Colorado-born composer Austin Wintory has been writing music for visual media since 2002. However, he is best known as the first composer ever to receive a Grammy Award nomination for a video game in 2013, when his score for the cerebral experience “Journey” was recognized alongside the works of Howard Shore, Ludovic Bource, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and John Williams. Wintory’s gaming credits also include “flOw,” “Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded,” “Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell” and “The Banner Saga.”
He has most recently lent his talents to Ubisoft’s renowned “Assassin’s Creed” franchise, where he aligns himself with a legacy of composing talent that includes Lorne Balfe, Winifred Phillips, Brian Tyler, Chris Tilton, Sarah Schachner, Ryan Amon, Elitsa Alexandrova and the originator of the series’ sound, Jesper Kyd. Wintory’s work on “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” was heralded as brilliant by Gamespot, extolling its time-spanning intensity “painting a picture of melancholy for the past and hope for the future.”
Read on, as Austin Wintory shares some of his secrets to creating a multi-sensory, emotional feast for “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.”
Mark Morton: To begin, have the Grammy nomination & BATFA wins affected your work load, in either a positive or negative fashion?
Austin Wintory: I can honestly say no one has ever asked me this question quite this way, so congratulations because I absolutely love being asked something unexpected. Hopefully, it doesn’t sound like a cop-out because my answer is that I don’t really actually know. I don’t know what jobs I was never offered, nor do I know how a nomination or win would impact a prospective job offer. In theory, the assumption is that maybe after getting those awards I might default to charging some exorbitant sum of money that they are unable to afford or something like that. Which is hilarious and ridiculous because when I’m excited about something I never let those details get in the way, there’s always a deal to be made that’s really fair, and sometimes I’m paid very well, and sometimes I make next to nothing, but in all cases I am working on something that I’m really thrilled to be working on.
The only way someone wouldn’t know that is if they assumed they understood my philosophy before they even reached out to me. But fortunately I haven’t found that to be the case very much, usually people reach out no matter what their budget is, and then if I can’t do it most often it’s a matter of schedule and not because of money. That would be the only way I could imagine negative impact. But I also don’t really know if there’s been much explicit positive impact either, because I think the reason I get hired, which I consider myself extremely grateful about, is usually because of the working relationship; the collaboration. We have fun working together. It’s never about the fact that I have some award on my shelf or something like that. I would be surprised if someone called me for that reason alone.
There is no shortage of composers that have won awards, including composers that have won far more prestigious awards, or far more times than I. I don’t know that it factors much. In fact, I certainly hope it doesn’t play a factor because to me it’s all about the game, the music, and the team! I really don’t care if it wins anything. I don’t even keep them in the room with me. I keep them on the other side of a wall, in a room that I relatively rarely go into. I’m much more interested in the future than in the past and it’s easy to get distracted by that sort of thing. Sorry that was so long-winded!
MM: You’ve made a name for yourself with some heady, metaphysical scores. How did you find yourself falling into the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise?
AW: It’s interesting that you frame it that way, because that’s actually probably why I got called for “Assassin’s Creed.” Ubisoft was excited to shake things up and alter their formula from the previous games, and I think that they thought I would be eager to do that. And they were absolutely right! I love trying things that feel new and fresh. By that, I mean it’s something that I personally have never done.
In the case of “Assassin’s Creed,” they were very open with me and invited me to suggest any approach that I could imagine. I suggested this sort of Neo-Mendelssohn 19th century chamber music through the lens of modernity, and slightly on steroids. And honestly I figured they would not be that interested, but they actually immediately came back with enthusiasm for it, so I started working immediately.
MM: Did you feel a responsibility to honor the rich heritage and legacy built around “Assassin’s Creed’s” previous composers, especially Jesper Kyd?
AW: I do tip my hat to Jesper in the score as a way of tying the brand together, but otherwise I think the way that I can best honor the previous “Assassin’s Creed” composers is by not attempting to swim in their waters. I do very much my own thing. Every score has managed to have its own identity, and if I were aspiring to honor that directly I would probably end up just being the second tier version of their work. The world already has a Sarah Schachner, and Chris Tilton, and Lorne Balfe, and Jesper Kyd, and Brian Tyler, they don’t need another one, and especially another one who is going to be the watered down version of them! So regardless of how good or not I am compared to them, I’d still rather be me.
MM: You have become known for bleeding the boundaries between proactive scoring and reactive scoring, creating atmospheres that push a narrative forward, while allowing the player the opportunity for discovery. Did this come into play with “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate?”
AW: Once again you ask a very interesting question and very beautifully worded! You have nailed on the head my great quest in scoring games, which is the reconciliation of beautifully-captured performance by stellar musicians (which is, by definition, a linear concept) and something which is deeply reactive and adaptive to the player in a very real-time sort of way. I want to create music which is as adaptive as possible, while still giving a musician a chance to really express themselves and build arcs and tell stories through their playing.
