Exclusive Interview: Abzu Composer Austin Wintory
The third-person, underwater exploration game Abzu (PlayStation 4, PC) was one of 2016’s more interesting and immersive games. And one element that made it so effective was the music, which really made you feel like you were scuba diving in a serene, fish-filled sea. With the score for Abzu now available on CD and digitally, I spoke to its composer, Austin Wintory, about how he came to make the music for this game and what he did to his score to make it work as an album.
I always like to start at the beginning. How did you get the gig doing the music for Abzu?
Abzu was created by Matt Nava, the art director from thatgamecompany, who had been in charge of the art for both Flower and Journey, and afterwards left to start his own studio called Giant Squid. Pretty much the moment he did that he reached out to me about collaborating on their first title, and we more or less got to work on it straight away.
What did he either tell you about Abzu or show you that made you want to work on it?
Matt had shown me some preliminary art that he made, which I found quite beautiful. But, honestly, it was Matt himself. We had a really great time bonding during the development of Journey, and I was extremely keen to continue working with him. So when he said he had this new project, it was a no brainer.
Did he also, at that time, give you a sense of the music they wanted?
Matt was extremely open to whatever I was thinking. So he didn’t try to dictate to me what the music should be like, he just asked me for my opinion so I went and wrote some things and sent it to him and he liked it. So off we went.
The thing that struck me about the music when I played Abzu was how much it reminded me of the music that plays when you go scuba diving in the Tomb Raider games Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld. Was that music an influence on what you did in Abzu?
You’re not the first person to say that. But, honestly, I haven’t played the original Tomb Raider since it first came out, and hadn’t heard the music since then either. After someone mentioned that, I went back and listened to it. And I could totally hear why they drew that comparison, but it actually is 100% coincidence.
Interesting. So what then would you consider to be the biggest inspirations for your Abzu score?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the game itself. Of course, I draw from external ideas, from literature and art and my own life experiences, but I try to make a score very organically tied to the game for which it’s being written. So Matt and I would have long conversations about exactly what he was trying to say with Abzu, and what the metaphors and the narrative should be representing, and I would just simply target that in my writing.
How much music did you end up making for Abzu, and what percentage of it actually made it into the game?
It’s hard to say because my initial sketches are never full on complete works, but I did huge amounts of them. For Abzu, there had to have been in some cases a 10:1 ratio of sketches to finished music, which would suggest that I wrote several hours of music material to what in round figures is about an hour-long final score.
Your music for Abzu is now being released on CD, and it’s already available digitally. First, is there anything on the CD version that wasn’t on the digital one? Or vice versa?
No, the digital release and CD release and vinyl release are identical.
Does the soundtrack album include any of the music that didn’t make it into the game?
Generally, not because I don’t bother producing music that’s not going to make it into the final game. I try to make the mockup process so detailed that by the time it comes to produce the final recordings we know exactly what the score is and there are no mysteries about how to implement it in-game. As such, you don’t really end up with a lot of bonus tracks or things like that.
In preparing the music to be released on its own, did you do anything to it? Like did you flesh any of the pieces out so they’d be complete songs as opposed to fragments? Or maybe present them out of order from how they appear in the game because the new order works better as an album?
Yes, in the most general terms. I do an extensive editorial process of cues to be able to turn them into album tracks, especially on a game, as opposed to a film score album. The simple reason for that is that the music is designed from the beginning to be deeply interactive with the game’s experience while soundtrack albums are 100% passive. There’s no interactivity to them, so all bets are off, and I care only about making a great album at that point. So yes, sometimes things are out of order in a very microscopic sense, or remixes are done to facilitate smoother story telling arcs, etc.
Now, do you play games?
Yes, I play lots of games. I have my whole life. Playdead’s Inside is hands down my favorite game of the year, but I enjoy a wide range of games. I think the last game that I put a huge number of hours into was XCOM 2 or Fallout 4.
When you play, do you ever turn the music down or off, or do you turn the volume of the dialog and sound effects down so the music will be louder?
I tend to never mess with the default audio settings, unless I genuinely need to because I can’t hear something. In those instances, it almost always means turning the dialogue up. I remember doing that on Mass Effect quite a lot, but I was also playing it on a TV that didn’t have a high-fidelity sound system attached. Usually I’m playing in nice headphones and keep everything exactly as it is.
Besides Abzu, you’ve also done the music for such disparate games as Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell, The Order: 1886, The Banner Saga 2, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and flOw. Obviously, the genre of a game influences the music you’ll make for it, but is there a kind of game that’s more fun to compose music for than others? Like was Saints Row a lot of fun to work on because the game was so over the top, or was flOw more fun because its relaxed tone is more your speed?
For me, the variety from one game to the next is what I cherish, so actually there is no one genre I would say I value more than another, as much as the fact that I’ve been so lucky to move around amongst so many genres. I really do cherish the fact that my career has led me down so many different rabbit holes and that each of them seem to be consistently offering unexpected and interesting musical surprises.
Lastly, Abzu isn’t the first of your soundtracks to be released in album form. If someone really enjoys the Abzu soundtrack as an album unto its own, which of your other soundtracks CDs do you think they should buy next and why?
Well, I would never presume someone to be interested in buying any of my albums, but if someone is looking for something that is sort of a spiritual cousin to Abzu, then the clear answer to that is Journey. I also did a film a number of years ago called Captain Abu Raed, that has a sort of similar lush orchestral sensibility.