Interview with Austin Wintory (Composer of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate)
When it comes to video games, music is a very powerful tool that can make or break an experience. It can be used to motivate you to complete your objective, boost morale to play better, set the tone for an environment or scene, or even do all the opposite. Often times I find myself playing a title and wishing the score was better so I could really dive into it. In a day and age where video games are becoming the norm, people need an experience that can take them away from the harshness of reality, and music is one of these elements that often gets the least amount of love in this market, despite being a key tool that really serves as the sweet frosting on cake. And who doesn’t enjoy frosting? (Save it, you dieters. Frosting is amazing.)
When discussing games with friends, I seem to be the only one interested in the music, while everyone else seems to dismiss it entirely. It often breaks my heart to be the only one who thoroughly enjoys the music from titles, because I feel that’s the one of the bigger components that makes or breaks a title for me. Even if the gameplay is fantastic, if the music is awful it just makes me want play it less and less.
While video games have definitely seen a drastic change over the 30+ years they’ve been accessible to the public, the music has been one of the elements that has undergone the biggest development. Developers didn’t have the technology to add instruments and vocals back in the 80’s like they do now, so the ability to create music fitting for a title wasn’t easy. Nowadays we’re fortunate enough to have more at our disposal to undergo an experience that’s out of this world.
Now I’m sure I’m not the only one who has epic spy music playing in my head when I’m sneaking around, right? No? Just me? Drat. Well needless to say, when it comes to being an assassin/ninja and sneaking around, one of the biggest things that I need is a sweet soundtrack to fit the tone of what I’m doing. It gives a depth of flare to my life! So naturally the best person talk to about that is Austin Wintory, the composer of the next Assassin’s Creed title: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, right? Right.
So without further ado, here’s the interview!
Graphic Policy (Michael): You’ve been composing the music for video games for quite some time now, but I see you’ve also composed music for films as well. Do you find composing a track for a video game to be different than that of a film?
Austin Wintory: At the end of the day, what matters most is if I feel I was able to write worthy music. And by that I mean music, which justifies its own existence. Something that’s got personality and perspective and is worthy of the film or game it was written for. So in that sense, composing film music and game music, or concert music, or anything else, are really not that different. Music is music. But once you get your hands dirty and go deeper you realize that they actually are QUITE different. The interactivity of games sets them extremely apart from films. It’s difficult to summarize without being very long-winded but I will just say that in terms of the details they are very distinct from each other.
Graphic Policy: Music is such a powerful tool used in video games; be it a track that motivates you to save the princess and free the Mushroom Kingdom, or through using sound as a tool to help guide players together like in Journey. What were some of the big inspirations you felt with coming up with the music for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and how exactly did you want it impact the players?
Austin Wintory: With all games, or films for that matter, I try to use the project itself as the main inspiration. So Journey was Journey’s inspiration. And in the case of Assassin’s Creed, the game itself, the characters, the writing, the story, all of that was the primary inspiration. So you have this Victorian London setting, and two principal characters of sibling assassins Jacob and Evie. They have a particularly strong personality and an interesting dynamic between them that’s sort of irreverent and sarcastic, and that played a big part in figuring out how the score should feel. So even though I mentioned the time period of the 1860s, I didn’t really go out of my way to make it some so-called “period-authentic” score. Nonetheless, I would call the score in a way “Neo-Mendelssohn,” because I tried to channel this wonderful dancing quality that I find in Mendelssohn’s chamber music. It just so happens that that would be somewhat authentic to the period but it’s mainly that it feels right. The way in which I’d love for it to impact players is simply to enhance the game experience! One of the things I love about games is that we don’t really go out of our way to dictate the kind of experience the player “should” have. I see it as us creating a sandbox full of tools and toys that the player can then assemble kind of freely, and allow them to experience whatever they’d like. So my goal is to be part of the tool-set that lets them have whatever kind of experience that they want. Though obviously that’s through the lens of my perspective. So we’re not giving them a completely wide-open set of possibilities; it’s not objective, but we are nonetheless trying to give them more than just a rigorously defined experience the way a film might. Of course even as I say that, great films are very often subject to interpretation, so maybe I am simply stating the obvious.
