Interview: Jesse Harlin on Composing for “Mafia III” and “Star Wars: The Old Republic

Posted on August 7, 2016 at 3:49 pm

More from Comic-Con: Jesse Harlin is a freelance composer who has been in the industry now for 17 years, 10 years with Lucasfilm, working on “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” games. “I just finished up working on Mafia III for 2K and I’m still working on Star Wars stuff. The way that we handle it is very much like scoring for film or TV in so far as a lot of what we do is about creating themes for characters and then you extrapolate different moods based on those sorts of themes.”

It gets complicated. “There was a period of time where I felt like when I was in college my main instrument was voice and then I certainly felt like for a while my main instrument became Excel. Yes you spend a lot of time in spreadsheets.” He gets started early on, when it may be all he has to go on is some concept art and what he hears from the people working on the game. “We talk to the developers and we figure out what is important to them in terms of what they want, how they want the music to function. And game is such a broad term that it means everything from slot machine, mobile games to extraordinarily cinematic enormous games that take hundreds of hours to complete and they all need music in between. So what a development studio may be looking for may be very different from a slot machine game or soccer game or racing game than what it might be to a very cinematic game. I tend to work on the more cinematic score.”

We’ve come a long way from the tinny one-note songs played in the early Atari games. “As a game composer I have recorded at Abbey Road with the London Symphony orchestra. So there are concert calls across the world where video game music is being performed. It’s not the bleeps and bloops that it was in 1984. I’ve written articles about in the industry about how you should use orchestration to create a signature sound for your game so that it stands out, it doesn’t just become a fairly genetic orchestra or score. And I have a lot of fun. The most recent game I did was Mafia III. It is a convoluted story and it’s set in 1968 in a fictionalized city that’s a New Orleans analog so rather than doing an orchestral score which is what Mafia II and Mafia I had, we did an all blues score and we recorded in Nashville with these just absolutely astounding blues musicians and so it’s got dobro and it’s got upright bass and one of the things that I used a lot is board piano which is a really gorgeous sound because what I was trying to do is score the game cinematically but not with an orchestra. So how do you take traditional blues instruments the kind of things that might play at blues club on a Friday night, how do you take those instruments and made them sound cinematic and dramatic? I was replacing my string section with things like Hammond organ and board piano. I had a blast. And one of the things we did I don’t know if anybody else had done is I brought in three guys who were drum majors from one of the universities in Nashville and they did step dancing body percussion. I really wanted that signature sound. It’s actually getting a vinyl release as well, so it will be on iTunes and it will be on vinyl.”

Harlin prefers scoring games “because I’m totally passionate about interactivity. And the thing that amazes me is that in games as a medium, every person that plays it can experience a different thing than someone else. It can also be extremely personal. Every time you watch a film it’s the same every time for every person who sees it. It’s not always the case with games.

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