When you first load up The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, you’re met with a cinematic, and dare I say epic, opening scene. It’s complete with a dramatic monologue enhanced by the patter of thunderous rain as the instruments ebb and flow in the background. The rain stops—replaced by metal scraping, monsters growling, men fighting. The music continuous, growing until it finally reaches its peak, accompanied by a dramatic zoom into the eyes of our hero. The music cuts and the monologue ends. The screen fades to black.
And you find yourself engulfed by the excitement of your impending 100-hour adventure. At least, that’s how I felt.
In any video game, immersion is crucial. It’s what makes you sit in front of the computer for hours, not noticing how much time has slipped past, and it’s what makes you want to pick it up again the next day and continue where you left of. When fully immersed, players better understand and appreciate the world, the characters, and by extension, the plot. Sounds plays an important role in immersion, and the care and attention that was put into the sounds in The Witcher 3 is definitely something to be noted.
When discussing the sounds in any franchise, the easiest and most obvious place to start is with the soundtrack. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt soundtrack was composed by Polish composers Marcin Przybylowicz, Mikolaj Stroinski, and Polish folk metal band Percival. The score was performed by Brandenburg State Orchestra from Frankfurt, Germany and was directed by German conductor Bernd Ruf. The original soundtrack (not counting that of the expansions) consists of 35 songs that span the length of around 80 minutes. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack has a typical fantasy vibe, fitting of the fictional world we find ourselves in.
The authenticity of the soundtrack lies in the instruments. In order to give it that distinct, epic fantasy feel, folk musicians and folk instruments were chosen. Some of these instruments include the lute, hurdy-gurdy, renaissance fiddle, bağlama, and the bowed gusli. For those of you like me, who are unfamiliar with many of the different Slavic folk instruments, the hurdy-gurdy is a hand-cranked, mechanical string instrument, which is pictured above1Wikipedia contributors, “Hurdy-gurdy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hurdy-gurdy&oldid=1029827691 .. According to Wikipedia, it sounds similar to bagpipes. The bağlama, also known as the saz, is a seven stringed instrument commonly used in Turkish folk music, and is pictured below2Wikipedia contributors, “Bağlama,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ba%C4%9Flama&oldid=1025156356 .. The gusli, is an east Slavic multi-string plucked instrument similar to the Chinese gu zheng and Japanese koto. The folk and medieval influences is what makes the music so fitting to the story, as much of Western fantasy includes influences from both these sources.
Of course, even though instrument choice plays big role, most of the credit is due to the performers’ expertise in folk music and the composers’ ability to, well, compose. The album is full of over an hour of well-composed music that covers every possible emotion the game wishes to convey. In this regard, we would be remiss to mention the powerful vocals found in songs such as “Steel for Humans” and “Silver for Monsters.” They’re hauntingly beautiful, and stick with you far beyond the end of the battle. The soundtrack is playful, dramatic, tragic, serene, unsettling, and epic all at once. Music that has the ability to convey the emotions of a story, and then enhance the listeners experience of the game is what makes a good soundtrack. The Witcher 3 soundtrack does both these things incredibly well.
The first full song players are introduced to is the main menu theme, “Geralt of Rivia.” Similar to the opening cinematic, it establishes an expectation of an impending epic journey. It starts off calm and slow. About 40 seconds in it begins to build. Isolated drum hits are added to the music, creating a sense of power and determination. The song reaches its peak at around 2 minutes, a last dramatic, victorious note that immediately falls back down to the calm of the beginning, finishing off the song. “Geralt of Rivia” fully encompasses everything that represents Geralt and the Witcher franchise, and that’s before the game has even truly begun.
But the effectiveness of sound in The Witcher 3 goes far beyond just the soundtrack. The amount of work that was put into atmospheric sounds such as swords clashing, hoofs hitting the ground, and arrows being shot is phenomenal. According to a video from GameSpot detailing the development of the sounds in the game, in order to get the most authentic sounds, the production team visited a reenactment of the Battle of Grunwald. For those of us unfamiliar with Polish history, this 1410 battle was part of the Polish-Lithuanian war, and helped Poland-Lithuania establish itself as one of Europe’s most powerful states. They recorded audio of people marching, blacksmiths smithing, armor rustling, arrows being shot, and other sounds vital to the fantasy genre3GameSpot, “Creating The Sound – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Official Developer Diary,” YouTube video, posted August 30, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-jogZgwf3M. This careful attention to the subtle, but ordinary sounds that would be found in a world like that of the Witcher keep the player completely immersed, whether they are in the midst of battle or simply riding Roach from one town to the next.
When sound is done well, it’s somewhat comparable to a heartbeat. It doesn’t stick out but feels natural and necessary. It sets the atmosphere and mood for current and upcoming scenes without drawing attention to itself. Sound it what creates a truly immersive experience for the player, whether the player is cognizant of all the sounds being used or not. So next time you play through Wild Hunt, whether it be your second, third, or tenth time, don’t be afraid to sit back every once and a while, close your eyes, and just listen.