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?'"