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We chat with video game composer Austin Wintory about his latest project, a re-orchestrated version of the Journey soundtrack called Traveler - A Journey Symphony.

Chris Kerr, News Editor

March 14, 2022

8 Min Read

What would it be like to experience something for the first time all over again? If you had the chance, what would you revisit? Your favourite novel. A formative album. A classic movie. Or perhaps a video game that continues to resonate after all these years?

I'd wager it's a question most people will have asked themselves on occasion, as they wonder why that particular thing at that particular moment took root. It's also a question that guided composer Austin Wintory as he sought to reimagine his fabled Journey score in celebration of the acclaimed title's 10th anniversary.

During a recent chat, Wintory tells me he was already toying with the notion of doing something for Journey's 10th birthday when a stray tweet dropped into his timeline. The sender explained they'd leap at the chance to experience Journey with fresh eyes once again, and it was that sentiment -- that compelling notion of stepping back in time and being able to relive a fundamental moment in our lives -- that became the beating heart of Traveler - A Journey Symphony.

Wintory had already begun reimagining the Journey soundtrack when that tweet dropped into view, but says he wasn't satisfied with his work so far. There was a nagging question at the back of the composer's mind: "why am I doing this?" There's an old adage that tells us "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," so what was the point in meddling with a score that players around the world have already taken into their hearts?

"This tweet showed up at the exact right moment where I was still early enough in the charts that I had the chance to focus my thinking, and it reminded me there are people who have this idea about how wonderful it'd be to experience something for the first time again," says Wintory. "And I was like, I think that's the point of this.

"Theoretically, if this is the first time you ever hear anything associated with Journey, hopefully you'll go 'this is nice.' But setting that aside, if I think of the core audience of people who have been so loving and supportive of the original score, this will hopefully give them a chance to hear it for the first time again. It's very loyal to Journey, but it goes places that I absolutely did not go originally. It's a noticeably different palette of instruments -- just far broader and far larger."

Still, even with the best will in the world, striking the balance between old and new was a tightrope act. Although Wintory wanted Traveler to tell the same beloved yarn from a fresh perspective, there were times when he took the iterative process past breaking point.

"I definitely pushed it too far," he tells me, pointing to his early efforts to rework a track called 'Road of Trials.' In-game, the track engulfs players as they surf down a meandering dune trail, weaving throughout ruins and gathering momentum as they pelt towards the golden horizon. It's a moment that anyone who's played Journey will be familiar with, and Wintory explains that when he originally wrote the score, game director Jenova Chen wanted him to create a track that would represent our teenage years.

If Journey is metaphor for life, this is the moment players would start coming into their own, building momentum as they paint trails across the sands. But with that newfound sense of freedom comes an increasing awareness of the world around you. An acceptance that, very soon, the decisions you make will start to shape a legacy of your own.

"That level of the game really captures the spirit of that idea, where you get those glimpses of adult feelings, and it's a portent of where the game is going to go later -- because the next thing that happens is you end up in a cave where things turn dangerous or threatening," says Wintory.

"I felt the music always had to be primarily about the fun and joyousness of exploration and the empowerment of, you know, I've made it through the desert and now I can let loose. Again, as people come into their bodies as a teenager and start to really feel more athletic or empowered, it was supposed to reflect all of those natural rites of passage. So the result is something very musically showy.

"When it came to revisit that piece alongside the 91 piece London Symphony Orchestra -- once again with Tina Guo, who's 10 years more advanced as a musician -- and a 32 voice choir, that piece, particularly my first draft, I definitely got carried away. It was just such a firework show for the orchestra. It would have been amazing fun to record, but I took a step back and realised this is fundamentally not Journey. It had those notes and you could see the heritage, but I had to reel it in and find ways to make it feel loyal to the original score."

