It is hard to imagine a popular game without music, as it draws you into the atmosphere of a virtual world, sets the right mood and accompanies you throughout the game. The InLingo team talked to the Senior Composer at CD Projekt RED who created the Gwent and Cyberpunk 2077 soundtracks.
We found out how the work on compositions begins, how composers submerge themselves in the atmosphere of a project, and why the lack of a melody can tell a player more than its presence.
“I don’t like writing without a concept”
— When and how did you enter the world of music?
— Well, I think I’ve been playing around with music for my whole life, actually. When I was 6, I discovered Metallica. My parents sent me to piano lessons, but I didn’t really want to go because there was no keyboard player in Metallica. My biggest passion at the time was drums. I’ve been drumming since I was eight years old, but I actually got a proper drum set when I was thirteen and started taking drum lessons. Then I started to play in local bands from Warsaw, but it never occurred to me that I could become a composer and make a career of it.
It usually felt like people who do games or movies or whatever were already famous in the industry. So they are, let’s say, a local indie band, they have a big record, and then they are asked to write something for a big project. It took me some time to figure out that it’s not always like that. I was a session drummer, and I met a lot of people who were doing advertising. So I started writing jingles and stuff like that and that led me to thinking that I would like to write more music for films.
— Did you manage to achieve this?
— I started getting interested in film music and the way it is created. Then I got accepted to the USC scoring program, which was a huge deal for me. I actually spent two years just to prepare for this whole thing, and then I went to LA for two years and completed this program.
I spent the next year just working in the industry doing all sorts of jobs, like music programming, ghost writing, orchestrating, arranging, you name it. And then I came across Marcin Przybyłowicz’s post that there is a new slot for a composer over at CDPR, so I applied and I got the gig.
— Were you interested in video games before this, or was this a new area for you?
— I was familiar with CD Projekt since they were a small publisher working on RPGs, which I was really into back then. It also felt much more interesting for me because this is a newer medium and people were around my age. There were a bunch of new studios here in Poland, and there seemed to be a lot of need for people with my kind of skill set, so it felt like working with video games was possible. It’s not an ivory tower like it feels a lot of times with feature films, the process is more democratic.
I had the pleasure of studying with Garry Schyman at USC in Los Angeles for a whole year. This guy’s music really impressed me, and I thought that I can probably never land a movie or a TV show where this kind of music is required, but I can probably land a game where I can write some really freaky music. A lot of things came together in the end.
— You used to write music for yourself and this was your hobby. What is the difference between the creation of a game soundtrack and the creation of your own track or album?
— Actually, I have just started working on a side project of mine that is not related to games at all, which is why I understand the question well. The main difference is when you first start working — when you work with games, you have a specific genre, timings and other limitations. When you have boundaries, it is actually a great way to kickstart the creative process with clear deadlines that mean you can’t look for inspiration for too long.
When you write something or do something creative for yourself, I think those questions need to be answered by yourself. “What are you really trying to say?” “How are you going to write something to fit this scene?” “What kind of music are you going to write?” You have more doubts and engage in more soul-searching.
I believe that making your own music is creatively more difficult, but scoring games and movies is technically much more difficult. And I think it also requires a lot more craft than making records.
— When there is no inspiration, do track length limitations and deadlines motivate you or make you nervous?
— Sometimes, when you are writing a cue, and it’s coming together nicely, and you are happy with what you have, and then you look at the clock, and it’s two minutes and thirty seconds instead of three minutes and thirty seconds… You will really feel like it’s not going to be a very musical thing to just start another idea in the same track, so you have to figure out how you’re going to rearrange or permute what you already have into the cue. So that may be frustrating, but I think it actually helps me with creativity. I like it when the amount of minutes to write for a track is clear because then I can figure out if I have a month, two months, six months, whatever. I can kind of plan my work and try not to burn out.
To be honest, I don’t like writing without a concept, because it starts to seem to me that the DAW of choice, whether it’s Logic or Ableton, dictates what I have to do. It feels much better when I have an understanding and a plan in my head and then try to just realize that with the computer. That is why the more of the details I have at the start, the easier and more interesting it is to work. It’s not something that stops the creative flow, I actually think it boosts it more often than not.
