Recently, we got the chance to sit down with the composing duo responsible for the soundtrack in Ovid Works' latest curiosity; Metamorphosis. A fascinating puzzle-adventure title inspired by the Franz Kafka novella of the same name. So buckle up as we do a deep dive with composers Mikolai Stroinski (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter) and his collaborator, Garry Schyman (BioShock, Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of War). We talk about how the collaboration between these two came to be, how a unique singing style helped create the groundwork of the title's sound, and how bugs had an impact on the music.
Push Square: What motivated you to bring Garry Schyman on board the project?
Mikolai Stroinski: After Ovid Works invited me to the project, I felt this was going to be something very interesting. At that point, I had never composed any music for a game about insects, let alone taking place in a Kafka-esque world. During my ‘pre-production’ of the music, as I was letting the game ‘speak’ to me about what music it needed, it became clear, to my immense joy, that symphonic atonality was the way to go here. At that point, I felt like a child that’s about to enter the best playground ever. But what joy is it to be on a playground alone? I’d always wanted to collaborate on a project with Garry. I remembered having very interesting conversations with him at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. And I knew he would enjoy it as much as I would. So I sent him an invitation to partake in this musical adventure.
Garry, what motivated you to accept signing on for this project? What made you want to join forces with Mikolai for this venture?
Garry Schyman: It was an easy decision really. He and I had become friends over the years and when he called and described the project and invited me aboard, I was excited to work on it because I sensed it was a real creative opportunity. As it turned out, it was more delightful and interesting than I had imagined. Plus it was an opportunity to work with someone who was a friend whose music I really admired.
The influence that Kafka has on the game is immediately apparent, even down to the name of course. In what ways did Kafka influence the music? Or did he?
MS: It not only influenced the music but defined it. All of our artistic choices were made one way or another in connection with the game’s world and thus the world of Kafka. If you listen to my procedure pieces you will hear machine-like sounds. This directly relates to the blind machine of the bureaucracy that’s very apparent in Metamorphosis. Even the fact of the looping pieces has something to do with being in a blind vicious circle that’s hard to escape. There is also a notion of overwhelming chaos that we wanted to address with the music.
GS: Well, yes, of course. It’s a Kafka-esque story and expressionistic in look and feel. I’m not sure but it seems to me that the artistic style used by the developers for the characters appears to be inspired by painters like Egon Schiele, whose work I greatly admire. Kafka is central to the entire game and the score from my perspective. It was, for me, an opportunity to geek out on a very creative period of music and art that I greatly admired and had composed in extensively during my studies and beyond, but never thought I could use these techniques in a game or any other commercial project.
You’ve cited some early 20th century composers such as Alban Berg and Bernard Hermann. What influences did you have when constructing for the music that might not be quite as immediately apparent, let’s say. Something that while you listen, the connection might not instantly arise?
MS: An important ingredient was the sonority of the insect world. You have all the plucky sounds like pizzicato strings and plucked prepared piano. There is a fair amount of string tremolo as well as flattered-tongue on woodwinds as they resemble the rapid movement of small wings. If you listen carefully you might find mosquito-like sounds also coming from the string section as well as small percussion sounds. The interesting thing is, I’m not sure that incorporating the above was a fully conscious decision on our end. I think it’s more of a result of how the game and the picture affected our musical imagination in a subconscious way.
GS: As soon as I heard the game was about Kafka I drew on my knowledge of German art of that period. It was such a unique and radical time for painting, writing, and music called expressionism, and Mikolai and I agreed that could be not only interesting, but right on the money for this game’s score. I had also spent several years after my studies at USC working with a master composer and teacher, George Tremblay. George taught serial or 12-tone music exclusively and I immersed myself in it. So when Mikolai and I discussed an approach I suggested we listen to Pierrot Lunaire especially for his use of “Sprechstimme,” which is a style of singing that he invented that involves the music half-sung and half-spoken. It has the added advantage of sounding ironic and almost humorous which captures the game perfectly.
In what ways did you approach the collaborative nature of the scoring process? Did you want everything to blend together? Or were you trying to make each voice unique from one another with a more subtle unifying aspect?
