Mafia III is easily one of the most anticipated titles of this generation. With its 1960’s Louisiana setting and cast right out of a Scorsese film, it’s easy to see why. But much like its predecessor, Mafia III features a unique score that fits its time period like a glove. Much of that is thanks to the composers Jesse Harlin and Jim Bonney. To discuss the sounds of Mafia III, the former was very candid about his creative process and his excitement for 2K’s upcoming title. In our conversation with Harlin, we discuss his process, and his excitement for the upcoming 2K title.
CGMagazine: A lot of your previous work was based in the Star Wars universe. Now you’re going in the complete opposite direction [with Mafia III]. It’s something based in reality, Louisiana in the 60’s. How did that affect the sound you were going for?
Jesse Harlin: Massively, actually. What we wanted to do when we started was to figure out a signature sound for Mafia III. Being that it’s the third game in the series, there was sort of an established sound. We didn’t know if that established orchestral sound they had in the other two games was going to be the right thing for the new game. What we did was a lot of musical concept art, at the start. A lot of pieces to try and figure out what was the right approach and direction to take the score into. One of the things I suggested was “What about a cinematic approach to the blues?” Cinematic in this case not meaning orchestral, but using traditional blues instruments in a cinematic storytelling way.
Blues is definitely there in the score. A lot of the material that the game’s other composer (Jim Bonney) wrote is just straight up blues rock. What I was doing, then, was trying to support the story and cutscenes with a blues underscore. I was trying to figure out if you’re going to score or underscore scenes [without] the typical crutches of things like an orchestra. How do you approach that with things like a piano, electric guitar, dobro and upright bass? I found myself taking sounds that I wanted to use with an orchestral approach and then translating it into what I feel would be the replacement for that sound. […] Instead of using orchestral instruments, we have certain characters that are from all over the place in terms of their backgrounds. For example, some of the characters are Haitian, so I was using Haitian and Afro-Cuban percussion to underscore those sections. It very much dictated the radical departure from the Star Wars sound that I was used to.
CGM: Did you have time to see Mafia III before you started the score or were you told “This is the setting we’re going for?”
Harlin: I got to see a little bit of it. I’ve been working on this game for about two years. It was early when I first started, and there was little more than concept art at that point. When we were trying to figure out the direction of the game, they had story ideas and they had concept art, which was very representative of what [the game] ended up being. They also had a lot of descriptions based on what they knew they wanted the characters to be, and that was where we started working: Mostly using Word documents that were descriptions of the world they were going to build.
CGM: Are you a fan of the Mafia series?
Harlin: I did play Mafia II and I dug it. [The game’s] ability to create characters that were believable was really nice and rich. When I played Mafia II just as a gamer, I wished there was sort of more to go off and do in the open-world aspect of it. I think that’s one of the things they’re really trying to address with Mafia III, so I’m looking forward to playing it. Even now, I don’t think I’ve played any of it. I got to see some of it, but I haven’t gotten to play any of it, so I’m really looking forward to it.
CGM: Were you excited about working on the scores for some characters that you’ve already played as?
Harlin: Yeah, it was fun to see [Vito Scaletta from Mafia II] come back. The game’s director, Haden Blackman, was very insistent that he wanted the score to be thematic and have characters represented by themes. It made total sense that when it came to scoring Vito, I made some callbacks in Vito’s music back to the main menu melody of Mafia II. It may not immediately jump out as being instantly recognizable as a quote of it, but it’s definitely there. It’s this descending b-minor melodic line that I carried over and referenced in at least one section in the new game.
CGM: That actually leads right into my next question. Obviously when you’re told “We’re doing 1960s, New Orleans, heavy blues influence”, where did you find your inspiration for that?
Harlin: Early on, what I proposed to the team was that after I had been thinking about it for a couple days, I got in touch with their audio director and said, “here’s how I see this breaking down. I think you’ve got four different cardinal direction points that you can take this score in. What I’m going to propose is that I do four different demos for you of each style in its pure form. We’ll call these ‘fence posts,’ where we’re fencing off the area within which the score may eventually be. The final score may end up being some combination of some or all of this. But these are going to be the four pure fence posts within which we’ll define the actual sound.”
One was orchestral, a traditional orchestral demo. One was the blues where we ended up. One was 60s rock-inspired, like if the game had been scored by 60s-era Led Zeppelin and The Doors. Reading through the script and looking at the story, there were elements of it that seemed like a Blaxploitation film sort of approach, so I did a very Lalo Schifrin 1970s funk-based score. I did all of that, then sent them in.
Haden and Matt sat down together and had a lot of thoughts on everything and decided that the orchestral one was the safe way to go, so let’s explore other things, and if they don’t work, we know we have that in the back pocket. Let’s try and do something more interesting.
The 60’s rock one was cool, but there was a concern that having a giant wall of guitars […] might become a problem in terms of […] trying to make frequency space for all of the guns and dialogue and ambience. You can have a big wall of sound when you’re just listening to music and it isn’t a problem, but if you’re actually trying to telegraph important information to the player, then that giant wall of guitars is probably going to get in your way.
