Jesse Harlin is a composer at LucasArts, who has worked on both Monkey Island Special Editions, as well as Lucidity and The Force Unleashed. He is one half of a team: with Wilbert Roget, II, another staff composer at LucasArts, they make up Awesome Force™. Mixnmojo asked them some really nerdy questions and got some very detailed answers. Interview by Laserschwert.
Hey Jesse, great to have you back! Of course, people are dying to know more about the latest "Special Edition" instalment of Monkey Island, but I‘d like to talk about something else first, because after the SE of MI1 you worked on a nice little game named Lucidity, the first original LucasArts game for a while, not based on the Star Wars or Indiana Jones franchises. What was it like working on that?
(Jesse Harlin): Lucidity was a fantastic experience for me. I’ve been on-staff here at LucasArts for 8 years now and, while I’ve written a lot of music over those 8 years, Lucidity was the first time in a long while that I’ve had to just completely stretch out and flex my creative muscles without any preconceived notions of what the sound or music needed to be for the game. The team was very small and extremely collaborative, so music was as much a part of the initial design as all of the other elements. In particular, sound designer Tom Bible and I knew that we wanted to blur the lines of what was sound design and what was music within the game. That was a great creative challenge and we had a tremendous amount of fun with it, though my guess is that most of the results were subtle enough that many people missed it. We geeked out about things like tuning Tom’s sound effect ambiences to the key of the songs I was writing – tuning them to the same key created an unconscious sense of calm while detuning them created an unconscious sense of tension and anxiety. I was using recordings of wind gusts and crashing waves as you might use instruments like cymbal swells or thunder in place of cymbal crashes, interchanging the mixture of a crackling fire with that of vinyl record hiss and pops, adding crows, owls, locusts, and wolf howls on beat into the tracks, and adding clock elements into the percussion tracks of the music.
The game's music has a very ethereal sound to it, while mixing several different styles. What were your inspirations?
The world of Lucidity is that of a little girl’s dream world, and so I had all the freedom I wanted to pull from whatever influences struck my fancy. So I listened to everything I could get my hands on – European Romanticism composers like Grieg and Saint-Saens, Swedish lullabies, jazz, rock, trip hop, Bjork, Carl Stalling’s Loony Tunes scores, Disney films – anything, really. Add to that memories from my own childhood. The music on the level select screen for the game, for instance, is based on my own memories of being a little kid at my aunt’s house. I’d sit at her old piano, hold the sustain pedal down with one foot, and then improvise on the black keys with my head up against the wood of the piano listening to the way the overtones would build up into these complex textures. I also remembered being a kid and hearing “Little April Showers” from Bambi for the first time. I think this was the first real sense I ever had that music could be representative of bigger things or abstract concepts, that music could tell a story and give the impression of a spring storm just through woodwinds and a vortex of swirling voices. So, when the middle of the game has a couple of levels with rain, I did my own take on this idea of music-as-rainstorm. David Nottingham, the game’s creative lead, basically just gave me this blank canvas that I could play around with and I chose to throw impressionistic gestures, old memories, and an experimental mix of sound design and music onto it.
I also knew that Lucidity was a platforming game at its heart. The basic game mechanic was different from a Mario game, but it was still a side-scrolling platformer and also the first game I’ve ever worked on where voice wasn’t going to be a consideration. Because of that, I knew that I wanted to give a nod to classic platformers of the past by giving each piece of music its own quirky instrumentation and its own hummable melody. There’s something about platformers that lend themselves to melody, so I dove feet first into that world and strove to make sure that I could get these tracks stuck in people’s heads. When I wandered through the team’s area late in development and heard artists and engineers singing along to the tracks as they tested their levels or fixed code, I knew I’d hit the mark I’d set out to achieve. I really couldn’t be happier with how it all turned out.
Now, let's get to Monkey Island.
Yes, let’s! And while we do, I’d like to introduce Wilbert Roget, II. Will is our other staff Composer here at LucasArts and was deeply involved with both the creative and technical work of Monkey Island 2 Special Edition: LeChuck’s Revenge.
The first Special Edition was really successful and topped the Steam charts for quite a while. Did that come as a surprise for LucasArts, given the popularity of the series?