GP: In your interview with Ubisoft, you explained that you’ve been a longtime fan of the Assassin’s Creed series. Did your experience with playing previous titles give you help with composing the tracks for Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate?
AW: Most definitely yes, and also that familiarity with the franchise can give me a springboard to clarify something. I didn’t really compose “tracks” for the game, in fact no game score would I say I really compose ‘tracks.” I would call them cues, because “tracks” implies that they are linear pieces of music like you could just throw onto a CD or MP3 player and play back immediately. But the music in the game is often deeply interactive, and multi-layered, and full of algorithms that will change the way in which you change the music in real time. So for example, because I had played the previous games I was very familiar with the concept of the “reach high point.” These are the moments in the game which you climb up to some noteworthy landmark and “synchronize,” revealing things on the map, etc. Those moments are always intended to be kind of these beautiful little islands within an otherwise very action-driven game. I was deeply familiar with them because of it being such a core moment within every prior AC. However “reach high points” are not scored with some single linear track, it’s actually a series of interactive cues which sculpt the players experience as they are rising, and then ultimately performing the “leap of faith.” Had I never played any of the previous games, I would have had a lot of catching up to do to really appreciate how big a part of the overall experience these moments are. But because I was so familiar, I was able to immediately start coming up with ways to hopefully make it interesting and dynamic. It’s not one size fits all the way a linear track would necessarily be.
GP: I saw that you did a track for The Order: 1886. With that taking place in the same time period as Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, did your previous experience in dealing with late 19th century London help you to compose tracks for this title?
AW: In the case of The Order 1886, that was Jason Graves’ score for which he and I co-wrote the main thematic material. So I didn’t actually even write that first track on the album, it’s something that he and I co-wrote and which he then drew from when writing the rest of the score. So my job was very specific there. Additionally, that game was an alternate history of Victorian London, so even though the time period was similar, and the setting was technically the same, the context for that setting was distinctly different. There are no wildly futuristic elements to Assassins Creed like there were in The Order, and also the storyline, and the characters, and the motivations, and all that were radically different. A story of the knights of the round table persisting into the industrial revolution, and fighting werewolves in dark alleys, is a completely different game from an eternal struggle between assassins and templars in Victorian London (never thought I’d say that sentence!). So in my mind, because the music is always coming from “who are these characters and what is this story?” there was no real overlap, I would say. So it didn’t help nor hinder.
GP: From a game where there was no dialogue and just music and sounds, and to a game about assassination, has working on the music for Assassin’s Creed proved to be a different experience from your previous work with video game soundtracks? If so, how?
AW: Well certainly every game is different from the rest, and in some cases dramatically so. There is no question that Journey and Assassins Creed have very little in common in terms of the experience of playing the game. But at the end of the day, the underlying concept of just trying to write music that really faithfully captures the player experience is the same. So it doesn’t really matter that the games themselves are so different, my philosophy is unchanged. It’s hard to get more specific than this without breaking down each individual game that I’ve worked on but basically yes, they are all very different and that’s one of the things I love about scoring games. There is never a boring day on the job. You never know what to expect.
GP: Time travel plays a huge role in the Assassin’s Creed titles, despite the games taking place primarily in earlier time periods, did you utilize any concepts of a modern day or a somewhat futuristic tone for certain tracks in the game or did you stick with music that fit the setting of London in the late 1800’s?
AW: Well, bear in mind that Assassins Creed is not actually about time travel, it’s about people in the future using technology to look back into the past. So the game’s settings really are in that past, even though in theory were looking at it through the lens of someone seeing it from the future. And that has played a big part of the aesthetic of the scores in the previous games; they very often sought to channel that futuristic sci-fi quality with cool analog synths and things like that. I thought Sarah Schachner on Unity did a particularly good job at blending those things. However that was not the goal here, the present day aspects are actually pretty minimal in this game, and we also made the aesthetic choice to let those moments play on their own so there is very little in terms of music then. It’s really solely preoccupied with Victorian London. Thus it was with the score.
