Interview: Composer Austin Wintory on Assassin's Creed Syndicate's soundtrack

Austin Wintory has come a long way in such a short time when it comes to video game composing. He's produced a number of memorable scores over the years in games like flOW and The Banner Saga, but it was his beautiful soundtrack for Journey that got the most attention, even earning a Grammy nomination.

Now, Wintory is hard at work on an epic new score, this time for Assassin's Creed Syndicate, which arrives on October 23. We had a chance to sit down with the man himself to learn about his inspiration for the soundtrack, as well as its challenges.

First off, congrats on being able to work on an Assassin’s Creed soundtrack. How psyched are you right now that you got to work on Syndicate?

Thank you!  It was a real joy and a privilege! The folks at Ubisoft have been making great AC games now for the better part of a decade, and I’ve been playing them basically that entire time. So to be able to work on one, but also to be able to do my own thing with it, was a real joy and honor. Lydia Andrew, the audio director who hired me, was someone that I can’t overstate my delight in working with. She, and music supervisor Christian Pacaud, are together the biggest reason I'm psyched about it!

What kind of themes did you explore to capture the essence of the classic London surroundings?

Well, actually, my goal was less to capture London, and more to capture the twins who sit at the center of the storyline. But that said, of course the setting did figure in some way. I try to avoid being too literal with my scores in representing the setting because I figure the setting is representing itself in a far more direct way. The score is all about adding subtext and context. The arc of the twins, and their relation to each other, and their relation to their bigger sense of purpose is something that was of interest to me with this game. I don't want the setting to seem irrelevant though; the music is definitely a sort of 19th century chamber music infused with modern ideas. It is very raw and stripped down and actually pretty intimate.  

What’s probably the toughest thing when it comes to putting a soundtrack together for a game?

Well, the toughest thing in this case is not different from the toughest thing about scoring a film, which is simply how to make it good!  How to make something that justifies its own existence, and something which was worth writing.  I’m always my own toughest critic and I find that most things on reflection don’t necessarily pass muster. However, specifically in a game like this, creating something that doesn’t lose sight of the important story arc, and yet can function seamlessly in a very player-driven open world sandbox experience is very hard. That to me, the degree to which a game is an open world, is very often directly proportional to the degree that the score loses all sense of macro arc. So I really worked hard to try and reconcile those two opposing concepts for Syndicate.  

What sort of tools do you get to experiment with when it comes to putting together a soundtrack?

I always like to experiment with all my tools, and the musical vocabulary is often the first one I begin playing with, which is simply “What kind of music is this? What sort of touchstones am I using from various other musical vocabularies to kind of root this in some tradition or in some familiar idiom?” But then, the experimentation goes all the way through, to “how is it recorded? What sort of microphones are we using? How is it mixed? Which performers are playing the music?" etc. I really think that every single aspect of the score should be subject to experimentation and creative manipulation.  

Do you have any particular favorites that you worked on over the years? Journey, perhaps? Or do they all resonate with you in one form or another?

Honestly, I hate to cop out of this, but I don’t really play favorites with my own music. They are all equally subject to my harsh hindsight criticism!  Certain experiences end up standing out because of usually some particular moment in them, and Journey is definitely a big one. Journey was a very long three-year process that got very personal and very inward looking. So it will always have a special place in my heart. But truthfully, every game and every film that I have worked on has played a role in who I am, so it’s hard to single one out as uniquely special to me.  

You’ve worked with the Video Games Live team on a number of occasions. Do you get a rush from when they put on video game-related concerts with your material?

No doubt about it, yes! Performing in concert is a great joy, and performing music that gets an audience as excited as those at VGL shows is truly a high. I absolutely love what Tommy Tallarico has created, and it’s always an absolute thrill to join him onstage. I'm also very lucky that I pretty regularly join orchestras on-stage for performances in more purely 'classical' situations too. It really is just so much fun!

Do you have any “dream” franchises that you’d like to work on down the road? Perhaps something role-playing related?

Honestly, I don’t. I love a lot of franchises, but if one of those that I love were to never hire me I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Usually part of what I love about them is their music, so why mess with that? For example, I'm a huge Bioshock fan. But I'd be crushed to play one of those without Garry Schyman's music. So, yeah, I actually tend to really love working on new things, new ideas, new IP's. I’m very lucky that the majority of my career has been exactly that. In fact I think Leisure Suit Larry and Assassin’s Creed are the only games that I’ve worked on that have any kind of precursor. All the rest have been new and I’m really quite comfortable there. I like coming up with something that feels, hopefully, fundamentally fresh.  But that said, this is what made Syndicate so joyful. I was not beholden to the previous AC scores in any way, so in a sense it felt like scoring a completely new franchise.  

Finally, what’s next for you once Syndicate comes out? A break, perhaps, or right back to work on another project?

No breaks planned for me! I'm currently working on a few games I’m really excited about, and of those which have been made public I think the first to be unleashed will be the Banner Saga 2, which I am currently wrapping up now, and that has been just as wonderful as the first one.  

Assassin's Creed Syndicate will be available on October 23 for Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and later for PC.