VGM Review #5: "Journey" OST

Starting today you can purchase the Journey OST on iTunes or on the Playstation Network! 
*Spoiler alert for the review*: Do it. 

I had my first experience with the music from Journey back in early January, reading composer Austin Wintory’s own words regarding the creation of the music (check out the post).  It was from that that I had the chance to listen to his “Woven Variations,” an “extrapolation” and development of the music found in the game.  I was immediately captivated by both the ideas behind his approach to the music and by the music itself.  Thus began a long two and a half months of waiting to listen to all of the music that Wintory had been composing for the last three years for this game.  Journey was finally released on the PSN to the non-Playstation Plus masses on March 13th. 

The first thing I did after the game installed was just scroll to the game’s icon on the XMB.  The theme, represented by Tina Guo’s powerful solo cello, emerged from my speakers and I simply basked in the beauty that flowed from start to finish.  Please, allow yourself to listen to it below.  The track is entitled “Nascence,” and it is fittingly the first track on the OST.  Shut your doors, set your phone to OFF (not silent—a vibrating object on your thigh is just as bad as your “Safety Dance” ringtone), press play, and close your eyes.  Wait—throw your phone out your window.  Okay, now press play and close your eyes…

Everything is right about this piece both as a stand-alone and an in-game work.  Guo absolutely kills the theme in rubato and thus sets the precedent for the rest of the soundtrack.

The bass flute, as played by Amy Tatum, acts as perfect follow-up to Guo both sonically and emotionally.  The robust sound of Guo’s interpretation is brought to a much more mellow state with the entrance of the harp (as played by Charissa Barger), triangle, and Tatum’s flute, but despite the vibe “mellowing,” Tatum easily continues the flow of strong emotion through her part, melodiously melding her rhythmic vibratos with the natural breathy voice of her instrument.

My favorite instance in the song starts at :58, where Guo ever-so-delicately re-enters the mix atop the resolution of the bass flute and harp.  The dynamics of her playing are absolutely spot-on, complementing the features of the previous instruments while at the same time putting a sense of power into the sweetness of her tone.  This power is what leads the other strings of the orchestra in from 1:01 to 1:04.

Austin then shows off an ability of his that I admired from listening to his work from flOw: his willingness to lead the listener to that which is unexpected in a subtle manner.  At 1:16 the strings sound an intense sensual sweep behind Wirtz, and instead of having the cellos follow the lead of the violins by decrescendoing little by little, the cellos sound as if they just drop out at 1:20.  The decrease of their volume coupled with the brightness of the violins’ upper register blanks the lower instruments, allowing them to creep back in, providing the support necessary to push towards a beautiful resolution.

One of my favorite quotes from Wintory about this music from the article I had read in January – the quote that got me most excited and wanting more than just “Woven Variations” – applies directly to the prior paragraph.  Here it is again:

And yet for how ‘high-tech’ we were, this music is utterly unconcerned with technology. It is all about emotional meaning. This is part of what makes Journey itself so special. The game has no fluff, no filler. I think of it like a poem.”

The only way that I believe that Wintory could have accomplished what he aimed to do was to do exactly what he did: record live musicians.  To create something that is “all about emotional meaning” and that is “like a poem” in the most optimal sense, one cannot rely on electronic samples.  Guo, Tatum, and Barger deliver that message right from the beginning—their performance is unabashedly human, lifting Wintory’s score as far away from being technological as an instrumentalist lifts a piece away from being mere notes on a page.

As for the soundtrack as a whole, I’ve had three totally different experiences listening to this music: one from my first play-through, another from listening to the actual OST, and the last from a second play-through.  I beseech the reader to bear with me until s/he reads about my final experience and understanding.

My first play-through of the game simply left me wanting.  After hearing “Nascence” and “Woven Variations,” I was expecting to hear a full, sweeping score throughout the whole game.  In fact, that’s what I wanted.  I hardly wanted to play the game in comparison to wanting to listen to Wintory’s score.  Instead, what I got was almost similar to my experience with the music from flOw in that I couldn’t comprehend a large sense of cohesiveness initially.  The music was only great to me at points.

