Cyberpunk 2077: Inside The Score

Gamers have been patiently waiting for the launch of Cyberpunk 2077 since 2012, and today, it’s finally here. Composers Marcin Przybyłowicz, P.T. Adamczyk and Paul Leonard-Morgan explain how they packed more attitude than a Keanu Reeves franchise into the most hyped-up open world RPG release of all time.

Cyberpunk, for me, was intimidating as hell, because it's big, it's complex and it shines with the whole palette of colours,” admits Marcin Przybyłowicz, who joins Headliner on a slightly chaotic Zoom call with P.T. Adamczyk and Paul Leonard-Morgan – all three who scored the music for the most highly-anticipated AAA video game title in recent memory: Cyberpunk 2077.

Przybyłowicz (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt) and Adamczyk (Gwent: The Witcher Card Game) join from Poland, while British-born Leonard-Morgan (Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III) joins from L.A. Although they’re clearly used to interviews by now and I can only assume have been doing them pretty much back to back in the run up to Cyberpunk’s release, their enthusiasm for what they’ve achieved and their excitement for gamers to finally get to experience what they’ve been working on for the last three years is palpable. Despite the early wakeup call for Przybyłowicz and Adamczyk, the trio’s banter is still sharp.

To coincide with the game’s launch, CD Project Red very recently dropped the Cyberpunk 2077 Original Score EP, and in attempting to describe it, Adamczyk likens it to a concept album.

“I can’t believe you just called it a concept album, you pretentious wanker!” teases Leonard-Morgan.

Adamczyk holds firm: “I love using this! To me, it's the most suitable description for something like this. Okay, there are probably better ways of describing it, but to me a concept album is probably the coolest. We curated the soundtrack and edited the cues to give listeners the best Cyberpunk listening experience.”

Leonard-Morgan insists he is joking, and points out just how different it is to compose music for a game of this size when compared to a film, where composers score to picture and audiences experience the end result in the same way.

“In a game, people play at their own pace. There's over 100 hours of gameplay in Cyberpunk – well, it's probably 900 for me if you factor in how shit I am. When you're playing it, it’s all about giving people the atmosphere and emotion.

"The idea of a soundtrack album is to give people an idea of the world that we've created; you can immerse yourself in that without the game and you can actually hear the different layers coming in the tracks that we've done. People can listen to it and take that Cyberpunk journey with us.”

Cyberpunk 2077 was developed using the REDengine 4 by a team of around 500, exceeding the number that worked on the studio's previous game, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. CD Projekt actually launched a new division in Wrocław, Poland and partnered with Digital Scapes, Nvidia, QLOC and Jali Research to aid the epic production.

The gaming equivalent of the biggest blockbuster film you can think of, anticipation for the new offering by the same makers of The Witcher has been building since its announcement in 2012, promising an expansive open-world game with industry-leading graphics, gameplay that would span driving, first-person action and stealth, with deep RPG dialogue and character systems.

On top of that, actual John Wick promised the world that it would be breathtaking, and if there’s one thing that I won’t tolerate this year, it’s being lied to by Keanu Reeves.

“The sheer number of tracks and the amount of music that we wrote for the game is mind blowing; it's over eight hours at this very moment,” says Przybyłowicz. “Plus there’s about 12 hours of in-game radio content. It's massive! I've never worked on such a big project,” he says, immediately realising that he said the exact same thing after finishing scoring The Witcher 3. “I wonder what I’m gonna have to say in the next five years? That's gonna be interesting!”

Przybyłowicz and Adamczyk are both in-house composers at CD Projekt Red, and have been working on Cyberpunk the longest, while Leonard-Morgan was the most recent addition to the composing team, having ‘only’ worked on the game for a mere three years. After an initial two-hour Skype meeting to discuss the project (where more and more people left the call the more engrossed the composers got), Leonard-Morgan was fully on board.

“It was like we'd known each other for ages by the end of it,” he recalls. “About a year later, we finally met up in Venice. We spent the next six-to-nine months playing around with the sound. At the beginning I was jumping up and down, and then the excitement settled and I was like, ‘Okay, what the fuck are we gonna do?’”

