and forth between fully embracing it, and building it into the composition, or saying that there’s nothing I can do about it, and fully ignoring it, essentially making music for the players who are not speaking. From a philosophical perspective, I would not defend the latter standpoint, because I’m not scoring a hypothetical game that someone might play. I’m scoring the game that they will play, and if the developers allow them to speak to each other, that must be built into what I’m doing.

"The music has been written in a pure, holistic way about the emotional experience [of playing]."

That said, right now, the combat is so focused and specific that I don’t know what to expect on that front. So the music has been written in a pure, holistic way about the emotional experience. It ends up becoming part of the process as an eleventh hour ‘what little nips and tucks can we do to maximise this’ thing. I just experienced this on a title I worked on that just shipped called Deformers, where there’s a voice chat ability. I built it into the composition, so that the music remixes itself the moment it detects you talking. We don’t need to turn the music down, it just gets rid of the instruments that could collide, on the frequency spectrum range, with the person speaking. It’s a pretty ambitious system, and as usual, could use more testing and refining. But that’s true of everything I’ve ever worked on.

I’ve never heard of a soundtrack doing that. Is that unique to that game, or is that an industry secret I’m not privy to?

I hadn’t heard of it, but I wouldn’t proclaim to be the originator of this idea. It just came from my frustration when I play games, and the music has to drop whenever someone speaks. It’s not a big industry secret – although maybe it is, and you and I have just both been on the outside of it?

Back on Absolver – how much opportunity have you had to actually play this game? Have you had access to a build, or has it been demoed for you?

I’ve played it a lot. That’s always the first thing I ask for on any game, but sometimes if you’re not set up internally at the developer’s studio it’s very hard for them to send you a build. In those situations, I have to rely on video capture, or I’ll go to them... Spending time with the game is of paramount importance to me, especially as we get towards the end and we’re putting final assets of the music into the game. If it’s an orchestra score, for example, and we’ve recorded the orchestra and it’s all mixed and mastered, [we are] making sure that’s sounding right, behaving properly, that it’s dovetailing with the player’s experience so that it’s not doing anything hamfisted or awkward…

I spend an enormous amount of time in QA tester mode, trying to break the score by being a really awkward player, finding where the weaknesses in the music are and taking them into account. In the case of Absolver, I’ve had builds throughout the process. I’ve played it on my own, but I’ve also gone online and played it with the team in Paris on a handful of missions. Sometimes they’ll want to show me a new area, so we’ll all sign in and they’ll take me somewhere new, but other times, it might be that they’ve just done a new pass of PVP combat cues, and they want to see how they feel. I’ll go and I’ll play that section; we’ll fight multiple times together to see what happens.

"I've played it a lot. That's always the first thing I ask for on any game... Spending time with the game is of paramount importance to me."

At what point in the game’s development were you brought on board?

They brought me on a little over a year ago, and they already had a pretty healthy amount of their game built. They’ve done a huge amount since then, but the art style was set, the narrative was well understood, and the prototype was playable… a lot of details ended up evolving and changing, but the game was understandable. It didn’t have any polish yet – there was basically no sound, there was no music, and there were missing animations and peripheral features that were planned but not functioning yet - but the basics of the game were there. Their overarching style guide and aesthetic was there too.

[In contrast, on] Journey, I came in on the ground level, when nothing existed. The music was the first piece of ‘concept art’ that game had. Matt Nava, who was the art director, and I were leading the charge during Journey’s three-year development process, writing music and creating concept art ahead of the core development. That’s the way that game was developed. In diametric contrast to that, when I worked with Ubisoft on Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, they’d already been working on the game for several years. Even though I was on it for almost a year, not only was the game pretty well figured out, but it was also the sixth game in a franchise that has its legs firmly planted on the ground. You’re coming in with a lot of familiar knowns, just in terms of how it feels and plays and how it’s supposed to be.

Absolver is kind of in the middle of those two extremes. It was early enough that I’ve been able to really sink my teeth into it, and I’m not just playing a frantic game of catch-up the whole time.

So sometimes it’s like your music is helping to shape the games, and at other times you need to look at what already exists, and figure out what works with that?

Yeah, very much. This one kind of exists in the middle. I don’t think the music has fundamentally altered core gameplay decisions, as is sometimes the case, but adding music in certain areas that creates an unexpected tone can change the developer’s feelings about what an area ought to be like, and then other decisions fall out of that. That’s not uncommon in games in general. And that’s one of the things I love, you really feel like you’re part of the team, and you’re not just there adding a coat of paint. You’re helping them make the game.

I live for that, I love it; in an alternate life, that’s what I wanted to do, when I was growing up. There was a period where I was torn between ‘do I want to be a composer, or do I want to be a game developer?’ And I studied programming and had brief flirtations with going to college as a computer science major in favor of that goal.

"In an alternate life, that's what I wanted to do, when I was growing up. There was a period where I was torn between 'do I want to be a composer, or do I want to be a game developer?'"

Was that because you had ideas for games you wanted to make, or did you just feel that this was a good field to work in?

The games that most inspired me were the adventure games of the 90s. I was a Lucasarts fanboy with Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island, Full Throttle, The Dig, Grim Fandango… If I had a choice, I would have said ‘I’m gonna go to Lucasarts and make those sorts of games.’ These days I suppose it would be ‘I’m gonna go to Double Fine and make those sorts of games.’ I was also a huge fan of the Sierra games – Police Quest, King’s Quest, Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry. Those games were a very different way to do the same genre. I loved them all. I was sad to see that genre disappear for a long time. I loved it all. I would be happy to work on anything remotely along any of these lines.

Is there much of a community for game composers? Do you all talk to each other?

There’s a wonderful, and relatively tight-knit, community. It’s not a huge community, it’s a specialized niche. I don’t work exclusively in games, I also do live music with orchestras and score films, and work a little in theatre and all kinds of other things, so I have kind of a ‘green card’ status instead of ‘native citizenship’ in games, even though I’ve been playing games my whole life, and they’ve been a part of my career from day one. I travel in multiple spaces.

"There's a lot of genuine empathy from composers towards each other, even though we are all, on some level, competing... That competition makes us all better."

I bring that up because I’m a member of the Los Angeles film composer community, and the LA classical music community, [but] the videogame composer community, of all the different niches one can belong to… is by far the most tight-knit and self-supportive. I’m a member of several Facebook groups– some are public, some are hidden and moderated and private. In one of the hidden and private ones, which is maybe 50 to 75 composers that are all working in games and are consistently working on new projects, it’s very much a community of “hey, I just installed this new software and it keeps crashing, has anyone else gone through this?” And other folks start chiming in to say “ah, we went through the same thing, here’s the fix,” or someone else says “hey, I need to record an orchestra in Europe on these dates, but I only need half a day, does anyone want to share a session with me?” or whatever. Or even more personal, like “who here also has a two-year-old, and how the hell do you balance this?”

There’s a lot of genuine empathy from composers towards each other, even though we are all, on some level, competing. But it feels – and I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to bring everything back to Absolver here – but it feels, in that same sense, that competition makes us all better. It’s a very positive and affirmative community.

Absolver releases August 29th for PlayStation 4 and PC. You can check out Austin Wintory's past game scores on Bandcamp, and follow him on Twitter @awintory!