The funk one, everybody agreed that it sounded cool, but Haden was insistent that this is not a Blaxploitation story; this is not the direction we’re going, so that idea was off the table. Everyone was excited about the blues demo, so I started doing more iterations and explorations on that, and that was ultimately the direction that the game went in, with one exception. In the orchestral demo, Matt loved that I had a solo cello in there at one point, and so the score is actually blues and a solo cello that comes in at certain spots. It’s just one of those things that’s sort of a hangover from the original demos I did. He loved the expressive nature of the instrument, so that found its way into the final score.
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CGM: Were you listening to a lot of a certain band or musician at that time that kind of helped you influence that blues sound?
Harlin: Yeah, I listened to a lot of blues when I started. I started listening to a lot of John Lee Hooker, a lot of Muddy Waters, some Steve Earle, Tom Waits, Dr. John, a whole bunch of stuff. When I started, I had an understanding of blues from an academic standpoint, but I had never written a blues score before. It was important to start digging into it. You don’t have to be saddled with just a 12-bar structure in the blues. You can do these really interesting kind of bluesy drones, these jams on a single chord that John Lee Hooker and Steve Earle both do. It’s got this great sound, and you don’t have to feel locked to the rigidity of something like a 12-bar structure.
CGM: Did you end enjoying this kind of score?
Harlin: Oh, I loved it. I’ve been lucky in that a lot of stuff I’ve done has been Star Wars stuff, but there’s also a fair amount of stuff that I’ve been able to do, like Counterspy, which was a big 60’s jazz score, so I get to play around with styles quite frequently with the projects that I work on. I really dug getting to do this score because it was something so different from what I usually got to do
CGM: With a game like Mafia III, there’s a lot of different thematic tones throughout the game. Did you find it difficult mixing those thematic tones to write a score for the game, considering you’ve never done a blues-style soundtrack before?
Harlin: The difficulty came in not from just doing it. Trying to do a cinematic approach to the blues is not a new idea. It’s something that people have been doing for a number of decades within film and TV. The difficulties actually became production-related. Not in the writing, but how it was produced. You find that when you’re writing the blues as underscore for a scene, you have to be really careful. It’s a simple as if you put the wrong reverb on an electric guitar tone, then suddenly it sounds like a 1980’s cop drama. You also have to be careful that if you play a certain melodic lick, it suddenly sounds like an Eric Clapton riff and not the dark score we intended. I would send demos and I would get feedback in return. Most of the time, things were approved, but when they weren’t, it was because the cue had strayed slightly off that path that we were searching for and instead reminded somebody of a Miami Vice soundtrack. It ended up being a fairly fine line that I had to walk. In the end, it really has its own sound and feel and I’m super happy with how it turned out.
CGM: Were there any pieces that got left out that you wish were kept?
Harlin: No, to be honest. Everything is in the key of e-minor, which meant that they could easily take one cue and stitch it onto another cue if need be for cutscenes or gameplay scenarios it hadn’t specifically been written for. Because it was thematic, and everything was in the same key, if suddenly a theme came along where two characters were talking to each other, it would be easy for them to cut back and forth between one character’s theme to another, all based on different pieces of thematic chunks of music we had written before. They could also do things like dig into the individual tracks for a cue and take things apart and re-stitch them together if need be. It became about trying to get all the mileage we possibly could out of the music because its such a big game and there’s just no way to be able to custom score every possible moment in the game. It would just be too much.
CGM: Was there a favourite piece that you’re particularly proud of?
Harlin: There are a number of them, actually. I really like the main theme, and it’s funny, because it was one of the very first things that I wrote, too. It kind of became the main theme because I threw something together because for an early demo, they wanted something over their splash screen at the top of the demo. I wrote it, I sent it in, and Haden absolutely loved it. He made this mandate, like “I love this piece, that’s not going anywhere, leave it where it is.” It just became the main front-end theme of the game from that point on. Two years later, I still really dig it. I think it came together really well. I’m happy to say that Matt would call me up throughout the development of the game and routinely say to me “Okay, this new one you just turned in, this one is my favourite piece of the game.” He must have said this like 9 or 10 times over the course of us turning stuff in. He was really happy, which you’re always thrilled when the client digs what you’re writing.
For me, I was happy because everything was coming together really well. I think that it’s a challenge when you’re using the same palette of instruments, more or less, but you need to differentiate the themes from each of the main characters. The fact that Burke’s music sounds different from Cassandra and Vito and Lincoln’s music, they all sound different, and I’m really happy with how that all turned out. I think in much the same way as the kind of stuff I do on the Star Wars scores, you can listen to the score in isolation and still know which character the music is referencing and still know not just which character, but based on the tone and the dynamics, you can know what’s happening in terms of story. It was a fun one to try and take musical storytelling and do the same things that I’m able to do with an orchestra and now apply that a bunch of non-typically cinematic instruments.