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Music Director Marcin Przybyłowicz about the musical approach of The Witcher 3

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The Witcher clearly is a phenomenon and put Poland on the Triple AAA video game map. Based on Andrzej Sapkowski‘s books it has made its way to become one of the most anticipated games in 2015. That is clearly visible in the 4 million copies sold within the first two weeks after the release of its latest title, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Now the Extended Edition of its Soundtrack has been released digitally, including 56(!) tracks.

Therefore I was really glad to get the chance to sit down with Composer and Music Director Marcin Przybyłowicz in his studio in Warsaw at CD Projekt Red this summer. Last year we got to interview him briefly during the Film Music Festival in Krakow, so I was curious what had happened since then and it was a great opportunity to find out more about the creative process behind the Witcher games in general. In the very beginning of the interview when I asked him what exactly he was working on at the moment, he told me that actually he was on vacation and only came to CD Projekt to do this interview. While this shows Marcin’s devotion to the game as well as the high value fans have for him, I really hope that you, dear reader, will enjoy the details about the scoring process behind The Witcher 3.

But before we jump into details please enjoy the game’s first trailer from 2013:

Everyone in the gaming industry and of course the Witcher community itself was stoked after seeing the first visuals created by Platige Image (you can watch a Making of here), and as Marcin told us, also CD Projekt only noticed the true scope of the project along the way:

At some point we realized that the game is becoming a much bigger deal than we had thought. Not only in terms of the scope of the game, the complexity, but also because of the public feedback. People actually started to demand the game, so that meant for us that we could not deliver a product with flaws. We decided we wanted to put some extra effort to optimize the game really well.

When The Witcher 3 hit the E3 last year with the following trailer, the buzz really was on:

To avoid that the game could only be played on super hightech PCs as it appeared after the first visuals that were released to the public, CD Projekt went the extra mile and pushed the deadline twice to optimize it for all platforms. Incredible reviews from major game magazines as well as the positive responses from the fan community proved them right and now the two Expansion Packs, ‘Hearts of Stone’ and ‘Blood and Wine,’ are already in the making. Adding 10 to 20 hours of gameplay to the Witcher world, CD Projekt strives to deliver the „old-fashioned, old school expansion packs like you had in Baldur’s Gate, Diablo etc.“ Valuing the game’s creative and innovative approach as well as its function in promoting European culture, it was just announced that ‘Blood and Wine will be sponsored by the European Union with 150.000 Euro. Proving the importance of the fans for their development of the game, that Marcin mentioned, CD Projekt is also well-known for giving out plenty of DLCs for free. This time it’s 16 little add-ons including new haircuts, armor and swords.

Two Steps From Hell and a Lullaby: Working on the launch trailer

Before we delve deeper into the making of the score, here’s Marcin’s favourite of all Witcher trailers – crafted by DIGIC Pictures – and why he likes it so much:

It’s so well done. Even in my own native language I cannot find proper words to express how impressed I am from that trailer. It’s just blowing my mind constantly – and you need to remember that I spent about a month on that trailer. So I’ve seen it a million times already and it still gives me goosebumps. It’s freaking amazing.

The lyrics were done by our main English writer, Borys Pugacz-Muraszkiewicz, who is excellent with that. I made the melody first and Boris came up with the text afterwards. It really went well all together: The cinematic itself, the visuals, the Sound Design that Paweł [Daudzward] did – which is, in my opinion, stellar work, really world class Sound Design –, the Two Steps from Hell piece, the lullaby; It all came together and it worked as one entity. That’s why I’m most proud of this trailer. It feels complete.

Marcin told me that in the beginning, the trailer wasn’t supposed to have a lullaby in it and that the whole trailer should be accompanied by Two Steps From Hell’s ‘A Hole in the Sun.’ You can listen to the full song here and you can purchase the Single Edition of the song on ITunes.

The whole trailer was only supposed to have the Two Steps From Hell music. So when that idea was presented to me, I got the piece and listened to it. I thought it sounds cool but if we want to keep the musical integrity which we did maintain throughout our previous trailers, then we would have to change something. So I wondered if it would be possible to rearrange that piece, get stems from Thomas [Bergersen] and Nick [Phoenix] from Two Steps From Hell, and actually play around with the piece so we can still keep the original idea of the track but let it sound more like something from the Witcher world. Our business department then started approached them and after a few weeks I was able to work on it. In the meantime the trailer had been cut and we tried different solutions. We came up with this, as I think, really sweet idea of having a lullaby and opening the trailer with it, then having the main chorus, the juicy part with the combat and then end again with the lullaby and make an accolade out of that.

I think it worked pretty well and I’m really proud of what we achieved, that the lullaby part and the Two Steps From Hell track sound coherent, it doesn’t loose its internal integrity.

From XBOX to Percival: Crafting a new score

Speaking about integrity, let us get to the very beginning of the Witcher’s musical journey. I was curious how everything came about between The Witcher 2 and The Witcher 3. Krzysztof Lipka and Paweł Daudzward, both Sound Designers, and Marcin also worked together on the sound and music for the second game of the series. So as Marcin told me they literally started working on the new game at the very next day after finishing the final project of The Witcher 2 which was its XBOX Enhanced Edition.

