Pawel Blaszczak Interview: Call of Juarez and Dead Island (March 2012)
Pawel Blaszczak is the sound director and senior composer of Polish game developer Techland. While he has worked in many game and music genres during his long career, he is best known for the soundtracks to Call of Juarez, The Witcher, Chrome, and Dead Island franchises.
In this detailed interview, Blaszczak exclusively reveals details about his background and how he still embraced games, movies, and music despite growing up in a communist country. He focuses in on his work for the aforementioned franchises, noting in particular his thematic approach to Call of Juarez, melancholy influences on The Witcher, and sound design on Dead Island.
Interview Subject: Pawel Blaszczak
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: Pawel Blaszczak, welcome to the site. Until now, not much is known about your background. Could you tell us about the first experiences that made you interested in music and games?
Pawel Blaszczak: Hello. Thank you for inviting me to the website.
Poland was a communist country in the 80s. A home computer was considered foreign luxury goods, just as many other products were at the time. My first experience with video games took place when I left for western Europe, namely Germany. It was there that I played Scramble System for Commodore 64 and it had a huge impact on me — I couldn't stop playing! There was a kind of magic in it and I remember that moment to this day.
My interest in music came later on, though it had been inside me from early childhood. In fact, I was always drawn to the black and white keys — I always wanted to understand how to play a piano to produce nice music and melodies. These interests developed alongside: the fascination with Commodore 64 music and video games, and the need to compose.
Chris: Given you studied journalism and public relations in Poland, what led you to become a composer?
Pawel Blaszczak: I really wanted to study music but I started composing and playing instruments quite late — at 15 years of age to be precise. Back then in Poland, if one didn't graduate from a music-oriented primary school, the next steps — a music high school and studies — were basically unattainable (all schools were state schools). It's true that I could have graduated from a music school majoring in the guitar (up until I was 19), but I was in love with the synthesizers and piano so I decided not to. The love for the guitar came a bit later on.
Thus, I had no possibility to take up public music studies (and there were no private schools at the time). Considering I liked to write and was interested in economics, I chose to study economics and Public Relations. Looking back, I have no regrets taking that step. The studies prepared me for my role of the audio director at Techland by teaching me how to manage staff and projects. As for my musical education, I graduated from a private study of composing under my mentor professor Andrzej Baczyk.
Chris: Many of your early works, including Crime Cities and Mission: Humanity, seem to reflect your routes in the tracker scene. To what extent do you agree? How did you enhance the atmosphere of these titles?
Pawel Blaszczak: It's true. My first compositions were created using C64, but back then it was more about programming rhythms than writing music. There was no user-friendly program for the C64 that would allow well controlled synthesizer solos in the fashion of those featured in Martin Galway's tracks that I still admire today. Therefore my music developed more on the Amiga. I composed with trackers a lot. I even made a music demo with a handmade drawing of a robot and send it out to various foreign companies. Unfortunately, no one was interested.
When I graduated from university, I bought the midi equipment, Roland JD880, Roland SC55, and Roland JX1. After that, my works caught the ear of Pawel Marchewka, the CEO at Techland, who was creating Crime Cities around 1998. He liked the music demo I sent him very much. Although back then, he was also very interested to know if I could record a laser gun sound for the vehicle flying in the game and gave gave me a couple days. I guess if he hadn't liked the sound of the gun, it would have been harder to be hired to work on Crime Cities. But in the end, Techland liked me both as a music composer and sound effects designer.
For Crime Cities and Mission Humanity, I switched completely to creating tracks in midi using Music-X, a very good Amiga program. I remember it being the closest to the typical sequencers I'm using today such as Cakewalk or Logic. The trackers were perfect to write arpeggios and create rhythms, but they always had issues with accords as they required the use of at least three tracks of the tracker.
Chris: In contrast, the first-person shooters Chrome and its prequel featured hybridised scores reminiscent of Hollywood movies. How do you adapt your musicality and technology to ensure these scores had a cutting-edge sound?
Pawel Blaszczak: When composing the music for Chrome, I already owned a lot of midi equipment with orchestral tones, a Roland JV1080 with the Orchestra add-on, among others. This aided me in creating music that sounded close to the actual orchestra. Moreover, I was already using my own audio postprocess for the loops and my own synthesizer tones. I also used interesting synthesizers such as Korg Prophecy. It was also the time when I learned to play guitar better — in fact, Chrome's music features my first guitar-based compositions.