Take, for instance, “The Road of Trials.”  I distinctly remembered where the beginning part is in the game when I first listened to the OST.  That being said, I remembered, and still remember, losing focus on the music at some point until 1:28 kicked me back into gear.  That point got me excited again and then my interest faded a bit more.  Cues, as opposed to the overarching score, were getting me into the music, and I had the same experience in a few different areas.  So, that which caught my attention I really enjoyed, and I think that a lot of gamers have gotten a lot of joy out of those moments, thus leading them to proclaim that they love the soundtrack (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that).

The above being more-or-less a summation of my first-time experience, I found my favorite instance to be quite odd.  At the end of the game, I found myself struck most by the final moments of the journeyer in the snow area.  I thought that the grating sounds of the instruments really brought out the horror that the gamer witnesses, only leading to a final, piercing silence.  That was my favorite musical moment in the game—the silence.  Wintory’s score tears up the scene and then seizes all aural instance from the gamer.  It’s beautiful.  Truth be told, I wish that the silence on the soundtrack were longer so that I could relive that moment in the truest sense every time that I listen.

Anyway, I was a bit baffled when the silence happened because it was immediately and indisputably my favorite above all other musical moments.  Even though I gave Wintory every bit of credit for that moment, I felt a little disappointed overall.  I didn’t feel like I could even enjoy the final area’s music (“Apotheosis”), nor did I feel as if I could enjoy the ending theme (“I was Born for This”) to its fullest extent.  It was as if I were tired of wanting to listen and hear more than I actually did.

I didn’t give up, though.  I heard sparks of greatness for sure, and I wondered if I was just going to have another flOw experience.  ‘Maybe,’ I had thought, ‘that’s just how thatgamecompany works their audio.’

So I had waited for quite some time for the soundtrack to come out.  Luckily, I was able to procure an advance copy and then play through the game again after having listened to it.

Let me just say this: Gamers, if you feel as if you loved the Journey soundtrack from listening to it in-game, do yourself a favor and buy the soundtrack.  There is nothing like sitting down, donning some good headphones, and giving the music your full attention.  Heck, listen to it any way you want as long as you’re paying attention because I guarantee you that you will hear the music in a vastly different light.

It’s hard to be general about the OST’s tracks because in reality, the music of Journey is one large flowing body of work.  Listening to the OST straight through from start to finish is like playing as if you made the journeyer take the path of least resistance—as if s/he did everything “right” via a speed run (it’s probably more extreme than that; I doubt that one can play through so well that the s/he hears the released OST).  Remember that cohesiveness that was elusive to me upon first play?  I found it upon listening intently to the OST, and it’s more cohesive a cohesive than I could have imagined. The tracks are so intertwined through the instrumentation and the musical themes that Wintory essentially wrote an hour-long piece of music called “Journey” and then decided to break its movements into tracks on the OST that make sense.

If I had to generalize, I would say that there are tracks that listeners will want to hear in a live orchestral setting and then there are those that they will not want to hear in such a fashion.  “Threshold,” “The Road of Trials,” and “Apotheosis” are all examples of tracks that I would love to hear live because they really carry well from beginning to end.  I continue to love listening to the interplay between all of solo instruments and discovering new awesome moments that I can only get from really focusing and listening, and a live setting would be perfect for such discovery and study.

The “Confluence” tracks are that of the other type.  The soundtrack is full of these one-to-two minute interludes.  Numbering six altogether, these tracks model the meditative, dreamlike state that the journeyer undergoes when s/he communicates with the spiritual powers of the game.  Wintory perfects the tracks’ namesake in what he does, combing traditional melodic devices with more free-sounding devices.  Take a listen to the flute melody playing off of the theme of “Nascence” in “Second Confluence” surrounded by tones that sound like they run together in a soup in the distance; then, listen to the melodies of “Third Confluence” that are played overtop a low pizzicato note that bends in and out of tune.  The result of the combining of these elements is, in fact, a confluence—the elements maintain that the journeyer has a physical sense of self during these meetings with the spirits as well as a separate mental or spiritual sense of self.  Back to the point: as much as I would love hearing them, I don’t think that they would necessarily sit well with a general audience in a live setting.  In terms of the soundtrack, though, they are great bridges between the tracks that buyers will want to repeat over and over.