Thus, while taking some time off, playing new video games, working on their skills and finding new inspiration, they always had the new game in mind. As always between two projects there finally was some time to try out things that could not entirely be tested because of time issues or other circumstances. So for example new instruments could be tested and everyone could find out how they can work with it, how that specific instrument blends with other instruments and so on. Everyone had time to improve themselves to get the next production to a new level.

When it became clear that the whole story of The Witcher 3 would be grounded on Slavic mythology and when Marcin and his team knew where the main plot will take place, Marcin decided to invite the members of Percival to the project. Percival is a Polish band that plays on reconstructions or replicas of medieval instruments. Not only do they perform their own compositions but also old Slavic melodies, which is what made them fit very well to the atmosphere everyone had in mind. After some recording sessions to see if a common ground could be found and if everyone understood each other artistically, they started working on the soundtrack together. Fun fact about Percival: Coincidentally the name originates from Percival Schuttenbach who is a gnome in the Witcher novels. Which band could have fit better than one that bases its roots on the Witcher’s universe?!

You can listen below to the opening track of the official Soundtrack featuring Percival (you can purchase the full Soundtrack on ITunes and Google Play Music):

After one of our brainstorming sessions in the very early process, we decided that we wanted to skip the blockbuster sound we had in The Witcher 2 and instead we wanted to explore the Folk area. We wanted to make the music more personal, more intimate but still maintain the epic factor when needed in certain situations. That’s how we came up together with a soundtrack heavily inspired by Folk.

The key to creativity: Working as a team

Marcin speaks very highly, not only about keeping the musical integrity of a project throughout the whole process as mentioned in regards of the trailer, but for him collaboration between every member of the big team involved in a massive project, like The Witcher 3, is crucial. A very popular track, ‘Priscilla’s Song,’ was one example for how important it is to stay in contact with everyone (you can purchase the song on ITunes):

The exchange of ideas never ends. No matter if you start working on a game or finish doing a game. The most important thing to work as a team is to exchange information, to work as a team and not to hide behind closed doors with your ideas and do everything on your own without telling anybody about it. You need to share your ideas with everyone because your ideas are influencing other people. You need to be in constant contact with the teams for locations, environment, quest designers and so on.

Usually we as an audio department are the last element of the whole chain because first you have the design, then quests, animations and after those animations are done, we take over. Audio is almost always the last part of the treatment. But also we as an audio department influenced some people and the game itself in some ways. For example ‘Priscilla’s Song,’ which is all over the internet now, would not be as it is now, if we hadn’t worked on that song for quite a while and talked with other people about it.

Furthermore one entire quest was created in a similar collaboration between the audio department and the other teams:

We also have a theatrical play in The Witcher 3. I don’t want to spoil anything but there is a quest where we introduced ideas like “If you want to play inside the game, maybe we could work together since you’ve already got some prototypes. Maybe we can adjust it a bit so that it also makes sense music wise and so that the music influences the play itself ingame. This way we could create another small entity inside the bigger entity.”

This is how it happens sometimes that we can influence other departments. But to achieve that you really have to work as a team. Collaboration, cooperation and exchange of information – that works best.

Krzysztof, Paweł and Marcin sit very close to each other; every studio is a maximum of 10 footsteps away. This way it’s really easy for Marcin’s team to meet on a regular basis and to help each other out if someone is stuck with a piece.

From Warsaw to L.A. and back: Creating a score with two composers

Due to his appreciation of collaboration it is no wonder then that Marcin not only got a new band on board for The Witcher 3 but also a new composer, Mikolai Stroinski, who, while having Polish origins, works and lives in L.A. This didn’t happen because Marcin knew Mikolai before but simply through a usual pitching process where many composers from all over the world could take part in several contests. Mikolai was the best and so he started working from L.A. while Marcin worked from his studio in Warsaw. Apart from two times where Mikolai visited Poland, both worked the whole time over the internet. Because they both got along so well they even worked on another game during The Witcher 3 called ‘The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter’ which won the BAFTA Games Award for Innovation this year. And not only that but Marcin and Mikolai also received the Best Audio Award at this year’s Digital Dragon Awards as well as Mikolai won at the Annual Game Music Awards in 2014 in the category of “Best Score – Orchestral / Cinematic” as well as he won in the “Outstanding Contribution – Newcomer” category at the same award show. While Mikolai took care of the musical part of the score, Marcin worked on all the Sound Design for ‘The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter.’

So this all happened while working on the The Witcher 3 at the same time. Of course I wanted to know how they split the work here. Again for Marcin it was crucial to keep the musical integrity while the two of them created the whole score around the main character, Geralt of Rivia:

As the Music Director at CD Project, it is up to me to decide what parts of music have to be composed by someone else and also it is my responsibility to make sure of whatever the other composer composes. Mikolai has his own musical language he speaks and I have my own language. They are different but there are some similarities to them. So the most important thing was to keep the musical integrity between the two of us and yet to not constrain Mikolai. We separated the composing process and didn’t co-compose. I wanted to let him spread his own wings so that he can tell his own stories music wise. That way also a part of his soul could be pulled to the music.