Chris: While you made your video game debut in 1997, it wasn't until The Witcher ten years later that your music — and Polish games in general — came to prominence. What do you make of this phenomenon? Is the country's rise to fame the reflection of better design or better marketing?
Pawel Blaszczak: I think both. The Witcher was a game of good quality. The gamers were also fond of the music composed for the game. Those two elements had to come together. It's rarely the case that average music is appreciated because of the overall quality of the game, or vice versa.
The Witcher is a very popular novel in Poland. There was also a film adaptation of it before the game was developed. I had to go fact to face with the gamers' expectations. The bar for the music score was set very high. That makes me feel even happier to know that the music was well received and even got an award from IGN for the best RPG game music.
Chris: Focusing in on the title, you and Adam Skorupa really drew in listeners with your emotional writing. How did you develop a distinctive style for this score alongside your collaborator? Would you agree that the Celtic elements provided the heart and soul of this score?
Pawel Blaszczak: There's some dark longing and reflection residing inside of me. While composing the music for The Witcher, I got to know Celtic compositions well, although I always adored Enya, Loreena McKennit, or Lisa Gerrard and the Fantasy world as such. In 1992, I even wrote music based on the Dragonriders novel, but the score was never published.
I think I'm in tune with Celtic music. Also, the communism reign in Poland was a very sad period and, because of that, Polish music contains a kind of darkness and longing for freedom. It's been a real honor for me to know that the music touched the gamers.
Chris: The Wild Western setting of Call of Juarez provoked a very different score from you once again. Were you already familiar with the scores of the great westerns or did you research them while writing the score?
Pawel Blaszczak: Western movies were among the very few American movies that were allowed to be shown in Poland in the late 70s. I loved them as much as every other child did — both the classics with orchestral American music and those featuring music by Ennio Morricone.
I was really glad to learn that we were developing a game in this style at Techland. However, the lead designer of the original Call of Juarez game, Pawel Selinger, decided for the music to be anti-Western and definitely not styled after Morricone. I had a lot of headaches how to approach it but in the end I created dark music fit for the Western style based on Native American, Mexican, and Gypsy tunes.
The sequels to Call of Juarez were free to correspond with the typical Western stylistics. The second installment introduced the typical American elements of country and blues, while the third installment was an attempt to create a dark Morricone style music combined with electronic sounds.
Chris: A praised aspect of Call of Juarez and its sequels was its thematic emphasis, particularly on Bound In Blood. What do you think a recurring theme can bring to a video game? How do approach writing and integrating themes on titles such as these?
Pawel Blaszczak: In every installment of Call of Juarez, I like to address the common running themes and then add new ones. After all, music is an integral part of a game or a movie. It allows for an interesting way of evoking the nostalgic feelings connected with the previous part, give the characters better integrity, and present the game in a more engaging way overall.
For instance, because Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood was a prequel to the original game, it was exciting to reflect the gradual transformation of Ray highlighted by music. He's a trouble-maker gunslinger at the beginning and slowly becomes an ever darker character. Towards the end of the Bound in Blood plot, when Ray felt betrayed, I used the themes from the original installment to stress that. When Bound in Blood begins, however, it has its own individual theme.
There were a lot of musical themes and changes in music as well. It was very well described in the review featured by this website. I was really glad to see that my musical premises were understood and appreciated.
Chris: Dead Island was a massive hit from Techland last year and, once again, you were responsible for the score. Given your previous projects, what was it like to shift into horror territory here? Did you need to significantly adapt your musicality?
Pawel Blaszczak: Horror was not a completely new stylistic for me. I had written music for two horror games before. I also always enjoyed Zombie movies, aside from Westerns, so the theme was very exciting for me. What's more, with Dead Island I could freely use the synthesizers that could not be featured in Call of Juarez.
Chris: As audio director of Techland, you were responsible for much more than just music on the title. How did you integrate music, sound effects, and voices to produce an immersive horror experience?
Pawel Blaszczak: With Dead Island, we focused not only on recreating the horror atmosphere in the game, but also wanted to show the sad and tragic situation the people found themselves in when they faced the plague. Therefore, apart from the music typical for the Zombie style, I also created sad and touching emotional pieces.
