We speak with composer Kirill Pokrovsky about his background and work on the recent Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga.One of the best things about role-playing games is that they are almost always accompanied by an epic and moving score that inspires the adventurer in all of us. Divinity II may have flown under your radar, multiple times in fact, since it was originally released on the PC and Xbox 360 back in early 2010 as Divinity II: Ego Draconis. Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga is a remastered version of the original adventure with new content, an improved engine, and the expansion Flames of Vengeance. If you haven't played the game, you might want take a listen to the score, which was composed and performed by Russian composer Kirill Pokrovsky. You'll be amazed at the things you take for granted when it comes to media. You can find more Divinity II music along with tunes from other video games at Sound Byte Radio.
GameSpot: Could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background?
Kirill Pokrovsky: Well, my name is Kirill Pokrovsky, and I was born and raised in Moscow. Of course, this is the capital of Russia now, but back then, the USSR still existed and all things Western--the forbidden fruits--like books, magazines, and Western music recordings had to be smuggled through the Iron Curtain. I started playing music from a very early age, and as a teenager, I became interested in rock music. When Gorbachev came to power and suddenly all the outlawed Western influences became OK, the band I was in was allowed to stage concerts. We toured, and on one occasion, we played in front of 250,000 fans all singing along to our songs. What a time that was! Our album sold more than a million copies, but because we still lived in the socialist system, this didn't make us rich. Still, fame was sweet!
GS: What was the first instrument that you picked up?
KP: Like I said, I began playing when I was very young as my mother was a practicing teacher and concert pianist. First, I played the violin for a bit, which she selected for me because of my "perfect pitch" hearing. We couldn't find a little violin, so I remember myself as a four-year-old kid holding en enormous adult-sized one, sweating and cursing. Later, I switched to piano, so of course my mother was a big help. That's when I first started to compose, and my first opus was the "ideologically correct" song "Lenin on Parade," performed by a very little me and a famous opera soprano singer. For this, I won my first award and the performance was broadcasted on national television.
GS: Is there an instrument you wish you knew how to play?
KP: The instrument I always wanted to play was the electric guitar, but an unfortunate little incident put a stop to that. When I was a teen, I managed to get my hands on an electric guitar from East Germany--some copy of a Fender Stratocaster--but the only amplifying device at our place was the TV set. I managed to connect the guitar to it, but after striking the first chord, the little speakers of the television were literally blown away. This ended in a huge row with my parents, and so my very short-lived guitar career came to an end.
GS: What is your fondest memory when it comes to music?
KP: Fond may be the wrong word, but there's this one story I think is quite funny. I was in a studio still writing music that was about to be recorded. My computer crashed on me, so I had to write the partitions by hand. The producer was becoming nervous and angry, especially when the very posh and very expensive musicians arrived. Reluctantly, they started playing the handwritten scores. All went fine until the third piece, when all of a sudden, the music started to sound like a complete cacophony. The musicians, though, thought this was just another one of those "modern" pieces and just kept playing! I quickly asked for a toilet break during which I amended the mistake that led them to unwittingly botch up the score. Luckily, the rest of the recording went ahead relatively peacefully.
GS: How did you get into making music for video games?
KP: When I first started doing solo projects, I ended up in Belgium. At first, I was only planning to stay a year or so, but I fell in love with the country and, especially, the city of Bruges. There, I met Swen Vincke (CEO of Larian Studios - Ed.), who was, at that time, still a student. He was a programmer…very ambitious. And even though he didn't know how as yet, he knew he was going to make video games. He also appreciated the importance of music in games. I met his crew and finally found myself surrounded again by a group of enthusiastic people doing something new. A few tumultuous years later Divine Divinity was a fact.
GS: What's your inspiration when working on the Divinity games? And, what is your process when composing a particular track?
