Interview with LucasArts’ Jesse Harlin

I’m impressed with the music for Monkey Island 2 Special Edition on many levels. 1)The sheer amount of music! and 2) the
seamless transitions from one scene to another, even when the music
changes. Could you talk a bit about how you made some of the decisions
you needed to make for the game? How
long should the loops be? How many different scenes get their own
music? What strategies did you use to create the seemingly seamless

Monkey Island 2 was a challenge. First of all, the game has five times as much music as Monkey Island 1. All told, there are over two hours of music in the game, so that in and of itself is a large jump in workload over the first Special Edition. Unlike Monkey Island 1, however, the music in Monkey 2 is considerably more modular. It’s comprised of literally hundreds of small pieces, some of which layer via the interactive music system (known as iMUSE), some combine randomly as you wander through larger areas. Some are simply short stingers that happen to have about 20 different variations. So, when it came time to sort through everything, we had to prioritize the work first. When we started digging into the scripts that triggered events, we discovered that some of the pieces were a bit more compartmentalized than needed to be, so we’d paste them together as a single file and know that the timing was always going to be okay. Some we decided were redundant. There are certain parts of the game where there is roughly 20 minutes of slightly varied material where 5 minutes gets the point across just as well. So there was prioritizing and weeding that happened, and thankfully so. There simply wasn’t enough time to redo absolutely every single file we had in front of us.

When it came to recreating the functionality of iMUSE, we had a real challenge in front of us. iMUSE was invented by Michael Land and Peter McConnell on Monkey 2 and stands for “interactive Music Streaming Engine.” On Monkey 2, it functions as a very sophisticated interactive music system that layers MIDI data and changes between different tracks in a beat synched system that is very fluid. But, like I said, it’s 100% MIDI data driven. Monkey 2: Special Edition wasn’t using any MIDI. The goal was to use a single code base for all of the platforms. That means finding a solution that would work for Xbox Live, PS3, PC sound cards, and the iPhone and iPad. MIDI was instantly out as an option. That leaves digital audio, which was our preference anyway from a quality standpoint, but creates plenty more problems. We couldn’t use something like Wwise because it doesn’t have iPhone functionality. We evaluated FMOD and there were stability concerns that our engineers didn’t think could be ironed out in the very short time frame we had. The only choice left to us, really, was to build our own iMUSE replacement. Our other staff composer, Wilbert Roget II, was really instrumental in hammering this system out between our engineers here on site in San Francisco and the primary development team in Singapore. In the end, the replacement for iMUSE is a complex interactive digital music system that uses imbedded loop markers, beat syncing tech, instance authored cross-fading data, multi-stream layering, and a system that linked into real-time parameter controls that tied to game states and events. All running the same on a high-end PC as they are on an iPhone. It’s really an amazing accomplishment.

I know that a lot of GANG members contributed to this project
(Monkey Island 2 SE). Could you let us know who contributed, how they
contributed, and where, in the game, might we hear their contributions?

Actually it was an all GANG-member game, to be honest. When we did Monkey Island 1, it was the only thing on my plate and I redid all of the music myself. Sometimes, quite often actually, I have situations where multiple projects may overlap; but this winter I was slammed harder than I think I’ve ever been. Will Roget and I were both working on Monkey Island 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II all simultaneously, including all of the other small things that come along with working at a publisher/developer – like trailers, marketing work, pitches/prototypes, and a few other external projects that needed tending to. Add on top of that the sheer increased size of Monkey 2’s music.

Particularly with the size of the workload on The Old Republic, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to handle it all myself, so I put together a team to tackle it. On the LucasArts side you have Wilbert and myself. Then we hired three external composers as what we referred to as Arrangers: Dan Reynolds, Jeff Ball, and Andrew Aversa. All three of them were selected because they had tremendous talent when it came to MIDI-oriented synthestration and instrument programming. As before with Monkey 1, the task was to take the MIDI files for the original material, update it for current day samples, and embellish with live instruments where appropriate. As it turned out, the only section that I redid myself was the music for Captain Dread, the Rastafarian captain who ferries Guybrush Threepwood from island to island. All of the other arrangements were tackled by Will, Dan, Jeff, and Andrew with supervision and direction from me.

Was there a sense of ‘intimidation’, for lack of a better word, in
creating the music (or re-creating it, as the case may be) in the need
to live up to the standards set by the original game and game music?

