In the second quarter of 2016, fans of the Witcher 3 will finally put their hands on the second expansion to the last year’s hit. Since it’s only a few months until the release of Blood and Wine, we decided to pay CD Projekt Red a visit and talk about the expansion with the composer of music to the Wild Hunt, Marcin Przybylowicz. Moreover, we talked about some things that might be of special interest to those of you, who loved the music in CD Projekt’s latest game. We also touched on the subject of Cracow Film Music Festival, during which the music from the Witcher will be performed live.
Krystian Smoszna: For how long is the Witcher in Marcin Przybylowicz’s head now?
Marcin Przybylowicz: It depends on how you define the starting point. You could say that it’s been five years – that’s how long I’ve been working for CD Projekt, coming here every day and doing what’s in my job description. You could also say it’s much longer, because I had my first gaming witcher-related experience sometime around the release of the first game. That’s when I took part in the project “Inspired by The Witcher”, and one of my songs became a part of that album. Before I joined the team working on the Witcher 2, I was an outworking sound designer for one of the trailers.
The question is by no means random, because Geralt is so deep in your head, that you can hear some witcher-ish sounds in the Hard West soundtrack.
That’s funny, because I came across such opinions on the internet when I was checking whether people liked the Hard West soundtrack, and there were comments mentioning that. But to be honest… I’m not sure. On one hand, I could be less kind to myself, and I could say “yes, your creativity is gone and you’re biting your own tail”; on the other hand, I could be more kind to myself and say “every creative person, whether it’s a sculptor or a musician, works within certain artistic expression”. The longer you cultivate your art, the more define your expression becomes. You create your own style.
Do you consider music for the Witcher 3 your magnum opus?
Not necessarily a magnum opus, since I’m only 30, but I believe what everyone told me since I was a child - you’re as good as your last creation. Sure, I became widely recognized because of the Witcher 3, and that’s absolutely not a bad thing, it’s a reason to be proud; no doubt, however, that this is my biggest project up to date, and the most important one at that - both professionally and personally. Contrary to lots of small games, or my time with Afterfall, Bourgeoisie and other projects, I can say that only now with the Witcher – this is entirely my thing. For one, I was a part of the production process from the first till the last day; secondly, as a music director in CD Projekt, it was my call to create an artistic vision for this music. It was up to me to decide what it will sound like and who will help us do it – here I’d like to mention Mikolai Stroinski and Percival. Keeping in mind all of that, this is the most important project I have ever made – for now.
Do any side projects – like the previously mentioned Hard West or Seven – help you grow as an artist?
They definitely help me keep my intellectual balance. When you’re surrounded with dragons, magic and swords for five years, it’s nice to do something about guns every once in a while. On the other hand, there are also other projects – you need to keep in mind that I don’t stick to games exclusively, I also make films. Recently, I was a part of Pawel Hejbudzki’s Charon, and the film got an award at Gdynia Film Festival. All that has to make you grow as a creator. Every project has various requirements and challenges, and if you want to make it good, you need to meet these requirements while expanding your horizons at the same time.
You can hear it in the music for Hearts of Stone, that – as far as I know – you prepared entirely by yourself.
Yes, we wrote the music for Hearts of Stone entirely on our own, and we had no one helping us with it. Percival was the only exception, but this time we didn’t involve them in the creative process, we just used them as session musicians. If we use Master Mirror’s theme throughout the whole expansion and we want to have the musical coherence of sound, we just had to invite Mikolaj and Kasia from Percival to become session musicians and record it for us.
The experiment definitely worked, because – personally – I think that music from the expansion is much better than the one from the original game.
I’m glad to hear that. Can you tell me why exactly?
It seems to be more coherent, and that might be coming from the fact that everything, from the first to the last note, is written exclusively by you.
I never thought of it, because I think that music In the original game was actually coherent. I like music from the expansion more, but I think it’s because I listened to it less and our work on Hearts was generally much shorter. It’s definitely different, more dark, sometime more grotesque, and that music was exploring totally different regions within the same style.
It’s also more fresh.
I agree with that, because this music consists of something that people were not used to in the original game; even though we aimed at similar feeling that we had with, for example, the Ladies of the Wood or in other plot-sensitive moments, we only went over our heads in Hearts of Stone. The plot, the narration, even Gaunter O’Dimm himself – all of that made it possible to go a little crazy with some other ideas.
Did you use some leftovers from the Wild Hunt in Hearts of Stone?
There is one thing that I couldn’t get out of my head, but there was no place for it in the original game. This is the music that you hear when fighting Olgierd with the burning house in the background. Originally, this is Percival’s song called Dziewczyna Swaro¿yca [Svarog’s Girl] that we reworked, rearranged and produced anew, so that it sounds more our way. For a long time I had an idea for that piece - because I really liked it - but I couldn’t really find a meaningful place for it in the original game. So yes, there was one song set aside, waiting for the better times, and finally we were able to make use of it. Everything else is my original work that was written specifically for this expansion, something like a well-tailored suit.
