Red Stewart chats with Jesse Harlin about Yoku’s Island Express, Star Wars, and VR…
Jesse Harlin is an American composer who has been working in the video game and film industries since the mid-2000s. He is best known for his work at LucasArts, where he served as the former Music Supervisor and Staff Composer for a number of Star Wars-themed games including Republic Commando, as well doing the score for Mafia III. His latest musical composition was for the independent platformer Yoku’s Island Express, which was developed by Villa Gorilla and published by Team17.
Flickering Myth had the privilege to interview him, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
Mr. Harlin, thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak with me. I believe this is the second time you’ve been interviewed by Flickering Myth, but it’s my first time so this is a privilege.
Yeah, my pleasure. I forgot who I chatted with before, but it was for Mafia III.
Now you’re obviously very closely-affiliated with Star Wars given that you were LucasArts’ Music Supervisor and staff composer for a while. I have just one question I wanted to ask you before we move on to Yoku’s Island Express, which is do you think there will ever be a need to revamp the Star Wars score for future projects? Cause it seems like we have so many Star Wars products coming out these days that the music feels like it’s getting a bit repetitive. I had the honor to speak to Battlefront II remake composer Gordy Haab, and he talked about he created a brand new character theme that not only had vocal parts attached to it, but also formed the basis for about 40 other minutes of music. Are such changes encouraged?
Yeah, I think it’s a little hard to answer because I’m not on staff anymore, so I’m not deeply involved in knowing how Disney views things. But I do know that while I was at Lucasfilm, we still talked about evolving the musical language of Star Wars a lot. And I’ve been doing freelance work for Lucasfilm for about five years now after leaving, and I still have the same sort of discussions with people about making sure that the music evolves and making sure that there are new themes and new textures. I think it’s always going to be something that continues expanding.
Thank you for answering that, because I’ve always been curious how someone who has been intimately involved in that aspect of the genre thinks about it. So let’s talk about Yoku’s Island Express. Now, this is a very unique hybrid in that combines old-fashioned pinball gameplay with a Metroidvania scheme. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that there’s always an attempt at creating modernized versions of classic arcade games. You had Pokemon Puzzle League during the GameCube era, and you have Tetris Effect coming out for VR soon.
First I’ll ask did you grow up playing arcade games like pinball, as well as Metroidvania titles? And secondly, what was your reaction when you heard this pitch for the first time?
I grew up a lot more as a console gamer than an arcade gamer, although I think it’s impossible to grow up in the 80s and not have had at least some fond memories of arcade gaming. I remember there was a Pizza Hut near where I grew up that had a Pole Position machine, and my brother and I, even when we didn’t have any money to play on it, would just stand there and pretend that we were playing Pole Position, trying to push the pedal and shift gears and whatnot.
So arcades were definitely a big part of my childhood memories. I remember the time I went to Jersey Shore and dropped $20 in an afternoon on Dragon Lair II; that game was mesmerizing to me. But most of my young gaming was on console, in particular the original Nintendo Entertainment System. So I’m very well-versed in the whole concept of Castlevania and Metroid. I loved Metroid Prime when that came out for the GameCube, so yeah, very familiar with all of the background behind it.
And when Villa Gorilla, the developer [of Yoku’s Island Express], first said to me that they were making a pinball game mixed with a Metroidvania, I had no idea what to make of that to be honest [laughs]. It didn’t make any sense to me. Because the way it was pitched to me was “we’re making a 2D side-scrolling, open world, pinball, Metroidvania game with a tropical island setting and a Cthulhu Elder God problem.” And there’s so much to unpack in that one sentence that I just was floored by the concept at first. But then when you pick the game up and you actually get to check it out, I’d say within 5-10 minutes it makes total sense.
I haven’t played it unfortunately, but I’ve seen a lot of gameplay and it looks awesome for sure. I just have to say, your story about arcade games kind of makes me sad because I do think the concept of playing arcade games at places like malls and pizzerias has fallen out of place, at least in the United States. I remember I went to a pizza place a few months ago and they had this corner for arcade cabinets, but it was so sketchy and rundown that no one wanted to go into it.
So it’s sad that that whole environment of the bright lights and colors and tokens has fallen out of favor.
I’m pretty good at Ms. Pac-Man because of arcade cabinets, and I can get pretty far or do pretty well until all of a sudden I hit a certain area of the game where they’ve changed all of the maps to the color red as I’m red-green colorblind so as far as I can tell the maze that you’re trying to find your way through more or less just vanishes. And that’s far as I’ve only ever been able to get in the game.
But I still have a blast, and I try and play Ms. Pac-Man anytime I run into it out in the wild.
That’s awesome to hear. I was more of a Galaga person myself, but I love Pac-Man too; it’s a classic. Now, I’ve talked to several video game composers, and the one thing that I always like to ask them is how they deal with the relationship between player interaction and the score. In your case, with pinball, it’s unique in that it’s a game based alternating moments of waiting and burst movements. You know, on second you’re just moving slowly and the next you hit a bumper and you go flying or ricocheting between multiple springs. How did that aspect of the gameplay affect you when you were composing the score?
You know it’s interesting, there’s not a lot of interactivity in the Yoku score. But that’s not how it started out. We actually tried prototyping a whole bunch of different things, and we had sections where the melody would change depending on which area you were in. We had areas where the intensity of the music changed depending on whether you were in exploration mode or working your way through one of the pinball puzzle fables. We had ideas for interactivity related to the boss fights.