“It wouldn’t be wise to just leave previous experience behind.”
— Does someone need special skills of some kind to do your job and write music for games?
— If you work in-house, you have to be aware of the technical possibilities and limitations of your audio engine and the musical design of the project. The process of working on one composition or another depends on the purpose of a composition. If the tracks are interactive and they react to a person’s actions, then you might not be able to play with the tempo of the melody. But other than that, I don’t think there is a required skill set, you have to know how to use a computer and know one or two things about mixing and what to use, so it sounds good.
I think games are so varied right now that there is literally a place for every style and interpretation. So a score like Garry Schyman’s for Bioshock is different to Mick Gordon’s Doom soundtrack, but they fit their projects, and they are all under this umbrella term of video game music.
— Are there game genres for which it is easier or harder to write music?
— Well, I think RPGs are definitely one of the toughest genres, especially story-driven open-world RPGs, when you want to cover as many choices and consequences as possible, so you need to write a lot of music and create a lot of assets. Those games are usually very long, so you also have to think about how to make music interesting and do its job after the sixty hour mark.
However, it would be fair to say that every project has its own challenges. I think that nailing a musical style for the project is equally difficult whether you are doing a puzzle game or an RPG blockbuster. Nailing the vibe is crucial and is always difficult, and can take from one to several days. It all also depends on the length of the game. With Cyberpunk, it was not easy at all: you try to add a lot of details, but then you look at your spreadsheet, and you see that you have fifty more cues to write.
To be honest, I would love to work on a game like Uncharted — a thirty-hour experience that’s kind of linear, when you have those arenas, and then you move on to cinematic segments. This is really a dream of ours. We would implement the shit out of this game!
—You have mostly worked on science fiction RPGs but if the team comes to you with a Witcher-style horror game, how easy would you find it to switch styles?
— Every project is like a diagram. In one circle you have what the project needs, and in another circle is your musical taste. The main thing is to find the part where they overlap and try to explore the overlap. So I think there isn’t a genre of game and music that I wouldn’t be able to find something interesting to play with. Whichever project the team decides to work on, I will simply work towards it.
— When you write a piece, you try to draw the player into the atmosphere of a particular scene or level. So how do you get yourself into the right mood when you start working?
— The process is always different, but I think the one constant is that I try to find instruments that would give me the sound that I think works for the project and a particular scene. In the case of Cyberpunk it was those boutique modular synthesizers, analog grooveboxes, and unusual stuff like that which is unlike classic keyboard or MIDI controllers. They were great at conveying the atmosphere of Cyberware, so this music felt appropriate for the game.
In the other project that I finished recently, I had this idea that I would really love to have a very aggressive string trio, so I wrote everything either in unison or three voices. And I don’t know why that happened, I just thought that it might be an interesting way to start writing and started to compose. I think the first step for me is finding the right instruments. I heard screenwriters say that “If you have good characters in your story, they will lead you and tell you what you need to do.” Instruments are the same as characters for me. If you pick your instruments correctly, then I think you’re on a good path.
— Does that mean that it is the tools you use that lead you in the right direction?
— When you say it like that, it sounds like a limiting and weird process, but you are basically correct about that. Especially when you work with performers, you can’t write something they can’t physically recreate. It is also important to keep in mind the physical capabilities of the instrument that you choose: its range, tempo, the placement of the notes within it. If you know those things, they inform you of what you can do with those instruments.
For instance, take the Folktek Mescaline that we used quite a lot in Cyberpunk — it was ridiculously difficult to tune. It has eleven oscillators (Editor’s Note: modules that produce sound) that you can tune to different notes. So we tried to find a way to play chords or motifs with those eleven notes in every octave. There are also eleven fixed pitches there. Anything like that will change the way you write and even change what you do as an end goal. So, instruments are really, really important, and the main thing is that they are a fun way to start a project.
— When you play one of the Witcher expansions, you go to Toussaint. You can immediately feel a completely different atmosphere, something in the spirit of Italy. When you start working on a project, do you watch films with a similar atmosphere, or does someone come up to you and tell you, “Basically, that’s what it’s supposed to sound like here?”
