The Witcher 3 Composer Mikolai Stroinski on Video Games as Art and Creating the Perfect Soundtrack

"I take special care of each piece knowing that millions of people will listen to it."

Paul Tamburroby Paul Tamburro

Mikolai Stroinski is the composer in demand in the video game industry. After bringing the world of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter to life in what is hailed as one of the best soundtracks of recent years, Stroinski has also been enlisted by developer CD Projekt Red in order to give the same treatment to The Witcher III and, judging from the batch of songs that have graced our ears prior to the heavily anticipated game’s release, he has quite adeptly nailed it.

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With only three video game credits to his name (alongside his work on the Dark Souls II trailer), Stroinski has swiftly made a name for himself and his sweeping score for The Witcher III isn’t going to do him any harm. We were fortunate enough to get a chance to have a chat with him about his work on the game, how he added beauty into its barbaric world and whether or not video games should be considered a form of art.

 

CRAVEONLINE: How different is the process behind making a score for a film/TV show and making a score for a video game?

MIKOLAI STROINSKI: Those are two different worlds. In the case of a film or a TV show the music is permanently assigned to any given scene, whereas in a video game it never plays exactly in the same spot and completely depends on what a player decides to do and when he or she decides to do it. As a result, the music has to be interactive which affects the whole musical approach. It needs to be created in a way that keeps it open to a change at any given moment, therefore, very often bigger sections of music need to be planned as one.

Another important factor in games is looping a piece which has to be taken into consideration as well. The only element common to both film and video games is when scoring cut-scenes, which are short movies that are intertwined into the gameplay. In the case of a film or TV show, in general you have a linear story to support – not so much in video games where you need to focus more on the mood and how you want the player to feel… that is a very broad picture and there are exceptions of course.

 

How greatly does the inherent dynamic quality of video games as a medium impact upon the creation of a score?

The degree of interactivity directly affects the way you write the music.  Often in games cues need to be comprised of smaller sections within the main composition. This can also affect the way the score is written and prepared for the recording session, where the musical pieces are also recorded in parts – rarely are all the instruments recorded at the same time.

Those recorded parts of bigger pieces need to be interchangeable. The intros and outros are always treated separately from their main body of the piece as well. There are many other ways to approach the challenge of interaction between what the player does and how it is reflected in the music, but that’s the most common example in my experience.

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Soundtracks have always been important in video games, but only in recent years has their importance been widely recognized and their composers celebrated. Why do you think this is?

Naturally the means that allow composers to musically support video games have grown over the years. Nowadays, we have a full orchestra at our disposal – budget permitting of course. Aside from the orchestra the computers that are being used for sound design have huge processing power. Therefore the sonic possibilities are endless and so are the artistic choices that composers can make. This is one of the main reasons why video games are such an attractive medium. Aside from being tons of fun, they also expose our creations to the world. However the celebration of a composer is deeply connected to the success of the game, similarly as in the case of movies.

 

How closely did you work alongside developer CD Projekt Red to ensure that you nailed the tone of The Witcher 3?

I was clear on what needed to be done, however the requests kept coming as the work progressed. There was a decent amount of dialog between us.

 

There’s an ongoing debate surrounding whether video games should be considered an art form, with many pointing to the use of music in games such as Journey as being a big contributing factor to them being just as noteworthy as an art form as film or music. Do you believe that video games should be classified as a form of art?

Well, they are partially created by artists – that’s a fact. They utilize art as a tool for immersion but first and foremost video games are a form of entertainment and are conceived as such. Of course, so are movies and music but we should not generalize here – I think it depends on the preconception of the game. If creators are stressing the art components in a game like the visuals, the music and the way the story is told, then yes, it can be an art form. However I feel in the majority of cases that is not the main goal of making video games. Taking into account this definition of art: “The expression of application of human creative skill and imagination (…), producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”, this could be a never-ending discussion.

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The Witcher series is well-known for its unforgiving world. How did you attempt to replicate this brutality with your music?

The harshness and brutality of Witcher’s world is best portrayed in the region called “No Man’s Land”. It is full of swamps and misty areas. The music that illustrates this section has the most Slavic color. It is rough, simple and dry as a bone and works very well with the unforgiving nature of the environment. There is something primeval about a naked sound of a very old folk instrument in combination with nature as a brutal landscape.  This is not to say that other parts of the Witcher’s world (the Skellige Islands and Novigrad) are in any way less forgiving but in terms of visuals and sounds, that’s the region that portrays it the most.

 

 

 

You’ve made three significant leaps in your work on video game soundtracks, from the relatively unknown indie game Mouse Craft, to the critically acclaimed indie game The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, to the big-budget The Witcher 3. How did your experience in creating a score differ between each game?

Each one was a challenge in its own right but also fun to work on. I still think that Mousecraft deserves more recognition; it’s very ingenious and designed for everybody – I think those two qualities combined are hard to find. I really enjoyed the musical direction the producers and I agreed on, which is a combination of serious symphonic sound combined with funk, jazz and sounds of clicking machinery. You can imagine the joy I felt when working on this project.

I consider The Vanishing of Ethan Carter to be my beloved child – it has brought me some well-respected awards and recognition in the industry. Despite being a relatively small game it was competing for the most prestigious awards against multi-million productions, ultimately winning the BAFTA for innovation. I crafted the music very thoughtfully. I had to be cautious not to make it too scary and keep in mind the main task of the game at all times instead of getting diverted into dark horror music. This project gave me an opportunity to come up with strong melodic themes that play against interesting background textures. At the same time it did invite me to write scary elements which are always fun to delve into.

Finally, The Witcher has always been my dream to work on, ever since the first installment. There was a lot of broad and epic music to be written and I was happy to include many Slavic notes. I needed to do a decent amount of research on it despite the fact that I come from Poland and this music has been around me for most of my life. I then needed to apply it to the game and merge it with other kinds of instruments and orchestral colors. It was hard work but well worth it.

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Nowadays it seems like there’s a big market for video game soundtracks. Were you ever conscious about creating music that people would want to listen to outside of playing The Witcher 3, or were you too focused upon delivering a soundtrack befitting of the tone of the game to concern yourself with producing compositions that would fit nicely onto an OST album?

The function of the music within The Witcher always came first. I do take special care of each piece knowing that millions of people will listen to it and I have to do my best regardless of it as well. If the pieces work well together on the soundtrack that’s an added bonus of such an approach, but not my main concern when I create the music. It can’t be.

 

Outside of The Witcher 3 and the fantasy RPG, what video game genres would you be interested in composing music for?

A fantasy game is always a great platform to express yourself musically, but so are horror titles and others with a dark atmosphere. Another genre that would fit my taste would be a story placed in a specific historical time period. I’m open to many genres both within and outside the video game world – I love the variety aspect of my work.