Mafia 3: Behind the Music

We speak at length with Jesse Harlin about scoring the upcoming '60s action game.


The upcoming 1968-set crime game Mafia III has a killer licensed music soundtrack, featuring songs from The Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Elvis, among many others. There are more than 100 licensed tracks in the game (including some that 2K thought it couldn't get), but that's only one part of the game's music.

There is also a score that complements the licensed tracks and adds to the atmosphere. GameSpot had the opportunity recently to speak with co-composer Jesse Harlin about his contributions to the game.

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The composer, who previously worked on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Lego games, told us all about how he became attached to the project, how being set in the '60s affected the score, and why music is critical to helping drive immersion, especially in a game like Mafia III. He worked on the game alongside composer Jim Bonney, who wrote the music for BioShock Infinite.

You can check out our interview below, along with an embed to stream the game's score. Mafia III comes out on October 7 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.

First off, can you tell us a little bit about your history in the music/game business and how you became attached to Mafia III?

I've been in the game industry for 17 years now. I spent ten of those years at LucasArts as their on-staff Composer/Music Supervisor and had the chance to work on some great projects like Star Wars: Republic Commando, The Force Unleashed games, Lego Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and The Old Republic. Before my time at LucasArts and then again after Disney shut the company down, I've been freelancing.

When LucasArts shut down, a bunch of my former coworkers set up a new 2K development studio under the direction of Haden Blackman. That studio is Hangar 13. They were starting their new studio at the same time I was setting myself up again as a freelance composer. The timing just worked out perfectly for us in that sense.

The tone for Mafia III's story appears to be dark and gritty, with a focus on revenge and violence--what would you say the tone for the score is?

I'd say it’s dark and gritty with a focus on revenge, to be honest. That's exactly how we talked about the score as we figured out what direction to take it in. Early on, I had a bunch of conversations with Hangar 13's audio director, Matt Bauer. I told Matt that there were four ways that I thought the score could go. Like Mafia and Mafia II, it could have an orchestral score. Another option was to do an all rock-based original score. What would it sound like if Led Zeppelin or The Doors had scored a game? The third option was to do a funk score akin to something Lalo Schifrin might do.

The fourth option was a gritty, grimy version of the blues. We all agreed early on that an orchestral score was the safe option, and we'd consider it Plan B if something more adventurous didn't work out. The rock option was cool, but Matt was concerned about an all rock score taking up too much frequency space with a wall of guitars and not leaving any room for footsteps, weapons, dialogue. Haden was insistent that the funk option was off the table because he didn't want the game to slip into feeling like a blaxploitation piece. Everyone agreed that the blues was a really interesting take, made perfect sense with the location, and would offer the game a unique sounding tone that could have it stand out as a signature score unlike everything else around it.

Mafia III has something like 10 different districts that are all varied and unique--from the bayou to downtown. How does the music change depending on where you are?

Early on in the music's development, I asked Haden Blackman a question: do you want this to be a thematic score? Movie scores have been tending lately towards being a bit lighter on having specific melodic themes representing characters and locales than in years past. I wanted to know how important that concept was to Haden. The answer was quick and decisive: yes. The game needed themes, and he wanted them to be character-specific themes. One of the game's mechanics is that you can assign your lieutenants to control different districts, and how you assign them will change their relationships to Lincoln. So with that flexibility in mind, the original score is much less focused on reflecting the districts and more keyed in on the personalities running the show.

What can we expect in terms of the variety of instrumentation and music styles featured in the score?

Mafia III is a blues score at its heart, but it’s a cinematic blues score. I knew I wanted to use traditional blues instruments - guitars, upright bass, upright piano, drums--but I wanted to figure out how to use them in a similar effect as to how I’d work with an orchestra. So that meant there are a lot of atypical performance techniques for fairly common instruments. The score has bowed piano, bowed acoustic guitar, hammond organ run through rotating leslie cabinets, electric piano functioning like a harp in one cue, and like a cello section in another cue.


There's a common approach in music scoring to reflect the ethnicity of a character in their music. I could have done that. We have a Haitian character, an Irish character, Italian characters, etc.; but I decided to take a different tack. I decided to try and dig a little deeper. I wanted to try and figure out what kind of music the characters themselves would be listening to. What kind of music influenced their personality?

In his quiet moments, what does Burke listen to? What album sits on Cassandra's turntable? So I came up with playlists that I thought would mean something to each character. For me, Cassandra was into Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and the soundtrack for the film version of "Porgy and Bess." Burke was digging Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks."