— When we release a new expansion for Gwent (Editor’s Note: a card game in the Witcher universe) we regularly use characters or places that weren’t covered before in the Witcher games.
Ofir is mentioned in one of the game expansions, but we never really took the player there, so there is no soundtrack for this place. The task was simple: making Gwent music but with notes that would reference Ofir for the player. We took the Gwent main theme and played it in a more “Middle Eastern” sort of scale but kept the shape of the melody, so that it would give you the effect of being both familiar and sort of exotic at the same time.
When you are working on an established IP, it’s always good to go back to certain things, instruments and movements that have been used before. The Witcher 3 had some of the melodies played on the kemenche (Editor’s Note: a bowed string instrument similar to a lute), and I try not to let anyone forget that. We have this whole library of sounds which were used earlier that we recorded, and I always go back to those because it is the very essence of the music that the people associate with the Witcher.
It wouldn’t be wise to just leave previous experience behind. Try to evolve the music and put it into the new elements instead of trying to reinvent it. These projects are being updated constantly, so who knows how the music will sound in ten years. Maybe the melodies in Gwent will be very different from Witcher 3, even though the kemanche is still there.
“You don’t need to bring out the orchestra for every new moment in the game.”
— How closely do you work with the development team when you decide on the sound of a particular part of the project?
— One of the reasons I like working for CD Projekt RED is that the music team connects very closely with the development team. Sometimes we work on features together, consult each other and sometimes put our ideas forward through music. This is only possible because we are inside one studio and we have the ability to talk to our colleagues. I think it would be really different if there was one audio or music lead working with a bunch of freelancers at CD Projekt RED. The main parts would have to have been decided and simply sent by email, such as the concept art or level playthroughs.
We are in one studio, and we feel like we are part of a united team. It helps to maintain camaraderie. The feeling of being part of a big project, seeing your own contribution. You know you were there when this music wasn’t even written, but when the idea of this kind of music was conceived. It’s a great feeling, so it’s really good to be part of a team.
— What references do you get to start working on music? Do you get illustrations or musical sketches?
— The thing that triggers me the most are the video playthroughs of a certain level. Even if it is very rough, there are no textures, and every character is t-posing. There is something about going through a level or a quest that for me is much more informative than just looking at very nice concept art. Actually, most of the time I won’t start writing until I have the level playthrough videos because I need that to start working with actual assets and not just pieces of music.
— So you basically need a playable build?
— With CDPR games, we start as early as possible at the alpha and pre-alpha stages. It can have only assets that are going to be replaced, like blocks, but the movement of the game world is very important to me. It also helps that I can have a discussion with either the game director or story director about the game as a whole. They lay down the story for you to start thinking about themes and ways you could link a particular scene to a character. The short version of this is that the foundation for starting work is a brief overview of the story and actual gameplay footage, even though it is very rough at that stage.
— It seems that music can both immerse the player in the atmosphere of the game and tell the story by itself. How do you achieve this fusion?
— I would say that one of the most important lessons that we learned during Cyberpunk is that repetition of musical themes and repetition of musical colors create continuity throughout the story. And the second lesson I personally learned is that by doing that and having those repeating segments, sometimes you don’t need to go very emotional to achieve a very profound effect. During our GDC presentation I said that sometimes you don’t need to put a hat on a hat as the player has already played for 40 hours and they’ve had numerous interactions with the character. Sometimes just playing a few notes of this character’s theme is enough to awaken the connection that the player has with this character. You don’t need to bring out the orchestra and play a big melody. Sometimes you just need to push the player in the right direction and the game will do the work for you.
Sometimes I get messages on Twitter about the end credit music in Cyberpunk. People are interested in the track that plays during the phone calls. I wouldn’t say it’s a very emotional piece. It’s something that was actually three motifs from different life paths I put together in one piece that could sum up the entire journey. People tend to tell me that this is very emotional, and I thank them for that, but it wasn’t actually deliberately written with that concept in mind. I used what was in the game from the very beginning, played it back, and this resulted in these very emotional conversations which are a proper ending to the story.