Needless to say, scores like “Journey” and “The Banner Saga” were deep studies of how to bring these two somewhat antithetical concepts together, and I’m happy to say “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” was no different. The music is pretty deeply interactive, but it is also not afraid to take a step back and play out during certain moments. Every single cue in the game, every single moment, was approached asking the question of how best to handle this. And I think we did a pretty decent job at bringing the two ideas together. But then again, I always feel that way when I finish and a month later I go back and replay the game and realize all the things I could have done differently!
MM: Do you see a line between atmosphere and immersion in game music? Is one characteristic more important than the other?
AW: I wouldn’t really say that one is more important than the other, no. Atmosphere for me, is more just the general aesthetic of a score. What is the impression you’re left with in the back of your mind after you’ve been playing for a couple of hours. I would call that atmosphere. Whereas immersion is maybe the way in which it’s interacting with you in a moment-by-moment basis. Both of those things are extremely important and I strive to make each score a unique creation that achieves those in a way that is proprietary somehow. “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” should really only ever feel like “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.” At least that’s the hope. Whether I achieve that or not, is a different story.
MM: Regarding games that occur in specific time periods, how important is it for the composer to be faithful to that period? Is it more challenging to be period-authentic with game music, as opposed to a film? And how did you go about creating that authenticity on a gaming budget?
AW: I have definitely done period scores in the past, but I wouldn’t really call “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” a period-authentic score. Especially because these games have the added wrinkle of being futuristic sci-fi’s that are looking back at the past. However, I didn’t actually really channel that concept very much either, at least not nearly as much as previous “Assassin’s Creed’s” have, which took a definite hybrid-synth futuristic angle on whenever the period setting was.
In this case, I liked the idea of channeling a bit of the aesthetic of 19th century chamber music, but that was less because of the fact that the game took place in the 19th century, than it was that the mood created by that music fit so beautifully with the personality of the twins, and the ways that they moved and interacted with each other and with their environment.
I call the music Neo-Mendelssohn because it’s sort of like I went back in time and abducted Mendelssohn, and then brought him to the modern era and we hung out for a bit, listening to some 20th century music that he would have never heard, and then I sent him back to go compose in the 19th century again. It’s music that is thoroughly informed by developments that took place after the 19th century but yet it still uses that as its basic starting point. So it’s not period-authentic in any sense but it is kind of philosophically rooted in it.
With regards to the budget, I’m happy to say I pitched to Ubisoft a very specific approach to the score and I was able to produce it exactly as I wanted to without any real budget related compromises. Of course you can always use more money, but that’s true no matter how much you’re given.
MM: The “Assassin’s Creed” franchise has benefited from consulting with historians for period-accuracy. Did you meet with the historian for this entry, as well?
AW: Yes, the audio director Lydia Andrew hired David Gossage to help insure that we were working with authentic Victorian London source music. The source music plays a huge part in the game, and actually there was an entirely separate parallel production in arranging and recording piles of it. Hymn tunes, folk songs, things like that, are heard all throughout London and all of them were researched in terms of their popularity at the time, what types of citizens would have been singing them, even including what areas of the city they would have been sung in, and what the performance styles would have been.
They then motion-captured and recorded a huge number of musicians from small brass bands, to solo street performers like violinists and guitarists, playing and singing these songs. Lydia then had the brilliant idea of incorporating those songs into the score so there are a number of moments where you are walking down the street and pass, say, a violinist playing a song that would have been popular at the time (for example, the tune “the Ballad of Sam Hall” or “Champagne Charlie”).
After you hear it performed on the street, say you the go climbing up onto a rooftop to do a leap of faith and reveal more of the map. The game actually will know that you just heard that song coming from a street performer as true source music and it will then incorporate that into the score cue that I wrote. So I found myself writing huge numbers of arrangements of all these tunes within the aesthetic of the score that could then be modularly switched from among based on what was going on around you in-game. It’s a bit complicated and hard to describe, so forgive my inelegance right now. But the short answer is yes, historical accuracy was actually a really big part of the game overall, in the source music and my score.
MM: Do you even view game music as just “game music?” It seems that over the years, the genre has expanded and become so vibrant, the term actually seems limiting today, even as a genre.
AW: I’m so thrilled that you asked me this because this is a major subject for me. I often hear sentences like what you just said. People say things like “Game music has come to rival film music” or things like that. Or even someone saying “this soundtrack is so good, it’s a shame to call it game music” or something like that. I actually am always sort of appalled by this concept, because it implies that there is a limit to the creativity that games as a medium offer a composer.
In reality I would say they offer no shortage of creativity and that the world of film or the concert stage lay claim to no inspirational advantages. In other words, the notion of “just” being game music doesn’t even exist in my mind. Games are still young, and there are still a lot of growth pains associated with that and we still bear a lot of the hallmarks of being an immature industry.
But the vibrancy that we as a medium are capable of, I believe, has no boundaries whatsoever. In fact, I think games are going to become the primary storytelling medium of the 21st century. And stand proudly alongside concert music and film music as a wellspring for genuinely inspiring and interesting creative work.
MM: Similarly, how does a composer reconcile a gamer in the present immersing himself/herself in a period-specific game without “falling out of it?”
