Composer Austin Wintory behind ABZÛ
author EFG team | April 22, 2017
Award-winning and critically acclaimed video game composer, Austin Wintory, shares his compositional process and gives us insight into the audio of ABZÛ.

I’m Austin Wintory and I’m professionally curious about music.



The Early Days

I’ve been a gamer my entire life. Started on NES with all the standards, later a Genesis / SegaCD fanatic and avid PC gamer. The PC games, in particular, are what stole my heart as a kid: the entire LucasArts adventure and Star Wars catalog (particularly GRIM FANDANGO and X-WING ALLIANCE). But I played bits of everything. It was inevitable my love of music and games collided professionally.


Studio Set-up

It’s pretty simple; I run Digital Performer on a MacPro and have a variety of PC servers slaved to it hosting sample libraries, synths, etc.


What are your favorite go-to instruments and what determines your instrumentation of choice?

I honestly can’t say that I have a single preferred instrument or family, though I do try to move around and not repeat myself. I’d say the game itself, and the creative direction from its makers, tend to be my source of inspiration on the actual choice of instrumentation. I try to make sure there’s some organic natural byproduct of whatever story the game is trying to tell and experience it’s trying to create. I don’t come in with preconceived notions of anything, except the desire to do something I haven’t done before.


What is your composition process like and how often do you revise your scores?

My process tends to vary a lot from project to project, and that’s very much by design so each score ends up in its own unique sound world. Or at least as much as possible. Sometimes I sketch a lot of ideas early in the process and then send very refined ideas to the developer. Sometimes we start from the ground up together, and sometimes it involves improvisation. Sometimes I spend a long time avoiding writing and just thinking. It’s different every time and based on the natural parameters of the project itself, and especially as a function of things like the schedule. Regarding revision, though, I constantly revise everything both because I love getting feedback from my collaborators and because I’m such a harsh critic of my own writing. I’m never really fully satisfied with it!


I’m trying to evoke from the listener whatever is most fitting to the game experience or film experience or whatever. I don’t have some broad definition for what this should be as it varies each time and that’s part of the joy of this job. The challenge is something new and fresh each time out of a gate.


Each composer has their own distinct style that cannot be mirrored by other composers. What makes your arrangements unique?

Ultimately, it’s difficult for composers to turn a mirror on themselves and answer this question. I know there are things that I do that come naturally to me and are as proprietary to me as the sound of my voice or color of my eyes or anything else. It’s simply part of who I am, but I don’t go out of my way to repeat myself each time. As a result, I don’t define my style based on gimmicks or gestures. I think style is defined more deeply than that and is probably best left analyzed by someone else.




Tell us about your ‘journey’ with Giant Squid Studios and the development of ABZÛ.

It’s hard to give a short answer to this but basically right after JOURNEY came out, I began conversations with Matt Nava about ABZÛ. Matt had been the art director on JOURNEY and left thatgamecompany to start his own studio called Giant Squid. So I started sketching very early while the game was in a primordial state and then from there we went upwards and onwards for three years of continuous development.


Were you given any source of information (concept art, character designs, environment designs) to help inspire the process of composing for the game?

Definitely yes to all of the above and of course, once there was anything remotely resembling a playable build, I began playing it and would regularly visit the studio and have conversations with the team, and discussions, of what new things they were working on and what changes were to come. What’s more, we would playtest with the music mocked up in the game and sometimes make changes to both music or gameplay itself based on how we felt from those experiences.


ABZÛ, takes place entirely underwater and the score perfectly encapsulates the ambiance by having an emphasis on harps, chamber choir and the remarkable use of the oboe. What were the specific techniques required when composing for ABZÛ? Describe how you made your choice for this arrangement.

I wish I had a particularly intellectual answer to this, but honestly, I just reacted to what seemed right. Much of it is instinctive, and I love harps as an ensemble because, harp, like piano or other more percussive instruments, has a very short attack and very fast decay. So the only way to create a continuous harp sound is for them to roll continuously. If you have seven of them, the continuous rolling is in effect hundreds and hundreds of notes and is the sonic equivalent of a swarm of bees or even a school of fish. I wasn’t trying to make a literal correlation to a school of fish, but I did love you could have a gentle and beautiful musical gesture that was actually very busy. It was intrinsically appealing to me and meshed with ABZÛ and the world being created.


How much creative control were you given to compose scores for ABZÛ?

I had enormous creative freedom. Obviously, I worked in collaboration with the team, particularly with Matt and Steve Green, but I ultimately was given quite a lot of sovereignty if I felt strongly about a musical choice and they would listen. When it came to production and how to properly budget for the score they pretty much trusted me outright.


Do you ‘doodle’ or play around with different arrangements or melodies when composing music for ABZÛ?