Adamczyk feels the same way about the way the time to officially ‘start’ working on the score crept up:

“I remember asking Marcin at one point: ‘What's the music like in Cyberpunk? Can you play me something?’ He was like, ‘yeaaaah, we don't really have anything right now’. I couldn't wait to get my teeth into it. Even last year I was still thinking, ‘Are we working on it as hard as we should be working right now?’ Like Paul said, we were experimenting for a long time trying to nail the sound, so it felt very artsy fartsy to a certain degree.”

Przybyłowicz prefers to refer to this creative procrastination period as his “hugging a tree phase” – which basically translates to the fact that they were using the time to search for inspiration.

“You know, you pretend you're working and getting paid for that, right?” he jokes – I think. “You are binge-watching stuff on Netflix, you're going to the movies, hiking, riding your bike or whatever, and obviously you are still in the process because you're conceiving things.

"You have to get in touch with your sense of imagination and find that primal element that we will build upon for the whole musical direction for the game. Obviously, that doesn't work really well with my procrastinating alter ego which often creates very risky situations for me!

"But on the other hand, it allowed us to have enough headroom for our thoughts, for ideas and to try out new things. After nine months, even though no music was written whatsoever that would be actually usable for the game, we were very confident about our musical ideas. The next phase was just to make it happen for the next two or three years.”

Leonard-Morgan presumably is keen to work with Przybyłowicz again someday, and helps him stop digging:

“We had to break it down and just focus; that whole six-to-nine months we spent ‘playing’ makes it sound like we weren't doing anything. But that's one of the most intense periods because we were finding what I call ‘the colour palette’ of the synths and the sounds for the game. There's no point in second guessing anything; you can look at the scale of it and you just shit yourself! There's no point in doing that.”

Dystopian Beginnings

The game’s story takes place in 2077 in Night City, an open world set in the Cyberpunk universe. Players assume the first-person perspective of a customisable mercenary known as V, who can acquire skills in hacking and machinery with options for melee and ranged combat.

As desperate as you might be to be transported to another place right now, Night City won’t be on your fictional bucket list (and yes Hogwarts is on mine). The dystopian megacity is controlled by corporations and is ravaged by conflict from rampant gang wars.

Reliant on robotics for everyday aspects like waste collection, maintenance and public transportation, the city is rife with homelessness, although that doesn’t put its poorest inhabitants off of a bit of cybernetic modification – they’re all for cosmetic addiction, although it does tend to up their penchant for violence.

Happily (or unhappily depending on whose side you’re on) these threats are dealt with by the armed force known as Psycho Squad. Oh, and because of the constant threat of physical harm, all citizens are allowed to openly carry firearms in public.

“There are so many different decisions you can make in Night City,” says Leonard-Morgan, “and writing dark music is relatively easy. Writing dark music like nobody else has ever written before, is a little bit harder.”

Night City consists of six regions: the corporate City Center, immigrant-inhabited Watson, luxurious Westbrook, suburban Heywood, gang-infested Pacifica, and industrial Santo Domingo. Its surrounding area, the Badlands, can also be explored by gamers.

“Our game is unconventional in that we didn't really score the environment,” says Adamczyk on the different zones. “We focused on the quests. We wanted to make sure that whenever you hear a piece of music playing, you know what piece of music it is, and it's there for a reason. For the different districts, it’s more about following the journey – we have to tell the story.

“It was important to focus on what V is doing; who V is talking to, or what’s going on with Johnny Silverhand [Keanu Reeves] or the secondary characters that V’s going to meet on the journey. The city itself is a very important protagonist or antagonist (depending on how you want to look at it), but the districts are not really that important, musically to us.

"It's 100% about the story and about quests, so we tried to create a custom score for whatever play scenario a player can have. Players will always feel like we scored this game especially for them, and we try to suit their play-style as much as possible.”

Writing dark music is relatively easy. Writing dark music like nobody else has ever written before, is a little bit harder. Paul Leonard-Morgan

One Game: Three Composers

The ‘hugging a tree phase’ behind them, where did they even start with tackling a game with over 100 hours of gameplay? They decided it would be best to divide the music up between them, rather than all try to collaborate on the same track together – although there are various quests and scenarios where all their work comes together.

