After Cloud, flOw, and Flower, game development studio thatgamecompany continued their impressive run of critically acclaimed titles with 2012's Journey. As those previous games, Journey once more showcased thatgamecompany's desire to redefine the nature of what we regard as a video game, with seamless switching between single- and multi-player and content that moved beyond the "typical defeat/kill/win mentality" of the majority of video games, as lead developer Jenova Chen put it. Thetitle puts the gamer in the boots of a cloaked traveller, who traverses a desert on his way to an illuminated mountain top in the far distance. On the way, the traveller makes his way through the ruins of a sunken civilisation, which apparently suffered a catastrophic cataclysm. Upon release, Journey garnered the most positive response of any thatgamecompany title yet, turning it into the fastest-selling PlayStation Store game ever released in America and Europe. Meanwhile, both critics and players praised the title's astonishing beauty and the emotional impact its graphics and music created.
That soundtrack was written by Austin Wintory, who had already composed the music for flOw in 2006. His work on the game netted him a BAFTA nomination and triple nominations at the Game Audio Network guilds awards, although in the years after, Wintory focused on scoring independent films and shorts. According to Wintory, Journey turned out to be a more ambitious project than flOw, mirrored already by the fact that this score would feature several solo instrumentalists plus an orchestra. To structure the soundtrack on an instrumentational level, Wintory decided to give it the shape of "a big cello concerto where you are the soloist and all the rest of the instruments represent the world around you". The score would be monothematic, with the theme representing the player to underline thetitle's nature "as a self-reflective experience". Another decision that influenced Journey's musical shape was to not reflect its exotic desert setting with any ethnic specialty instruments to "eliminate [...] localising concepts from the score to make it as universal and culture-less as possible", according to Wintory. After the rapturous feedback that both game and music received, the soundtrack was released digitally in April 2012 and managed to reached the top 10 of iTunes Soundtrack charts in several countries a rare achievement for a game soundtrack, much more so for an indie title like Journey. Thanks to Sumthing Else Music Works, it also received a CD release in October 2012, which will serve as the definitive presentation of the soundtrack for most.
Chances are that, by now, you have heard the praise that's been showered upon Journey's music all across the internet. Is the hype justified? It is indeed. What will impress you first about the title is how strikingly well it creates a world that you can lose yourself in. Journey's music oozes atmosphere: with amazing ease, its orchestrations evoke an almost boundless, sandy and arid environment that has existed for eons, a melancholic place that now houses the ruins of a fallen civilisation. For most of its running time, the soundtrack rarely ventures into treble territory a fact that is mirrored in Wintory's choice of soloists including cello, viola, bass flute and serpent. Together with the string-heavy orchestral instrumentations no woodwind or brass sections on this album this results in a warm, earthy sound that is amazingly evocative and most appropriate for the game's setting. It's this gentle grittiness that sets Journey apart from Flower, thatgamecompany's previous game, which shares the same meditative, occasionally playful mood at least initially. At the same time, Journey feels weightier than Flower, not necessarily because its instrumentations are denser, but because of its focus on lower frequencies. This added weight never burdens down the music, but instead creates a sense of history, of walking among age-old locations towards a mystical goal in the far distance.
Indeed, there's an undercurrent of mysticism that comes with Journey's abstract setting a nameless traveller wandering through a stylised world of sand and shadows and the music communicates this metaphysical inclination perfectly. Wintory's choice to forego ethnic instruments imbues Journey with a sense that this music isn't tied to a particular place or time, instead aiming for a universal, archetypal affect and sense of awe (at least among listeners to whom cello and flute are 'traditional' instruments that don't evoke connections with a particular culture or period). Most of the time, Wintory has his solo instruments perform measured and emotionally rich melodies, set against a relatively static orchestral background that creates a palpable sensation of otherworldliness. This is most obvious on the soundtrack's "Convergence" tracks. More subdued in nature than the rest of the album, the melodic material on these compositions is relatively sparse and set against droning background chords of both orchestral and electronic nature. But Wintory shows a deft hand at making these short and quiet ambient interludes atmospherically strong enough to never lose the listener's attention. It helps that Wintory's willing to venture into adventurous harmonic territory to underline Journey's mystical streak. Look no further than the climax of "Temptations", the soundtrack's first sign of trouble after a pastoral first half. At 3:00 the piece starts moving towards a scintillating climax when a growing cluster of fluttering, chromatic string chords and trills opens a window into a glistening, unearthy world, while the harp unperturbedly keeps on playing its peaceful melody. It's quite a magical moment of ever so slightly uncanny beauty that is topped off by a reassuring string melody.
