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The debate about whether games are a legitimate art form is a never-ending back-and-forth that's actually getting a bit tiresome at this point. At the very least, though, outside bodies are beginning to recognize that games at least contain artistic elements that are worthy of consideration in their own right. Thus, we have thatgamecompany's hauntingly beautiful, cello-heavy Journey soundtrack being nominated for a Grammy this year in the Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media category.

The Austin Wintory-composed soundtrack (which you can listen to in its entirety here) will compete directly with works by well-known film composers such as John Williams (The Adventure of Tintin), Howard Shore (Hugo), and Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight Rises). Wintory tweeted his speechless reaction to the nomination announcement and the outpouring of support he received following it. "I don't think I've ever felt genuinely overwhelmed before until last night, reading everyone's messages," he wrote. "You are all SO wonderful."

The soundtrack debuted at No. 8 on Billboard's "Soundtrack" charts (and No. 114 on the overall chart) by selling 4,000 copies in a week, putting it behind Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock as the second-best-selling video game soundtrack ever. The game itself became the fastest-selling downloadable game ever on the PlayStation Network after its release earlier this year.

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Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios president (and indie game champion for Sony) Shuhei Yoshida, Giant Sparrow creative director Ian Dallas (The Unfinished Swan), thatgamecompany co-founder Kellee Santiago (Journey), and Adam Volker from small start-up Moonbot Studios (Diggs: Nightcrawler for Wonderbook) discussed the role of art in games at Gamescom 2012 last week.

Oh, there were some bigger devs there, too. However, anyone who's seen Tearaway should give a pass to Media Molecule co-founder Alex Evans (LittleBigPlanet). Same goes for Gavin Moore from Sony Japan Studio (Puppeteer), who actually argues games aren't "art" but a "craft."

[via Giant Sparrow]

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sidescroller-albumtn.jpgIn development since 2009, Journey by Thatgamecompany is due out the week of March 13.

In this interview, composer Austin Wintory and sound designer Steve Johnson join us to discuss the use of audio on the PlayStation 3-exclusive online game.

In what ways is Journey attempting to make interactions with other players a novel experience?

Sound Designer Steve Johnson: ThatGameCompany's vision with the multiplayer is out-of-the-ordinary. You start off alone, and then cross paths with other players as you walk to the mountain. Jenova's analogy is that if you've been hiking a trail by yourself, you're naturally a little more inclined to wave or say hello when you see someone walking towards you. They are more interesting in contrast to your own isolation and "smallness."

Composer Austin Wintory: If we've done our job right, only half of the enjoyment will be due to the novelty of encountering another player for the first time. It's not simply that you're playing with someone else, but that the experience is meaningful.

Even though you don't know who they are or where they are in the world, and you're not looking up their profile on PSN or hearing them over voice chat, it's a meaningful connection. There have been playtests where we have asked people what they thought of the other player. The range of responses is really fascinating. When you remove dialog, PSN handles or an image of someone's face on a webcam, you're judging purely by the "body language" of their actions within the game.

As with flOw and Flower, the game is another example of stressing non-verbal forms of storytelling. How does the lack of dialog reflect on your roles?

AW: Speaking for myself, I've loved this project more than just about anything I've worked on. More than usual, we are having a hand in telling the story, and I want the music to mirror the player's experience in a very adaptive way. As with the previous two TGC titles, different players will play the game in different ways. The music needs to reflect that. We're telling a story, but at the same time the players are able to tell their own story.

SJ: As a sound designer it's exciting to work on a game without dialog because I get to be that much more of a storyteller. Without dialog, I find I'm constantly thinking not just about sound coverage, but what I'm trying to say with the sound. It's more about the adjectives than the nouns. "Is this friendly or spiritual?" "Somber or intimidating?" "Strong or delicate?" "Soothing or unsettling?" Those are the kinds of ways I can help tell the story. And seeing as this time around there are actual characters, unlike Flower, that makes those decisions a little easier.

In Journey, you can communicate by having your character sing. How did this form of interaction evolve over the course of development?