MS: I was the one directly in touch with the team at Ovid Works. After getting the list of music they needed, I gave Garry the first cue that was happening deep into the world of bugs. Garry used a 12-tone technique to score it, and it was only natural for him to continue with this colour when scoring similar parts of the gameplay. At the same time, I was composing the music for other locations. Yes, blending things together was very important. We achieved this by applying each other’s themes to our own music. Luckily, both themes were composed at the very beginning of the process. There are other unifying factors for the soundtrack like the instrumentation, the amazing soprano vocal by Joanna Freszel, and finally, the mix by Steve Kempster. On the other hand, it was also important to give the bug world its own unique sound. In the end, I think it all came together.
GS: It was a very easy and natural process that seemed almost effortless. After agreeing to work together, we set about discussing a style for the score based upon what we knew and saw of the game from that point. We quickly agreed that expressionist music, and in particular the vocal style described above, Sprechstimme, would be central. However, we both went about writing without too much back and forth. We did agree to share themes we both wrote which certainly helped unify the score. As it turned out my approach was different in some respects from Mikolai. His inspiration (other than the agreed-upon vocal style) was Bernard Herrmann while mine was more the early 20th-century German composers such as Schoenberg and Berg. Also, serendipitously, we both chose the interval of a major 7th as central to our themes. Also working to our advantage was that we divided the music up between us in such a way that most of my work was related to the insect underworld while Mikolai focused on the human world above. This helped significantly diffuse any differences as it makes sense that each of these areas would be approached differently. Of course, we both recorded with the same orchestra and the same vocalist and so the score ended up feeling very unified.
What motivated the multitude of vocal performances? Not that it’s unheard of, but vocals tend to only feature on occasion when it comes to game music, but there are vocal pieces littered all over this score! It helps give the score a very unique sound to it.
MS: Once we found the Sprechstimme way of singing and made it work, it turned out that this worked really well with the game. Moreover, it became its signature sound. With this in mind, we wanted to use it as much as possible hopefully without crossing the threshold of good taste. Joanna’s singing reflects the crazy, chaotic world and seems like an absent narrator or someone calling from far away. Maybe from The Tower? We leave the interpretation up to the player/listener.
GS: As mentioned above, the vocal became central to providing both an iconic sound as well as the connection to the music of the expressionist period in Germany early in the 20th century. Mikolai found Joanna Freszel, who lives in Warsaw, and recorded her singing on both his and my cues. She did a spectacular job, more than fulfilling our hopes for what the vocal would bring to our score. Which is an important lesson for composers, find spectacularly good musicians to realise your music and they will make you look like a genius!
What was your approach when crafting the sound of the title? It does a wonderful job of offering this whimsical feeling, but an unsettling, horror-esque sensation is lurking underneath. How did that duality come about with the music?
MS: I wrote that music to achieve exactly what you describe. An unsettling frightening mood in the middle of an ironic insanity. To me that reflected what Kafka was after, the constricting vise of the world entangling the helpless Gregor, who fights on despite the odds. Musically I used several techniques simultaneously to achieve the results. 12-tone techniques blend with aleatoric dissonance with the ironic sprechstimme vocal tying it all together. Really just my intuitive response to the game as a whole.
And as my concluding question, I like to close out first-time interviews by just asking how you came to find yourself creating music in this industry! What brought you here? A conscious decision, or was it more happenstance?
MS: My first professional steps in Hollywood were composing for TV. However, even since the beginning of college (Berklee), I’d always strongly considered composing for games at some point in my career. It happened via my pivotal project, the custom-made music for the Dark Souls II trailer. This composition met with quite a warm welcome and soon after, a couple of indie game devs reached out to me. What followed was the music for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and then of course The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The rest is history. I would say my musical connection with video games was bound to happen. At least I feel this way considering how much I love what I do.
GS: I graduated from USC with a degree in music composition determined to make a living as a full-time composer for film and TV. Games were not an option back then, but in 2004 my agent at the time sent my resumé over to game publisher THQ and it led to me scoring Destroy All Humans! I was NOT a gamer and was not consciously looking for game scoring opportunities, but once I scored DAH I was hooked. I loved the medium and the people I was working with and I sought out game work from then on. Of course, DAH led me to scoring BioShock (same audio director) and that score was very well received and led to a lot of other game scoring opportunities.
We'd like to thank both Mikolai and Garry for taking the time to talk with us. We also encourage you to check out the score for Metamorphosis, which is a very interesting listen. It doesn't sound like what you'd expect a traditional game score to sound like, and it's quite refreshing!