In the end it then was my job to also implement our music in the game. So when you have some exploration music which was mine for example, and then a quest happens that triggers quest music, which for example was Mikolai’s, I had to implement it intelligently enough so that it blends together nicely and that it sounds like it’s the same piece but it’s evolving on the fly.

I wanted to know more about how he implements the music in the game because after all, this is a big difference to scoring movies for example:

Marcin Przybyłowicz enjoying the successfull release in his studio.
Music Director Marcin Przybyłowicz enjoying the successfull release of ‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’ in his studio.

I have to come up with a system that allows us to change music dynamically, which is the system that gives the players the feeling that the music is actually adjusted to their actions because a game like The Witcher is interactive, takes place in an open world and has a non-linear multi-branched story with over 30 different endings. Therefore the story can branch in very different ways and you need to be prepared for that with the music. That’s why the music needs to be flexible enough and the whole system of handling dynamic music needs to be flexible enough to respond to that really quickly. Not only turning one piece off and turning on another piece but by preparing transitions. Some segments you can loop as well for example until another segment is triggered so it can actually feel like this music has its own breath and it’s living on its own.

Getting to speak about the main themes of The Witcher 3, again it was a collaborative process where both came up with their own ideas that ended up in the game. While for example Marcin came up with the Wild Hunt theme and the main theme for Ciri, both developed the themes and weaved them into other pieces of the score.

Ciri, a stronghold and six hours of music: Thinking of favourite scoring moments

Marcin told me that the whole of last year had been a „pure rollercoaster ride“ for him and his team because there was so much music that still had to be composed, mixed, implemented and mastered in a very short time. So after investing so much time and sweat into it, I was curious what his favourite usages of his music were. Everything in the Witcher universe is about making choices without knowing what the result will be. It really connects you to the characters you meet – and loose – along the way. Therefore it can get very emotional and one of these parts proving this again in The Witcher 3 was also one of Marcin’s favourite sequences to score; one that is heavily focused on a key character of the whole story: Ciri, the adopted daughter of Geralt.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t played The Witcher 3 yet and want to stay entirely spoiler free, you should skip this part of his quote.

Since we have six hours of custom music ingame, it is really hard to pick one specific moment. But I really like the Defense of Kaer Morhen. Somewhere in the middle of the game you have this big sequence when the Wild Hunt is really near and they’ve almost got you and they are after Ciri. You get her to the Witcher stronghold and you are preparing the defence. This sequence lasts for 40 to 50 minutes. It’s long, it’s very epic and the aftermath of that sequence really messes with your emotions.

I like this part because I have so much fun reading the internet now when people are progressing to that part and they think the game is already finished. They complain that the game is way too short but they just don’t know that a lot is still going to happen in the main story line and that it will be equally cool and sometimes equally epic.

His other favourite usage included such a major spoiler that we can’t publish it here. One of his tracks that couldn’t be used in another part of the game, because it was decided to cancel a boss fight it was written for, suddenly felt perfect for a sequence at the end of the game. To hear more about it you can send us an email, though, if you want to know. It’s about one of the over 30 endings of the game.

Finding the right balance: Scoring the mobile adaption

Slowly coming to an end we also talked about The Witcher: Battle Arena, the mobile adaption of The Witcher 3. Marcin told me that mobile games are like drugs to him and that he has to stay away from them. Still he was responsible for the sound and music of the game and so I took the chance to talk with him about his approach on scoring games for mobile devices:

The whole point of mobile games is that you have a match, a combat which can last from five to fifteen minutes. This is why you really need to plan your music so that when the players are playing and they hit this fifteen minute mark, they won’t get bored from the music. At the same time music shouldn’t be busy enough so they can still focus on the action which is, as I was told, really intense in The Witcher: Battle Arena. A lot can happen on the screen. Especially when you play the multiplayer mode and you have a bunch of guys in your team and a bunch of guys in the opponent’s team. Then it’s all about communication, giving orders and following orders. So the music should not try to draw too much attention but at the same time it should not be boring so it can do its job while the match lasts for fifteen minutes.

An interesting sidenote to close this interview with, is that Marcin who had only been to his studio because of the interview while being on vacation, then went off after we had finished, to help on a project. This is just one small example of not only how busy Marcin is and how much I appreciated that he took the time to speak with me about everything but also that he is really, really involved in everything at his job and he is always giving the best he can.

So, to appreciate this gesture of him getting to the studio only to tell the world more about the scoring process behind The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, please head over to Marcin Przybyłowicz’s website to read more about him, like his page on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, listen to his music on Soundcloud and subscribe to his Youtube channel! You can purchase the Extended Edition of the Soundtrack on ITunes, Google Play Music and stream it on Spotify. Additionally the two singles ‘The Wolven Storm (Priscilla’s Song)‘ and ‘Lullaby of Woe‘ are available on the same platforms.

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Based in Berlin, Germany. Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief. Music Producer at Eon Sounds Productions. Founder of Composers for Relief. Keeps Moving.

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