How Austin Wintory brought 'Journey Live' to life

Composing Journey's score took Austin Wintory's career to new heights. Now he's looking to give something back to the fans.

Nearly four years have passed since thatgamecompany released Journey into the world, forever changing the life of its composer, Austin Wintory. He describes the beloved adventure game as a "dream project to work on," and he remains overwhelmed by the love it continues to get to this day. But there's another dream he's always had about Journey that is only now poised to come to fruition.

Last month, the Chicago-based chamber music group Fifth House Ensemble launched a Kickstarter campaign for "Journey Live," which Fifth House characterizes as a "fully interactive live performance" of Journey alongside Wintory's Grammy-nominated score. Fifth House and Wintory have been planning the project for more than a year, but it's been kicking around in Wintory's head for much longer.

The concept of "Journey Live" seems simple — sync up a group of musicians playing the Journey score with a person playing the game — but the nature of Journey's design makes such a performance a complicated proposition with many moving parts. Luckily for Wintory, he hooked up with the talented, dedicated people at Fifth House.

Working on a dream

Journey is a video game about human social interaction, yet it is a wordless experience. It is best played cooperatively, but it does not allow players to speak with text or voice; they can communicate only by chirping at each other. The entire game takes place in a forgotten, deserted world whose massive scale makes the player feel small. Its stunning art direction envelops the player in that world with stone monoliths; a mix of Eastern and Western architecture; waterfalls of sand; and runes of a long-dead language.

For those reasons and more, "Journey Live" is a "long-running-fantasy-turned-actual-project" for Wintory, he said over Skype.

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Austin Wintory

"Even before finishing Journey, I had been fascinated at the prospect of performing it on stage, because the game seemed to lend itself so well to that," said Wintory. He also pointed out that Journey is a "concert-length" experience, having been designed to be completed in two hours or so.

But as a working composer who's always juggling multiple projects across concert music, films and video games, Wintory was never going to have the free time to work on something as complex and labor-intensive as bringing Journey to the stage. It was actually a chance encounter online that opened up the possibility: Wintory came to know Dan Visconti, the in-house composer for Fifth House, through Visconti's favorable review of Journey and its score for a music publication.

"I remember Dan saying to me at a certain point, 'I need you to play this game.' And I'm not a person who plays a lot of games," said Melissa Snoza, executive director and flutist at Fifth House, in a Skype interview. "I was in tears, like, three times over the course of the game on first playing."

Fifth House was aware of Journey's performance history, such as in the touring concert Video Games Live. So the group wanted to try something special: performing Wintory's score to a live playthrough of the game. In the musicians' discussions with Wintory, he told them he'd love to be involved as long as they could handle the bulk of the grunt work inherent in the project. And that got the ball rolling on what would become "Journey Live."

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Planning the performance

"Journey Live" will consist of a person playing Journey on stage while a slightly expanded Fifth House Ensemble responds in real time to whatever the player is doing — the same way Wintory designed his in-game score to adapt to the player. That's very different from merely performing the soundtrack as footage of the game plays on a screen, which is the kind of thing Video Games Live does so well.

A few different people will play Journey during each performance. Snoza's husband, Eric Snoza, who is Fifth House's programs manager and plays double bass in the ensemble, said that the group won't give the players any direction other than telling them to pass the controller back and forth between levels.

"I think that what's going to be unique for them is that they're going to discover that they're actually an instrumentalist within the chamber ensemble," he said.

"we are trying to leave it really open to the player to guide us"

Those people won't be playing the standard game. Journey publisher Sony Computer Entertainment helped out Fifth House by arranging for Tricky Pixels, the U.K.-based studio that ported Journey to PlayStation 4, to build a version of the game with the music stripped out. That way, the "Journey Live" audience will be able to experience the game's audio as it was intended — with intact sound effects like chirps and the wind, all backed by Fifth House's performance of the score.

