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'ABZÛ' composer Austin Wintory on his ambitious video game score

by James Kim | The Frame

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"ABZÛ" is an underwater exploration game on PlayStation. Giant Squid

Composing for film and video games wasn't Austin Wintory's first career choice. "I wanted to be a novelist," Wintory says. "Storytelling has always been at the forefront of my thinking." 

Austin Wintory is the composer for the PlayStation game "ABZÛ."
Austin Wintory is the composer for the PlayStation game "ABZÛ." PlayStation

Wintory was inspired by composers and old film scores when he was younger, which ultimately led him to study music at University of Southern California. It was there that he met video game designer Jenova Chen. The two worked on a game called "Flow" for Chen's college thesis, which eventually was released on the PlayStation platform and launched both Chen and Wintory's career in the video game world. 

Since then, Wintory has scored many films and video games. And he received a Grammy Award nomination for his work on "Journey," which was also designed by Chen. Wintory was the first composer to be nominated for a Grammy in the Visual Media category for a video game score. 

This year, he scored two video games, one of which is the underwater indie game "ABZÛ." There are no bad guys, no missions to solve, and players don't die in the game. It's simply a game where you explore the ocean and all the animals and treasures it has to offer. Wintory describes it as a game "about the dream of scuba-diving more than the realities of scuba diving." 

The Frame's James Kim spoke with Austin Wintory about how he went about writing the score for "ABZÛ," his instrumentation for the score, and why he constantly pushes himself musically and creatively. 

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS: 

On the music inspiring the gameplay in "ABZÛ":

There's a moment in the game where you see the diver swimming in this diagonal alongside these giant blue whales. That was completely and totally designed around the music. I wrote it first based on what Matt Nava, our creative director, said he was envisioning for the scene, but just purely a verbal description. So I wrote this grand waltz because I was picturing this glorious scene of dancing with these incredible and majestic blue whales.

On going big and composing for seven harps in the game's score: 

I'm a fan of unique and interesting colors. I'm also a fan of taking seemingly very normal colors and blowing them out into absurd proportion. For example, on "ABZÛ," I knew I wanted the rolling texting of the harp in the score. There's a thing they do that's called a bisbigliando, which is this continuous rustling of their strings that is a very attractive sound. 

But I thought, What if it's not one or two, but it's like a crowd of harps doing those kinds of gestures? So I had seven harps on "ABZÛ" that we recorded in London. It's a very normal sound, but seven of them is a little bit of a different animal. 

Austin Wintory is a film and video game composer.
Austin Wintory is a film and video game composer. Austin Wintory

On constantly striving to push himself: 

I tend to beat up on myself really hard when I'm working because I ask myself questions like, Does this music have to exist? I know this sounds extremely lofty and probably cheesy, but I ask myself, Does this music actually contribute to the world being better? Because if it doesn't, then it's probably some form of masturbation, and who needs that? 

The point is that, if I'm just writing music as a form of self-aggrandizing, it's not doing anybody any good. For me, the inspiration to push myself is always in the form of, Is this worth having written? Meaning, is it worth someone's time to listen to? 

"ABZÛ" is currently available on PlayStation 4 and Steam.

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