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Talking Game Soundtracks With Yoku's Island Express' Composer Jesse Harlin

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The importance of a good soundtrack has always been apparent. From the earliest chiptune entries to today’s full orchestral scores, soundtracks have the ability to make a game more than just its component parts. A man who probably understands this more than most, Jesse Harlin has spent the past two decades working on some of the biggest projects out there, and as the staff composer at the hallowed LucasArts he wrote the soundtrack to Star Wars favourite Republic Commando, while also putting together the music for Star Wars: Battlefront II and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

Going freelance, Jesse now fronts his own company Submersion Audio, and has continued to work on projects both big and small, with his most recent work appearing in the delightful pinball-vania that is Yoku’s Island Express. We recently got the chance to catch up with him and talk about the world of gaming soundtracks, and how he put his own mark on the wonderful Yoku.

TSA: You’ve had a fantastic career working on soundtracks for games, what originally took you there?

Jesse: Twenty years ago, I was studying film scoring in college. I’d work on my assignments, I’d write my cues, I’d go to my film scoring classes; and then finally whenever I had free time, I’d play games. It dawned on me one day that someone was writing music for them. So I set out to be that someone. It took me about a year of hammering on it before I landed my first PlayStation gig. I’ve been at it ever since.

TSA: Where in the process of Yoku’s development did you join the project?

Jesse: Fairly early. I think the folder I created to house all of the Yoku files on my computer is four years old now. There wasn’t much to see at the outset, so it probably took three years before it was really time for me to buckle down and crank out the final tracks, but I worked on the game in one capacity or another off and on for years.

TSA: Did Villa Gorilla come to you with an overarching vision or were you given plenty of leeway?

Jesse: They asked me to score it however I’d like to, which was a wonderful change of pace from how projects usually go. The only real vision that we talked about early on was the idea that the score would be mixtures of disparate elements, just as the game itself is a mixture of two disparate genres: pinball and metroidvanias. Otherwise, I just got to be as creative as I wanted to be – which turned out to be fairly creative!

TSA: Where do you start with composing for a new project like Yoku?

Jesse: I almost always like to try and start with the main theme for a game first. If I come up with a theme that I like and the team likes, that becomes a touchstone for the rest of the project. Either the melody finds its way into other cues throughout the score, or the piece becomes a guide for production techniques and the general feel of the score. So almost always I try and start with that main theme. With Yoku, my first attempt at a main theme was actually what became the track, “Welcome to Mokumana Beach.” Villa Gorilla liked it, but not for the title screen. They wanted something faster and more charming. They got “Yoku Taidua” in response.

TSA: The main theme immediately captures a relaxed, North Pacific vibe. How important was that, and was there ever any question about that being the backbone for the whole soundtrack?

Jesse: Without running the risk of spoilers, the game starts out fairly relaxing and tropical, and then, let’s say, deviates from that direction. I knew I wanted to do the same thing, establish for the player a false sense of being on vacation before they find themselves having to adjust their expectations and dig into what is basically a mystery adventure. I also knew that, with a small indie title, first impressions were going to be everything. The game needed a hooky, catchy melody that could instantly suck you into the game and make you want to learn more about it. In many ways, it’s almost akin to the old “attract mode” purpose of main menu screens.TSA: There’s elements of jazz, lounge, and samba, which aren’t often heard in video game soundtracks, and those are some of the most definable elements! Was that ever a concern?

Jesse: Yes! For me, anyway. I honestly was unsure of how the reaction to the score would be. Would people like it? Was it too much? Was it overwrought? Or was it charmingly sophisticated? I hadn’t the faintest idea. After working on it for so long, I’d lost all perspective. I remember meeting with people at GDC in March and trying to explain the game, the score, the approach to it all, and having the hardest time.

