Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that has been on a lot of people’s mind, especially following the release of their nearly 50 minute gameplay demo. In it, CD PROJEKT RED showed off many of the game’s mechanics and what their ambitions for the title are. I was already very sold on the game coming out if it’s E3 2018 showing, so I jumped at the chance to talk to Cyberpunk 2077‘s composer, Marcin Przybyłowicz.
Jordan: So, thank you for joining me on this! I’m really excited to pick your brain and understand a little bit of your creative process. Give me a little bit of an idea about your musical background. How did you get to where you’re at right now?
Marcin: Hmm, how much time do we have [Laughs]?
A lot! You’re the one that’s pushing it late, so it’s up to you. [Laughs]
So, my background: I’m a fully-educated musician. I went to music elementary school, then music high school, and then music academy which I suppose, for the Western part of the world, is equal to college, I think. So that’s, 18 years of education actually… Wow that’s a lot.
Holy cow, so you have a real academic understanding of music then!
Yeah, it wasn’t that much fun, to be honest [laughs]. During my time at college I tried to figure out what I am supposed to do with myself because I knew I have to do something with music, because music is all I know. And it’s just this one thing I know how to do well because I wasn’t trained in any other area. But, I was kind of a shitty instrumentalist. I use to play piano then trumpet, and I wasn’t good on either of those. So, I had to figure out, in my own way, how to establish myself as a musician. And since I always loved movies and video games it kind of did strike me: “Why not marry those two main activities in my life,” so basically entertainment and my music thing, “and try to do something with that?”
About 12 years ago I started to look for some amateur teams working on video games. Obviously, as an inexperienced guy, both in terms of composition and in terms of game development, I did think that it’s, like, the easiest thing in the world. How hard could it be? You love video games, you love music, so come on, right? That’s gonna be easy! That’s basically going to do it by itself. So, I joined an amateur team that were about to, first of all, do a Fallout 2 mod which then transformed into a full-blown project. But since we all were teenagers, or people in their early 20’s, we were students basically – we didn’t have any established place like a studio to work at. We did communicate with each other on the internet via discussion boards. And obviously, we were sure that we were going to create the greatest RPG ever which is basically better than the Baldur’s Gate series, better than the Fallout series. Obviously, that didn’t go well. It didn’t go as planned at any point.
We did actually manage to finish this project and even publish it in 2011, but somewhere during the process it, well, it wasn’t RPG anymore, it was survival-horror set in a post-apocalyptic world and it wasn’t even that good. It did score, I think, something around 60 on Metacritic. But, you know, it was our first major project that we did all by ourselves, so to this date I’m really proud of it. During that time, I started to work as a freelancer. Obviously, I did like tons of crap projects at the beginning to gain experience and establish myself in our Polish market, which was about to go boom. So I was kind of lucky to catch onto this bandwagon. And, yeah, that’s pretty much it, I think, so here I am.
Gotcha. In terms of the freelance, what was the first video game that you composed music for?
Well, let me check. The first one, I think, was called… [pondering]
It’s that far back, huh?
Yeah, well it’s kind of tricky in terms of chronology because once you are working on multiple projects at the same time it kind of depends, you know, what do you mean by first? The first published or the first I worked with?
Yeah, let’s say the first one published.
Published. Okay, so there was this game on the Nintendo DS which was called Zoo Vet: Endangered Animals which was published in, let me see…November 2008. So that was one of my first, technically. And the other one was also for the Nintendo DS, it was actually a shooter, a kind of bloody one, which was unusual for DS and for Nintendo in particular because, you know, all they want to have are fluffy, family-friendly games [laughs].
[Laughs] No kidding!
Okay, so we’re going back almost a decade then really.
Little over a decade actually, yeah.
So, thinking back to those freelance times, if there was one thing that you could tell yourself, any advice or anything like that, what would it be?
I wish I had grown thicker skin sooner. I eventually did manage to grow a thick skin because that is, like, a must if you work in creative business…
Or anywhere in the games industry it seems!
Or in the game industry, yes! Exactly! Especially when you look at the game industry in the past few years. For example, all those big subjects like Gamer Gate or the Social Justice Warrior thing, which can basically backfire on you at any time. So, I would say to myself: “You need to grow thick skin as soon as possible in order to avoid some situations that can make you suffer.” I did it eventually, but I wish I did it sooner.