“I hate the fucking phrase, but we did a bit of blue sky thinking,” cringes Leonard-Morgan. “You’ve got to start somewhere. Is it EDM? Rave? Rock? What is it? After a while, we thought, ‘fuck pigeonholing it’ – let's just actually start writing some music, because you can talk all you want about ideas and sound, but the proof’s in the pudding when you actually start doing it.”

“It's mental when you think about the technical practicalities of putting all these tunes in,” he reflects. “One of the things that I still find fascinating is that the whole thing is pretty much in one key. It's all in A, and then you've got all of these different tempos and time signatures, different places where the loops are going into another loop, and different trigger points which then take you into different directions depending on what you want to do. It's bloody hard to keep that interest up! Inside those loops and tracks you have three or four different layers, depending on what's actually going on.”

At one point, Leonard-Morgan was possessed by a crazy idea:

“I remember there was one track that I wanted to do on E-flat on guitar. I had to get special permission from the boys to do this one in E-flat! I think I got away with one that wasn't in A...I think we did it in A because that's the only key that P.T knows,” he deadpans.

“This is the only key you need!” laughs Adamczyk. “In the AAA game world I don’t think that there is a game that was scored by one guy, because somewhere in the process other people have to come in because the amount of work is impossible for a single individual. We are not only composers, we are a small music team that handles not only our score, but also the implementation for all the game’s radio tracks as well.”

Getting on the same wavelength was key in order to not second guess every creative decision, which Leonard-Morgan admits he was a victim of to begin with:

“I was like, ‘Will they like this? Will they not like this?’ After a while, you’ve just got to clear your head and go for it because the reason you were brought onto a project is to be bold and do your thing. It took me a while to get that, but what was wonderful about these two is the ability to bounce ideas off them. I think what you hear is a fluidness of sound. So although we're all different, all the tracks sound like they're from the same world.”

Was there any aspect of the game they felt they absolutely had to nail?

“Isn't saying what we've nailed unnecessary bragging?” asks Przybyłowicz. “It's also unusual for a Slavic person to unnecessarily brag…”

Paul Leonard-Morgan is in L.A now, and insists that he can brag for the three of them:

“Sod it! Three years is a long time to work on a project, and we’ve had a quiet period this year while it's all being implemented. I listened back to some of the stuff a couple of weeks before the EP came out and thought: ‘This is really fucking good!’ And you don’t necessarily feel like that when you’re working on it.”

Przybyłowicz concedes and says he will allow himself to brag about one thing: attitude.

“We quickly found out that the key word for our work on Cyberpunk was attitude. It doesn’t matter from what genre tracks are borrowing specific elements from, that music has its own fucking attitude. And even if you are talking about these more subtle, tentative tracks, that attitude is still there. The music is written for a dangerous, dirty world that doesn’t play fair.”

Back To The ‘90s

While Cyberpunk tropes may instantly bring to mind such scores as Blade Runner or Deus Ex, the composing trio drew from all sorts of music styles, ranging from jazz, through downtempo, hip-hop, metal, industrial, to various incarnations of ‘90s techno.

Adamczyk says that a lot of the music is beat-based, so it naturally feels like it belongs to the dance genre:

“It was difficult to preserve the idiomatic nature of this music and try to tell the story; sometimes you feel like you need a jackhammer to crush this genre, take the bits that are left, and try to make something out of that. We were building on this while still thinking about the production techniques of EDM, techno or industrial music.

"It was a battle between the initial goal of trying to take the ‘90s and reconstructing and repurposing that for a game, and trying to stay true to the genres that we were messing with. I think people will get a kick out of this music while playing this game; they will feel the music changing depending on the quest.”

Leonard-Morgan agrees:

“We knew we were heading in the right direction. The whole ‘90s feel is something that people wouldn't necessarily associate with Cyberpunk. We took that energy and that [there’s that word again] attitude and put it into the music. The thing I'm probably the proudest of is the fact that this isn't a soundtrack or score that people will necessarily be expecting. It has elements of Blade Runner, but in general it's something really fresh. The general reaction from the EP has been: ‘Fuck! I wasn't expecting this, but man, it's cool’.

