We chat with composer Jesse Harlin…
When one’s first credit in the video game industry is a franchise like Star Wars: Republic Commando, becoming a seasoned veteran is destined to happen pretty quickly. Over a decade later and having worked on such highly acclaimed titles as Star Wars: Battlefront 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Star Wars: The Old Republic – Shadow of Revan, Star Wars: The Old Republic – Knights of the Fallen Empire & now Mafia III critics agree composer Jesse Harlin has certainly done just that, especially with his most recent Mafia III score alongside Jim Bonney, for which outlets such as Gamespot, PC Gamer & Respawn! have all praised. In this new interview Jesse talks about his experiences starting out and his perspective working on these titles fans have grown to love, especially for the music.
The Washington Post called Mafia III a “cultural milestone” in the videogame world. What do you think about this? Do you agree with them?
I’d agree. Hangar 13 and 2K decided to tackle some ugly truths head-on. They could have pulled their punches, changed their setting, or invented their own reality. After all, they were creating an entire world of their own. But they didn’t do those things. Instead, they decided to tell a story that was important to them and to tell it within a framework of cultural reflection. In an industry that’s been so successful for decades in creating their own worlds and realities, I think that’s an important milestone.
How would you describe the score for Mafia III in a few words?
I’d have to go with “experimental cinematic blues.” We wanted something unique – something that would help support the drama, help to tell this impactful story of Lincoln Clay, but something that would do that without an orchestra. Everything about the game was pointing in a different direction from a clichéd use of an orchestral score, but it still needed to have the emotional underpinning of cinematic tradition. Then meant taking the grit and grime of the blues and seeing how we could stretch it into an experimental underscore by way of 1960s recording studio experimentation.
How was scoring Mafia III different than your other titles you have previously done?
In many ways, it wasn’t. It’s a thematic score with an emotional core and a wide range of emotional diversity. That’s been the case with about 90% of the games and films I’ve scored. What’s different, though, was the sound palette. The use of the blues not as a song-based genre, but instead bent through a cinematic lens. I wanted to make sure that the instruments used were endemic to the blues – upright bass, drum set, the kind of piano you’d find in a church basement – but the playing of them might be something unusual. So we end up with bowed piano, tremolo acoustic jazz bass, and body percussion. All of this necessitated new challenges like finding the right players for a live score like this, figuring out how to mix and mic and meld all of these sounds together. Part of that answer was to make every single piece of music in the key of E minor. That was new for me, but it meant that the entire score could be modular and fit together wherever needed during the implementation phase of the game’s development.
What would you like to see happen in Mafia IV if there were to be released?
I have no idea where Hangar 13 would go with a Mafia IV. The series seems to like jumping ahead in time and jumping around in location, so I’d have to guess something like maybe Miami in the 1980s; but it could go anywhere. Mafias are still a part of our lives. I mean, one of the main characters on “Orange Is The New Black” is part of the Russian mob. There are decades and a whole world for them to choose from. It’d be a backwards jump, but Cuba might be interesting. I don’t know of many things – certainly no games – that have dealt with the subject of Cuba’s control by the Mafia and subsequent takeover by Castro. All of this is just random, uninformed speculation by one musician, though. Only Hangar 13 knows what they might decide.
Most of the games you have scored are in the Star Wars franchise. What was it like getting out of that and scoring something completely different?
Slight correction: most of the games I’ve scored that have been released have been in the Star Wars franchise. I was LucasArts’ Music Supervisor and staff Composer for 10 years. While there, I must have easily worked on twice as many games that never came out as those that did. And the vast majority of those were non-Star Wars projects. So, while they never saw the light of day, working out of the Star Wars universe is just as common to me as working within it. In fact, since going freelance three years ago, I’ve written music for the Avatar franchise, Marvel’s The Avengers, and a number of original IPs – along with continuing to write music for Star Wars. As I mentioned earlier, much of what you do on a Star Wars game is still very applicable to scoring Mafia III: character themes, a range of emotion, the telling of a story through music and shifts in orchestration. It’s really just the choice of those instruments and the very different recording process for Mafia III that set it apart from past work on Star Wars. Otherwise it was remarkably similar.
