It's only May, but The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is already shaping up to be one of the biggest games of the year, in more ways than one.
Critics are raving about CD Projekt Red's epic fantasy title and its huge, sprawling world filled with exotic monsters and nuanced characters. But outside of great gameplay, stellar writing and stunning visuals, there is one other essential piece needed to fully bring the world of Geralt of Rivia to life: music.
That's where composer Mikolai Stroinski comes in. A veteran of composing scores for games, television and film, Stroinski joined composer Marcin Przybylowicz in bringing a fresh new sound to The Witcher 3. Stroinski was kind enough to answer some of our questions about how he became involved in the project, what his major sources of inspiration were for Geralt's world and whether he's gotten into playing the game himself.
How did you first become involved with CD Projekt Red in composing the score for Witcher 3, and what is the division of labor between you and fellow composer Marcin Przybylowicz?
After scoring the Dark Souls 2 trailer, I received a lot of interest in my music. I also gained recognition amongst Polish game developers — as a result of which I received a direct offer from CD Projekt Red to score The Witcher 3 game.
Apparently they liked my demo a lot, and after many months of keeping me in suspense, they called me and asked if I would like to participate in the music creation process. As you would expect — there was only one answer to this question.
As far as the division of labor between Marcin and I, we both composed the music, however, he also caries the music director title and was responsible for putting the score into the actual game
You've composed music for games before, like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. What makes crafting the music for a game different from that of a film or television show, and how is Witcher 3 specifically different from other projects you've worked on?
There are a couple of factors that make video game music different. First of all, film and TV are both a linear medium format and so is the musical approach to them; every scene has music that is permanently assigned to it and no events on the screen will change that.
In the case of video games, however, every player has his or her own pace of moving forward, exploring the world and solving mysteries. Therefore, the music that plays in the background needs to be changing into something else — if, let's say, a player is losing energy, dying or the combat is over. So the music has to accompany all those events to make the gameplay experience more believable and immersive.
The Witcher followed this rule. The cues (that were interactive) are divided into smaller layers, which come together, in the case of a combat cue, only when we are dealing with a very powerful enemy. If the enemy is small (let's say a pack of wolves), only the first layer of the piece will play. The Witcher was different than my previous projects in film, television and even other games, in terms of the amount of music as well as the style of music that was written.
What were some of your primary inspirations when crafting the music for Witcher 3?
In order to nail the Slavic portion of the soundtrack I had to do some research and listen to a couple of folk bands from Poland but expand it with Balkan music as well. The pivotal point between the two styles is Bulgaria. The rest of my inspiration was folk music from Ireland and Scotland. I combined all this with everything else that resonates in my head after years of working on and listening to all kinds of music.
How did the partnership between you, Marcin and the folk band Percival come about, and how large was their involvement?
When I received a phone call from CD Projekt to invite me on board to score The Witcher, it was Marcin who called me. Our collaboration was very smooth and we worked as one, producing piece after piece. I must say that over the many months of collaboration, we became good friends. I'm looking forward to having a couple of beers with him when I visit my home country.
As far as the involvement of the band Percival, they were recorded in CD Projekt's studios and also provided some of their pre-existing material for us to use. I think they fit very well and are definitely very gifted musicians. The music they contributed to the project certainly makes the soundtrack stand out.
Witcher 3 is an epic fantasy filled with monsters and magic, swords and sorcerers. How does your choice of instruments and vocals reflect what is happening in the game?
Since it is a fantasy RPG, string instruments and different kinds of flutes and vocals were natural choices — but it's how we use this palette that makes the difference. The raw sound of string and folk instruments lend themselves well to the brutality of the witcher's world.
I think this is also a case when some folk instruments may be even a little bit out of tune, which helps the authenticity of the world. There is something primeval about this sound, which reflects this violent world of knives, bare bones and blood; these may be negative connotations with death, but are very real at the same time. Perhaps that's the element that brings the story closer to us from the fantasy world.
The combat cues, which are very elaborate in the orchestration, are composed also on basic riffs which are easy to hum and repeat in an uncomplicated way — as are the brains of trolls or wolves. The magic in the game is mostly associated with female characters so the female vocals in combination with strings seemed like a fitting approach. In general, it's all about striking the right balance between certain film scoring techniques and new musical colors that are unique to The Witcher 3.
The size and scope of Witcher 3 is huge, with a wide variety of locations, environments and characters. I'm curious if the amount of music needed for the game was equally as large. How does the size of the project compare to projects you've worked on in the past?
It's probably the most music I've written for any project before. The second closest would be the HBO Poland series, In Treatment. The overall amount of the original music in The Witcher 3 is more than five hours — but if you take into consideration that each cue is divided into smaller sub-mixes, we are probably talking close to 12-15 hours of music total. That is a lot and reflects very well on how big the world within the game really is.
Witcher 3 is the third game in CD Projekt Red's trilogy, but this is your first time crafting music for the series. How did you incorporate the musical style and themes from the two previous games into your score for Witcher 3?
There [weren't] many, only one main theme, I believe, was lingering from the previous installments. It gives the series its musical identity so it had to be incorporated here and there. I wouldn't say it's in a lot of places but you certainly will notice it when you hear it. I didn't follow the musical style from the previous games and if there are similarities, it is by accident. In general, my task was to give The Witcher 3 a new and fresh musical approach.
Did you get the chance to play the game yourself, and did that influence how you approached the score in any way?
No, I haven't played the game yet! This actually makes me really happy because I can play it when it's out and the joy won't be spoiled as it usually is when I work on any project.
If you had to pick one track from the game's soundtrack to convince people they need to play Witcher 3, which track would it be and why?
That's a tough question. I don't have a favorite piece and I would not like to influence people's opinion. On top of that, judging by the reactions to the game on the internet, something tells me I don't need to convince people to play The Witcher 3. It's a wonderful game and I have the utmost respect for all those involved in making it.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is in stores May 19, and comes packaged with a limited edition soundtrack of Stroinski's work. For more Witcher 3, check out our guide to Geralt's fantasy world and see how the game's visuals have changed over time.