It is the eve of PlayStation 5, and with Sony’s next-generation hardware comes new 3D audio technology and new games to take advantage of that technology. Austin Wintory has taken up the challenge to show what that new tech can do as composer of the open-world title, The Pathless.
Wintory is one of the most celebrated music composers in the video game industry. Most known for his excellent work on thatgamecompany and SIE Santa Monica’s 2012 release, Journey, he has since gone on to compose music for several other high-profile video game projects, such as The Order: 1886 (with Jason Graves), Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell.
Wintory was the main composer for Abzû, the underwater adventure game by Giant Squid. After creating the serene and beautiful score for Abzû, he returned to compose the studio’s next game, The Pathless.
He is excited about the continued advance of audio technology that comes with PlayStation 5. Aspects such as its ambisonics and 3D audio are intriguing, but they will probably go underutilized in music — not by Wintory though. “These are often truly intended as ways to deepen the immersion of sound design, so it’s always my goal to try and find exciting tricks that they’re hiding for music instead,” he said.
The Pathless’s sound design benefited more from PlayStation 5’s 3D audio technology than the musical soundtrack did. The game has dynamic weather systems with so much nuance in procedural weather events, such as rain and wind. The ability to spatialize the sound design of those weather effects to a greater degree with PS5’s 3D audio should provide an additional layer of immersion for players.
Although, development on The Pathless began in 2017, long before Wintory had any access to the next-gen console. He explained, “We did our best to incorporate (3D audio) near the end as it became available to us, and there are some wonderful tricks in there not previously possible, but the potential is definitely ahead for future titles.”
While The Pathless is a PlayStation 5 launch title, it’s also releasing on PC, iOS, and PlayStation 4. The majority of the game was developed with the current generation in mind. The ability to add a PS5 version of the game at a later stage in development was fortuitous, but it also meant that it would not be able to completely exploit the console’s potential. It’s often the first-party titles that will really showcase what the new hardware is all about, as Wintory said, “Only a little ways into the console release do exclusive (PS5) releases, with no concerns for PS4 compatibility, start to really find the edges of what’s possible.”
The global pandemic also hampered Wintory a bit. When he started the score back in 2017, he continuously wrote music and met with Giant Squid right up until the release of The Pathless. Fortunately, a vast majority of the soundtrack was completed and the big recording sessions with the orchestra wrapped up just weeks before lockdown occurred. They had to record additional sessions but waited until August to do so in spaced-out, smaller groups. His meetings with Giant Squid also transitioned to Zoom, and most of the musicians were able to put together adequate home recording setups to finish the remaining material needed for the game.
Wintory estimated that his score for The Pathless is probably his most deliberately poly-cultural he’s ever attempted. He drew on multiple different inspirations from a variety of folk traditions, as well as blended palettes of solo instruments from diverse regions across the world.
The Pathless’s setting doesn’t exist in any particular place or time, so there had to be a sense of equilibrium between all its eclectic influences. Wintory elaborated, “Anything that started to strongly feel like it was pulling towards too specific of a direction would invariably get balanced against something else. I wanted it to feel familiar, yet not.”
Wintory used one particular technique, called “localized development,” for both The Pathless and Abzû’s music. “Both scores have a dominant ‘main theme,’ a melody which evolves to track the broad development of the story and character,” he said. “But within the major moments of showcasing that development I introduce new, short-lived musical ideas that go through their own little developmental process before being ultimately set aside in favor of others.”
Even though he has worked on other open-world games, there are so many small differences and nuances among all of them that Wintory can’t really take the same approach to two projects. “The specific mechanics that drive (The Pathless) are quite wonderfully unique, for example the total de-emphasis of combat,” he explained. “The Pathless is so much more about movement and momentum.” Its score focuses much more on open-ended environmental exploration, while his previous score for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was all about action with its fighting, stealth, and chase sequences.
The score for The Pathless ended up being one of the most ambitious ones Wintory has ever conducted. While he didn’t expect that would be the case, the scope of the game itself continued to expand, and the soundtrack followed suit. He concluded, “The final result was nearly three hours of music, extremely detailed in its implementation in-game, requiring 104 musicians and untold hours of mixing, editing, etc. I can’t wait for players to discover it all in-game.”
The Pathless releases on Nov. 12 for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC via Epic Games Store, and iOS.