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone Game soundtrack - You're Immortal [2:51]
Tell us more about this, because many people have no idea what the process of writing music for games looks like. In what way you decide that a certain theme will go with a certain scene? For example, let’s think of breaking into the auction house of Borsodi Brothers, which is my favorite piece in the whole Witcher 3.
Through all these years, I was able to come up with a really nice system of cooperation between departments. Working on music isn't about sitting in front of a computer, typing notes and something comes out of it. Our soundtrack is that good, because it is created in cooperation – not only with the game director, who has a general idea of the whole thing and knows what “feeling” he wants to have, but also with the directors of certain quests. So if we think of that heist, I meet with the people who created the quest and we talk about it, and then I try to describe all the emotions evoked by that event, preferably within one sentence. You can say that it’s because time changed, that we’re the generation of Twitter, but if you can’t describe these emotions with just few words, it means that you don’t know the concept behind the quest. In this case, the description was “Ocean’s Eleven”, and that meant a heist. When it turned out that we will be recruiting people, preparing for the heist, and then it will all go to hell during the mission itself, I had a general idea of what I wanted. I love heist movies, and I watched tons of them, so I knew where I wanted to go with the music, always keeping in mind that everything needs to be placed within the world of the Witcher. On one hand, you need to have an artistic and stylistic vision – because it’s still about Geralt and it happens in Velen – but on the other hand, in terms of gameplay and directorial elements, you get more creative space.
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone Game soundtrack - Mystery Man [2:40]
The next step in writing music for such a quest is realizing what characters take part in it. Here it was Ewald who presents the whole plan to us, so the director revealed his story to me. I found out that he’s a slippery guy, because he doesn’t tell us the whole truth, and I tried to match the music so that it describes his personality well. This theme had to be dark, more aggressive, and a little bit of soft rock felt right in here. So we concluded that we’ll use classic riffs on medieval instruments. We knew that, while listening to that piece, the player needs to immediately get a hang of it, swing his head a bit and tap with his foot. I think we achieved that.
And what does it look like in case of the background music?
I can’t do background music.
Ok, I’m kidding, if I couldn’t make the background music, I wouldn’t be working in this company, but that’s actually not my favorite thing to do. However, if you look at players’ opinions, they generally liked it.
Sometimes the background music was too distinct.
Exactly, now we’re back again to the subject of style. There are people like Jeremy Soule, who makes a really ambient and “spatial” music. As a result, when you play The Elder Scrolls - even if you’re a musician, sound engineer or simply someone really aware of music – you often don’t realize that there is music there and that it does something; you don’t realize that this music is not getting through all the layers of gameplay and all the content that you have around you. On the other hand, there are composers like Jesper Kyd, who makes a really distinct background music and you get it immediately. I’m much closer to Kyd in this matter. Besides, he’s one of my favorite gaming composers.
You can hear it in Witcher 3, especially on Novigrad’s ramparts.
You get the Assassin feeling, don’t you? (laughter). Kyd is a genius and there could have been some unconscious, subliminal inspiration involved on my end. I can’t influence that. Anyway, I had exactly opposite thing with Hearts. I uploaded the main theme of the expansion and after few months I checked the comments on YouTube. One of the comments mentioned that you can hear the same music in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I was shocked. Although I’m mildly interested in the movie itself, I’ve seen this trailer and I didn’t recall anything like this. So I played it again and listened to the whole thing more attentively, trying to focus exclusively on music. And yeah, I found a fragment that was really similar. I quickly checked the dates and it turned out that the trailer was released in January, and our piece was uploaded in August year before, so we were first. It just happens sometimes. The equal temperament (a musical tuning system – ed. note) has 12 tones in an octave, and that means that there’s a finite number of combinations you can have with these sounds. Two pieces might be similar to one another simply by accident.
You mentioned earlier that you didn’t have any assistance from the outside with Hearts. What will it look like with Blood and wine? Will Mikolai be back?
Yes, Mikolai will be back in the new expansion, we also have a new composer on board - Piotrek Musial, who is behind music for games of 11 bit studios, including This War of Mine that received multiple awards. The three of us are working on the music for Blood and wine, and it will be completely new. We’re not using any pieces that were written before, because we get a completely new area, new characters, and a new plot. They deserve to have their music written from scratch.
Percival will also play their part, because you recently posted their pictures from the recording session.
Yes, they also played their part in working on music for the second expansion.
Toussaint (the new area from the upcoming expansion) known from the books is kind of an idyllic land, left untouched by the war.
Yes, these people’s lives revolve around drinking wine and enjoying themselves.
In what way will that affect music?
First of all, it will be less depressing than what you know from Velen, for example. On the other hand, if you played Witcher 3 or the first expansion, you know well that nothing in this universe is that colorful, and there will be some grime involved. Music will have that grime too.