Intrigued by how Wintory knew almost immediately he'd overstepped the mark, I ask the composer what he believes Journey's essence to be. He suggests Journey is fundamentally a meditative title. An introspective experience that resonates because it's grounded in the anonymity of inhabiting a character that only communicates in a foreign tongue (in this instance chirps and whistles) and has no discernible age, gender, or outright human traits. It becomes a cathartic vessel for whatever we're experiencing at that point in our lives.

"One of the recurring things that really caught me by surprise, which I didn't even think about while we were in development, was when you connect online and people would project some loved one or whatever onto a random stranger," recalls Wintory. "And so what that allows for is a kind of meditation on life and our role relative to our place relative to our surroundings, and how we connect with other people. It's not an externalized 'can I save the world?' adventure."

As we talk, it’s clear Wintory has become a more assured composer over the years. I ask if he perceived the musical process slightly differently a decade on, and whether the changes he's experienced on a professional and personal level affected his reinterpretation of Journey's evergreen score. The maestro, who since working on Journey has scored multiple projects including Assassin's Creed Syndicate and The Banner Saga, concedes there are certain elements in Traveler that might've proved too difficult all of those years ago. As he puts it, he "might not have stuck the landing" back then.

Unlike the original score, for instance, which was created for use in-game, Traveler is its own entity. As beautiful as they are, Wintory's re-orchestrated melodies won't cross the same digital divide, allowing him to condense the original score's 18 tracks into a more concise 10 – which feels rather appropriate, given the anniversary it's commemorating.

"The [original] score was always conceived of as an interactive piece, and then I had to figure out how to turn it into an album that plays in tracks and reassemble all of those bits into something linear," says Wintory. "Those 18 tracks are the more canonical version of it than the actual [in-game] score, because that's what people listen to regularly. So I used those as my starting point more than the original score.

"The entire thing has gone through this multi-generational evolution as a result, where I actually found ways to say 'okay, what tracks can I get rid of and what can I combine?' So those 18 tracks became 10 tracks, and although it's about the same total amount of music, I got rid of stuff that I thought had served its purpose and was fine in-game or in the album but was superfluous here. I got rid of it, and it allowed me to help other sections expand and breathe. I could let a little melody -- that before just came and went -- develop and explore its own identity before returning to the general procession of everything around it."

Wintory explains that a decade ago he might've "got lost" in that process, but was now more capable of translating the abstract idea spilling out of his head onto the page. He adds that separating Traveler from the game allowed him to go a different way, noting how when retooling Apotheosis -- the track that accompanies the game's soaring, bittersweet finale -- he had the courage and command to veer away from the original and "do things purely for their own sake," allowing Traveler to morph in ways that might not have worked in-game.

Having listened to Traveler ahead of its release, it seems only fair to say that Wintory appears to have succeeded in his task of reframing and reinvigorating the score a decade on. The retooled record feels both immediately familiar and undeniably fresh -- a warm, nuanced, and stirring retelling of the story that whisked us away all those years ago.

As we wrap up, Wintory explains the one fear he had throughout the entire process was ensuring the whole album came from a place of gratitude to the thousands (or, whisper it, millions) of people that have "basically enabled every single thing about how I put food on the table." Traveler is both a retelling of a video game classic, and a warm letter of gratitude to those players who allowed Wintory to pursue a story of his own making.

"The kinds of opportunities I'm given to create new work all stem to the leaping point that was Journey," he explains. "So this project was primarily motivated by a desire to give that group of people something new to hopefully enjoy. My big fear is that somehow that message gets lost."

Traveler - A Journey Symphony is now available on Bandcamp, adorned with album artwork from Angela Bermudez.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Kerr

News Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr is an award-winning journalist and reporter with over a decade of experience in the game industry. His byline has appeared in notable print and digital publications including Edge, Stuff, Wireframe, International Business Times, and PocketGamer.biz. Throughout his career, Chris has covered major industry events including GDC, PAX Australia, Gamescom, Paris Games Week, and Develop Brighton. He has featured on the judging panel at The Develop Star Awards on multiple occasions and appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss breaking news.

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