Perhaps some. LucasArts has always been aware of how much-loved the Monkey Island games are by gamers, particularly gamers who grew up playing them on their PCs in the 90s. Guybrush is part of the fabric of classic gaming, and that’s exactly why Craig Derrick and the team wanted to bring back the original game and show it to people with an updated flair. I think what surprised us was just how successful the game was on the iPhone, which is generally a more casual gamer user base and less likely to have played the original game on PC when it first came out. The other thing the team didn’t know was what the reaction would be to an updated version. Would people complain that we had messed with perfection? Would people appreciate the work of updating a classic for modern audiences? Turns out the answer is simply “yes” to some degree on all accounts, but there was a sense when we were making it that it wasn’t a given and that we weren’t sure just how many people would be interested in Guybrush’s first adventure with a fresh coat of paint.
(Wilbert Roget, II): Here’s an honest confession: The only adventure games I played as a child were King’s Quest 4 and 5, an experience which eventually taught me that maybe I’m not quite smart enough to play adventure games! So when the Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition project started here at LucasArts, I was anxious to play the game and see what the 20 years of fuss was all about. I immediately fell in love with the setting, characters, humor, and of course the music. Once the game released, I was so thrilled to hear my woodwind and percussion performances in the score popping up all over the web, with so much enthusiasm for LucasArts finally bringing back our classics.
What was the atmosphere like at LucasArts during the days or weeks after the release?
We were all excited, for sure. The game did well and was being well-received by fans and press alike. But it was also being well-received by those who had never played it before and that was a great thrill for us. The original game is brilliant and we were all happy that we could be a part of bringing it to a new audience. Diehard fans, like those in the Mixnmojo community, had their complaints about some of the elements of the Special Edition – most notably Guybrush’s hair – but I think some of that is to be expected. All art is subjective. We were passing around links to forum posts, YouTube videos, and review sites; just like we always do whenever a game comes out.
As with any game release, there’s always a huge sigh of relief having finished a monster of a project. And after that, a desperate frenzy to read every review and every comment about the game! We were very pleased with the game and with the fans’ reactions to it, but at the same time we’re always very critical of our own work, and so we try to find ways to push the envelope even further the next time around.
After the success of the MI1:SE a Special Edition of LeChuck‘s Revenge seemed like a no-brainer to most fans. Was it that natural a decision for LucasArts as well?
Nothing in corporate America is ever a no-brainer. So, while everyone on the team was thrilled with the success of the first one, there was always the fear that it would be a fluke or that people would have a high regard for Monkey 1 but not Monkey 2, or whatever. Now, that said, it was obviously the next logical step for us. We – along with Telltale’s Tales of Monkey Island series - just reintroduced Guybrush to the world and a large new audience. It made sense for us to go forward and build off of that with a special edition version of Monkey 2. Thankfully, I’m not a part of those conversations. The game’s producers and LucasArts executive staff were the ones having meetings about profit and loss statements, potential market issues, distribution channels and whatnot. I was happy just to wait until it was given the greenlight or not.
I don’t think they pay me enough to make those kinds of decisions myself! Jokes aside, work on Monkey2 started very quickly after Monkey 1’s release. We were able to use a lot of the same tech and know-how from Monkey 1 on Monkey 2, and in fact even Lucidity gave us a head start in some areas.
Judging by the first announcements made regarding the MI2:SE, fan feedback on the first SE seemed to have been taken very seriously. Was that a major aspect during pre-production?
From the perspective of audio, fan reaction to the first game was very important and helped us decide on how to approach Monkey 2: SE. We revamped our VO system so that conversations could be even more fluid, and we approached the musical score with the same aesthetic of “reimagining” how the music might have sounded if the original composers had all of the resources that game audio has today.
Thankfully, fans seemed to really enjoy what we did with the audio for Monkey 1: SE. This meant that we had devised a process throughout the first game for updating 20 year-old audio that was successful and pleased critics, diehard fans of the original, and new gamers experiencing MI1SE for the first time. As odd as it may sound, simply knowing that we were successful once was a huge help in diving into the second game. Audio, like art, is completely subjective, so while we had one off things where people would say things like “That’s not what I expected Cobb to sound like!” or “I hate the grace notes they added to the flute in the main theme!”, we felt like we’d hit a home run and that kind of confidence can be a big help when you’re staring down a much larger sequel.