There were all these things that when we implemented it to test it all out, it didn’t feel….there’s always compromising, and it didn’t feel as if it was giving us enough bang for the buck to make up for the fact that that interactivity was really taking a hit on the processing power of the engine. So in the end, the approach that we went with was to be sort of a callback, a throwback, to the old Castlevania and Metroid and Zelda-style music implementation of the NES, where music is environmentally-based and just plays as you’re in certain areas, and then when you go to the new area it changes. And we got rid of all the nuanced stuff because it just didn’t seem to really add to a level that it made sense to do it for the technology hit it was taking.
That’s interesting to hear. I listened to some of the OST prior to the interview, but I wasn’t sure if there were any changes in the game itself based on player interaction. But it’s nice to hear that you went with a more environmental, atmospheric tone. Speaking of the score, I have to say it was so relaxing to sit down to.
It reminds me of the cheery optimistic side of David Wise mixed in with all these older influences like blues and reggae. I know for Yoku’s Island Express you went back to your original style to create this work. I’m wondering though, back in the day when you were still developing this voice, how long did it take for you to know that you wanted to incorporate all these other musical genres? How quick was the process?
I didn’t really know what that voice was going to be when I started the game. I had been asked by Villa Gorilla to just “do whatever I wanted” and I wasn’t sure what that would mean. So I started trying to find inspiration in all of the old things that made me want to become a composer originally. And not necessarily from just music I enjoyed, but almost more specifically from production work that I enjoyed. So I would take a listen to a lot of older stuff from the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, things that I enjoyed the production work on like, oh I don’t know, Beck’s Odelay album which was produced by The Dust Brothers and which I thought was amazing back in the day. It still is amazing, but it blew my mind back then. And plenty of other things: production techniques that friends would teach me in college, but I just sort of filed away and thought “oh I will have to use that someday,” and then kind of never did. But luckily now here was that time.
And so it became this amalgam of everything that had been originally funneled into me as a young composer, it all just kind of came out again and it became this really…I mean I’ve got things around in my garage and find all my CDs and it basically is like looking at a road map for the music in this game. It’s all sorts of different genres and different artists, world music, film scores, hip hop, it’s just all over the map.
That’s amazing. I only pinpointed a few of the genres that it turns out influenced you significantly.
Well another thing was that, because the game is about mixing two things that typically don’t go together, pinball and Metroidvania, I wanted to try and do the same thing where musically I was taking two separate things and mixing them together so that they also on paper seemed kind of crazy, but in the end ended up working. And so, when I was working on a track, things kind of organically came out.
Take for instance a track called “Flight of the Space Monks”. I knew that I wanted a heavy, technological influence on the track because the monks in the game use weird science, that’s sort of their backstory. So I wanted a science feel to the music, lots of synths, not mechanical sounds but synthetic sounds. But in order to offset that, I also wanted to bring in whatever I thought would be the opposite of that sound. So I made sure there was acoustic guitar, and I made sure there was Tuvan throat singing, which to me feels about as far, as opposite, as you can get from the sine wave of an old NES tone generator. The two things are opposite ends of the musical spectrum, so I put them together and wanted to see what it sounded like if you tossed them in the same piece. And it turned out to work pretty well.
That’s really cool to hear that a lot of experimentation made their way into the score and you ended up creating unique leitmotifs. It’s interesting because the last major game you did was Mafia III, which of course is completely different from Yoku’s Island Express tone-wise. Was it strange at all to go from a dark project like that to a lighthearted one like this?
The thing that was strangest of all was that there was actually a period of time where the two projects overlapped and I was working on them both at the same time. That was the weirdest, when I was trying to finish Mafia III and was really just deep in the blue, and it was a very dark score that we did for that game: myself and Jim Bonney. And at the same time, I’m just beginning the process of starting Yoku’s Island Express. And when I start a game, I always like to try and start with the main theme cause I find that that then really influences me and gives a sign post for where I’m going to take the rest of the score.
So I was trying to figure out what the main theme of this game was going to be. I knew I wanted it to be light and tropical. I knew I wanted it to be fun and have a really catchy, hooky melody that would lodge itself in your brain and make you hum it as you were walking around later in the day. And so I would work on that in the morning and then after lunch I would go and work on the Mafia score. It was a very strange shift of gears trying to do that at the same time.
I hope you don’t mind me asking a follow-up question to that, which is, as a composer, do the worlds of the games you work on have an effect on you temporarily when you’re in them? I know that tends to happen to the actors and voice actors where they’re doing a dark project and they feel more morose, or they do a lighter project and feel cheerier.
It’s happened to me in the past, it didn’t happen to me with these. But I definitely have at times in the past, especially when I’m doing a whole lot of combat music. It’s definitely occurred before that I will find that, by the end of the day, I’m really on edge [laughs]. I’m really tensed up. And when I was doing that at LucasArts, they used to relish the fact that I had a commute home, and so I’d spend about 45 minutes or so in the car just sort of unwinding before I was able to come home to my family and not bring back the big crazy energy that you get when you’re trying to write action music for eight hours a day. Like, I’d listen to the quiet murmur of NPR or maybe sometimes nothing, just listen to the sound of the road, in order to try and clear my head before I got home.
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