That reminds him of one of the tracks that Adamczyk composed: “I'm shit with names...I can never remember the names of the tracks. Sorry mate! It's got such energy. I hate the word 'rave' because it reminds me of things that I did in the late ‘80s... It’s not a rave track, but we've tried to get across the energy of raves.”

Listening to the soundtrack, it’s immediately obvious that the track name that momentarily escapes Leonard-Morgan has to be Chrome Shamans, an exhausting, feverish, adrenaline-fuelled come-up of a rave track. Relentlessly pulsing, the surging tune leaves the listener feeling slightly crazed: if this is any indication of the game play (my copy of Cyberpunk 2077 has literally just arrived in the post as I write this; come through, Amazon!), players will be HYPED.

Although not all the tracks are like this – others are subtle and murky, filled with dread or making use of epic Muse-esque guitar riffs (which makes sense as smashing the shit out of the drums is Nine Inch Nails’ very own Ilan Rubin). Basically, this soundtrack slaps.

“It’s got that ‘90s attitude for sure!” says Leonard-Morgan. “When I listen to The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy or Beastie Boys, it’s all about the pounding drums, the electronica and that feeling of energy. In the end, people aren't gonna go, 'Oh it sounds like an EDM track’. It's about being soaked up in that journey. That P.T. track I mentioned – I listen to it running! People will listen to this outside of the game, and I think that's what gives the score authenticity.”

The trio are confident that this game sounds like nothing else:

“For instance with Ilan on the drums, we’ve processed and chopped that up,” says Leonard-Morgan. “We’re not using synthesisers to replicate someone else’s sound, we’re taking that as the base and then going off and doing our own thing. No one else in the world has these sounds that we've created. We’ve got all these loops, we’re putting them through processors, through distortion, we’re reversing them and putting them through synths.”

Realising he’s “suddenly gone off one one,” Leonard-Morgan says he can’t help it because it’s just hitting him that what they’ve achieved is so exciting:

“You should see us in the studio when we’re composing! We make all these ridiculous faces, or I do, and I am dancing away in a very bad, dad way. But it's about the attitude and energy. And by the end of it, you suddenly go, ‘fuck, that's a cool track – I wonder if that's actually going to work’ – because all I'd seen was a little video with a few pixels on it. When I saw the full on graphics a few months ago, I thought ‘oh, man, this is the best’. I can't wait for people to play this!”

Does this mean Leonard-Morgan hasn’t played the game yet?

“Nope! Because I don't work at CDPR, there's no way they would bloody let me play anything over here,” he laughs, looking pointedly at Adamczyk and Przybyłowicz. “My team played a very early version about a year ago in my studio by connecting to the CDPR servers over in Warsaw while I was here in L.A. I was just A: gobsmacked by the technology, and B: it was already looking pretty damn good then. It's been amazing seeing how far it's come just in terms of being polished. Those two play it every day though.”

“Yeah, we’ve played it a tonne of times already,” confirms a nonchalant but definitely-not-bragging Adamczyk. “Marcin, can we get him a physical copy?”

The key word for our work on Cyberpunk is attitude. The music is written for a dangerous, dirty world that doesn’t play fair. Marcin Przybyłowicz

On a serious note, Adamczyk says that they are very proud of the way they created custom assets for the story:

“There's no random exploration cue playing or underscoring an important dialogue scene; every scene that's important in the story has been scored. There's no right way to play the game because this is an open world, story-driven RPG, but I’d say to get the best out of the game, you have to play the quests.”

“Suddenly seeing it all come to life is a brilliant thing – that’s my favourite part,” stresses Leonard-Morgan. “Again – without bragging – I’m proud of what we’ve achieved because the scale of this game is fucking insane; it is like nothing I've ever seen.

"Then you times that by the fact that the music is really not typical and you won’t find those sounds anywhere else. We’ve tried to create this new pop culture that goes with it. It's not your bog standard soundtrack, and this is something that's really special and close to our hearts.”

With Cyberpunk 2077 currently installing in my PS5, it remains to be seen if my breath will indeed be taken, although if the score is anything to go by, I might be about to develop a severe attitude problem.