Definitely yes, but this is a byproduct of your question about revision. I sometimes develop 30-40 minutes worth of ideas to get a single five-minute section. So I sketched quite a lot of music.


Were there scores you wrote for ABZÛ that didn’t make the cut?

Definitely yes. I wrote massive amounts of material that ultimately I didn’t feel was right and tossed it.


How do you contrast the moods between the right tempo of an intense moment or an emotional moment in the game?

This is simply a matter of learning the techniques of composing itself. Certain tempos suggest certain things, as do certain instrumental colors and harmonic vocabularies. So the question is always what’s the exact mood we’re trying to create? Then I explore things I think achieve that. The game goes through a succession of ideas in a moment-by-moment sort of way. As one specific example, there’s an area of the game that recurs where you find yourself in a kind of circular area around a portal you can swim into, and that takes you into a kind of dream-like alternate universe or spirit world of some kind. The areas around the portals tend to be devoid of life until you interact and return, in which case they flood with fish and kelp and corral and things like that. One idea Matt had I liked was making it feel like a temple or cathedral, so the music has an intentional, subtle ecclesiastical quality in those areas to suggest a temple-like space.




What part of the process in creating the score for ABZÛ was the most fun for you?

The whole thing is wonderful. It’s a great team to work with, and I had a spectacular time recording the various components of the score in London and Nashville, so I can’t play favorites with any part of it.


How do you inspire and challenge yourself on the first day to the last day of composing for ABZÛ during its development?

There is not much difficulty because the game itself is both an inspiration and a challenge. In this particular case, I had some personal situations that made work on the game challenging, but only because it taxed my schedule. Overall, the game challenges me to push for myself to be better and explore new solutions to new musical problems. And of course, it’s inspiring in those determinations to find those solutions. So the game itself is always king.


In your opinion, what are the most important skills for a game composer to have?

I think openness to the ideas in the game and the ideas of the developer, a willingness to explore musical possibilities and to push beyond the conventions of a given genre. There’s a lot of backward looking nostalgia in the world of games right now and sometimes I fear the industry getting stagnant even while it’s still in its infancy, so I think we need to be conscientious about not letting nostalgia hobble us. Also, I think it’s  important composers actually play games, so being a skilled gamer is a pretty good skill to have! A fluency within the given genre conventions, in other words.


What are the limitations you face as a musician and composer? Do you ever reach a point where you hit a ‘creative-block’ and how would you overcome it?

We all have limitations although it’s hard to define them because often the lack of awareness of a limitation is what makes it a limitation. As for creative block, I tend to be an elbow grease composer; I find writing music itself is not hard but it’s writing the right music is hard, so I work to push myself and keep turning out material in the hopes the right music is in there somewhere. As a result, I don’t have writer’s block.


Of all the games you’ve worked on, what is the score that you feel proud of? Is there any score that strikes you as your best creation?

Sorry, I can’t answer this one. Each project has its strengths and weaknesses, and I think I learned and grew from all of them. I can’t name a favorite. Obviously, JOURNEY struck the biggest chord with people, but I don’t hold it above any other score I’ve done. I try my best each time, and sometimes I do better than other times, but I can’t exactly choose a favorite child.


Favorite Scores and Composers

One score that has always had a near and dear place in my heart is Peter McConnell’s score to GRIM FANDANGO. Recently I’ve found myself listening, just for pure pleasure and beyond professional admiration to, Jessica Curry’s EVERYBODY’S GONE TO THE RAPTURE. Some of my other favorite composer colleagues include Jason Graves and Darren Korb, both of them consistently write works I enjoy enormously.


What are some of your favorite games and why are they considered your favorites?

GRIM FANDANGO will forever sit at the top of my list because it was such incredibly immaculate story telling and such a beautifully stylized and original setting. Plus how many games are comedies?? It’s quite rare.


Is there anything on the horizon in gaming that excites you as a composer or gamer?

The entire horizon for games is exciting. Whether you’re talking about VR or just the continued innovation in storytelling techniques, there is a lot to look forward to. From HER STORY to INSIDE it seems that people challenged the status quo on how to tell a story and craft an experience in-game. I’m continuously blown away by the new ideas.


What’s next for you?

I reunited with my dear friend Andy Schatz, who created the game MONACO, for our next collaboration called TOOTH AND TALE. The other things I have cooking I’m afraid I’m not allowed to talk about yet.


What advice or strategies would you give to those trying to establish themselves as game composers?

My best advice beyond what I said before about one’s skills and openness as a composer, is to develop your ideas into something that’s scary and then don’t be afraid to be divisive about them. It’s good to have opinions that might turn people off because it will also turn people on, and you won’t disappear anonymously in the crowd.


We’d like to thank Austin Wintory for giving us the opportunity to talk about his compositional background and the games he has worked on.