KP: Music starts from silence. Then, you hear some fragments, take a look at the monitor, and get inspired by sketches and scenes. Sometimes everything is going smoothly and sometimes you struggle hard and long to catch the right atmosphere. From time to time, I put myself in the place of the player who wanders the landscape as he quests. What music is called for here? How long should a melody last? The music shouldn't be dominant: I must restrain my composer ego. Sometimes I go around the office and watch my colleagues working. This inspires me a lot: The story inspires you, but even more, the entire process inspires you. Just to be there…where the game is being made among people who are doing their utmost.
GS: Do you have a favorite piece from Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga?
KP: After all the work is done, it's difficult to tell just what your favourite track is. You need some time to pass by because at first, you simply can't listen to a track without wanting to change something. And of course, you have heard this music so many times while composing. Now, though, my favourites are "Fly, Dragon, Fly" and "Airborne," not that I wouldn't still change a couple things in these pieces.
GS: Is there a particular style that you're fond of? Are there other artists in the game music industry that you admire (and why)?
KP: I try to remain uninfluenced by colleagues in the business, but of course, there are great names like Jeremy Soule that you just can't escape. John Debney is another one. But we are all so different, and I don't believe in any kind of real comparison. We work in different environments with different possibilities, deadlines, budgets, etc. What I don't like is the current trend of "hyper-epic" score writing that makes every track sound alike. You know the kind of thing: dramatic and ecstatic female choirs all over the place and brass riffs ready to blow your speakers. This Carmina Burana approach came from Hollywood and "industrial" production houses where a bunch of often totally unconnected people do the composing, arranging, scoring, and orchestrating only to finally record somewhere in a remote corner of Bulgaria. Sure, it can sound great and impressive, but how often do you remember such a melody and whistle it all day?
GS: What kind of music do you listen to now?
KP: I usually listen to music that is quite different from the style in which I compose for games. It can be Portuguese fado or Klaus Schulze. And depending on the mood I'm in, almost anything really, from jazz to heavy metal.
GS: What are your biggest influences?
KP: My list may not be very original, but I still regard Mozart and Bach as the greatest of composers. I am also influenced by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin. And I will, of course, mention Mussorgsky and Debussy. Striking a more modern chord, I admire great synthesiser masters like Jarre and Vangelis and keyboard hero Keith Emerson.
GS: What projects are you currently working on?
KP: I play in a band, write scores for documentaries, and play a lot of piano. I have been in negotiations for a couple of projects, but most of all, I prepare myself for the upcoming journey--the next Larian Studios game. The adventures will continue!
GS: What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
KP: Don't give up! I know how painful and disappointing it can be when your music is not appreciated or suddenly rejected. So often you have to go that extra mile, be patient, do whatever it takes to remain inspired under the stress of deadlines. But nevertheless, you still do it, right? Because you respect all those players who are going to enjoy your work!
GS: Thank you for your time!
Below 10: A Developer Profile
Larian Studio's: Kirill Pokrovsky
Set in an all new fantasy universe, Divine Divinity takes the player on a fantastic quest in a land torn apart by corruption and dark magic. Throughout his journeys the player will get the chance to develop his character as one of six character types and meet a variety of people and fantastical beings. By combining the best features of the RPG genre, and introducing a lot of new features, Divine Divinity will appeal to both hardcore and new RPG players.
Below 10 is a series of developer profiles where we try to establish a small profile by asking less than 10 questions to a team of developers. This edition features Kirill Pokrovsky, who is responsible for the music in Divine Divinity.
1) Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do at Larian Studios.
I am a retired rock-star. Yes, you can call me like this. Back in the USSR I played in this legendary rock band ARIA. This was the first really heavy band in the Sovjet Russia, just before and also during the Perestroïka. Every teenager in the country knew about our band. I don't know how much recordings we exactly sold - because it was still a state company (Melodia) - , but I've heard it was some millions. We were the biggest band fore some time and we were playing in the biggest sport-arenas all over the country. We were young and we did stupid things, so we split up just on the peak of the wave. Some of my friends now live in Amerika. The drummer on the other hand lives somewhere in the Wallonian (Liège) part of Belgium. And others carried on the band ARIA (http://www.aria.ru) and others continued with a new band Master (http://master-rockgroup.com/). You can visit their sites and read the story and see that they are still very popular over there in Russia.