The Monkey Island games have a very vibrant fan community, and twenty years on, they regard Monkey Island 2 to be not only the best Monkey Island game, and not only the best LucasArts adventure game made, but they regard Monkey 2 as the best adventure game ever made. There’s definitely pressure there to live up to their expectations. Add on top of that the added pressure that this game was so much larger than the first one. Then add on top of that the challenges of recreating the functionality of iMUSE. It was a big set of shoes to step into. Thankfully, the content team and our programming team all rocked and we met all of our goals.

On Monkey Island 2 SE, did you end up using all live musicians, or
did you have a mix of midi/sampled instruments and live musicians?What
kind of mix was it, if that was the case?

MI2:SE was a mixture of live instruments and samples. The score for MI2 had a number of moments that were much more orchestral than the first game – LeChuck’s brooding cutscenes, in particular. We weren’t in a position to bring in an orchestra, but I did want to focus on particular signature instruments that would be featured throughout the score in solo passages. I think the final list is something like live trombone, bass trombone, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto and bari sax, trumpet, violin, acoustic guitar, steel slide guitar, flute, soprano and tenor recorder, and then vocals this time around like the whistling at the start of Scabb Island. To back up those live instruments, we recreated the rest of the original score with current-day samples.

So, you have a new title coming up, The Force Unleashed 2, and the
E3 trailer for this was absolutely stunning. Everyone was talking
about it. Can you talk a bit about how much music is being created for
this title, or how much is being used from the 1st Force Unleashed?
And will you be using a real orchestra for this? If so, do you usually
conduct? Did you do extensive midi mockups?

On The Force Unleashed 1, I hired Mark Griskey to create this great 90 minute original score for the game that we knew would work alongside of John Williams’ original music from the Star Wars films. Mark had the difficult challenge of compositionally bridging the gap between John Williams’ Prequel scores and his Original Trilogy scores. He did a fantastic job and the results were a tremendous score for the game that hit all of the notes we needed it to hit. When it came time for TFU2 to get going, Mark was the obvious choice so we’re working with him again. Just as with TFU1, TFU2 was scored with a live orchestra and recorded up at the Main Stage of Skywalker Ranch. We are revisiting some of the music from TFU1. When General Kota returns to the screen, you’ll hear Mark’s theme for General Kota, things like that. Mark has given us, though, a brand new hour of music for the game specific to the new locations and characters found within TFU2.

The general process for Mark and I is that I put together an asset list for him, send him concept art, video capture of the game, text docs of the script, whatever he needs to get going with composition. He sends me fairly detailed MIDI mockups. We go back and forth with any revisions until we have the main themes all nailed down. With the themes all decided and agreed upon with the team as well, Mark then has the language he needs to go and write the rest of the score. He sends me mockups, but we don’t do many revisions at this point, if at all. Once I’ve approved a cue, it goes to the orchestrators and then eventually to the recording stage. I don’t touch a conductor’s baton, and with good cause. I couldn’t conduct electricity. I stay in the recording booth listening to the performances, requesting changes here and there on the fly, making sure that we have everything that we’re going to need for not only the cue in its straight, written form, but also alternate takes where we change some of the performance markings or grab the different components we’ll need for our interactive music systems.

In creating any of the music for games in the Star Wars universe,
do you have ‘rules’ or ‘templates’ you need to work from, based on
John Williams film scores? Or is it looser than that, and you simply
try to write to fit that style? I’m just curious to know if there’s
any sort of “Star Wars music branding” guidelines that you have to pay
attention to when working in that universe…far, far away…

There are very few official “rules” in the strictest sense of the word. There are a couple of things that are mandated by Lucas Licensing so as to be in line with the films, like the inability to edit down the Main Titles for Star Wars over the iconic text crawl. From the time the words “Star Wars” first burst on the screen, you have 1:22 of text crawl before you can transition to a new piece of music.

Other than that, the rules are more guidelines than anything else. As the Music Supervisor for a company like LucasArts, I end up being essentially the Keeper of Musical Integrity. This means that I try and make everything as rigidly defined thematically as possible. You aren’t going to be playing The Force Unleashed and hear “Han & The Princess” playing over top of a boss battle. Rebel themes go with Rebel characters. The Force Theme only represents things related to The Force. The “Raiders March” only gets played for heroic moments related to Indiana Jones. Things like that. That said, there are times these restrictions need to be either widened or tossed out all together. If we do a game where The Empire is all over the place fighting rebels and oppressing the masses, we’ll use either “The Imperial March” to represent the Empire as a whole, as opposed to just Darth Vader, or Emperor Palpatine’s theme, since his machinations are really the crux behind everything crappy that happens to the heroes of the Star Wars films. But it can sometimes be subjective. I may take Boba Fett’s theme from “Empire Strikes Back” and use it in one game just to represent the criminal underworld, or I might use it to very strictly represent only Boba Fett like I do in “The Force Unleashed II.”

