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From IT worker to god of music: the unlikely story of Baldur’s Gate 3 composer Borislav Slavov
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From IT worker to god of music: the unlikely story of Baldur’s Gate 3 composer Borislav Slavov

For Borislav “Bobby” Slavov, it is not enough to just be a composer. The Bulgarian musician sees himself as a man who wears many hats: composer, music director, arranger, mixer. Yet back in 2002, he had just finished a master’s in computer science and was working for the fourth biggest software company in the world. Unlike a number of other composers I have spoken to for this column, Slavov spends as much time as possible at the game studio he’s working with, embedded in narratives and mechanics “at a granular level” so that his music “isn’t massacred and chopped up”.

“I remember the very day I came up with that main theme, or Down By the River,” he tells me before a sold out Game Music festival concert in London’s Southbank Centre, where the Philharmonia Orchestra performed more than 80 minutes of music from his soundtrack to Baldur’s Gate 3. “I was having one of my favourite walks down one of the channels of the city of Ghent, and the lyrics were swimming around in the back of my mind. There was this special moment when I started hearing this theme. I stopped for a moment. I thought: this sounds exciting. I need to record this tune right now!”

Slavov tells me that he ran back to his office, grabbed his guitar, and immortalised that theme then and there. “I knew that if I didn’t do it right away, I would waste this moment. New composition means new emotion; whenever I feel emotionally charged, I grab my guitar and I start playing. This is how I capture that raw feeling.”

Slavov accepts the Music award at the 2024 Baftas.View image in fullscreen

Slavov, perhaps unusually for a composer in an industry as highly digital as video games, is pretty old school when it comes to his process. He demos everything. Everything. Whether it’s a vocal track with him singing, or a simple aural sketch with a guitar and a hum that eventually swells and blossoms with all the symphonic blooms that come to support it, Slavov’s phone is filled with little audio notes that act as concept art for the final orchestrations of his music.

This is why Baldur’s Gate 3 sometimes sounds like a neoclassical suite, sometimes like a West End musical: it all began with lyrical, melodic pencil lines that eventually got written over with scores for violins, violas, cellos, harps, clarinets, woodwind and so much more. From seed to flower, Slavov nurtures and grows his music every step of the way, eking out the potential of every track.

Down By the River – or Main Theme, to give it its less romantic title – is at the heart of Baldur’s Gate 3. Between that and the final track, The Power, there’s a helix of DNA that weaves through every extravagantly camp boss fight, every heart-wrenching beat of character development, and every conspiratorial twist the massive story throws at you. Two key themes, one reflective and hopeful and the other epic and inspirational, appear and reappear, and they never feel out of place.

“The very reason that this became the main theme of the game is because it’s scalable,” Slavov says. “It can easily be scaled up, scaled down, left, right – developed in any given direction. Melancholic, romantic, epic, dramatic, youthful, playful, whatever you want it to be. That’s the definition of a main theme in my book, a theme that has the power to be developed in any given direction, that can wear the crown and bear the burden of the story.”

Game screenshotView image in fullscreen

There’s a parallel here for the player charting their course through this massive, labyrinthine game. As you dictate the story and push the narrative down your chosen paths (are you going to be a pure, unsullied paladin? A vessel of the dark gods? A chaotic orc bard with nothing but sex on the brain?), the theme comes with you. This game didn’t just win a best music Bafta for nothing.

There are astonishingly bold moments in Baldur’s Gate 3. Whether it’s Broadway-inspired boss fights with villains who sing their own themes (yes, really), or scenes that are locked behind an incredible number of specific choices 80-plus hours into the game, Larian’s opus is never short on rewarding you for sticking to your role-playing chops and playing the game the way you want to. And – perhaps unsurprisingly at this point – Slavov is always there at the end of the path, waiting with a smirk on his face and a couple of melodic lines that are, seemingly, impossibly, unique to you and your experience of the game.

“At Larian Studios, there’s no difference between the main quest or the side quests,” he says enthusiastically. “That’s the biggest strength of Larian; whatever we do, we do it with all our heart. We would never say, ‘You know what? Too few people would play down this road so don’t pay too much attention to it.’ No. This is never going to happen. This contradicts the very essence and the concept of the players’ agency. It would be untrue to you – unfair to you! – to divide the elements of the game, story, music, whatever, into ‘more’ or ‘less’ important aspects.”

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It’s achingly clear that Slavov is proud of what he’s achieved with Baldur’s Gate 3. His eagerness to make you understand what he’s talking about, the keen sincerity on his face when you ask him about the smallest moments in his music – it paints a picture of a creative, lyrical soul with rock-star energy who understands what makes game music so special to players.

Borislav Slavov takes questions at Game Music FestivalView image in fullscreen

Baldur’s Gate is based on Dungeons and Dragons, which has been around since 1974 – and there’s a baffling amount of lore behind that tabletop RPG. One of the under-explored parts of that lore is the “lesser deities”, and within that umbrella, there are the “minor deities of song” – one of whom, Milil, appears in the game. As a thank you of sorts to Slavov, the folks at Larian surreptitiously made Milil in his image – immortalising him in DnD lore as a god of music. Not bad for someone who, a couple of decades ago, was staring at a monitor at his IT job and wondering if he could ever make it in the world of music.

  • This interview was conducted as part of the Game Music festival: The Symphony of the Realms, which took place at the Southbank Centre, London, on 4 May. Baldur’s Gate 3 is out now on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X/S.

Source: theguardian.com