The Witcher 3 was notorious for having the music on all the time, and that’s something Marcin really wanted to change in the design of Cyberpunk, and he was really keen about learning to use the silence. So that’s why we don’t really have an exploration and combat system in the game like most other games have. We actually embrace the fact that silence or quiet moments are necessary. Our sound designers did a great job with ambiences, so we didn’t feel the need to cover the audio spectrum the whole time. That means that the third lesson was using silence appropriately.
— Is there some way to check how quickly players get tired of music in large scale games?
— There is a great benefit to coming up with custom scoring for the different moments in the game. This is the benefit you get when you do that. You’re not going to have a piece of music stuck in a loop for ten hours. Player fatigue is a huge thing. We try to battle it constantly by using longer and more variable assets, splitting the assets into segments and having them playback in random order.
We try to do whatever we can to keep players interested and focused. However, I did sometimes get feedback from older players who grew up in a slightly different era of games, and they sometimes ask me why the music isn’t looping. And it is looped, but it’s looped creatively.
I know there is a group of players who wouldn’t mind an endless 30-second piece playing in a loop, but I think the majority would get tired of it. Imagine if I’m stuck on a boss battle, and I play it for the thirtieth time, and I hear this thirty second loop on and on. It is kind of painful to go through that. So we try to do whatever we can to basically have the music still feel fresh and relevant, and still add to the experience even after fifty hours of playing.
“We felt the pressure on our shoulders when we were working on Cyberpunk”
— When you first started working on Cyberpunk, what musical goals did you set for yourself with your teammates?
— I joined the team in 2017. Marcin already knew that he wanted to break the usual expectations, leave those 80s synths behind and move into the 90s at last, making this decade the starting point for the writing process. And I was super into that because I am a big fan of Warp Records. I remember thinking, “Wow. This is an amazing opportunity to do something freaky like that and have this be in the game.”
In the end, we decided to use those 90s references and make music that feels edgy, feels dangerous but also at the same time feels fun. And I like using dance music idioms because it adds a level of recklessness. It also tied in nicely with the Cyberpunk motto, with style over substance, that your actions in Night City have to be loud and flamboyant. Those things created this need for me to make something that would not overshadow the dialogue between characters but punch through when it’s time to shine. That was something we strived for.
We had the rare opportunity of having two in-house composers working on a single project together. They can simply implement assets instead of having to send them to someone and wait for feedback. You would have this opportunity in every company. So we spotted every single quest, watched all the playthrough videos and then figured out the cues we needed to write. We did not want the same pieces to play during the exploration of the world, so it was a very cinematic approach to every quest.
It may sound very simple when I say it now six months after the release, but it took us a lot of time to find the right sound. It would have been easy to copy some other cyberpunk media, but trying to find our own way into this world was an obstacle. There was also the fact that the game was so hyped, and we felt the pressure on our shoulders. So all those things took a lot of work, and we are actually very proud with our approach to the music, especially with the quests. I think we did a good job there.
— The music that is performed by the fictional Samurai band was a very difficult challenge. It had to be futuristic for the players and retro for the characters in the game. How did you solve this puzzle?
— We didn’t really try to be futuristic with the music because Samurai had split up in 2019 according to the game’s plot, which is already in the past for us. The main thing was to understand who Johnny Silverhand (Editor’s Note: a game character who leads Samurai in the Cyberpunk world) is and to understand his ideology. Looking at his experience, we started thinking that, “Well, this guy probably is not the same character that was in the original Cyberpunk role-playing game.” Because there he was almost like an 80s glam rocker who spends the nights in the studio, a mix of Eddie Van Halen and Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe. We wanted him to be a guy who records everything with the first take and says “Good enough!”
We felt that he needed to be a little more down to earth. Music was just a means to an end goal of a revolution, so who cares what mic he used or what strings were on the guitar. So that led us to the thought that Samurai should feel like a garage band. They recorded in some shitty studio, and this record happened to be big, and everybody loves them now.