Okay then. We have the idea of the area and its atmosphere, and as you’ve said – this won’t be a musical repeat. So what’s Percival’s role in all of this? Their musical style is quite clear. Are they here to guarantee that the change will not be too drastic, and that there will be some elements conjoining Toussaint’s music with what we could hear in Velen?
Percival’s participation comes from two things. First – it’s still Witcher 3, so we need to have a continuation of a certain music style that we had in the original, and it needs to resonate with people. We realize that not everyone liked it, because there were some negative comments, some people were not happy; after all, this music isn’t typical for the fantasy games. We decided to follow that road, and coherence needs to be kept now. On the other hand, Percival’s participation just makes sense; however, since we can’t talk about the plot, I can’t tell you anything more about it.
Did Percival record a completely new stuff?
Neither in Hearts, nor in the original game have we used only remixes of the already existing music; we also worked on new music, although we actually used a lot of what they’ve already written. In case of Blood and wine, these proportions are reversed – we mostly do new stuff with them. Obviously there’s a chance that remixes of Percival’s music will find their way into the game, because we simply like them. We like songs that you don’t get to hear in games that often.
Are we to expect the new Wolven Storm?
What? I couldn’t hear your question! (laughter)
How big will the soundtrack be?
Definitely bigger than the one in Hearts of Stone. In the expansion it was around 40 minutes of in-game music; this one – since it’s going to be at least twice as big as Hearts – will need to have much more than that. I can’t tell you how much more, because I actually don’t know that yet. We work on that music all the time, everything is tailored and every quest gets a lot of love, so that it sounds well. I don’t know at which point we’ll stop.
Let’s focus on the Cracow Film Music Festival. I’m really interested in that undertaking, and I would like to know what’s your part in it.
It’s quite substantial, I’m directly involved in organizing this event.
I’m glad to hear that. Will you present a lot of material there?
A LOT. The whole day will be devoted to the Witcher and It’s a milestone for us. Through 9 or 10 years of its existence, the festival became one of the most important events of that kind in the world. Every year there are so many celebrities here, that you can’t even name all of them. It’s really awesome that we’re the ones who get to be the final act of the festival. Movie screenings usually closed the festival, and that was a jewel In the crown of the whole event. Now we get to be the cherry and it means a lot to us, as the creators of the Witcher. I don’t think it will be misusing the word or some kind of snobbery, when I say that - for the Polish gaming industry - we’re the stars of the festival. This means that expectations are high and we don’t want to let anyone down. We want to do it as best as we can.
Can we expect similar highlights as during the last year’s edition of the festival? Trevor Morris performed the suite from Vikings with Wardruna’s Einar Selvik.
Yes, Percival will definitely appear on stage; there will be other guests as well, solo artists, but I don’t want to reveal any names now, I don’t want to interfere with the festival’s organizers. When it comes to the suite from Vikings, there is a great recording from last year on YouTube, you can hear and see how awesome that was. I think you can treat it as a benchmark of what is to come in case of the Witcher. We love our baby, and we’ll do our best to show that during the concert.
Let’s slowly wrap it up. Would you like to write music for Baginski’s Witcher?
Is that a question with a hidden thesis? (laughter)
I don’t know, I was waiting for your reaction.
Yes, I would love to. I started my adventure with music, because I wanted to do films. It doesn’t mean that I consider games to be fillers, though. I do films, but they don’t reach as far as the Witcher 3. So generally yes, I would like to do that, because this is the area that I know well, and film as art is completely different, so you need to use a different set of tools. However, there’s the other side of the coin too. For me as a spectator, it would be really nice to see how a different composer deals with it, because that could be stimulating for me.
Is it harder to make music for movies or games?
There’s no “harder” here. There’s “different”. It’s as if you asked whether it’s more difficult to ride a bike or drive a car. There are some similarities – you use the road, move forward, turn left or right – but there are lots of differences as well.
And what appeals to you more?
It’s hard to say. With movies it’s different – they are created much faster, the work is more intense; supposedly, in Hollywood a composer has about eight weeks to write music, and that time starts with meeting the director and ends with the soundtrack already in the pressing plants. In case of TV series, it’s even faster. Trevor Morris told me one time, that when he was writing music for Vikings, he was doing one episode a day. The TV station puts pressure on you, and you can’t afford to have any delays. On the other hand, games are really time consuming and you have more time to tweak the details, but there’s also the aspect of interactivity and adaptability, you need to implement all of that. Sometimes it’s – I don’t want to use the word “hell” – just difficult, because some ideas for the story are going one way, technology goes the other way, and there are also gamers’ expectations that you need to meet. You need to combine it all to save your face as a creator, to make it all work, and to have people willing to buy it. So there’s no “what appeals to you more”, it’s rather a case of certain intellectual state and realizing how you should approach it. Just like that.
Are you thinking about Cyberpunk already?
My superiors already force me to do it, because I spend most of my time with Geralt; however, some first attempts with Cyberpunk were already made.