Makes sense. What are some of the inspirations that drive your music composition? Do you have ones for The Witcher or for Cyberpunk 2077 specifically?
It’s kind of difficult to pick just one pool of music, or anything else, for such different projects. I like to say that every single project needs to have its…let’s see. There’s a good analogy with a tailor: you want to have a suit, so you go to a tailor and they start to measure you and basically the suit you’re going to order at the tailor’s workshop will always be better than one bought in a mall, for example. Or in some other place, a suit store or whatever. And for me, this is how the music needs to be treated in video games. The video game as a medium is really, it’s kind of the same as a T.V. series, or a motion picture, or a theatrical play, for example. It needs to have a custom approach with the music, a custom approach with the sound. Like with directing set decorations, characters, narration, all the other stuff. If we talk about The Witcher, obviously the source of inspiration would be totally different than with Cyberpunk 2077, or with any other project I did.
Favorite Video Games:
Oh, for sure. Then, you’ll have to tell me, what is your favorite video game of all time.
Do I have to pick one?
If you have a top three that will work!
Well one of my favorites will always be DOOM, the first one or the second one. Actually, it doesn’t matter for me that much if it’s the first or the second one. Maybe not DOOM per say, early 90’s first-person shooters. I loved Hexen. I loved, even more, Heretic. These were some of the first video games I ever played. So, I have this nostalgic love for them. The Baldur’s Gate series is another one for me. I did start with Baulder’s Gate II, then I did play it again with the Throne of Bhaal expansion pack, then I went back to the original Bauldur’s Gate to, you know, have the feeling that I beat this franchise top to bottom. And it actually took me I think a year and a half to play all of these three. And I did play, like, every single hour I could after I went back home from school. I pretended I was done with homework, so basically, I had free time so I can play with my computer.
So Baldur’s Gate was kind of an eye-opener for me with video games. And for a long time, I was totally hooked on the Assassin’s Creed series.
That’s my favorite series too!
Lately I did have some, I don’t want to say, “crisis” but like with a lover’s relationship it’s not always bells and whistles. There are ‘up’s and there are ‘down’s. So, I just bought, actually, the last one, Assassin’s Creed Origins. I’ve heard from basically everyone that it’s, like, Assassin’s Creed done right. That they went back to the roots. They did expand on good ideas, they did repair stuff that was not that successful or was not that great in previous entries. So, I’m hoping that when I finish Origins I will be able to say that “Oh yeah, we’re up again.”
Yeah, I finished Origins and had a lot of fun with it. Coincidentally a lot of people have been calling it The Witcher for Assassin’s Creed because it’s really similar in narrative structure, but I think you’ll enjoy it.
I did see that on the internet. I’ve played through just the beginning of the game, just like three or four hours barely so I do not see this Witcher resemblance yet, but perhaps later on who knows?
Yeah, you’ll have to let me know!
So, I’ve got a couple of questions that are more geared towards Cyberpunk 2077…
Ok, let’s try!
…and I know we’re kind of walking on thin ice here.
So, coming from a background where, for example, in The Witcher, the music is really medieval and Slavic-inspired, how was creating the soundtrack for Cyberpunk 2077 different? How did it challenge you creatively?
Yeah, so you’re firing big cannons already [laughs].
So how do I answer that to satisfy you and not get in trouble? So, the approach, as I said, totally different because it’s a totally different universe. A totally different world. And the goals that music needs to achieve are also… well they’re not that different compared to The Witcher because it still is this trait of music but, I think I can say it now that the world in Cyberpunk is going to be even more open. It’s obviously set in 2077, so that means we have electricity, we have technology, so that also means that we have various amounts of devices that can play music. For example: personal media players, P.A. systems in clubs, boomboxes, whatever, which we didn’t obviously have in The Witcher. So, that means we are going to have much, much more source music placed in the world connected organically to the world and the narrative in [Cyberpunk 2077] than in The Witcher. In The Witcher we were quite limited by the age – the made-up age obviously. The fantasy version of the Middle Ages.
So, in terms of source music you could have a band of bards, for example, in Novigrad playing some catchy tunes, but apart from that, that was basically it. You couldn’t go beyond that because it wouldn’t sit well in the world. It wouldn’t be believable. People wouldn’t buy it as a part of the background for Geralt’s story. With Cyberpunk things are completely different because the world itself allows us to go crazy with placing specific musical cues in the world and treat them as part of the audio layer in the world. So, for example, that’s a very big change for us.
