Earlier this year, I got the chance to check out the soundtrack for the uniquely scored video game Metamorphosis, inspired by the work of Franz Kafka and scored in a very atypical style for a video game. The plot follows you, the protagonist, after you are turned into a bug and forced to explore a suddenly unfamiliar world from that perspective. The music for Metamorphosis was composed by Mikolai Stroinski, whose past credits include The Witcher 3 and Age of Empires IV, and Garry Schyman whose past works include scoring BioShock, Destroy All Humans! and Dante’s Inferno, just to name a few.
Not long after listening to the soundtrack, I received a follow up opportunity to speak with the composers themselves. Due to my day job, I’ve only just finished putting the interview together, and I’m really excited for you to check it out. Here is my interview with Mikolai Stroinski and Garry Schyman about their work on Metamorphosis.
How did the two of you get your start in composing for video games?
Mikolai: It was 2012 when I was asked to compose music for the Dark Souls 2 trailer. Both the trailer and the music itself gathered a strong fanship and soon after some independent studios asked me to compose music for their games. The Witcher 3 followed not that long afterwards.
Garry: Pure serendipity – My agent in 2004 sent my resume over to THQ, which, at the time was a big game publisher. It sat on the fax machine (remember that technology?) and an executive happened to see it and she just happened to be my girlfriend’s (from college) roommate. That started a series of events that led me to scoring Destroy All Humans! which I loved working on and it led me to pursue scoring for games very seriously. And as the audio director for DAH! became the audio director for Bioshock she hired me without question, which was a huge boost to my career.
How did you come to be involved with Metamorphosis?
Mikolai: I think it was mid-2018 when I was giving a presentation on video game music in Warsaw. Afterwards I was invited for drinks by the organizers and joined in by some people from the audience. At some point a group of people approached me wanting to show me a game they had been working on and asked if I would be interested in scoring it. It looked very original and interesting so I said I would do it with pleasure. After just under a year later I started working on it and it was during the very early process of planning the music that it became quite apparent it was going to be utilizing a symphonic palette with primarily atonal music. I somehow felt obliged to invite Garry because I knew he would enjoy it immensely – as much as I would. Garry said “yes” and the rest is history.
Garry: I have been friends with Mikolai for a few years and he contacted me one day and asked if I’d be interested in scoring the game with him. When he described it as a Kafka game, I was YES for sure interested.
What was behind the decision to have Metamorphosis scored in the style of composers like Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and other Expressionist composers?
Mikolai: Choosing the music style that we did, allowed us to be dark but not horrifying. I don’t think the score ever crosses that line when it becomes horrifying. It’s also interesting how combining the gameplay with this music brings out a subtle sense of humor, which was our goal.
Garry: It was my idea initially because Kafka was an Expressionist author who wrote during that turbulent time in German history. Though he was Czech he wrote in German and was part of that movement. The absurdist aspects of the game reminded me of the Expressionist music of that era. Mikolai immediately agreed and we were off and running. We also decided to include the vocal style invented by Schoenberg called Sprechstimme (half spoken half sung) which perfectly complemented the game’s ironic humor.
Once you decided on composing in that style, how did you approach scoring the game? That is to say, what was your starting point?
Mikolai: I think we both started to sketch our themes pretty early on. Sharing them between each other and applying them to the score was an important factor which helped the cohesiveness of the score. Once the pieces were instrumentally sketched out, we invited singer Joanna Freszel for a recording session. She did a fantastic job!
Garry: The developer, Ovid Works, is a Polish company and Mikolai, who was living in Warsaw at that time, was in touch with them and sort of divvying up the music between us. I scored most of the below ground insect music and Mikolai, the above ground score. That had an advantage as each of us created a slightly different sound for each area which worked well. Though I must say our score was very unified and most people can’t tell who wrote which cues until we tell them. There was a wonderful synchronicity that did not require much conversation or planning between us.
I’m curious, what is the singer performing Sprechgesang singing out in the soundtrack? Does it relate at all to the player’s predicament of being turned into a bug?
Mikolai: The lyrics I chose are about the world perceived by an insect, possibly one that used to be a human in a distant past. The singing technique is so uncommon, it might as well be the way bugs sing in their heads. Or it might be, from a strictly sonic point of view, the mirroring of the crazy world that doesn’t make sense as it had before.
Garry: We each had a different approach to lyrics for Joanna; I had a former student of mine who speaks German set the actual lines from Kafka’s book for my music. It turned out really well and is at least intellectually unifying, though I doubt anyone will know we used Kafka for lyrics. Mikolai went in a different direction. My lyrics do not deal directly with the player’s predicament as far as I know. Maybe it does but that would be pure serendipity.
How much time did you have to score the game?
Mikolai: I think it was about 6 weeks of work plus getting things ready for the recording session and overseeing the mixing process.
Garry: I think I wrote the music over a period of a month or so. I had plenty of time, as the writing went so smoothly and the ideas just poured out. We then had the music recorded with live players, which we did with an orchestra in Macedonia. We conducted that remotely (meaning we were at our home studios while the orchestra played at the remote studio) and it went very well! We got an excellent performance. Everything flowed on this gig, at least in retrospect, it all went so easily, and I loved writing this music. Of course, the singer Joanna Freszel brought so much with her amazing vocal performance. I have to credit Mikolai for directing her as she came to his studio in Warsaw to record and it just turned out spectacularly.
Do you have a favorite track in the score?
Mikolai: I like all the music that we both did. However, the favorite would be “The Final Run” or “The Tower”.
Garry: I have a couple of favorite tracks, “Corridors” and “Bug village”. I am also very pleased with the “Menu Theme”. Really, I dig it all. I don’t mean to sound conceited but I just had such a great time writing this music and I feel it turned out so unique and fits the game so well.
What do you hope players take away with them when they hear the music in this game?
Mikolai: I silently hope that it would open some players to music that, at times, might be a bit more demanding. I hope they will also notice that there is something different about it – hopefully “good different”. But that’s not our main goal. We are happy that our music helped the game have its unique color.
Garry: Well the music should underscore and set a mood and create a unique vibe for this really cool, unusual game. I mean, how cool to make a game based on Kafka. I would love for the players to be curious about the music and especially the vocal and perhaps explore Expressionist music. Maybe a few will really enjoy it and that would be lovely! I don’t write music for games or films for that matter to get the player or viewer to listen to certain types of music, but if it happens, I consider that a real contribution.
Once again I need to give a huge thank you to Mikolai Stroinski and Garry Schyman for taking the time to talk with me about their work on Metamorphosis. Let me know what you think about Metamorphosis in the comments below and have a great day!
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