There’s no way to even say how lucky we were to have the Refused gentlemen with us and have them portray Samurai. We had an opportunity to depict real musicians with street cred on our hands. Working with them was amazing, and the street cred thing added another layer to the characters of Samurai. There were interesting parallels between them and Refused, the fact that they broke up and the fact they were heavily political. There was no question whether we were moving in the right direction.
— You created music for completely different genres and settings: for Gwent, for Thronebreaker, and for Cyberpunk. The question might be obvious, but how different are the instruments you use?
— The instruments and approach to composing are very different. That’s because in Gwent, I work with acoustic instruments, and you have to think very carefully about how you’re going to write for them, even if you are just using samples. You need to be aware of the possibilities and of the canon, let’s call it, of what is played on those instruments. And with something like Cyberpunk it’s way more sound design-y and way more based on textures rather than tunes. Cyberpunk had a few main melodies, but mostly it had very short motifs that could be repeated in many cues.
When I started working on Cyberpunk, I was just grabbing my instruments and recording something without even thinking about what I am recording. I was trying to get familiar with the instruments. So I would just press record in the morning and press stop in the evening, and spend the next day just editing what I’ve recorded. Most of the stuff was terrible, but there were a few bits that felt cool. And then I would grab another instrument and do the same thing. I think I have like sixty gigabytes of Cyberpunk samples. I don’t think this would be possible to do the same with acoustic music as it sounds better when it is more defined.
I think electronic music in general is much more reactive, and it is like the work of a sculptor or the creation of a collage.
It works out best when you already have a melody, but you ask the performer to play it in their own way, to add some special articulations and emotions which are not there when recording from a score. I often did this when working on Gwent, saying, “Okay, let’s improvise, but let’s only improvise based on this melody. So you can’t take notes out. You can add a few notes, but the shape of the tune always has to be the same.” You only give a performer a complete structure. I did that once and did not like the result. It was really difficult to find the right place for these recordings as they seemed unnatural and not interesting enough.
— Are there differences between writing music for a particular part of the game and the project as a whole?
— We always start with the main musical themes of the game because they will inform other cues and they are the cornerstones of the music in the game. We can build stuff around them. Like the track that’s now called Rebel Path that I did for Johnny Silverhand and which had a working title of “Rebel Theme”.
When I was working on it, I knew I was doing it for Johnny Silverhand, which is why I added components that would fit him that were aggressive and punchy. We later needed to have a motif which would be used in an emotional scene with the same character later. So I basically wrote that track before the quest playthroughs came.
Sometimes you have to write something against what you already did and sometimes you think, “Okay. What’s the order in which the players are going to play through those quests? Could it change?” And you start thinking about all those possibilities, but you always keep in mind the key set pieces, and you try to cover them first because they are the most difficult. And if you manage to write the right music for them, the rest will also fall into place.
— The Witcher shows the uniqueness of Eastern Europe, while the borders are more washed out between the different cultures in Cyberpunk. What do you find easier to work with, when there is a single source of inspiration, or when there are several?
— The difficulty and the fun in Cyberpunk is that a lot of things can work and can work relatively well, and that’s a question of the right balance of those ingredients. When we were outsourcing the music from the radio we often thought, “Well. It doesn’t really work on the rap station, but it would work really well on the down tempo station.” Because if you did something that felt off in one moment, it could work in another place. I was constantly checking whether I’m hitting the right notes at the right time because you can go over the top with the music or deliberately make it ambient. And those approaches, although radically different, could work to a degree.
The foundation of the music for the Witcher Universe were Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Central Asian melodies, and there is even a slight influence from North African music. But we are not specific — we are not musicologists. The Witcher Universe to me is like folk metal without distorted guitars and without drums, but with period instruments that suit the era. There is also the use of an orchestra which adds weight and size to the whole thing.
But every time I was working on Gwent or Thronebreaker tracks, I always thought, “Let’s imagine that we have a band of five players somewhere in Vizima, but they are playing Metallica riffs.” We use period instruments from the Middle Ages, but play something modern with a fresh approach to harmony and sound. Because if we are to use them the way they are intended to be used, I don’t think we could make them work in the game.