‘Journey Live’ Combines the Best Parts of Video Games and Musical Theater

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On the night that Journey Livetook place, a strange energy worked its way into theNational Sawdust, Brooklyn’s nonprofit venue that hosted a live performance ofJourney‘s fantastic score. As conductor and composer Austin Wintory raised his baton, the audience buzzed with an anticipation that veered between excitement and worry. The tension wasn’t just because the Fifth House Ensemble was going to perform a game’s score; along with the strings and woodwinds, people would also be playing throughJourney as the ensemble performed.

Though clearly indebted to musical theater and ballet, the venture felt experimental, mixing a traditional concert with something resembling a “let’s play” or “longplay,” two popular video formats that turn games into a spectator sport. Journey was the perfect vessel for this experiment: The critically acclaimed epic takes players on a trek through vast deserts, abandoned ruins, and to the peaks of distant mountains, communicating its story without any dialogue or exposition. Still, it wasn’t a guarantee that Journey Live‘s conceit would be successfully executed.

Thankfully, Journey Live provided a skillful performance of a fantastic score, paired with the powerful drama provided by the performers playing the game. The audience—a mix of classical and experimental music buffs, game developers, and longtime Journey fans—gave a standing ovation, and post-show chatter reflected a sense of surprise at how well it all came together.

For composer Austin Wintory, though, the idea of performing Journey‘s music alongside live gameplay came during the game’s early stages of development: “While I was writing the score, it became clear that the game was going to be like a silent film, where the music would have a strong narrative function. Finding some way to put it onstage became intriguing.”

After the game was released, Wintory conducted stand-alone sections of the score to critical acclaim, so when Fifth House asked him to perform the entire score live alongside gameplay, he leapt at the opportunity. Once the project’s Kickstarter was successfully funded, Wintory was joined by composer Patrick O’Malley in undertaking the massive task of adapting the score for a live arrangement.

Though the National Sawdust performance wasn’t the first performance of Journey Live—it debuted at MAGFest earlier this year—it kicked off the start of a new series of game-based performances at the venue. According to curator Natalia Schwein, the series is a way to bring game developers and composers together. “I went to film school and constantly hear young filmmakers talk about not being able to afford the rights to the music they want in their films. I wanted to create a space where young filmmakers and composers could get to know one another’s work.”

To enable that creative cross-pollination, each entry in the series will feature a masterclass at NYU hosted by the visiting composer, as well as a meet-and-greet event and an opening act put on by a student at the Game Center. That last element is especially intriguing, since it offers a platform for work being done at the intriguing periphery of games development.

“Listening to live music is as close as we get to skimming across the surface of the sun.” -Austin Wintory

Take, for instance, Stephen Lawrence Clark’s Rooftop Cop, which was the opener forJourney Live. A five-part abstract meditation on policing in America, Rooftop Copstunned National Sawdust’s crowd as Clark played the game, burying the audience in buzzing synths and heavy metaphors. The game’s second vignette, “Capture the Flag, For One”, tracks a single figure marching back and forth across a snowy field in pursuit of a flag—a simple metaphor for the objectives and procedures that guide policing practices. The structure of the scene subtly changes until the field is a hill—then a cliff, then an abyssal tomb. It happens so slowly that it’s impossible not to see it coming, a trainwreck in slow motion.

Scwhein points out that Rooftop Cop was chosen months before the event but also acknowledges that the timing couldn’t be any more appropriate, calling it “the perfect opening act for the night and for Journey, which touches on our need for communication and community.”

For his part, Wintory thought Rooftop Cop was an appropriate opener for Journey Livebecause it introduced a new audience to the broad potential of games as expressive art. “I love that this audience got to see what the world of student game developers looks like,” he exclaims. “There are a lot of developers who aren’t looking to make the next Call of Duty—or even the next Journey. They want to make something political, or sociological, or exploratory.”

For Wintory, combining live music with complex and emotional games is an obvious choice. “Listening to live music is as close as we get to skimming across the surface of the sun,” he says, and given the heat and brightness of Journey Live, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from.

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