You wake up alone in the middle of a desert. Getting your bearings, you see a nearby sand dune, adorned with memorials. As you reach the top, you see a distant peak that’s showered in light. After playing this game for less than two minutes, there are only a couple of things you can be sure of – that you need to get to the top of that mountain, and that the music is really good.
Last week, Texas Performing Arts hosted the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble as they performed music from the Grammy-nominated video game, Journey. However, Journey LIVE isn’t your typical video game music concert. Instead of performing alongside a short video of Journey, the Fifth House Ensemble accompanies the entirety of the game while it’s being played onstage in real time.
Journey’s ending track, 2012. “Journey Soundtrack (Austin Wintory) – 17. Apotheosis.” (YouTube)
Originally released in 2012, Journey was an unexpected hit amongst critics and fans. And while it was praised for its gorgeous visuals and unique multiplayer mode, the game’s biggest surprise was the presentation of its breathtaking, dynamic music, composed by Austin Wintory.
A labor of love and cross-medium appreciation, Journey LIVE showcases the unique structure of Journey’s music by transforming the solo act of playing a video game into a communal experience. This is an especially cool concept considering that the music of Journey is its most-grounded story telling device.
In Journey, you play as an unnamed, silent wanderer seeking the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Along the way, you may meet other players, but their usernames are kept anonymous, making it impossible to audibly communicate with one another. The game’s larger story is partially detailed in in-world hieroglyphics, but their unclear visuals essentially leave the lore of Journey up to the interpretation of the player.
Even though you’re unable to communicate with each other (except through playful audio chirps) you and the other players you meet are unified in your perilous journey to the top of the mountain. (Kotaku)
Amongst all this ambiguity, what is clear about Journey’s story is that it’s ultimately about the cycle of life, death, and renewal, more commonly known as the trope of the “hero’s journey.” Journey’s in-game exposition doesn’t outright state this, but the music does.
As the game begins, a giant orchestral swell can be heard, only to disappear as you wake in the desert. All that’s left is a solo cello motif that you will continue to hear throughout your travels, developing as you progress. By the end of the game, the ensemble grows back into a full orchestra, developing the original theme that the game started with. The ensemble then decays, turning back into the solo cello line from the game’s beginning to express the final stage of the hero’s journey, their return.
Intro cutscene and gameplay of Journey on PlayStation 4. (YouTube)
The funny thing is, even though Journey’s score is masterfully planned to guide the player through its themes, technically there isn’t a set score for the game. Many of the pieces are actually made up of musical cells that cycle or change depending on the player’s actions. While there are still scripted moments in Journey’s music, its primary goal is to create an aural experience that seamlessly glides between varying motifs and instruments, potentially creating new versions of the music every time you play.
Example of the multiple branches music in Journey can take. (YouTube).
So, with the dynamism and the free-flowing structure of Journey’s music, how did the Fifth House Ensemble manage to adapt it for live performance? It all began when Melissa Snoza – Fifth House Ensemble executive director and flutist – was approached by in-house composer, Dan Visconti, and was told, “I need you to sit on the couch and play this game…Seriously. This is important.”
After playing Journey and even shedding a few tears, Snoza and Fifth House contacted Wintory and began developing Journey LIVE, launching a Kickstarter for the project in January of 2016. Within only 2 hours, Journey LIVE met its funding goal and in one month, reached 10 times that amount.
Again, Journey had no master score, and was never designed to be played by live performers. To arrange the musical components of Journey into a practical set of sheet music, Fifth House brought composer Patrick O’Malley aboard. Armed with nothing but scattered audio files from Wintory and a knack for musical dictation, O’Malley arranged his own versions of Journey’s music, tailored to the instrumental capabilities of the Fifth House Ensemble.
Although Journey’s original music was developed for large orchestra, O’Malley’s arrangement manages to effectively utilize the Fifth House Ensemble’s smaller range of instrumentals. (Fifth House Ensemble)
But the biggest challenge of the concert isn’t simply performing the music, it’s performing it to the actions of the someone playing Journey live onstage. While some technical and instrumental elements of the game’s music had to be abandoned, O’Malley’s arrangement manages to pinpoint the vital moments of musical transition that can occur while playing the game.
In order to shift between these moments, the ensemble follows cued hand signals from the conductor, who is watching the player’s session on the big screen. Additionally, each member of the ensemble has a music stand outfitted with an iPad running the sheet music app, forScore. forScore allows the players to flip between pages using an electronic foot pedal, making the transitions between pieces – which are entirely dependent on the will of the person playing the game – a faster, less chaotic chore than it would be with paper sheet music.
Thanks to the deceptively linear design of Journey’s levels, it actually only takes about an hour to an hour and a half to complete the game, allowing the show’s length to be comparable to other symphonic concerts. (Texas Performing Arts)
The result is a show that somehow manages to blend the elements of an operatic, concert with the experience of hanging out on a couch with a friend. As with past performances, tonight’s concert will feature various people playing the game in turns, and each person’s actions will change the way that the music will unfold. Applause and even tears can be expected as players solve puzzles, escape danger, and meet other red-scarfed journeymen along the way.
Of all the make-believe adventures that exist in video games, Journey stands alone as a remarkably singular experience. Journey is not about fighting aliens, crafting tools, or shooting angry birds – it’s about the cyclical nature of life and the sounds that we all share together in its process.
Two players face the endgame, together. (Blogspot)