'Journey Live' Combines the Best Parts of Video Games and Musical Theatre

The live show by the Fifth House Ensemble and Austin Wintory combines musical performance and "let's play".

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04 August 2016, 12:00am

Images courtesy of Sony and thatgamecompany

On the night that Journey Live took place, a strange energy worked its way into the National Sawdust, Brooklyn's non-profit venue that hosted a live performance of Journey'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 through Journey 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 long time 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 on stage 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 each other'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 for Journey Live. A five-part abstract meditation on policing in America, Rooftop Cop stunned 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 Live because 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's 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.

I never doubted the artistic merits of Journey's score, but hearing it live rejuvenated my appreciation for it. As Wintory says, the music narrates the game's events; each percussive strike is an exclamation, and each violin hum is a gale of wind blowing.

But the gameplay transformed the music just as much as the music informed the play. Journey's onscreen characters charted a melodramatic course through the game, keeping a firm but curious distance until a joyous descent down a sunlit dune united them in a celebratory dance. They bounded with glee through Journey's caves and ruins, solving puzzles and leading each other to hidden collectibles.

Then, as things turned dark and dangerous, they grew apart. As one danced, the other stood still; as one carried forward, the other lingered behind, unwilling to continue the pilgrimage. In a massive, hollowed column that was slowly filling with water, the main player character wrapped their companion with their long scarf, offering a chirp to encourage them to come along. But they remained still, sitting in place as water rose over their head.

This was an emotive mode of play—a silent story of a relationship or a series of relationships falling apart, or the natural distance imposed by age or illness, or a series of relationships—but regardless of interpretation, it was impressive that a story was being told on top of the traditional epic tale that Journey already conveyed.

While the Fifth House Ensemble hasn't announced any future dates for Journey Live, Wintory told me that he'd love to continue performing the show for new audiences, as long as he can find time for it in his packed schedule. In the meantime, Wintory's latest project, Abzū—a spiritual successor to Journeyfocused on underwater exploration and meditation—launched earlier this week to a warm response.

The next entry in National Sawdust's new concert series hasn't been announced yet, but Schwein is optimistic about the future of the project: "Our hope is that the series starts conversations about the role of gaming—both in the lives of the creators (by creating a space for young artists to collaborate and be successful) and in the greater public (through meaningful games and human moments), while fostering relationships between young developers and composers." Given that goal, the strong showing of Journey Live—as well as Rooftop Cop— is as solid a proof-of-concept as you could get.

Follow Austin Walker on Twitter, and VICE Gaming at @VICEGaming.