CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 is arguably the the biggest video game release of 2020, transporting players to a gritty sci-fi world full of bio-augmented criminals and lowlives. True to its name, the game explores some pretty deep concepts about cyberspace and what life might be like in a futuristic transhuman society where technological advancements have turned us less human and more machine. So it’s no surprise that the game’s score often sounds like something recovered from the year 2077 and brought back to our time. At its very best, the soundtrack elevates this grim dystopia.
In the wake of Cyberpunk 2077‘s massive launch, Den of Geek spoke with the trio of composers behind the game’s score: Marcin Przybylowicz (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt), P.T. Adamczyk (Gwent: The Witcher Card Game), and Paul Leonard-Morgan (Dredd). The three composers discussed the soundtrack’s conception and revealed the unconventional methods they used to create the score’s unique, ominous sound.
The Cyberpunk 2077 Original Score, which contains two discs-worth of the game’s enormous pool of music, is available now to buy and stream. As players have discovered in the week since the game’s launch, the score isn’t exactly the pulsating, adrenaline-fueled synth barrage some might be expecting from a cyberpunk title. It’s largely ambient, with ominous layers of otherworldly bass bellows, tribal beats that sound both futuristic and primal, and melancholic wades through placid synth soundscapes. There are definitely bangers on the tracklist, but what stands out is that many of the pieces almost feel introspective.
“You’re dealing with a complex story, and there’s [a vast] number of characters in Cyberpunk,” Adamczyk explains. “Finding a theme or an idea or a motif and being confident in it…that’s really difficult because there are so many different things happening in the story, and you could score it a thousand different ways. And they all would be good enough. But the question remains, ‘What is the essence?’”
Przybylowicz was the first of the three composers to start work on the score for Cyberpunk 2077 very early in the game’s production. In laying the foundations for what the game’s music would sound like (the elusive “essence” Adamczyk speaks of), he set out to create something unique, though he was also committed to honoring the source material that the game is steeped in.
“We were trying to find out how our take on Cyberpunk would differ from other bits of culture,” says Marcin of the initial creative process. “We must never forget that our game is not a game that is simply set in a yberpunk universe. Our game is Cyberpunk 2077, which means that it’s based on a very well described and very lore-heavy, already existing universe, Cyberpunk 2020 by Mike Pondsmith. So that means there is a ton of source material, tons of creative work that has already been done before. So we needed to reach out to these books and see if we could pinpoint anything that would remain useful for us after we move the events from 2020 to 2077. Then we started to formulate how that would translate to the game’s sonic palette.”
The original tabletop game paints a picture of an alternate future in which corruption reigns and oppressive megacorporations wage war on each other, as the denizens of gang-infested, urban sprawls like Night City struggle to survive on the streets. Humans and machines intertwine via cybernetic enhancements, and this unholy merging of flesh and technology is represented vividly in the game’s score, which often employs the use of synth that sounds both metallic and organic.
The majority of electronic music is created from a widely-available database of preset sounds built into a computer or synth. To create Cyberpunk 2077’s unique sonic identity, the composers eschewed convention and took a more experimental approach, using a slew of odd machines to create bespoke sounds that give the score its ethereal edge.
“What we’ve done is ridiculous,” Leonard-Morgan explains. “It hasn’t been done before. We’ve composed with virtually no software at all. It’s all external gear. So it’s all weird and wacky synthesizers, all weird modular synths, always stuff which you then had to record the audio and process that around. You can never recreate the sounds again.”
The trio used rare, long out-of-production machines, took their already unique built-in sounds, and manipulated them further to compose the game’s music. The result is a tapestry of interconnected compositions that have a dark, Frankenstein’s-monster bizarreness to them, and one of the most prominent and peculiar synths you’ll hear in the mix has a curious background of its own.
“P.T. and I own our own Soviet-made Polivokses. Mine’s from 1982,” Przybylowicz says. “My Polivoks still has a price tag: 800 Rubles, which is, I think by today’s standards, 10 bucks. It’s a duophonic synthesizer similar to the Moog Sub 37, which is a very famous duophonic unit. I heard a story that during the Cold War, blueprints [of the Moog Sub 37] were stolen by Soviet agents in order to obtain something that they could copy [to build their own synthesizer]. Supposedly they were trying to make an exact copy, but you know, something always goes wrong on the production lines–they ended up with a machine that is truly, remarkably ugly-sounding. Yet still sounds like nothing else.”
Another strange machine in the trio’s fleet of synths is the Folktek Mescaline, an infernal-looking mess of jet-black panels, spiraling bronze detailing, and a scattered arrangement of inputs, knobs, buttons, and switches. It looks so intimidating and unapproachable that it’s no wonder the trio harnessed its power in their compositions.
“All three of us own Folktek Mescalines,” Przybylowicz says. “It’s a small modular system that allows you to basically do anything. It doesn’t come with a very good manual. It doesn’t feature keyboards. It doesn’t feature any self-explanatory indications of what’s doing what. So it’s all based on experimentation.”
Adamczyk elaborates, “You can’t really decide, ‘I’m just going to play an A minor chord’ on a Mescaline. Getting an A minor chord is a real pain in the ass because you have to pretty much tune the machine to that specific chord. You have to try to find your way with these instruments and try to somehow find a musical way of using them. Half of the time, you have no idea what you’re doing.”
The game boasts around eight hours of music that, amazingly, is virtually all in the key of A minor to allow the different compositions to flow seamlessly in and out of each other as the player transitions between different encounters and scenarios.
“Games are like living organisms,” Przybylowicz explains. “It’s dependent on the player’s actions, even if we’re talking about the most linear scripted games. Ours obviously is nothing like that. It’s a full-fledged, open-world RPG with multiple branching lines in the narrative arc. So obviously it’s even more difficult [to compose for], but I think in a sense it’s almost liberating to work on a thing that changes so many times during even a single playthrough, you know?”
Cyberpunk 2077 had fans practically salivating in the days leading to its release date. It’s not only the next chapter of a long-beloved sci-fi franchise, but CD Projekt RED’s follow-up to the all-time classic The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which is, to put it mildly, a tough act to follow. The composers feel the magnitude of the moment, though they remain unshakable, confident in the work they’ve put forward.
“Working on a game of such a big scale, ambition and quality and fan base…I think it naturally adds to the pressure,” says Przybylowicz. “So the bigger the hype gets, the bigger the expectations are getting, and the bigger the pressure gets. I think it’s at least in some parts a natural process of this profession, when you get to work on a project of this reputation.”
“It doesn’t matter for me whether it’s a one million dollar film, a hundred million dollar film, a billion-dollar game, or whatever,” Leonard-Morgan adds. “The point is it’s all about the creative process. That’s the part that I really, really enjoy. And I think as soon as you start letting external forces come into your head, that’s where I start to kind of…Self-doubt is the wrong phrase. But you start second-guessing, and second guessing is just the worst thing you can do as a composer.”
You can listen to the score below:
Cyberpunk 2077 is out now on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Google Stadia.