The control over all the audio elements and being in the heart of the process — both on the creation and implementation ends — enabled creating the sensations designed for the player.
As a member of the development team, I played the game a lot. I adjusted the music to given situations just as I did with the ambient sounds and Zombie roars. I could freely change and correct all these elements to achieve the best possible final effect. I had a really good cooperation with the games producer, Adrian Ciszewski, and I hope we managed to get an interesting effect of terror and fear in the game in terms of the audio cues.
Chris: Between these triple A titles, you have worked on racing titles such as the Xpand Rally and FIM Speedway series. How do you manage your time to contribute to simultaneously developed projects? Do you focus on one project at a time or move between several?
Pawel Blaszczak: I use both methods. Sometimes it is best focus on the music for a single game. For instance, I was writing the Xpand Rally Xtreme score every single day and night for two weeks straight. But I also like to jump between projects. This wasn't the case for the racing titles you mentioned, but I shared my time between Dead Island and Call of Juarez: The Cartel. When I was tired after countless hours of creating the music or effects for The Cartel the change that creating the audio for Dead Island brought was to some extent relaxing.
Chris: You've also begun to make an entrance in the film industry with some Polish films. How would you compare your experiences on these projects to video game scoring? Would you like to pursue this area further in the future?
Pawel Blaszczak: The deficiency of time to spare is definitely not an ally. But yes, I would gladly write more movie scores.
Whereas development period for a game spans across some 18 months, it's much shorter for a movie. It's easier and faster to finish the work on a movie project and maintain its musical integrity. It's more difficult in the case of a game that is in development for a long time and undergoes many changes. On top of that a game requires non-linear music. In the case of a movie, the music is always set in a particular time and place which makes it easier to highlight the desired emotions.
However, as of late, my biggest dream is to find enough time to write music for a solo album. This is the only case when a composer is not restricted in any way and can let themselves go with the music. Basically, I want to create what I really like myself — I have tons of ideas but not enough time to make them happen.
Chris: Also on that note, you are apparently writing the original album ZYNOXyDOX using the Commodore 64 SID Chip. Could you reveal some more about what we should expect? What's it like to revisit your roots on such a production?
Pawel Blaszczak: I've been trying to make this album ever since I bought the SID STATION back in 2004. SID STATION is a midi module with the original Commodore 64 MOS6581 chip. This is the only device apart from the original computer that gives the accurate sound of the Commodore. And it was and still is amazing.
Apart from the free ZYNOXyDOX track, there's a single entitled "Good Mornings Loader" available download from my Soundcloud profile on iTunes that is also based on the C64 sounds. I already have around five tracks created for the album. I would like the album to feature many more tracks though. The idea behind it comes from the nostalgia for the Commodore sounds but also the nostalgia for the games world that was very novel and exciting for me back then.
But I don't want to make music based only off of the C64 sound or create something that might be called a remix. The album is created in a way that makes the C64 sounds a certain integral element. A homage to a great piece of equipment and the past that also creates a new interesting quality.
Chris: Sequels are expected for Call of Juarez, Dead Island, and perhaps Chrome in coming years. Would you be interested in producing music for such projects? Would you maintain the approach of the originals or try something new?
Pawel Blaszczak: If the sequels are actually developed, I think there will always be a place in them for new music ideas. When I started writing the Call of Juarez: The Cartel score I doubted that one might still be creative for the third time. But when I delved deeper into the project, I found that there's still something new and interesting I can say with the music but at the same time not lose touch with the legacy of the previous installments. I think it is always worthwhile to keep some parts of the past games as long as there are references to them in the new installment.
In the case of Dead Island, I was stopped in the middle of the race. I was at full speed towards the end of the project and accepted with regret that it was finished. I'm looking forward to the sequel if it's ever developed. I have some great and interesting ideas for the games to come.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Pawel Blaszczak. Do you have anything else you'd like to say about your music and any messages for your fans around the world?
Pawel Blaszczak: I would like to thank you for the interest in my music and your time. It's an honor for me to receive an invite to an interview from this site. Should someone be interested in learning about my next projects, please also visit my official website.
I always try for my music to rub elbows with artistry and I give one hundred percent while creating it. While following trends and styles closely, I'm trying to create my own path and compose music valuable and interesting for gamers. It gives me a lot of joy and pride to see gamers enjoy and appreciate my music. I would like to thank you ALL.