As for when it comes time to compose new material, there is some leeway there, too. It depends on what the game is trying to accomplish. Something like Republic Commando was trying to do a grittier, dirtier take on Star Wars, so I stretched the musical language there more than I do with something like The Old Republic or The Force Unleashed. For The Force Unleashed, Mark Griskey’s music needs to feel like it’s a part of the same world as the films, even though it’s a much darker story and much less romantic musical palette. But Star Wars is now a franchise that encapsulates the films, the Clone Wars series, and the LEGO games. All of them have different takes on the music that populates those worlds.

How did you end up at LucasArts, and where were you before that?

The short answer is “determination.” I was freelancing at the start of my career and had done some work for SCEE and a now-defunct company out of England. I moved to Los Angeles and began working on some little film things here and there, but those weren’t where my real interests were. I loved games. Always had. At some point around 2000, I felt like I was starting to see more game gigs going to film composers. So, I decided to take the work I’d done before, go to USC for grad school studying scoring for Film and TV, and then apply that knowledge to games. It was a great experience and I consider it 50% of my graduate level education. The other 50% came from the 8 months I spent as a tester for THQ. After those eight months, I was able to walk into my interview at LucasArts and not only had the musical chops for the gig, not only the technical chops, not only was I able to talk music and scoring from a dramatic standpoint, but I could talk about the work with the jargon of the games industry in a way that a film composer alone couldn’t. By the time I got back from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I already had a job offer. The rest is details.

What’s the best part of your job?

Is it too corny to say “the people I work with”? I can honestly say that – as someone who started my career freelancing – I much prefer working in an office building as part of a team to working out of my bedroom in my pajamas. No disrespect intended to my pajamas. I love my pajamas. But I also love the collaborative nature of the work here that I get by being able to walk over and talk to the LDs, the animators, the other sound designers, etc. Sound Designer Tom Bible and I worked extremely closely on a small game called “Lucidity” last year. There was this constant interplay between us as to what was music and what was sound design. I can’t imagine that game sounding like it did if I had been working remotely and working with Tom via email and FTP deliveries. Similarly the music inspired some of the art and design elements, and those in turn inspired changes to some of the music, etc. It was all very collaborative.

In talking with you, I know yer quite a gaming fan. Do you have a
favorite experience/story in playing any particular game? Maybe
because of people you were playing with, or something in the game blew
your mind, or you just related to a game’s aesthetic etc.

Yeah, you’re right. I’ve been a gamer my whole life. Back to the days of playing Ms. Pac-Man in arcades, PONG on my uncle’s TV, and Zaxxon on my cousins’ Commodore 64. So I have a ton of really great memories of games. In fact, I actually spent my 21st birthday playing all the way through Mega-Man 2 on an NES and I count the time I beat Super Mario Bros. 3 as one of my crowning accomplishments in gaming, if not life in general.

But, all of that said, I’m definitely not one of those who pines dramatically for the glory days of gaming. Faxanadu on the NES was great, but so was Riven on the PC, Final Fantasy X, and Arkham Asylum. I’d say that most recently my favorite game that I played was “Heavy Rain” on the PS3. I know the game isn’t for everyone. In fact, there’s a guy here at work who is convinced it isn’t a game at all and we argue about it quite often. To me, though, I count it as one of the top 10 best games I’ve ever played.

There’s a visceral connection to the protagonists that I felt while playing that I can’t remember having felt before with another game. The further you get with the story, the more intense the choices get, the more agonizing it is to take that next step. I just really appreciated that as a gamer. There’s a gradation of losing your grip that other games with a moral choice don’t get. Most games give you the option of either being good or bad, but it’s a binary approach and the bad is usually completely depraved right off the bat. “Heavy Rain”, however, has you slip down a slope of moral decay instead of diving head-first into the deep end. I really appreciated that nuance. Plus, the score was beautiful.

Big thanks to LucasArts for their support in this interview.

Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald