„As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect”. That’s the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the first scene of the game as well, but that situation could be also easily described with just one word – kafkaesque, an English counterpart of German original, Kafkaesk. It’s a feeling of being stuck in an extremely frightening and confusing situation. That’s the moment when one realises that they are just a little individual who must fight against a harsh elusive power, but they don’t even know why and how to do that.
Atonal symphonic music to express Kafka’s world very well.
Kafka, who lived in the revolutionary age of social tensions in Europe around the First World War, was one of the greatest commentators of the then reality – his stories, filled with accurate yet bizarre metaphors, pointed out many people’s feelings at the time. Concurrently he was dominated by his father (he lived with his parents almost his whole short life) and felt extreme anxiety – sharing the whole society’s feelings also on his own micro scale, so he and his works have been braided together very closely.
All these things had converged to create Kafka’s universum – surreal, alienated, grotesque – which a hundred years later was interpreted by a video game studio Ovid Works together with music by Mikolai Stroinski (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt) and Gary Schyman (BioShock). Their soundtrack won the Society of Composers and Lyricists award for Outstanding Original Score For Interactive Media.
So how does Kafka sound like today? As Stroinski said in one of interviews, a few years ago the Ovid Works team showed him an early prototype of their game. Stroinski’d started to look for the most relevant sounding for that and he found 1920s’ atonal symphonic music to express Kafka’s world very well. The time and the setting, both barely defined in the game though, have been settled in that music style perfectly.
When it comes to their inspirations, Stroinski and Schyman didn’t go for half measures at all. Beside Kafka’s works alone (used also as lyrics in German language), a legendary composer Arnold Schoenberg was their main go-to inspiration. That was he who broadly incorporated atonality into expressionist music and invented the twelve-tone technique. The latter (also known as dodecaphony) requires using each of twelve tones with an equal priority and avoiding repetition of the tone until the whole scale’s been used. That tune was very common in Kafka’s time.
Stroinski and Schyman walked similar ways to the ones that’d been walked by Schoenberg. They even invited a singer Joanna Freszel to cooperate adding another factor specific for the then music – spoken singing and opera singing. She played with her soprano voice with an ease and took it to extreme – going up from a whisper-ish tone to the highest notes and back (Harbor, The Tower). It brung a spirit of early 20th century’s Europe to life –an elegant but unsteady time.
So an impact of Bernard Herrman did – a composer for most of Alfred Hitchcock’s films and Citizen Kane was their second main inspiration. That’s why the album sounds much like music from a film made in Hollywood’s golden era. Mysterious pizzicatos combined with long vibrant strings and light bells (The Letter) that, from time to time, turn into loud and grandiose bursts (The Path Of The Tower). The dynamic as well as major seventh intervals really keep the absurd and kafkaesque feeling of watching the human world from a little bug’s point of view. And the composers did that on purpose.
Metamorphosis doesn’t only dive into that one Kafka’s novel.
Despite the name of the game, Metamorphosis doesn’t only dive into that one Kafka’s novel – we, as Gregor who transformed into a bug, wakes up at his friend’s, Joseph, after a party, however Joseph appears only in The Trial (another Kafka’s novel) and during the game we get to know his story, so the game’s kind of a storybook with many sophisticated details of Kafka’s works. The soundtrack tells that story on its own like a conceptual album with almost no gaps between the songs (sometimes very short ones). It’s based directly on the surrealism of the books and that shapes the sound – the beautiful sound that can make you confused intentionally.