Despite its usually slow-moving orchestral textures and generally airy nature, the music never floats away into the ether, grounded by the organic, grainy timbres of the solo instruments. This relatively uncommon mix is one of the factors that gives Journey its individual character. Another component of the immense emotional response that the score yields is the recording of the solo instruments. To emphasise the lonesome nature of the traveller's journey, the cello and all other solo instruments are placed in a spacious, reverberant acoustic that lets their melodies ring across the soundscape. At the same time though, the excellent recording never isolates the solo instruments too much and alienates them from their surroundings once more, what the music does is to vividly suggest an age-old, wide open space. Needless to say that the balance between orchestra and solo instruments is perfect as well, and even the occasional ambient synth element seamlessly merges into the score's fabric. As to be expected from a soundtrack that is shaped like a cello concerto, the majority of the melodic material lies with that instrument and to a degree with the other soloists, who get a chance to shine as well. Fortunately, Wintory's writing for the solo instruments, which either perform on their own or in small chamber music-like constellations, is of very high calibre. Put simply, the melodies on Journey are gorgeous. These are the kind of long-winded, elegiac, but ultimately uplifting melodies that embrace the listener with open arms and weave their potent, caressing spell almost immediately. The melodic material always walks the tightrope between inward spirituality and expressive romanticism with taste and success. If you were to look for scores with a similar emotional expression, Tan Dun's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero would be obvious examples for their cello-led mix of austerity and emotionality.
While examples of Journey's melodic strength are found throughout the soundtrack, the most striking demonstration of its sheer beauty are theclosing tracks "Apotheosis" and "I Was Born for This", which bring both thegame's spiritual and romantic tendencies to a head in the most satisfying way possible. After a brief introduction, "Apotheosis" segues into elevating ostinato string rhythms that push the piece forward for the next four minutes without ever getting close to feeling tiresome a rare occurrence these days. Over these elating rhythms, the track's ravishing melodic material derived from Journey's main theme starts to unfold slowly, spiralling higher and higher on the energy of the ostinato figures. It's a constant flow of passionate yet serene melodies that turns more and more intense and gloriously fulfilling apotheosis indeed. After reaching its climax around 4:45, the piece calms down and finishes on an introspective note with more solo cello melodies. At last, the unaccompanied cello reaches into its highest registers before it stops playing, its voice slowly fading away. After this stunning conclusion, the vocal ballad "I Was Born for This" does a marvellous job at summing up all the emotional threads that run through Journey and brings the album to pitch-perfect finish. Set against gently rolling string rhythms and lush violin melodies, Lisbeth Scott's multi-language, yearning alto vocals are deeply moving in a flawless performance that manages to express both fulfilment and the will to strive on and continue the journey. It's a jaw-dropping, sublime conclusion to the album and one of the finest vocal pieces in the history of Western game music.
The last piece of the puzzle is Journey's main theme and the stupendous contribution it makes to the music's impact, a great part of which is derived from the album's dramatic arc. The opening track "Nascence" exposes the pensive main theme on cello, its most notable component an ascending four-note phrase. The theme reappears frequently throughout the whole soundtrack, but it wears repetition very well and never becomes tiresome, helped by Wintory's efforts to develop the theme. The most radical revision occurs on "The Road of Trials", which turns the solemn theme on its head and transforms it into a bouncy, triplet-laden tune that is performed with dance-like energy and aplomb by the soloists. It's worth noting that, amidst Journey's generally reflective pieces, "The Road of Trials" and "Threshold" have a light spring in their rhythms and a freshness in their colourful textures that make them some of the most charming additions to the score.
After "Temptations" has brought the first signs of trouble with its tonally ambiguous opening, "Descent" sees storm clouds rolling over the desert sands as the solo cello struggles to form a fully-shaped melody against ominous, steady drums, gong strikes and a quietly discordant orchestral backdrop. An abrasive, crescendoing violin tremolo passage leads into "Atonement", which opens with purposefully meandering material from the cello the wanderer lost on his journey. But soon the orchestral strings set in, taking over the cello's drifting motif and turning it into a redemptive thought of hope. The dialogue between sceptic cello and the strings continues throughout the piece, slowly banishing the wanderer's doubts, until the cello asserts itself with a confident statement of the main theme's four ascending notes, almost a self-defiant cry of affirmation. Still, even after the main theme has received its most glowing rendition so far on following track "Final Confluence", the wanderer hasn't reached his goal yet. The foreboding atmosphere of "The Crossing" ives way to "Nadir", a collection of rumbling and panicking string ostinati and tremoli that is Journey's most melody-depraved and dissonant moment. The cello desperately tries to break through the chaos by performing the main theme, but is swept away by a string freakout and slapping percussion that take "Nadir" to a devastating, breathless climax and then "Apotheosis" and "I Was Born for This" take up the main theme again to reiterate its optimistic character and build towards Journey's monumental conclusion.
Now rewarded with a well-deserved physical soundtrack release, Journey is a wondrous, enriching experience that tries to ascend to the realm of the spiritual and mystical, and actually succeeds. Similar to Vincent Diamante's work for Flower and Wintory's own score for flOw, Journey creates a stunningly atmospheric aural world of its own. In Journey's case, it's the warm, earthy sounds of the solo cello, bass flute and serpent, as well as the rich orchestral strings, that bring the game's desert lands and ruins to life through their elegiac, gorgeous melodies. Wintory writes a wealth of attractive melodies for both solo instruments and orchestra, ranging from sprightly to heart-wrenching and conjuring an earthy romanticism that carefully balances introspection and emotionality. His keen ear for fresh and lovely orchestrations is just as obvious as his intelligent use of the main theme. The clever manipulation and development of the theme helps to create a stunning sonic journey worthy of the game's title, culminating in a finale that has the power to make rocks weep. It's bliss for the mind and heart five stars, unreservedly.