When you say things like “It’s an open world, pinball metroidvania set on a tropical island and I’ve blended trip-hop, bebop, chiptunes, medieval music, and the sound of 1980s science class film strips,” people’s eyes glaze over and their eyebrows raise. I wasn’t sure what people would think when it finally came out, but I can also be very self-critical sometimes. I’m very pleasantly surprised that everyone is onboard with all of my wacky creative decisions.

TSA: What were your thoughts behind the types of instrumentation you used?

Jesse: Basically, anything goes in this score. The only real guiding principle was that each track was going to be a mixture of unfamiliar and disconnected elements, in keeping with the idea of the game itself. So I’d often start by finding an instrument that I liked: acoustic guitar, ocarina, vocals, drum programming of some kind. I’d write something that I thought worked, and then I’d try and figure out what was the opposite of that instrument.

The opposite of chiptunes, to me, is a very natural, very acoustic sound. So “Flight of the Space Monks,” which uses the tone generators from an old NES, also has acoustic guitar and a grainy-sounding Brazilian berimbau. The opposite of industrial rock-styled snare drums created from steam bursts was, to me, the zany piano you get in old Keystone Kops silent-era film scores. It was like this throughout, a constant back and forth of 0pposites until I felt like the tracks were balanced.

TSA: When putting together Yoku’s soundtrack how important was your background – your own influences – to how it came out? How much of yourself did you put in there?

Jesse: This score is, basically, 100% me. When they hired me, Villa Gorilla told me to “write whatever you want, and just be yourself.” In order to figure out what “be yourself” meant, I went back and listened to the albums and artists that influenced me to become a musician in the first place.

What were the production techniques that I used to get really excited about? Things like the reversed piano effect at the start of Yes’ “Roundabout” or the synth patches used by electronic music pioneers like Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. How did Portishead use samples to make things feel simultaneously fresh and retro? I thought about some of the newer music I like to analyze the production from, like the sampling work of Pogo on songs like “Wishery” or “Bloom”.

I spent some time writing sounds that I’d then sample and manipulate, creating my own source samples basically. I did that a lot. And by combining NES chiptunes, the strong melodies of The Beatles, the guitar work of Pink Floyd, and Vangelis’ Blade Runner score into a blender, you apparently get both me and the score to Yoku’s Island Express.

TSA: Did you find it more enjoyable working on an indie project compared with a some of your previous work with LucasArts? Or are the two just utterly different?

Jesse: It’s really hard to compare the two, they’re so massively different. Big game studios offer a chance for incredibly collaborative work with a wide variety of disciplines. That can be really inspiring. On the other hand, indies are more like the Old West. On a smaller indie game, you’re not only representative of a much higher percentage of the team, but you also have to figure out a lot of the logistical elements of game production that larger development studios take care of for you. For instance, big game studios have departments entirely devoted to getting word of the game’s existence out into the public. Indie’s don’t, so that’s on you.

TSA: Are there opportunities that you think the videogame arena offers composers that can’t be found elsewhere?

Jesse: I couldn’t have written the kind of score I wrote for Yoku for a film or TV show. It’s too much of a character all its own within the game. TV and film scores are so often about blending into the background to support the emotion of a scene. With Yoku’s score, I was very often right up in the foreground, nudging the player and saying things like “Hey, this crazy bebop trombone you hear? Yeah, that means you’re in danger. Better sort it out!” I think the creativity happening in games, particularly in the indie scene, is just off the charts and that offers tremendously creative opportunities for composers.

TSA: When can we look forward to hearing your work again?

Jesse: After some indie work on Yoku, I’m now working with three different AAA studios on new projects. And, as usual, the NDAs mean that I can’t talk about them! But, it won’t be long. End of the summer, I think, for the first of them. So, very soon!

You can hear Jesse’s most recent work on the sublime Yoku’s Island Express soundtrack, available to stream right now on Spotify, or to buy from reputable digital storefronts.

One Comment
  1. Tuffcub
    On the naughty step.
    Since: Dec 2008

    Good interview :)

    Comment posted on 19/07/2018 at 16:32.