Interview with flOw composer Austin Wintory
One of the most innovative casual games of 2006, flOw, is breathtaking both as a game and as a work of art. The concept, the environment, the gameplay, and of course the music all come together to create an atmosphere that feels immeasurably deep to the senses. I recently had the chance to speak with Austin Wintory, the musical mastermind behind flOw, and got to take a behind-the-scenes peek at the creative process underlying the sounds in the game. Austin is a prolific composer who has worked on a number of great projects, including flOw and the upcoming PS3 version of the game.
How did you get involved in the flOw project?
Back in the spring of '06 I got in touch with Jenova Chen, who was at the time finishing up his MFA at USC. He instantly struck me as someone with incredible vision for the gaming experience. FlOw was to be his thesis, based on his own research on the psychology of gaming. He asked what I envisioned for the game, so of course I was eager to play for him all my orchestral demos. He liked them, but from the very beginning was saying, "this is going to be a totally different aural experience, and I need a composer who can really create a hybrid of music and sound design." I had never done anything like that, so it was a great collaborative experience finding the sound of the game.
FlOw's music is breathtaking and creates a deep, vivid atmosphere within the game. What was your design process in creating the music? It sounds and feels so simple on the surface, was this a purposeful design or did it just work out that way?
Well I'm glad to hear you say that, because elegant simplicity was definitely what I felt Jenova was creating, but musically it posed quite a challenge. We sought something atmospheric and electronic, but not in the stark, soundscape sort of way. Something warm and organic, as if a symphony of instruments never before played on Earth. That sounds horribly pretentious, but that was sort of our guide. What resulted was a combination of literally hundreds of small audio files being triggered by the player interactions, and a steady background track. My very first demo for the music is actually what stuck, but where we did lots of experimentation was in those small sounds. All sorts of different programming structures were played with, and so what you hear is the result of lots of trial and error.
What emotions or aesthetics were your goals when composing the music for flOw? How did you want the player to feel when playing the game?
‘Relaxing' was a word which came up a lot. But more than that we were really looking to create a whole world unto itself. The interface is so simple, as are the graphics, so we really wanted a musically simple world to accompany it. I created hundreds of sounds and modified my existing sound libraries to no end, but tried to be as subtle about it as possible. As you progress deeper into the game it gets darker. For the PS3 version it's somewhat of a different story. Relaxing was paramount, but each campaign of the game has a very different take on it. Some are more oriented towards being fun and light, others darker, some mysterious, etc.
Did you approach both versions of the game (Flash and PS3) the same?
Well, the Flash version is essentially at this point a playable demo of the PS3 version, giving you a snippet of the first part of the game. So I approached the first campaign almost identically, looking to be faithful to my own work, but make it better and cleaner. For the subsequent campaigns it was totally unexplored territory. There's even one campaign with a very strong jazz influence, put through the filter of the FlOw aesthetic. It was a very hard sound to really nail, but especially with the constant feedback of our producer Kellee I think it came off beautifully.
Artists almost always have their methods for working in their craft. How would you describe your general process for creating a new score? Any strong inspirations?
My process in working on a project varies pretty considerably depending on the type of project. FlOw is quite unlike any game I've ever worked on, and will probably stand alone for years to come. Here the process was very collaborative, with a lot of feedback from Jenova, Kellee and the rest of the team throughout. For films I tend to have lots of meetings with the director and producers at the beginning, then write in relative isolation for a while, then open up the doors and try to very collaboratively finish the rest. The only time I ever feel I really need to be alone is when developing the very first ideas, but from then on I love the constant feedback from the team.
My inspirations are a pretty wide gamut. The one composer that seems to always have the answer for me is Bela Bartok, especially when it comes to writing for orchestra. But I'm also a huge admirer of John Corigliano and Eliot Goldenthal. Of course where would we be without Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams? Among game composers I love the old LucasArts team like Mike Land, Peter McConnell, etc. “Grim Fandango” was always a personal favorite.
Video game music doesn't normally offer the same level of recognition as composing for other mediums. What's your stance on video game music, it's current status and where it might go in the future?
Well game music is on its way to the top. Just look at what Tommy Tallarico's been able to do with Video Games Live in just a couple years! I was there this last fall and there couldn't have been fewer than 15,000 people at the LA concert.
I think game music is still finding its footing as an original medium. It took film composers a good forty years to begin writing for film in a way that made it apparent it was film music, and not a ballet or opera score. It needed to be cultivated as its own art form. Game music, I think, is still searching for that. But if ever there was a medium for music to really be unique, it's game music, if only for the element of interactivity. I think FlOw actually represents a great example of that, and that's what made it such a fun challenge. Where will game music go in the future? I don't know but we've had a few decades of pretty strong writing so far so it can only get better as games get better. Especially now that recording with live orchestras is becoming a totally normal thing.
Do you find it a greater challenge composing music for a game as opposed to film or other media?
More likely I'd say it's just a different challenge. Films, TV and whatnot all pose their own problems. The approach is just different. For example, in films you may have to find a way to synchronize with a dozen on-screen events over the course of a single piece of music, but in a game you have to make a sixty-second loop which doesn't get annoying after a few dozen listenings. Quite different from each other but I'd say equally challenging, and stimulating!
Would you consider working on game-related projects in the future?
Are you kidding?! I can't get enough! It's a wonderful experience and I've felt very blessed to work with such great people like Kellee and Jenova and all the other TGC people. Not to mention the great staff at Sony who lent a hand as well. Right now I'm actually in some preliminary negotiations for other games. Nothing I can comment on, but there's more to come!
What piece of music (any medium) do you wish you had composed? Any dream projects you'd love to work on?
My ultimate dream collaborator is writer/director Joss Whedon. I bet he would helm the most kickass game ever, but even if we were able to work together on a film or TV show I'd be in heaven I think. Maybe someone can talk him into a MMOG “Firefly” or something …
Otherwise I can only say that it's hard to dream about glory projects when I feel so lucky with the ones I've worked on. While completing FlOw I had the pleasure to orchestrate a score for a friend where we hired an 82-piece orchestra to record with, while simultaneously writing my own score to a feature film. Full plate but I'm loving every second of it!
We would like to extend a big thanks to Austin Wintory for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with us! For more info on his work or to listen to demo tracks and sound samples, visit Austin's website. Also check out our review of flOw along with the official website.