The 10 year anniversary just happened for Star Wars: Republic Commando. Do you think you would have scored it any differently had it been in 2016 with technology, program advances?
Oh man. Republic Commando. To talk of that game in regards to technology is to bring up things I’ve extremely proud of and things that I lost months of my life to. We had to author the game’s audio engine from scratch for that game, and I had immensely grandiose ideas regarding the game’s interactive music system. Those ideas all came to fruition, I’m happy to say, but it was due to grueling months of work between myself, the game’s audio lead, and a small team of programmers. All of what we did is now standard functionality in the most commonly used game audio middleware. More or less. There are still a couple of things we did that are difficult to do. I don’t think I’d change a thing about what we did with the score; I just know that’d we’d have changed the workflow of how we went about doing it. I’m extremely proud of Republic Commando’s score.
Star Wars: Republic Commando was one of your first video games. Were you at all nervous going into a franchise like Star Wars, which already had a huge built in fan base?
I was terrified! I wanted to make sure I did right by the fans. I also was (and still am) a lifelong Star Wars fan. I felt completely humbled by the ability to contribute to the mythos of this incredible universe that I’d obsessed over since I could remember. I knew that my work would be compared to that of John Williams’ and I also knew that we were going in a somewhat different direction from what was typical with Star Wars music. Fans were going to either like it or hate it, but there wasn’t going to be much middle ground with it. Thankfully people liked it.
You scored the Star Wars: The Old Republic titles with a few other composers. What was that collaborative process like? How did you decide who was going to score what?
As the Music Supervisor on the project, I was in charge of setting the vision for the game and leading the team through the creation of its eight hours of original music for the original launch. At the same time we were doing The Old Republic, we were also working on The Force Unleashed II, Monkey Island Special Edition I and II, and a number of other things that I can’t even remember right now. I think it was something like 6 or 7 games at the same time. So, it was a crazy time. I had no choice but to call in a great team of composers to work with. Themes in Star Wars are usually specific to characters, so we were faced with an interesting challenge: SWTOR is an MMO. That means everyone is their own unique character. But Star Wars music is thematic. I decided the best solution was to do themes based on your player’s class – Smuggler, Spy, Jedi, etc. – and to treat the planets themselves as characters. So each planet was given its own theme and its own signature instrument to help set it apart. Nal Hutta is tuba. Alderaan is hammered dulcimer, etc. I tasked Mark Griskey to be the game’s lead composer, as he’d written the score for Knights of the Old Republic II, and so Mark came up with majority of the themes. After that, it just became a process of working with Bioware to create an enormous asset list spreadsheet, detailing all of the different emotional variations that we’d need for the different classes and planets, and then assigning composer names to them. Eight years later and we’re still doing the same basic process for the newest music for Star Wars: The Old Republic – Knights of the Eternal Throne.
What musical direction were you given when you first began scoring Star Wars: The Old Republic? How do you feel like you gave it your own sound while staying within the franchise’s rule book?
SWTOR was the third game in the series, in a way. Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel had set the tone for what the world and its music was like. So there was very much already a blueprint for the game. The biggest challenge was the scope of the project. Not only did we need to come up with eight hours of original music for the game’s initial launch, but as an MMO this was a game whose development was going to continue after launch. I have no idea how much music has been written for the game at this point. Maybe 12 hours worth of original music? For the last three years and a half years, I’ve been game’s lead composer and still manage the team of composers creating new material for the game. Just as I did with Republic Commando, I haven’t been shy of stretching what “Star Wars music” might mean. So some of the planets have had very different music. Voss and Oricon come to mind immediately, and I’m proud of how different they sound but at the same time fit within the SWTOR musical language.
Many thanks to Jesse Harlin for taking the time for this interview.