SJ: We've tried to make the singing as expressive as we can, while using only one button. It's mostly based on how hard you press the button and how long you hold it. I really liked how in Shadow of the Collossus, you speak to your horse using only one button and it changes depending on the context. You might be softly speaking, shouting across a distance, or screaming bloody murder if you're up against a boss.

AW: The idea is not to create some alternate language, but there are a lot of different uses for the singing in the game.

If you find yourself frustrated with the other player the network has paired you with while playing, can you choose to be swap out for someone else?

AW: Journey is an online game, but there is no lobby or way to choose who you play with. If you wander off from another player, you'll be disconnected. Eventually you may get connected to somebody else. In this way, even though many people are playing, you'll only ever see one person at a time. You can choose to play with others, but you can also finish the game alone.

Japanese language trailer

flOw had its aquatic environment, while Journey is set within expanses of sand. How will the sound of the game reflect the visual theme?

SJ: The last game was all about wind and grass. This one is all about sand and cloth. On the player alone, there's the body foley, a cape whose sound is tied to length, wind speed, and player velocity, footsteps for the all surfaces, surfing on sand.

In my room at Sony I've got a cardboard box filled with dirty Venice Beach sand that's become my ghetto foley pit. All of the sand waterfalls, rolling sand dunes, and player-sand interactions were recorded there. Having a variety of desert ambiences has been an interesting task too. For instance, one level is a super hot, still desert. What's the sound of that? I finally made something mostly out of processed and panned roomtone.

AW: The music and sound design are very interwoven. Steve is doing a lot of foley work with sand and cloth, which is directly impacting the music I write. Just like the thesis version of FlOw was almost named "Darwin's Island," this game had working titles that were cloth-themed. "Woven" was a name that came up. That's why I retitled the eight-minute suite that I performed at the Golden State Pops to be "Woven Variations."

How would you characterize the instrumentation for the music score?

AW: The music in the game utilizes orchestra, but I wouldn't call it "orchestral." It has a heavily electronic aspect to it, but it features a lot of cello solos, as you can hear in the trailer. The cello is played by one of my dear friends and collaborators, Tina Guo. I thought it would be fun to write what is in effect a cello concerto for her, based on the Journey music. It abstractly tells the story of the game, but in purely musical terms.

Is there a straightforward goal to Journey? Or is it, as Jenova Chen has said, not about the destination but all about the journey?

AW: The macro goal is to head toward the mountain in the distance. But as much as the game is about this overall goal, it's equally about a series of characteristic moments and emotional experiences along the way.

SJ: I agree. Jenova and TGC deliberately planned the game as a string of distinct moments and impressions. If we do our job right, then hopefully people will find those impressions memorable and meaningful.


Images courtesy of Thatgamecompany. Sign up for Austin Wintory's Fanbridge page for an exclusive Journey music download.

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Today in our series of chats with (almost) all the PC and Mac-based finalists at this year’s Independent Games Festival, it’s indie collective CoCo&Co’s fascinating, dialogue-free co-op puzzle-platformer WAY. The game is nominated for the Nuovo award, and was also a winner at this year’s IGF Student Showcase. Here, the team talk about their impressive games industry origins, the concept of playing games with an anonymous partner, how games can form emotional connections with their players, breaking down the barriers that so often separate gamers who don’t speak the same language, and their answer to the most important question of all.
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Like Deep Sea, Journey is a story about solitude.

However, while the former personifies everything we fear about isolation, Journey does not. If anything, it articulates the beauty of it, of being somewhere without society, of being separate. Journey is a reminder that you can be alone without being lonely.

It's also, hands down, one of the best-looking games I saw at E3.

Journey does not so much begin as it does awaken along with your character. Sunlight dims and bleeds away, allowing a glimpse of your surroundings. You stand. Instructions flash on screen, indicating that the camera is tied to the movements of the Sixaxis. There is no text. There never is. A moment later, you're wordlessly informed that the left analog stick dictates movement. Instinct takes over. You begin walking. Slowly and laboriously, the protagonist plods up the nearest hill.