Also, speaking of thematic cohesiveness, be sure to internalize the theme provided by Guo’s cello at the beginning of “Nascence.”  Absorb it while listening to the OST and then discover while playing all of the points it or a variation of it is used and reused.  There are many critical moments in which the listener will hear it, some of which include the beginning (obviously), the part where the journeyer learns of his fate (hearing it there in particular was very powerful to me during my second journey), and at the journeyer’s apotheosis (heard on the track of the same name).  Throughout the game the theme reminds us that, even though a journey is at its end, the journeyer maintains a core essence of self from start to finish, thus in turn presenting a possible allegory to our own lives.

In any case, listening to these tracks as a CD fulfilled high-expectations me, and I went on to tackle the game again with a new, fresh outlook on the music.

I’ve decided since the end of my second journey that the visuals cause an “underplay” of the music.  My take is that Journey’s soundtrack needed to be both background and foreground music.  At times, or at certain cues, the soundtrack needed to amp up the player, while at other times it just needed to “be,” which is why the first time through I felt like I couldn’t focus on the music in certain spots.  In the end, the game finds a balance between its visually artistic style and its auditory artistic style, delivering a heavy dosage of emotion to the gamer in a more “delicate” sort of way.

Wintory decided that the music doesn’t need to be “in one’s face” melodically; rather, sometimes a scene just needed to be colored and supported.  “The Crossing” is a good example of that coloring, but “Descent” takes the cake.  “Descent” is terrifying.  Listening to it on the soundtrack doesn’t give it as much justice as if one hones in on its subtle sounds while playing the game.  Sure, the first time through I was freaked out by the monsters, but by trying to understand the function of each sound made during that part while sneaking around the second time, I made myself even more afraid despite having already encountered the things.  

Furthermore, my experience with “Descent” shows how the visual/auditory balance in Journey thrives.  The first time through the game I wrote off being affected consciously by the music—instead, I was captivated by the stunning visuals.  Listening to the soundtrack, I knew instantly where my journeyer was when “Descent” came on—that time, the music was the thing that was standing out most.  Playing through it the second time, my emotions were heightened because I once again experienced the great scene visually and then was able to apply the results of my focused listening to hearing the music in its right place in the game.

Simply put, listening to the OST made my gaming experience more valuable.  If I were a normal person with no expectations that picked up Journey and started playing, I think that I would have loved everything about it, including the soundtrack, because every element in the game compliments every other element so well.  Listening to the OST, however, put me as a critical listener in the place that I wanted to be and allowed my second journey to exceed the experience of my first.  I can't say that I've had that experience with many games, if any at all.  

The question is, though: should I have to wait until the second play-through to be satisfied to the fullest extent?  I would say 'no,' simply because my first experience in itself was overall excellent.  I think that Wintory has achieved something special here, though, making an OST that has that has the ability to influence and complete my gaming experience through its own means.  The best thing about it, too, is that I don't think it was on purpose.  I will never encourage anyone to necessarily shoot for that because, while it could be a great way to force extra sales, if it doesn't happen naturally it won't happen at all.

In the end, my feelings towards Journey’s soundtrack mimic my feelings towards the games that I’ve played from thatgamecompany: I strongly believe that Wintory has created scored VGM that is the essence of the genre matured.  Journey’s OST removes itself from the constant melodic bombardment that I tend to favor in VGM.  It also removes itself from the terrible monotony and uninspired writing that is found in a many a TV or film score and in the subsequent sect of games that are scored as if they were a film and then are thusly uninspired.  Wintory has composed, once again, a game soundtrack that is its own entity for a game that lies in a similar realm amongst its fellow games.

Congratulations to both Austin Wintory and thatgamecompany, and thank you for the great experiences.  I know I speak for many when I say that we hope for more like them in the future.

PS:  Did I tell you to go buy the soundtrack already?  Scroll to the bottom to preview more of it if you need more convincing.

PPS: The bells towards the end of “Atonement” are groovin’.  Check it out.

I would like to extend a special thanks to Austin himself for being a great supporter of this blog through his enthusiasm for my review of flOw and for allowing me to listen to Journey’s OST in advance so that I could get this review out on release day.  Cheers, Austin!