GP: With some video games having a production cost that can rival films in Hollywood, has working on a title as big and popular as Assassin’s Creed provided more pressure on you than other titles you’ve worked on?
AW: I wouldn’t really say so; certainly the overall size of the score was bigger than average, but I’m no stranger to elaborate productions, from both films and games. For example, a game like The Banner Saga, even though that was a relatively small independent game, the scope and production of the score was really only slightly smaller than that of Assassin’s Creed. So I wouldn’t really say that there was more pressure. I tend to put more pressure on myself than any outside entity could ever hope to!
GP: With music being a conduit to set the tone for the game’s plot and setting, what was the main process for composing tracks for the game itself? Were you given footage from the game to match to a scene or a storyboard you had to read?
AW: For me it’s all about play testing. I spend a lot of time with the game and really try to internalize how it moves and how it feels. And once again it was really really helpful to have played the previous entries of this franchise so thoroughly because I was less reliant on play-testing for this as a result. I try not to ever get caught in a situation of having to write music in a vacuum. By that I mean, writing music to a scene which is being described in some spreadsheet somewhere but which I have no real connection to. So I read the script, I would spend a lot of time playing the game, but then also in situations where I was not able to play the game myself the team at Ubisoft would do captures for me which I would then send follow up questions to and they would do additional captures as a way of answering my questions. So I would have them do for me the things that I would do myself if I had been playing. I would say to them “instead of going up the side of the building, can you jump and tackle that guy in the street,” because that would have been how I tested the game in that moment. They happily obliged me throughout the process. I should use this as a segue to really point out that the team at Ubisoft were absolute dreams to work with. Audio director Lydia Andrew and musical supervisor Christian Pacaud were absolute perfect collaborators. Couldn’t have had a better crew to work with.
GP: Were there any specific moments in your life that inspired certain tracks for the game? Maybe you dropped something on the ground and it had the perfect tune you were looking for? Perhaps a bowl of cereal that crunched just the right kind of way to inspire you? Possibly a bird chirping outside your window at 5am?
AW: I’m afraid my answer to this is yes, but nothing like the examples you provided. I actually suffered some very huge personal losses during this project and that played a very large part in my creative process. I don’t want to drag you through a long difficult story but the short version is that just days before I began, my father rather suddenly lost a battle to cancer after falling sick only weeks earlier. So my music started with a note of intense grieving as I tried to reconcile that. Then a few months later as I was near finishing the project, the same thing happened to one of my closest friends. There are a lot of specific moments in the score that I could point to as representative of my dealing with these losses in that moment. But I’ll just leave it at that for now.
GP: We see a strong separation in both Evie and Jacob’s personality and their styles of gameplay; with the ability to switch between them freely, will this also feature a switch in tracks? Have you specifically written different tracks for each sibling, or a single song that really captures the essence of both?
AW: Well I will once again specify that the score does not really consist of “tracks” or songs, but nonetheless your intuition is absolutely correct. Instead of having different themes or leitmotifs for Jacob and Evie, I have a single theme that represents them collectively because their story arc is a shared one. It’s all about the journey they go on together and the ways in which they grow apart and come back together, etc. But that said I do assign different colors to them. Specifically I have a solo violin played by Sandy Cameron, that I associate with Jacob, and a solo cello played by Tina Guo that I associate with Evie. So, in the areas of the game where you have specific missions that force you to play as one or the other character you will always hear that specific instrument featured. Then during the open world moments where you can switch back and forth freely, I recorded separate violin and cello solos within a given passage and the system will automatically toggle the soloist based on whichever character you’re playing as. So that way players will have different experience throughout the game musically based on who they’re playing.
GP: Any particular track you had the most amount of fun composing? Was it an epic fight track or possibly just a nice song to idle to?
