sidescroller-albumtn.jpgIn development since 2009, Journey by Thatgamecompany is due out the week of March 13.

In this interview, composer Austin Wintory and sound designer Steve Johnson join us to discuss the use of audio on the PlayStation 3-exclusive online game.

In what ways is Journey attempting to make interactions with other players a novel experience?

Sound Designer Steve Johnson: ThatGameCompany's vision with the multiplayer is out-of-the-ordinary. You start off alone, and then cross paths with other players as you walk to the mountain. Jenova's analogy is that if you've been hiking a trail by yourself, you're naturally a little more inclined to wave or say hello when you see someone walking towards you. They are more interesting in contrast to your own isolation and "smallness."

Composer Austin Wintory: If we've done our job right, only half of the enjoyment will be due to the novelty of encountering another player for the first time. It's not simply that you're playing with someone else, but that the experience is meaningful.

Even though you don't know who they are or where they are in the world, and you're not looking up their profile on PSN or hearing them over voice chat, it's a meaningful connection. There have been playtests where we have asked people what they thought of the other player. The range of responses is really fascinating. When you remove dialog, PSN handles or an image of someone's face on a webcam, you're judging purely by the "body language" of their actions within the game.

As with flOw and Flower, the game is another example of stressing non-verbal forms of storytelling. How does the lack of dialog reflect on your roles?

AW: Speaking for myself, I've loved this project more than just about anything I've worked on. More than usual, we are having a hand in telling the story, and I want the music to mirror the player's experience in a very adaptive way. As with the previous two TGC titles, different players will play the game in different ways. The music needs to reflect that. We're telling a story, but at the same time the players are able to tell their own story.

SJ: As a sound designer it's exciting to work on a game without dialog because I get to be that much more of a storyteller. Without dialog, I find I'm constantly thinking not just about sound coverage, but what I'm trying to say with the sound. It's more about the adjectives than the nouns. "Is this friendly or spiritual?" "Somber or intimidating?" "Strong or delicate?" "Soothing or unsettling?" Those are the kinds of ways I can help tell the story. And seeing as this time around there are actual characters, unlike Flower, that makes those decisions a little easier.

In Journey, you can communicate by having your character sing. How did this form of interaction evolve over the course of development?

SJ: We've tried to make the singing as expressive as we can, while using only one button. It's mostly based on how hard you press the button and how long you hold it. I really liked how in Shadow of the Collossus, you speak to your horse using only one button and it changes depending on the context. You might be softly speaking, shouting across a distance, or screaming bloody murder if you're up against a boss.

AW: The idea is not to create some alternate language, but there are a lot of different uses for the singing in the game.

If you find yourself frustrated with the other player the network has paired you with while playing, can you choose to be swap out for someone else?

AW: Journey is an online game, but there is no lobby or way to choose who you play with. If you wander off from another player, you'll be disconnected. Eventually you may get connected to somebody else. In this way, even though many people are playing, you'll only ever see one person at a time. You can choose to play with others, but you can also finish the game alone.

Japanese language trailer

flOw had its aquatic environment, while Journey is set within expanses of sand. How will the sound of the game reflect the visual theme?

SJ: The last game was all about wind and grass. This one is all about sand and cloth. On the player alone, there's the body foley, a cape whose sound is tied to length, wind speed, and player velocity, footsteps for the all surfaces, surfing on sand.

In my room at Sony I've got a cardboard box filled with dirty Venice Beach sand that's become my ghetto foley pit. All of the sand waterfalls, rolling sand dunes, and player-sand interactions were recorded there. Having a variety of desert ambiences has been an interesting task too. For instance, one level is a super hot, still desert. What's the sound of that? I finally made something mostly out of processed and panned roomtone.

AW: The music and sound design are very interwoven. Steve is doing a lot of foley work with sand and cloth, which is directly impacting the music I write. Just like the thesis version of FlOw was almost named "Darwin's Island," this game had working titles that were cloth-themed. "Woven" was a name that came up. That's why I retitled the eight-minute suite that I performed at the Golden State Pops to be "Woven Variations."

How would you characterize the instrumentation for the music score?

AW: The music in the game utilizes orchestra, but I wouldn't call it "orchestral." It has a heavily electronic aspect to it, but it features a lot of cello solos, as you can hear in the trailer. The cello is played by one of my dear friends and collaborators, Tina Guo. I thought it would be fun to write what is in effect a cello concerto for her, based on the Journey music. It abstractly tells the story of the game, but in purely musical terms.

Is there a straightforward goal to Journey? Or is it, as Jenova Chen has said, not about the destination but all about the journey?

AW: The macro goal is to head toward the mountain in the distance. But as much as the game is about this overall goal, it's equally about a series of characteristic moments and emotional experiences along the way.

SJ: I agree. Jenova and TGC deliberately planned the game as a string of distinct moments and impressions. If we do our job right, then hopefully people will find those impressions memorable and meaningful.

Images courtesy of Thatgamecompany. Sign up for Austin Wintory's Fanbridge page for an exclusive Journey music download.