Particles of sand whisper away with each step you take. At times, the light catches on the sand dunes, making them look like they were patinaed with diamond dust. A stray zephyr dances by, its path marked by the ripples in the desert. Each step you take has weight. The sand slides and settles, displaced with every movement, adjusting to the march of our cloth-swaddled protagonist. Before the first five minutes were up, I found an overwhelming urge to hug the people responsible for Journey's world welling up. I had attended a panel in New York that delineated the process behind the creation of Journey. I had seen footage of the staff experimenting with the real-life physics of a sand dune. I've even stood behind people, watching the game in action on an enormous screen. None of it, however, prepared for the actual experience and the first few moments I spent in that glorious wasteland.

Like the other games that the developers have made, Journey strips away conceptions. The protagonist itself is asexual. The colors that it wears could easily be donned by either gender. With its musculature obscured by fabric and no discernible features, it would be an alien thing were its fate not so intimately familiar. Much like the rest of us, it's on an expedition with an uncertain future. Is the mountain in the distance where everyone else has gone? Is it a settlement, a bastion of strength, a place of family and belonging, or where these creatures go to die? It's hard to say.

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As the game progresses, our protagonist eventually becomes endowed with a scarf that allows for limited flight. Fuel, in the game, is defined by the hieroglyphics present on that stretch of red cloth. As you fly around, the sigils will eventually dissipate, leaving you land-bound. Fortunately, it isn't difficult to have flight restored. Though uninhabitated by anything made of flesh, Journey is resplendent with an ecosystem of its own. Calling to the most basic and plentiful of these life forms -- tiny, restless scraps of cloth that live in swarms -- will cause them to float towards you, thereafter revitalizing our silent hero. More complex beings are also present within the natural world. I didn't get a chance to play too deeply thanks to time contraints but I had the opportunity to see strange, kite-like things that could pass for energetic puppies or dolphins in the sand.

Communication in Journey is yet another interesting aspect of the game. By traditional standards, there isn't much of it. Press one button and the protagonist will sing a note. That's about the extent of it. There are no means to construct complex sentences, no multiple choices in a dialogue; the most we can do is affect the duration of the call by holding down the button. But as restrictive as this might sound, it really isn't. In some ways, it's almost liberating. Journey does not coerce you into a personality that is not your own. You're left to do as you will within the boundaries set by the game and that, of course, opens up a whole realm of possibilities with the multiplayer options.

I spent the first quarter of the demo alone, slowly traversing the vast expanses of the world. Stumbling over the half-buried ruins of an ancient civilization led to encounters with something that could have been a pre-programmed hologram or a deity. A story was told then. I watched, wondered and then left. Sometime in my explorations, another figure showed up. Journey, as many know already, will have you meet other people from time to time. However, you'll never know who they are and where they might have come from; all you'll share is that moment in Journey. I remember being skeptical about the depth of such interaction up till the point I met someone else in the demo.

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The joy was immediate. After ascertaining that the other person was indeed a living, breathing human being, I ran up to them and let loose a chorus of notes in greeting. They responded in kind. For a while, we did nothing but spiral over one another, seemingly elated at our mutual companionship. Words really were unneccessary. It was, somehow, enough to be just be there, in the presence of another person. Sadly, that was about as far as I played. About five minutes after encountering the other person, I had to surrender the console to the next in line.

Journey is a lot of things. It's beautiful, it's a little sad, it's an adventure and a place to lose yourself in all at once. While waiting for my turn at the game, I had the opportunity to talk to Jenova Chen and question him about the creation of the game. He told me that the team had discovered through real-life experimentation that sand-surfing wasn't probable, something that does not reflect in Journey's sand-swept world. Why the decision then? To paraphrase the conversation, Journey wasn't made to simulate our world as much as it was to expand upon it. There had to be a little bit of magic, he said, and there is. In fact, there's a lot of magic to be found here.

An oasis of calm amidst the ear-splitting clamor of E3 2011, I cannot wait to go back to Journey, to explore, to finally figure out what lies beyond that mountain. Who knows? Maybe, I'll find my mysterious friend again too.

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