AW: I put so much work into every moment of music in the game that it’s difficult to play favorites. Referencing my answer before about the losses that I endured during the writing process, there are some moments that are my own little private homages to those people. I snuck personal references and things into the score of my history with both my dad and my good friend. But other than that, I would say that the entire score was a joy to do. I really loved that the combat music ended up taking this almost ballet-like dancing quality. And so any time I was writing combat music I found myself wanting to leap to my feet and that’s just a great feeling. The grand finale of the game, on the subject of epic fights, is kind of a triple concerto where I finally bring out a third soloist, the pianist, played by Iain Farrington. This was a big show piece that was an absolute blast to do because it really let the three star musicians come together and just sizzle.
GP: With the Templars being the primary antagonists of the game, did you aim to give them a type of gothic theme that’s more commonly used, or did you plan to go with a different kind of genre?
AW: The templars actually don’t have their own theme in the score, which was something that I advocated for with Ubisoft because I really wanted to make it about Jacob and Evie, primarily. But that said, much of this game is preoccupied on a story level about the rise of industrialization, and the way in which this era brought out certain types of personalities, like thieving robber barons that were quick to take advantage of people. Because that’s a thread that all the villains tend to have in common, a thirst for power and a thirst for influence which often is expressed through money, I decided to treat that as an almost religious idea. There are moments in the game where I go for a kind of cathedral or religiously mystical aesthetic, and those are always the moments associated with the villains. So I would say that the templars don’t have a theme, so much as this intentionally ironic religioso aesthetic.
GP: Easter Eggs in video games has become such a norm whether it be some small dialogue, a picture somewhere referencing something, or even hidden scenes. Do you have any extra tracks that you were tasked to compose for any of these kinds of segments? If there were, did you know you were doing them for that specific part?
AW: There are definitely easter eggs, and if I told you, they wouldn’t really be easter eggs now would they??? ;)
GP: I know there are certain developers who like to put staff and crew into the game as little extras. Will we be seeing you in the game at all composing music, or struggling over writing a song in one of the many British taverns? Maybe a side-quest involving finding your missing music sheets?
AW: I wish! That would have been great fun and I have done this sort of thing before; I have on-screen cameos in several movies I’ve scored, for example. But in this case, my presence is purely musical. Though there are definitely some surprises in the spirit of what you’re asking about…
GP: Since you’ve been a fan of the series, which title is your favorite, and are there any particular weapons and characters you’ve found more appealing than others?
AW: Like so many others, I would say that my favorite was Black Flag, and part of what I loved about it was how stunningly beautiful it was and how easily the notion of an assassin translated to high seas pirating and that sort of thing.
GP: What was it about Assassin’s Creed that really drew you into the series?
AW: I always loved the sense of movement, loved the freedom, I loved the way the game felt under my fingers. I’m usually much more of a PC gamer but this was one of the rare instances where it really really made me love playing it on my Playstation. In terms of Syndicate, what drew me to it was how eager Ubisoft were to experiment and try something new with the score. And that would have been a draw no matter what the franchise was, I suppose.
GP: I heard you joke about a baton dagger in your interview with Ubisoft, any chance we’ll be seeing Austin Wintory as an assassin in the next Assassin’s Creed title? Assassin’s Creed: Traveling Orchestra perhaps?
AW: I’m not currently engaged to work on any other Assassins Creed games, but you never know what the future will bring. I certainly am planning to perform the music on-stage in a variety of different contexts, so maybe I will conduct from a hidden blade wrist baton of some kind!
When it comes to loss, it’s a difficult trial to bounce back from, so I’m very glad to hear that Austin was able to make something amazing out of his ordeal in order to pay tribute to his dearly departed. I can certainly relate, as the recent loss of my own father was the reason I ultimately took the plunge into writing. My sincerest condolences to you, Austin, and I know the game will be fantastic with your beautiful music. I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to take my interview. Thank you to Austin’s publicist and the rest of the people at Ubisoft!
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate comes out October 23rd for the Playstation 4 and X-box One and November 19th for PC fans. Stay tuned for a review when the game releases! Thanks for reading!