So once, in the beginning of the 90's, we had a tour here in Belgium and recorded a song in a little studio in a village near Ghent. The man who run this studio told me joking-wise "If you ever need a job come over and work with me".
When the band split up I was very frustrated and I wanted to change my life, to go somewhere and do something completely different. So I came to Belgium to work in this little studio and we also wanted to make a band, but realities of life are so over here in this way that all musicians have a daily job and it really takes a long time to become something professional. My friend's wife had a second child and he had a lot of work. He had to stop working for the band but also to run his studio. I was facing two possibilities - to go back to Moscow or stay and try to do something different. It was a time to remember that I had quite a musical education. Not only I studied composition in the Conservatorium in Moscow, but I also played oboe and saxophone and piano of course, because my mother was a piano teacher and I've heard the classical music from my early age. But I was a keyboard player in a rock band, not a classical pianist. I composed a program of romantic songs for the piano and I started to practice very hard, sometimes 8 to 9 hours a day, to be able to play it myself.
I recorded an album called "BRUGGE" and I became a concert composer/pianist. I was dressed like a penguin, but I always had a couple of synthesizers, a computer (Atari). I also did some productions and played in several bands - you can hear my music in some movies and television productions and even in commercials.
I met Swen ("Lar" - project leader "Divine Divinity") at this time and he simply showed me that computer games are the closest thing to rock-n-roll. And it's still true. Now it's simply unbelievable, but it all started in Swen's modest flat in Ghent with a couple of computers. The only available technology for the game music was midi, so we had to become midi-experts and it also sounded different on different sound cards. There was this mysterious 'Fatman' in America who monopolized all the things and defined the sound, so you had to ask his permission to use an organ or a flute sound. And afterwards I had a wave table synthesizer card with more realistic sounds and general midi, so I could imitate the orchestra and stuff. Then there was also the Redbook audio and music became just like you wanted to record it in a studio with life instruments and choirs and stuff, with CD quality. Now we are speaking about interactive music or even real time rendered music.
So I think, we've been pretty much through the evolution of game music with Swen. Off course during this period I composed a lot of material, that's why many pieces didn't make it to Divinity, but you will find them later on on audio albums.
I love to be here in Larian studios, lately even more and although I always mess things up and burn the food in the oven in our kitchen. They can even tell you a million stories about me being messy and absent-minded. Anyway I think they love me and keep me like a charm for good luck. ;)
2) What is your typical working day like?
It's not a 24 hours cycle. It very much depends on the amount of caffeine in the blood. It is the only drug I use, I even stopped smoking ! I am really glad there is a clock and calendar in my PC and that I have a telephone, so I don't get completely lost in time. "Is it already February ?!?"
I'll love you till the deadline.
3) What did you want to become when you grew up?
I hope I didn't grow up yet ! I really hope it!
There is nothing more boring than these grown ups
4) What are your favourite games and what are you playing now?
I have a very addictive personality. If I will start playing a game, I know my character... We have a very impressive collection of videogames here in Larian Studios. I got a big monitor lately and an accelerated video card.
Please no games for me now... after the release.
5) Where does your inspiration come from?
I really like acoustic instruments and I play piano a lot but PC becomes a musical instrument on it's own and a sampler and a recording studio in one single unit with all this effects and a mixer. (If you just have the right soundcard and connect descent speakers to it.)