That also changes the scope of our work dramatically because that means we have to prepare much, much more of this than we did for The Witcher.
So, where Cyberpunk 2077 has more of a dystopian setting what are some ways that you’ve built atmosphere through the music, and to you how important is it build that atmosphere through music?
Ok, another tricky question. So, the atmosphere is obviously very important. It’s crucial for the game in general but what we are trying to do actually is not to ring that dystopian bell to much. It’s obviously going to be there somewhat, that dystopian element, in the music as well. But, as everyone has already seen, because recently this almost 50-minute gameplay was published so, everyone can see how Cyberpunk 2077 looks now, at the moment. So, everyone can see that our game is cyberpunk-inspired with our twist basically. Also, in terms of visuals, in terms of atmosphere, in terms of narrative, in terms of attitude also, it’s not all about the, you know, gloomy guy in a trench coat drinking bourbon or whatever in a bar talking about how shitty of a day he had, or talking about ho his ex-wife is ruining him because he’s divorcing her or whatever, and by the way he also has this case and he doesn’t know how to crack it. We are trying to show that cyberpunk doesn’t have to always be all about a rainy night and depression, that at least is how I understand cyberpunk. Also, having experience playing Cyberpunk 2020 in high school, I think this game is all about the attitude in terms of atmosphere. So, I am trying to reintroduce punk with the music to our project. It doesn’t mean we would have Sex Pistols playing all the time, for example, in-game because it’s still supposed to be 2077. But what I am trying to nail down is this atmosphere of having both, basically. Having certain attitudes towards everything in the world because the most important thing, for me at least, in Cyberpunk 2020, the pen and paper version, was one sentence: Style Over Substance. So, it wasn’t the most important thing in the paper version of the RPG to… win or lose, for example. It was all about the style of doing that thing. Okay, you may die or you may lose but at least you do it with style. So that’s what I’m trying to do with the music. I’m trying to inject this feeling into the narrative, or help the narrative with highlighting certain elements of the music to make players feel that.
Talk to me a little bit about how you make ambient tracks in the game. Because, even thinking back to like Jeremy Soule who does a lot of the tracks from the Elder Scrolls series, ambience plays a really big part in the non-AAA moments of the game. When you sit down to create a track like that, which is meant to be background, what is your process there? How do you get yourself in the mindset or how do you know that you’ve created a good track, or a good feeling I guess, for that ambience?
Actually, it’s quite similar, or the same, as with The Witcher. It always starts with playing the game. So, when you play the game yourself, even if it’s not finished or if it’s ugly at some points or not, you get the feeling for what exploration, for example, will feel like. Or how the dialog system works in action. How dialog scenes are directed. How all of those elements are put together in order to create one cohesive narrative arc for example. And the same went with The Witcher basically. We had to play the game, we had to see the concept art, we had to feel the game ourselves in order to be ready to start building appropriate music for certain elements of the storyline.
So, you’ve had a lot of hands-on with Cyberpunk 2077 then?
It’s kind of necessary in this job to experience the game as often as possible. Daily basically.
I’m jealous, the game looks awesome [Laughs]. Do you have any tracks in Cyberpunk that change dynamically based on what the player’s doing? For example, if they’re going through a mission with more of a stealthy approach, do you have more of a theme that matches that compared to if they’re going into that mission with guns blazing. Are there different dynamic cues that change based on what the player does in these instances?
Oh yeah, I am hoping it’s even noticeable in this gameplay we’ve published. So, there is this scene where you are trying to buy this bot spider thing, right?
Uh-huh… Go on…
And so, it all starts quiet, I don’t want to say peacefully but, it’s not tense right from the start. You approach the gangster, you take a whiff from the inhaler, have some chit-chat, and basically it looks like the deal is gonna be finished without drawing your gun. But then things go south and a shootout starts. It doesn’t really differ that much from what we have done with The Witcher because for us adaptive music was always the key point. For example, in this playthrough if we would have acquired this bot without killing anyone else the music would have to work according to the pacing. So, the system is built in a way that it is prepared for several options at any time. So, for example, if a player decides to suddenly go nuts the music will follow that and, you know, will increase the temperature of the atmosphere as needed. Does that make sense?
