Austin Wintory doesn't like manipulating people. He could, pretty easily, if he wanted to, because he's a gifted musician with a knack for creating evocative music, but he doesn't have any interest in forcing you to feel a certain way. His approach to scoring a game like The Banner Saga is less about the obvious and more about the subtext – opening a door to an emotional space and letting you decide whether to walk in or not. Which sounds pretty high-minded for a game with giant warriors sporting goat horns, but that's just what's on the surface. Music's job lies in subtext.
"The game should already be, for example, sad," he explained to me at DICE. "My job is to make you understand why and add a sense of stakes and weight to what's happening, not to try and make you have this base understanding that 'Now it's sad!' as if you would have missed that."
Wintory, who admits to having worked on "not so good" movies, acknowledges that his job as composer is "a lot easier to do" when he's given excellent material to work with. Journey, he said, was so brilliant that he barely had to do anything. He could just "go in there and play" (and get nominated for a Grammy). Stoic Studio's The Banner Saga was similarly inspiring, but first he had to figure out the right way to handle its turn-based-strategy nature. He did at least know what he didn't want to do with it.
"How to score the actual turn-based-strategy combat was a big question mark for me," Wintory said. He didn't want to take the same musical route as Banner Saga's most obvious recent comparison, XCOM, which featured fast-paced music. "All due respect to XCOM, I wanted to be the exact opposite of that, where I'm doing this, trying to contemplate the best strategy and I'm hearing pop-pop-pop-pop-pop that's like wailing away telling me 'Isn't this exciting?'"
Knowing what you don't want is all well and good, but what do you actually write?
"I remember as I was reading the lore and looking at all the artwork and the map what I really loved is it's this combination of proud warriors and a total sense of exhaustion and resignation. We wanted to make something that was very deliberately kind of contemplative and felt like being methodical is a reward." The subtext that the music needed to explain – the why – was what finally gave Wintory his insight into how the score should flow.
"I said, 'What if these are extremely powerful, skilled warriors who are picking up the sword or the axe, feeling like the last time I picked this up was supposed to be the last time I did this?' They take no joy in what is about to happen, this should not be big fanfares of heroism and things like that. It should feel like, 'God, I just want to be done with this.' That's the subtext, that's what music's job is. To make it feel like I don't love this fight. But I do want to win it because I don't want to die. But it's not like I want you to die. There's no bloodlust here. I can't think of many games that felt like that."