It's absolutely wonderful. Once sound is inside it stays digital of course and if you wish it can stay inside of your machine 'till the last moment, including postproduction and stuff. For example I have this one piece of software, I can't tell you what, because there are a lot of snobs out there in the audio world, and I abuse it completely. So I use it not for what it was made. It's a very simple program but it's very intuitive and inspiring, but I know from many big producers that they also secretly use it along with" Protoolls". But mostly, to tell you the truth, I am inspired by my workaholic mates here in Larian Studios where I spend more and more time lately just trying to understand this incredible phenomena. They are amazing people and Swen is still a mystery for me, he has so much life force and he is doing this work, sometimes very routine work day by day with so much energy.
Lately the atmosphere even became very warm and friendly, what is unusual in the end of a project when everybody is so stressed.
6) What is the coolest feature in Divinity for you?
Besides all this very detailed graphics and story, I love the sounds and ambiances a lot. We have two sound designers - Ilya and Stefaan - and they are
Amazing. Sometimes I hear what they do and I simply think they are the best in the business. They also are perfectionists much more than I am and they are
very helpful with all this technical stuff, levels, decibels and compression. They always find time to show things even if they are busy like hell.
7) Which feature that hasn't made it into Divinity is the one you will miss most?
8) How did you get into the gaming business and do you have any advice for anyone seeking a position in that business?
Everybody here in the office knows that I like movies and film music a lot. My father was a film director back in Russia and I always liked to be among the creative people and the very dedicated people. I have my concert carrier as a solo pianist/composer and I play sometimes - now and then - even some jazz and stuff, but I hope to grow together with Larian into something bigger like this big composer figure.
Of course I don't have all this qualities, but I can advice you the following:
a Have a lot of patience.
b Learn every day.
c Don't be jealous.
d Don't be greedy.
9) Is there anything you would like to add?
"Life is just like a box of chocolates "
Pokrovsky is a Russian composer working on music for the Belgian
developer Larian Studios, creators of Divine Divinity and Beyond
Divinity. His music styles include Slavic intonations as well as
the traditions of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov can be heard in his
work. We caught up with Kirill to find out more about his passion
for music and specifically, composing music for games.
Music4Games: The next progression of the successful Divine Divinity has significant game play hours loaded with enough subplots, quests and RPG features to keep one immersed in the divinity universe indefinitely. How did this enormous depth of game design affect your scoring process, and how many minutes of music did you ultimately deliver?
Kirill Pokrovsky: Well, I definitely didn't count the time, but it is the truth that a bigger score will not become repetitive. We didn't make an agreement about time, I just think that, before music is real-time rendered (is this a nightmare for multimedia composer ?…) a larger score is a solution.
M4G: Can you describe some of the musical components and textures we can expect to hear with this latest game release?
Kirill Pokrovsky: Lute, you can hear a lot of lute. I usually combine real instruments and synthesizers, in this way, that it's not too obvious where I have used synthesizsers and where I didn't. Synthesiser pads add the deepest and the most psychedelic elements into a score. You have to be very careful not to make it sound too electronic though.
M4G: With so much acclaim and fan base attached to this title, how do you maintain musical continuity with a follow up title like this? Do you set musical boundaries to coincide with its predecessor, or do you take the artistic risk and go with something completely different?
Kirill Pokrovsky: This time I added more fat symphonic elements and choirs. I definitely tried to stay stylistically close to Divine Divinity, it's a logical thing. But I took a certain liberty in getting more orchestral, since I had the possibility to do it at that time. I was anxious about it, but every one in the team liked it, so I went on.
M4G: When were you first introduced to video games?
Kirill Pokrovsky: As you know, I was born in the Soviet Union. Before the "Perestroyka," western technologies and computers were not common, nevertheless I can recall seeing an Atari console with tennis games and later even Pacman. This console belonged to a lucky son of a diplomat, who brought it to Moscow from abroad. (There wasn't any music in these games, as far as I can remember). Later, in the beginning of the nineties, I had an Atari computer. Mostly, I used it as a idi sequencer, but of course there were a lot of Atari games. Although music was very basic at these times, I do remember thinking of it as an important part of the playing experience.