AW: Immersion is a discussion on a regular basis in the games world. And I find that fascinating because you don’t really hear it that much with film. And yet, shouldn’t it theoretically also be true of film? If immersion is so important to us, should we forget we’re watching a movie? I do hear people say that, that certain films make them lose track of time, and they become so engaged that they truly lost touch with the fact that they were watching a film.
But I would argue that that is not immersion; I am going to quote from my friend Richard Lemarchand and say that what we’re really aspiring to is holding people’s attention. Attention instead of immersion. If we are engaging, then people will keep playing. But they’ll also keep watching, keep listening, etc. In this sense, the composer’s job is simply to be interesting and it doesn’t really matter what the period is, what the aesthetic is, etc.
MM: Your last game, “The Order: 1886,” occurred in a similar period to the new “Assassin’s Creed.” Did you face the extra challenge of avoiding repeating yourself?
AW: Well in the case of “The Order: 1886,” that was really Jason Graves’ score. He and I worked together to create the basic thematic material that he then used to do the rest, but I never went deeply enough with it for it to pose a particular challenge in the way that you’re asking. It could have been a challenge under different circumstances, but really I didn’t spend enough time with “The Order” to sink my teeth in deeply enough.
But more significant than that, the two games only have in common the basic time-frame that they occur in. “The Order” is an alternate-history game about the knights of the round table, living unnaturally long lives and fighting an eternal war with werewolves. That is hardly a description of “Assassin’s Creed,” and the characters of Jacob and Evie are nothing like Gallahad and the characters of “The Order.” So even if it hadn’t been Jason’s score, I doubt there would have been much difficulty separating the two in my mind. And as a side note, I think Jason did a spectacular job and I was absolutely thrilled to work with him on those early phases of crafting the themes.
MM: From where did you find inspiration for the songs?
AW: The songs were co-composed with three of the most masterful songwriters I have ever known. They are collectively called Tripod, and their names are Simon Hall, Steven Gates, and Scott Edgar. We had previously done a giant collaboration together with the Melbourne Symphony called “This Gaming Life.” And I was desperate to keep working with them. By good luck, that ended right as I was starting on “Assassin’s Creed.” Remember how I mentioned all the source music in-game? The six songs, which we call the murder ballads, were actually written to blend in with those other 19th century folk songs and hymn tunes and were recorded on a variety of instruments and by various singers and sung throughout the game as if they were from that era. They are the work of some “anonymous Victorian London composer” who is writing tunes about the events going on in the city.
Originally, the idea was to work with Tripod just to write the lyrics, but being the brilliant songwriters that they were, they started sending me ideas for melodies and things like that, and we started kicking things back and forth very quickly, and we ended up with six songs that are a real nice blend of their strengths and mine. But frankly, they could have done the entire thing without me because they are true geniuses. And one of the songs in particular I actually didn’t even touch. They wrote it entirely themselves, and when I heard it I said, “This is perfection. I wouldn’t dare change a thing.” That one’s called “Jokes, Jokes Jokes,” and it’s heard towards the end of the game.
MM: There’s a gut-wrenching track on the score called “For Those We Loved,” which has a strong memorial tone. How did this piece come together so perfectly? Do you ever find composing some cues to be “too real” for the gaming world, or is it simply an added bonus of the experience?
AW: It is absolutely astounding to me that you tapped into this is the way that you did. That piece was written on the morning of June 9th, 2015, and it was the first piece of music that I wrote following the death of one of my closest friends, the previous day. She had been struggling with cancer for several years and I had known as I got started on “Assassin’s Creed” that very likely she wouldn’t make it until the end. She held on a long time, but when it finally came, I still had more writing to do. I took that day off but then the next morning I sat down at my desk and I wrote that piece.
It’s one of the few truly linear pieces that exist in “Syndicate.” And it’s definitely a piece of mourning. It is not me trying to capture her musically, which instead be very celebratory by nature; it’s where my head was, and my heart was, that next morning. Fortunately I was able to keep it within the aesthetic of the score, otherwise it would never have made the cut in the game. It would have been too different, even if it were cathartic to have written.
I was actually worried that it would be too heavy, and when I sent it to Ubisoft, I was relieved that they really responded to it. The piece also inevitably was drawing from the fact that I lost my father right as I started the project, as well. Both of these personal losses informed the entire score, but a lot of it got channeled into that specific piece of music.
It really means a lot to me that you somehow realized that, because you never know how people will interpret your writing. All I can say is it was a very personal experience, and the act of writing it and subsequently recording it was one which made me feel very vulnerable.
Whether I think things are too real or not, I definitely don’t think so. Games, and indeed all art, benefit from being more and more closely aligned with our life experiences. So in a sense, even though I struggled and continue to struggle with the losses I have endured during the year, I think the music probably benefited because it made me go to an even more personal place. I don’t think there’s ever a time that you can be “too real.”
Keep up with Austin Wintory at Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, and his official website.
Ubisoft Music’s “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” soundtrack is available at iTunes and Amazon Digital.
“Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” is currently available at Amazon for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.