Rock The Spacebar is a twice-monthly column investigating the great music that underpins your favourite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt talks to composer Austin Wintory about why – after 10 years of Journey – the composer is ‘visiting with an old friend’ and giving us all the chance to reconnect with a watermark moment in the gaming artform.
Very shortly after Journey was released, there was a story that did the rounds at Sony and thatgamecompany – publisher and developer of Journey, respectively. Someone that worked in the games industry had emailed the team, telling the companies that he had lost his father a year or so before Journey had launched. The man had rejected a call from his father in order to get some work done one night, and that same night his father passed away.
Over the course of the next year, the man couldn’t shake the guilt of that night and fell into a depressive spiral. The grieving process stalled. Whilst playing Journey – a wordless adventure game where you may, or may not, meet other players as you are drawn inexorably to a distant mountain – the man encountered one single other player. A player that would change his life.
“So he was in that place emotionally, and he played the game, and he managed to stick with one player the whole time,” the game’s composer, Austin Wintory, tells me in an interview on the game’s 10th anniversary. “For him, the emotional momentum just kept gaining and gaining, and then he made it to the finale and in the excitement of it all… he lost track of this other player, this guide and companion.”
The finale – paired with a Wintory piece called Apotheosis – is an evocative climax that sees the player ascend to the mountaintop after a laborious trek through myriad trials, undulating between hills and valleys before settling at this one, singular destination you’ve been able to see from the very beginning of the game. Cellos, violas, harps and choral elements dance with each other. Wintory weaves a slower version of Journey’s main theme – something you’ve heard multiple times in the game at this point – alongside a more urgent call to action, thrumming you onwards, upwards. It’s catharsis in your hands as you clutch your PlayStation pad.
“As he landed at the mouth of the summit,” Wintory continues, “the other player was standing there. Waiting. And then they go through the final act together. The guy that wrote in to us says, in that moment, he felt this weight being lifted off his shoulders – that the thing that had bothered him was that he had never been able to say goodbye, and in playing this game had inadvertently, subconsciously, projected that onto this other player. He came out of this experience feeling different. That experience – something that real and the personal – is orders of magnitude beyond anything any of us could have hoped for when making Journey.”
Journey is a game about life, death, and rebirth. Named after (and explicitly following) the hero’s journey theory of narrative per Joseph Campbell, the game is a not-so-subtle observation on human life and the connections we allow in, dance around, and disconnect from. It is a mute game that has spoken to thousands of people around the world – if not millions, at this point. The game’s testers cried when they were debugging it in development. And it was the first game – ever – to have its music nominated for a Grammy. Journey’s significance comes in personal, global, industrial flavours. But you’d never know that, talking to Wintory – perhaps one of the most humble artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of chatting to.
“I saw an interview with Jeff Bridges a couple of years ago, a career retrospective,” reflects Wintory. “The interviewer asked him how he feels that – despite winning an Oscar, and being associated with so many iconic movies – he will forever be The Dude from The Big Lebowski. ‘What an honour,’ he goes. ‘The idea that I might be outlived by The Dude, and that some day when I’m gone The Dude will carry me forward because that role found its place.’”
You know what they say: The Dude Abides. It’s telling that this interview sticks with Wintory – he’s had the pleasure of taking Journey around the world, even as he’s been working on new music, and there’s no trace of bitterness or sense that Journey overshadows his legacy in a negative way. No, he embraces it. He calls it a game that has shaped his career, that was instrumental in making him one of the most recognisable names in games. “It’s an old friend that you never get tired of visiting with,” he notes at one point.
A few times during our chat, the composer remarked about how Journey nearly didn’t make it, that there were a multitude of near-misses that could have kept the game from finding a wider audience. It took two years longer to make than Sony wanted, the development team struggled paring down ideas to fit the scope of the project, and there was always a question about funding hanging over the studio.
But it did happen. Journey did launch. And to critical and commercial success. It launched Wintory’s career into the stratosphere, and thatgamecompany became the darling of the art game world. Ask anyone if they’ve played Journey and they’ll rave about their wordless connections with other players, the way unspoken relationships lived and died in the sand and snow, and the incredible music that held their hands through every step of this literal and metaphorical expedition into the heart of the human experience.
Wintory’s score – which was explicitly designed to be a “profoundly cathartic and emotional experience,” per creative director Jenova Chen – is built around a few essential pillars that players unassumingly control. You are represented by the cello, a main part of the arrangement used to dial in on you in moments of agency and introspection. Orchestral swells and strings are used to suggest there’s something bigger out there, and often accompany glimpses of that eternal, imposing peak you’re magnetically drawn to. Harps and violas represent other players you may meet on your journey – elements of the score you can miss entirely if you play offline, or at the wrong time of day, or if you’re just unlucky.
“The thing I love above all about writing music for games is making music where the player feels like a real meaningful co-author of the experience,” says Wintory. “And that they feel like they are shaping what they hear, that they aren’t just being subjected to it in the way they are in music, or films, or even performances: they are actively helping figure out how everything unfurls for them. It’s an art form that has no real equivalent, anywhere else.”
It might seem odd, then, that for the game’s 10th anniversary, Wintory has “re-orchestrated” and “re-imagined” the Journey score with Traveler. Unlike its decade-old counterpart, Traveler is not paired with an interactive experience, and you – as a player or listener – cannot control the elements you can hear. Wintory, the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Voice choir, cellist Tina Guo and a host of guest musicians have revisited Journey to walk in its footsteps again. This time, though, you’re not controlling where they’re going.
So why go back? “Ultimately, I wanted to come back to this soundtrack because I want to make something new enough that it sounds like you’re listening to it for the first time,” Wintory says. “And the motivation for that is because one of the recurring messages I have gotten over the past decade is from people saying Journey is their favourite game of all time, and that they wish they could go back and experience it for the first time and experience it again as if they’ve never played it.
“I have no ability to neuralyze people, Men In Black-style, and give them that experience. But if I go and I take the score and I reimagine it as this grand symphonic piece… may be able to approximate that for them”
Wintory is onto something. Whilst writing our chat up, I was listening to Traveler and it tickles something in your cortex; evoking curious first steps on sandy dunes, howling winds in ancient chasms, life-affirming flits on mountain summits.
“You’ve never heard Journey this way – this version, this precise succession of notes, played this way. Maybe it’ll sneak into your head that you’ve experienced it for the first time. That’s my fantasy.”
Journey is life-changing. For thousands of people around the world, for a man struggling with his grief, and for Wintory himself. Artform-defining, career-defining, and affirming all at once, it’s the sort of project you don’t get to see come around very often.
It’s clear from the way Wintory speaks about the game that Journey has left as much an indelible imprint on him as it has on anyone that’s put down the pad after reaching the mountaintop and sat with their thoughts for seconds, minutes, hours afterwards.
Coming back to it, after 10 years, feels right. Inevitable. After all, Journey is a game about life, death, and rebirth. And, per Joseph Campbell, going back around for another go is all part of the journey.
‘Traveler: A Journey Symphony’ is available now on Bandcamp and streaming services. iam8bit is repressing the Journey soundtrack on 180-gram audiophile black vinyl, and pre-orders are now live. Journey is currently on sale for 50 per cent off on both Steam and the Epic Games Store.