M4G: You were on the forefront of rock, spearheading one of the first successful rock groups in the Soviet Union when this music genre was finally permitted to exist commercially in the late 80's. Being a composer in the video games industry you are also on the vanguard of the biggest financially grossing entertainment medium to date. Is this down to timing, or do you have a specific music agenda you're mapping out to go forth and conquer?
Kirill Pokrovsky: You mention me being a rock musician back in Russia. Well this was a very exciting experience, especially if you take into account, that we started way before the Perestroyka and that all this was forbidden in Russia. We became more and more popular later on and played on gigantic stages, for 50 000 people. The bands I was playing in still exist in Russia and they have a huge number of fans. (check it out at http://www.aria.ru/ and http://master-rockgroup.com/) Since I met Swen Vincke (the founder of Larian Studios) I realised, that computer games are the rock 'n roll of the 21st Century. The entire setting is similar and the tiny international crew of Larian studios feels like a rock band.
I think this year a lot of doors will open for me and in addition to this, there are plans for a new huge project at Larian and this time I will definitely try out some of the newer technologies or at least a new way of how music is going to be presented in a game.
M4G: The Soviet Union is currently on the rise, establishing itself as a growing hub for game development and publishing. What is your impression of this type of growth in interactive entertainment from your part of the world?
Kirill Pokrovsky: Russia is huge, and it's full of human resources. With the post communist shock behind us, we can see a new mentality growing. It's not completely western, because it's based on a cultural foundation left by the previous generations. I can tell you that knowledge, art or science were cultivated under the Soviet rule, although heavily censored. Now we have young people who will buy a new computer with their first money, not funky clothes or a special bike. Access to the internet is more important than television cable. With such a big choice of graphic designers or programmers it is just a matter of organisation, to pull out an impressive project. Although organisation is a problem in many cases, and let's not forget that we are speaking about imported technology or cultural archetypes, we can suspect an appearance of something typically Russian, Russian style, specific style as Manga became typically Japanese. There is plenty of material in the Russian history and the Russian mythology to develop interesting story lines and worlds.
M4G: You made an album a few years back entitled "Brugge," named after the city where you now reside. Tell us about this music release and how your environment inspired you compared to that of Eastern Europe?
Kirill Pokrovsky: During the first years of the Perestroyka, we were touring in Belgium and one of the first destinations was Brugge, where we were left, without supervision, (because our ideological bosses wanted to do some shoping:)
Walking at night through Brugge, experiencing such a kind of beauty (it's so different from Russian old architecture). After having a good Belgian beer, the city left an unforgettable impression on me. I was immediately inspired and the next morning, I started to write a title track in my head. During the work on Divine Divinity I was staying in Ghent, another old medieval town. You can't imagine: an extremely nice background to work on music for a fantasy universe. Every stone of these old streets breathe the history.
M4G: Larian Studios, the company who developed both Divine Divinity games are also based in Belgium. Were you privy to significant game play and character development from inception with both games? Also, what type of creative license were you granted?
Kirill Pokrovsky: Although popular, my belief is that business and friendship is difficult to combine. We are pretty much friends with Swen, even though of course, there is some distance and subordination. The collaboration between the composer and the director is not that uncommon. Take, for example, Steven Spielberg and John Williams. I also try to see the whole picture and feel the process from the developers point of view, as much as Swen is trying to understand my needs. Such a big amount of work that is done in such a short time, with few very productive, hardworking and passionate people is unprecendented, for my opinion. As long as the Divinity universe will expand, I hope to stay a part of it.
M4G: Were there any particular snags or unexpected obstacles that you encountered with this game that made you better at say, implementation or composing from an unforeseen experience?
Kirill Pokrovsky: I think all composers will be asking for the same things - more time, more resources, and more people for support - I won't be original anymore. About implementation, I can say that it is surprising to see that a piece of music is working better on another location than intended ;)
Interview by Rusty James - Music 4 Games