Melissa Snoza said that while Fifth House doesn't usually perform with a conductor, the group will do so for "Journey Live" because a conductor is essentially necessary to serve as the "traffic controller between what happens on the screen and what we do." (The screen will be behind the musicians.) Another vital element is ForScore, music reading software that the group will use on iPads to allow the conductor to keep the musicians in lockstep. The goal, she said, is to make the live performance "a very seamless experience, mirroring what would happen in real gameplay as much as possible."

"It's an enormous challenge that, to my knowledge, has never really quite been done before," said Wintory. "Because we are trying to leave it really open to the player to guide us, and to guide the music as a result."

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The Fifth House Ensemble

A musical journey

Aside from working out the logistics of the performance, Fifth House had to get the music arranged into a form that the group could perform along with a Journey player.

"The way I wrote the score originally, you can't just hit print and have the music of the whole game," Wintory said. "It was far too granular."

The music in Journey is an "adaptive score," which means that it changes depending on the situation and the player's actions. Sony released a soundtrack album for the game that is a faithful arrangement by Wintory of the original score, but it can't replicate the experience of hearing the music as you play. Wintory described the soundtrack as "a re-creation in a linear way of that which was created to be completely nonlinear."

The music changes depending on the situation and the player's actions

In addition to putting the score into chunks that live performers could reasonably flit between, an arranger would have to scale the music to a completely different level of instrumentation. Journey's score was recorded with a full string orchestra, and much of the music is electronic. Fifth House will perform "Journey Live" with just 13 musicians, and the synthesizers in the original score had to be translated for the group's acoustic instruments.

Fifth House had someone in mind for the herculean task of rearranging Journey's score, a composer named Patrick O'Malley, and Wintory said O'Malley "has proved to be exactly the right guy." Wintory gave his full blessing to O'Malley, telling him not to feel "slavishly bound" to the original composition, and worked with him on the project.

O'Malley's arrangement isn't the end product, however. Fifth House has begun practicing the music, and Wintory explained that the rehearsal process will surely lead to additional changes: "The notes on the page are not the final story, by any stretch."

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Austin Wintory explains Journey's incredibly adaptive score

To grasp the unique challenges of performing Journey's score alongside a live playthrough of the game, it's instructive to understand just how much the music can differ depending on the player's actions. As an example, Wintory explained the possible variance in the opening of Journey's third chapter. It's an open desert of pink sand dunes, with a mountain looming far in the distance:

When you first enter the area, the music comes in, and there's a long solo for a bass flute. If you do nothing, the solo will play out and then stop, and then this bed of electronic, sort of, waves of color — which had been accompanying the flute — will continue to play, but the flute will be gone. And it will just sit there indefinitely like that.

As soon as you sing to the wreckage at the little cloth that's waving around on it, and therefore release the little kite-dog, the music will suddenly shift into what is on the soundtrack referred to as "Threshold," which is one of the earlier, kind of, dancing pieces of music. And it'll be: A flute solo comes in, with cello and with other percussion. And it will only do that the moment you sing at and release [...] your little kite pal from the wreckage.

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Kickstarting the Journey community

Fifth House is a nonprofit organization, and it relies primarily on philanthropy and fundraising. But "Journey Live" is the first time the group has ever tried Kickstarter, and the ensemble decided to go that route for a few specific reasons. Money wasn't the object, per se: The campaign asked for $5,000 — a relatively modest sum when you consider the costs of putting on four shows in four cities, plus travel and accommodations for 14 people.

Instead, Fifth House wanted to use Kickstarter as a way to get the word out about "Journey Live," and more importantly, to hear from fans of Journey about where the group should perform next. The campaign's initial goal would allow Fifth House to do shows in four cities during the months of February and April. If the Kickstarter brought in any funds above the goal, the group would use that money to take the show to new locations.

The Kickstarter pitch video for "Journey Live"

The Kickstarter proved to be a wild success. Backers met the $5,000 goal within just two hours, and as of this writing — with over two days still left — the funding drive has brought in more than eight times that amount. Wintory said he didn't expect to have trouble hitting the initial target, but was surprised that it happened so quickly and that the money keeps rolling in.