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Do you have a rough idea how many music tracks might make it into the final version of the game? I mean, you’ve probably planned out a full OST for it right?
Oh yeah, definitely.
Do you know a length on that or any sort of estimate?
Nobody knows that. It’s kind of… well, we are working on the music until we are told not to basically.
So even if we would have like, I don’t know, 50 hours done, I’m deliberately pulling some number out of my ass because I’m trying to make a point here, if you would have the whole soundtrack ready, which would last for 50 hours, or 60, or whatever, that would mean we still have enough headroom to polish those tracks even more. Or maybe find the place in the game where we would have another case of a situation where tailored or custom-made music would make the scene much better than system-driven music, for example. That’s why we cannot say until the very last day of production how many tracks, or how many hours of music, we’re going to have in game.
That makes a lot of sense.
It’s a secret, or a mystery, for us as well.
So, I have a couple of questions based on that [50 minute Cyberpunk 2077] gameplay demo that you talked about just a minute ago. There’s a moment in the demo where, you know, V wakes up after what seems like a pretty long night and there’s a rock-style song playing by the fictional character Johnny Silverhand. I’m curious how much influence you have over that sort of music in the world as well.
We did that. They’re our internal assets.
Which probably helps a lot because you don’t have to worry about buying the rights to a song like, say, Rockstar would with all radio music that’s in Grand Theft Auto V. That’s probably really handy. Has this sort of thing, with song licensing instead of creating your own, come up in the development of Cyberpunk 2077?
That’s part of the territory I’m not very comfortable, at the moment. So, we would have to pick that up like six months from now [laughs]!
[Laughs] Sure thing.
No worries, not a problem! So, in that demo, CD PROJEKT RED had stated that they are trying to make the world fully seamless, right? Without loading screens…
That being said, I’m curious if that impacts the way that you make music for the game, or if that adds any sort of difficulties to how you make the music.
Not really. Again, compared to The Witcher, I’m referring a lot to The Witcher because in terms of structure those projects aren’t that different from each other, under the hood… well the system is obviously revamped and then updated and has tons of new features to handle music properly and it allows us actually to do much more crazy stuff with the music that we weren’t able to do with The Witcher, but its core mechanism didn’t change. So, that means if we are talking about Cyberpunk 2077 being a seamless experience without loading screens it means for me, to [put it simply], that it’s basically the same as I would do in the music for example in Novigrad which was also seamless and also without loading screens. Yeah, the approach is pretty much the same.
Ok, so just a couple of parting thoughts: what is one thing that you would want gamers to know about Cyberpunk 2077. Again, I know you’re walking on thin ice here, but is there something that you want them to take away from the gameplay demo or anything else?
[laughs] Didn’t expect that, umm let me focus… One thing that I would like players to know about our game… Apart from “it’s gonna kick ass?” Hmmm… I am hoping we will surprise them at least several times, in a good way. In a way they aren’t expecting us to.
Ok, yeah, I’m looking forward to that. I’ll hold you to it! Because I think a lot of people are really eager for the game whether or not they played the pen and paper version of Cyberpunk.
Those are all of the questions I have for you, but I wanted to give you just a minute if there was anything that you wanted to plug, projects you were working on, or anything you wanted to share [outside of Cyberpunk 2077].
Oh, that would be great! Outside CD PROJEKT recently, it’s called Phantom Doctrine. It’s made by CreativeForge Games, published by Good Shepperd Entertainment, and it’s a tactical espionage thriller with turn-based combat. Kind of similar to the XCOM genre, but the cool thing about it is that it’s set in the Cold War Era. So, that’s a part of history that hasn’t been penetrated enough in video games.
And that also means that, regarding music, it allowed me to explore a totally different area to what I do on a daily basis. Let’s say with fantasy-based music in Gwent and futuristic music in Cyberpunk yet, at the same time I’ve kind of went back to my roots. Because on paper I’m a jazz conductor so I was trained to conduct big bands. And for at least 10 or 12 years I didn’t have a chance to do anything that would have even, you know, a pinch of jazz in the music… until that project. That project has a lot of jazz influences and that’s what I wanted to brag about. It’s actually pretty cool!
Has that been released yet?
Well that’s everything I’ve got for you, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about music and [Cyberpunk 2077]. Again, we’re all pretty excited for the game so it’s good to hear a little bit of the inside perspective.
Sure, no problem [laughs]. Thanks a lot!