The MI1:SE started as, what you called it, an "underground grassroots project". Was it similar with the MI2:SE, or was that already a full-blown production?
The ground work was already laid and that went a long way thankfully, and Craig Derrick now had a successful title with Monkey 1 under his belt which meant that it wasn’t a completely uphill battle to sell the executive staff on the idea of doing Monkey 2. That said, it should be noted that the teams for Monkey 1 and Monkey 2 were very different. Monkey 1 was done largely internally at LucasArts in San Francisco with help in various forms from Lucasfilm Animation Singapore. Monkey 2 was almost the reverse and largely developed in Singapore with a skeleton crew here in San Francisco working on it. Even audio production was different. The first game’s audio team was Tom Bible tackling sound design, David W. Collins tackling voice direction, and myself doing the music production. When it came time to do Monkey 2, I was completely buried in the simultaneous production of music for Star Wars: The Old Republic as well as Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day for me to tackle all of Monkey 2 in the same way that I did Monkey 1, especially because there’s so much music in the sequel.
To put things into perspective in terms of scope, there were about fifty loose music files in Monkey 1, and a little over five-hundred in Monkey 2. Monkey 2’s score is about four times larger, and with the complex iMUSE transitional cues, the project was an order of magnitude larger than its predecessor. We hired composers Andrew Aversa, Jeff Ball, and Dan Reynolds to help us produce and arrange this large body of music, each of them taking ownership of a single island in the game – similar to how the original composers split up the scoring. I personally handled arranging the game’s introductory sequences and Woodtick, as I knew it would require the most iteration getting the interactivity to work.
I still did music supervision on Monkey 2, but I wasn’t able to get my hands nearly as dirty as I did last time. This time around, the only music I specifically redid were the cues related to Captain Dread.
Because of the interactive nature of the game‘s soundtrack (about which we‘ll talk in a bit), a simple playthrough of the game wouldn‘t necessarily give you a complete overview of the music. How did you prepare this time?
My first step was to play through the game in its entirety, to get a feel for the scope and see just what we were in for. After that, I played a few more times and recorded the game’s audio to a second PC for quick reference. At this point I was familiar with the principal themes, and so during my next playthrough I was able to write down every cue that I heard, taking note of how iMUSE was affecting them.
We also received a delivery from Singapore of the extracted MIDI files from the original game, though even just getting those was a back and forth tech issue. The original MIDI files for Monkey 2 predate a General MIDI standard as well contain a metric heap of SysEx data. Making sure that Singapore was able to extract and deliver all of that data to us correctly took some iteration. Thankfully the MIDI files were well named and had titles like “Carnival” or “MardiGras” so we could do playthroughs and cross-reference our list of cues and piece together where everything went.
The soundtrack of the first game wasn‘t very well documented (actually not at all). Was it different with MI2? Where did you start?
Same thing. No documentation. The list of MIDI files exported into a comma-separated Excel document was all that we had to go off of at the start of the project.
We had a bit of a head start on Monkey 1 in that the classic music was already in a digital audio format in the form of the 1992 CD-ROM version, and this was the version of the game that MI1SE was based on. Monkey 2 had no such luxury, but we were able to rip MIDI files from the game once again. A first step was to figure out a pipeline for rendering the classic music, as well as researching ways we could make both classic and SE music work with iMUSE – a process which took weeks and many different prototype solutions.
In addition to creating an iMUSE-like system that would work with digital audio (instead of just MIDI, as the original game was authored), we also had to figure out how to make this extremely complicated interactive music system work exactly the same on the PC ,Xbox, and PS3 as it would on the iPhone and iPad. There were lots of discussions about available middleware options like Wwise or FMOD, but in the end the only option that really would work is for Singapore to build their own digitial music system that would replicate iMUSE functionality.
Additionally, since Monkey 1 music was mostly room-based, we could simply swap in new files to replace old ones, and aside from a few bug-fixes the implementation was finished. Monkey 2 music not only uses iMUSE but also is heavily script-based instead of room-based, and so we had an very lengthy debugging process to make sure the right things play at the right times.