Recently, we were given the opportunity to interview Mikolai Stroinski, who is the composer behind The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and that one really phenomenal Dark Souls II commercial. Having just finished The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (My review can be found here), I jumped at the chance. The music ofThe Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a central part of the atmospheric masterpiece that The Astronauts created. I wanted to know how Mikolai was able to create the atmosphere of uncomfortable serenity, and how he fit his music into the design and development of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
What brought you to composing music for video games? What is your background as a composer and musician?
I played video games a lot when I was a young boy in Poland – even in the ‘80s I had a Spectrum ZX and then the Commodore 128, which wasn’t that common at the time. The first video game music that I noticed was for Jet Set Willy, which played Edvard Grieg’s “In The Hall Of The Mountain King.” A couple of years later I became obsessed with the music from Warcraft and I remember thinking I would love to compose music like that. Simultaneously, I was a young aspiring pianist. I studied Jazz piano at Karol Szymanowski’s Academy in Katowice before studying Jazz performance and Film Scoring at Berklee College of Music. The first two games I scored were “Mousecraft” and “WordTrap Dungeon” from the talented people at Crunching Koalas, who contacted me after seeing the trailer I did for “Dark Souls 2.” I owe them a debt of gratitude for giving me my start in video games.
What attracted you to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and The Astronauts?
I think it all started from just browsing the internet and coming across the teaser for the game. At the beginning I didn’t even see screenshots, but the story of a boy who mysteriously disappeared amongst a beautiful natural landscape seemed very compelling. I knew that the people behind the project were professionals which, coupled with great visuals and a great story, is a winning combination for me to come up with some meaningful music.
How did you begin the process of creating the music for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter? At what point were you brought into the development of the game?
I started off with a demo which I think they weren’t fully satisfied with. However, after assigning my music to specific places it turned out to work well, and I was hired. I believe I was introduced to the team somewhere in the middle of the project and only had four screenshots to work with for over a month. A working version of the game was sent to me later and I was able to see how the music really worked – to feel the flow of the game. I wanted to be sure that the music didn’t interrupt the player but rather that it would dance with him or her on the path of horrific discoveries.
How much collaboration is there between the other parts of development, particularly in regards to atmosphere? For example, how much do you work with the artists while composing?
The only person I worked with directly was Adrian Chmielarz, CEO of The Astronauts. Through him my music was shown to and then approved (or not) by the rest of the team. Other than taking requests for specific cues, the collaboration was about mutual inspiration. I was hugely inspired by their visuals and storytelling and I hope I sent some inspiration back with my music as well
There’s a definite balance between beauty and uncomfortable mystery in your music, which contributes to the atmosphere of the game incredibly well. How did you go about creating this balance in your music?
Ah, that is a very interesting question. The shape of the melody has a lot to do with it. On one hand, it outlines minor tonality while on the other it very often neglects to resolve which creates that uneasy and uncomfortable feeling. Whenever there is a suspension in the melody – that results in the player being uncomfortable. Whenever the melody lands on a chord tone, which in musical terms ‘resolves’, the feeling of the surrounding beauty takes over and the player can take a deep breath. Another factor might be the choice of sounds, for example, the melody is played by the flute, but one that is processed and therefore sounds a little disturbing. So the listener might have a feeling that there is something known and comfortable, but something is wrong at the same time.
You’ve also composed music for The Witcher 3. How was it different working with an independent game developer like The Astronauts as opposed to CD Projeckt Red?
The scope of the project is certainly a factor here. I’ve read that “Ethan” can be finished in about 4 hours whereas The Witcher, I’m guessing would require about a hundred hours to complete. That coupled with the vastness of the in-game world obviously has an impact on how much music has to be written and produced. What I liked about working with a small studio like The Astronauts is that I had the feeling that I was in touch with everybody involved. Each person could express an opinion about my music which was then streamlined by Adrian to me. Such an approach would obviously be impossible with CD Projekt Red which employs around 300 people. Again the scope of The Witcher project, larger amounts of music, work and the number of people involved require the team to be divided into ‘departments’ and that results in a completely different workflow and communication process.
When you work with a small independent studio you’re not a ‘department.’ On the other hand, you don’t know how well the game will do and what it will bring in. “The Witcher” is a well-established series and a flagship of world game development – so there is definitely a certain pride that accompanies the work process. I’ve also always been a huge fan of Geralt’s adventures described in Andrzej Sapkowski’s books, so my joy and excitement in contributing to the game is through the roof.
What advice would you give to game developers trying to use music as effectively as possible in their own game, or in how to best work with a composer?
Invite the composer to the project as early as possible and brainstorm the music: What kind can it be and how will it help the game? Be open to changes later on if more ideas are introduced to the project. Insist on strong melodic themes – they will carry both the story of the game and the life of it afterwards while listening to the OST. Figure out the interactivity of the music as well as how dynamic can it be – that should also be done early on. Don’t be afraid of investing in the quality of music by hiring live musicians and other professionals that help shape the soundtrack like the sound and mastering engineers. They all hugely contribute to the final product which will be heard during the gameplay and enhance the overall experience.
We at IndieHangover would like to thank Mikolai Stroinski for answering our question and for creating the music behind The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.