Fifth House has added a New York City show and is working hard to confirm additional destinations, choosing from "several different cities" based on backers' requests, according to Eric Snoza. Those pleas are important as proof of existing interest, which Fifth House can cite when negotiating with venues.

"[Kickstarter] was as much a friend-raising opportunity as it was a fundraising opportunity," said Melissa Snoza. "And in that way, it has worked beautifully."

"Kickstarter was as much a friend-raising opportunity as it was a fundraising opportunity"

Kickstarter, as a platform that forms communities around projects, is also key to the goals that Fifth House and Wintory have for "Journey Live." A vibrant, passionate fan community for Journey continues to exist, and the people behind "Journey Live" want to involve those fans in the project. Fifth House has already announced an art contest, with the best submissions set to be included in the tour. The group and Wintory both hinted at additional plans, but wouldn't go into details.

That community ethos speaks to why Fifth House, as a chamber music group, wanted to put on this kind of production in the first place — and why the group wanted to do it specifically for Journey.

Melissa Snoza explained that chamber musicians play in relatively small groups, usually without a conductor. That means they "have to be reliant on one another to stay together, to form a single idea, to develop creative work as a team."

"In Journey, you do the same thing with a completely anonymous person," she said. "And I hope that the people who play [the game] with us will feel that energy that we share all the time in rehearsal and on stage, because it is such a parallel to what we do for a living."

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Austin Wintory explains Journey's incredibly adaptive score (cont.)

If you walk past that and never do that, it will never trigger that piece of music. And the system has contingencies built in to trigger other pieces of music further down the road.

Another thing that's possible is that the length of the flute solo that you hear at the beginning — before you sing to the wreckage — is written to be about the length where, if you walk straight to the wreckage and sing, the flute solo will end right on time as you unlock the wreckage. But you may not walk that fast, in which case the flute solo will just end and [you'll] have kind of this brief moment of, not silence — because the electronic accompaniment, the sort of pads of chords and whatnot, [is] left behind — but you'll feel the gap. And so all of these are different ways in which the music will play back.

Wintory went on to say that the player's actions aren't the only factor affecting the playback of the music in that area:

And the other thing is, there are instruments that will join in what's going on in the music if you're online and synced to another player, or not. So multiplayer versus single-player actually [triggers] different versions of the score. [...] And every single moment of the game is like this.

Looking ahead

The phenomenal success of the Kickstarter campaign ensures that a five-city tour is just the beginning for "Journey Live." But that was always Wintory's hope; in fact, he said he's almost thinking of the initial slate of four shows as a "workshop performance." That's not to say he and Fifth House aren't proud of what they've put together so far — just that they have high hopes and big plans for the future.

"I have a lot of ideas for how to expand this to something much more than just Journey on stage," Wintory said. "Like, a year from now, hopefully we'll still be booking more shows. And by the time we get to those, it should have evolved into something that's really hopefully quite grand and spectacular, relative to what will in hindsight seem to be the humble origins."

"a year from now, hopefully we'll still be booking more shows"

The "grand ambition," said Wintory, is to turn "Journey Live" into an ongoing international tour, a permanent fixture of the performing scene. A comparison to Video Games Live seems apt: That show includes audience participation in the performance plus a pre-show festival, and has now been traveling the globe for more than a decade.

Video Games Live features music from dozens of games, and it remains to be seen whether the audience for Journey alone can sustain the unique kind of show that Wintory and Fifth House envision. For his part, Wintory — who still gets heartfelt messages almost every day about Journey players' emotional reactions to the experience — said he wants to present the game to people for as long as they'll let him.

"The way the business is," he said, "I'm always just expecting me personally and Journey particularly to kind of be, like, yesterday's old news any day." He added, "I feel so privileged with the absurd reaction that it got upon release and somehow still continues to get." Babykayak