The Music of Wild Hunt: The Witcher 3 Composer Interview
As part of our continued coverage of The Witcher 3, we talked to composer Mikolai Stroinski, who joined the project after CD Projekt heard his work on Dark Souls II.
So how (and why) did you get drafted into the co-composer slot with Marcin for Wild Hunt?
Given its size and scope the game needed more than one composer to handle the music. On top of that, CD Projekt wanted a fresh new sound. The success of the Dark Souls 2 trailer that I scored in 2012 put me on the map of game development in Poland. Subsequently CD Projekt contacted me directly to take part in the contest and send a demo piece. I worked on it for a couple of days and sent it over to them.
Without a response for six months I thought I had lost the battle because it's a common practice in the industry that if you don't get the gig you just don't hear back. To my surprise, right when I landed in San Francisco for the 2014 Game Developers Conference, Marcin Przybylowicz called me and told me that they loved my piece and asked if I would like to join in. You know the answer.
This is an ad:
How long have you been working on the music for the game?
I was engaged about a year after the production had started. I began in March 2014 and kept working for about 2-3 months. As the game kept growing and growing so did the need for more music. As a result, I got back to work in mid-July and then again from mid-November ‘til mid-January 2015.
Did CD Projekt give you a pitch or synopsis in the beginning to build your tone and themes around?
Yes. I received the synopsis, some screenshots and a couple of QuickTime movies as a reference.
This is an ad:
What was your core inspiration in working on this project?
Mostly it was the love for the books on The Witcher which I remember reading during the ‘90s; they are very immersive. I was also inspired by the new direction of music that has never been done before. I think we as composers appreciate it very much if we can do something new instead of copying someone else's style. Ironically being a Pole, I have never written a Slavic note before, so it was nice to dive into this palette of colours. My kudos to CDPR for their courage and pushing the envelope.
Did you work in-house at CD Projekt or from separate studios?
No. I live and work in Los Angeles.
What are the benefits/challenges of the location?
Definitely access to the uttermost professional musicians in the industry is one of them. I am always able to find musicians who play on very rare and exotic instruments, call them and have them come to my studio at a moment's notice. Mixing engineers with great equipment and even better ears is another one. Los Angeles is also a very inspiring place to grow as an artist - there is great music being performed left and right which certainly affects you.
It's the third game in the series. Did you consider the previous scores when creating music for this title?
Not really. The music for The Witcher 3 was reinvented. I only had to make use of the main theme which has been lingering from the previous instalments of The Witcher.
Given Marcin's role as in-house composer, did you defer to him in regards to what tracks would suit and what others wouldn't?
He was certainly a voice between me and the producers. He also had the working copy of the game so his feedback was important. It was a very fruitful collaboration and a two-way dialog.
Could you please give a brief overview on the music production using one track as example? Did you sketch ideas and run them by the team, then try samples and finally move onto full-scale recording?
Of course. Let's take "Commanding the Fury" which has been playing on the internet for some time already. First there was research on Slavic sound I had done during the preproduction of the soundtrack. Next step was doing a mockup which would have those Slavic colours combined with bigger drums and hits that are needed during the combat sections. Eventually I recorded Amir Yaghmai who played kemenche and yali tambour and I utilised the shouts taken from the band Percival's sound material which they so gracefully let us use. Many other tracks have been done in a similar manner.
Did you find any compositions particularly hard to write, or get stuck as to where they should go?
Not really, although I find writing music to the combat cut-scenes always presents more work. The cues have to have a big sound and be closely synced with the picture. It is kind of like writing mini-trailers.
With a film score you write to particular, controlled beats in the story - how do you adapt to a game where you can't fully plan for player action?
You write music that is interactive. There are a few middleware programs that help you achieve this and there are many ways to tackle the issue as well. You need to plan bigger sections of music together, write them in the same or closely related keys and tempos. Each cue is very often divided either horizontally or vertically into smaller pieces so that they can be manipulated by the above-mentioned middleware. The cues that loop also need to be written in a way that they won't become bland or irritating after a certain number of repeats.
We understand there's 4 hours plus of music. Does everything you write appear in the game?
Is there anything that was cut, either by yourself or the team, that you wish had stayed in?
No, as far as I know everything that has been written has been used in the game as well.
A soundtrack's releasing with the game, though it's only enough music that can fit on a CD. Do you have any say in what tracks make the cut?
Naturally I do. Yes, the CD that will be attached to the physical version of the game will only be able to hold thirty-something tracks. But soon after the release of the game there will be available an extended version of the soundtrack on iTunes and Spotify which will comprise of about fifty tracks which I wholeheartedly recommend.
From those that are included on the album, which are you most proud of, and which one should fans pay particular attention to (and why?)
I won't mention any particular tracks at this time because I wouldn't like to influence anybody's reception of the soundtrack. Having said that I really like the exploration tracks that I composed for the world of Skellig Islands. Celtic music is always a very artistically rewarding musical environment to be in.
How does the licensing work with the music you've created? Are you freely able to take and perform this music on the road, in orchestras, or does there have to be a sign off with the studio first?
Everything that I wrote for The Witcher 3 belongs to CD Projekt and I would have to ask their permission.
As an aside, you also composed The Vanishing of Ethan Carter soundtrack. It's a very particular experience and set in a very particular place. How do you approach creating music that fits to an experience like that, and music that is more subtle than something as dramatic as Witcher 3?
Ethan Carter's story takes place in a remote valley. And that certainly has its impact on the music itself. It had to be fairly open when written for the exploration part of the game but still within limitations because every moment of this game is about searching for the lost boy and gradually revealing the secrets of Red Creek Valley.
I had done a lot of thinking before I actually put the first note down, how to combine the story and its surroundings while keeping in mind the overall experience that a player would have. That's a challenge but also a blessing - the bonus of working on a game that has no predecessors; artistic freedom within a common sense.
You can check out Mikolai Stroinski's work and snippets from his career at his official website.