Another thing I did was try and make sure that each character is represented by a different stringed instrument. Lincoln is a Hendrixian Fender Strat with single coil pickups. Marcano is a warmer, richer Gibson Les Paul. Vito is, as a call back to Mafia II, a mandolin.

I read an interview with Mafia III director Haden Blackman about the kind of "situational combat" music that was composed and recorded for Mafia III that complements the licensed tracks. What can you tell me about that?

The original score for Mafia III was split between myself and composer Jim Bonney. Jim's worked in the past on games like Bioshock Infinite and Mortal Kombat and he’s a guitar player with a lifelong love of the blues. While I tackled things like the character themes and cutscenes, Jim tackled the situational combat music.

The system that 2K devised with Jim is one based on knowing who is aware of whom at any given situation. When we recorded the music, Jim's tunes were all tracked at four different intensity levels: high, medium, low, and stealth. The game keeps track of what Lincoln is up to and how the enemies are reacting to him. The music's complexity then changes accordingly to follow the drama. If Lincoln is the searching and tension is high, the music plays a stealth state. If the enemies aren't aware that Lincoln is nearby, but he's already cracking some skulls, the music will amp up to a low intensity combat cue. If they know that Lincoln's around, but don't know exactly where, that's a time for medium level combat intensity. And of course, if guns are blazing on all sides, that's the highest level of combat music.

Some of you past credits include Star Wars games--what did you learn from those that you applied to Mafia III?

Star Wars is about storytelling, to put it simply, and the music that John Williams has created for the films is a complex interplay of character themes woven together through the twin filters of drama and tone. While the genre of the blues is radically different from the neo-Romanticism of the Star Wars scores, the way that I scored Mafia III's cutscenes isn't. Themes represent characters and those themes are flexible enough to have different versions for different emotional states: tension, anger, contemplative reflection. In that sense, it's a very traditional score, but run through the very nontraditional use of the blues.

I read in an interview that you hired step dancers from Tennessee State University for body percussion--that sounds incredible. How did that come about and what does it add?

Stepping draws its influences from a number of places: African rhythms, emulation of choreographed routines from pop groups like The Temptations, and military precision drills. All of these elements coalesced in the 1950s and 60s and, by the end of the 1960s, black fraternities and sororities throughout the US were beginning to have organized stepping competitions.

"If I'm doing my job correctly, the player doesn't notice that I'm subtly trying to help manipulate their emotions in concert with the rest of the gameplay feedback." -- Harlin

As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to figure out what kind of music our protagonists were listening to. I decided that, as a Vietnam vet, the chances were pretty good that Lincoln had been exposed to some stepping routines by other guys in the service. It became a sound and a cultural touchstone that I wanted to keep coming back to for Lincoln, a reminder that he came back from Vietnam a changed man. His experiences there shaped him. I was looking for a signature sound that would be Lincoln's alone and I fell in love with the percussive testosterone of the sound behind stepping.

A lot of projects that come out of 2K are quite secretive--what was it like working on something and not being able to tell people about it?

Yes, 2K is sensitive about secrecy. Every cutscene that I received from them was watermarked with my name across the screen. But this wasn't anything new to me. You have to keep in mind that I worked at Lucasfilm during the prequel films, and nobody does secrecy like Lucasfilm. So, I'm used to secrecy.

Sometimes I think music in games is underappreciated. It obviously doesn't stand out as much as the actual gameplay and imagery, but it can be very vital to the overall experience. And people maybe tend to recognize this more when it's not done well. What's your take on the importance of music to help drive immersion?

I think it's critical, but the understated nature of it is absolutely by design. As film, TV, or game composers, our job is to provide an emotional underpinning to what's going on dramatically. Music in a game that's trying to tell a story should be there to help support the drama, help assist in the pacing, help control and steer the tone. When I meet with developers and we talk through their levels, I often do so in terms of creating an "emotion map" to augment what their gameplay and the writing is trying to achieve.

"How do you want the player to feel here?" is the question I'm always asking. If I'm doing my job correctly, the player doesn't notice that I'm subtly trying to help manipulate their emotions in concert with the rest of the gameplay feedback.

Mafia III being a period game, set in the late '60s, how did that impact your score? Did you try to use instruments and styles from the period?

The time period impacted the music production tremendously. While there's nothing specifically about the blues that is rooted in the 1960s, there are music production techniques that were experimental back then and have since fallen out of favor on modern albums. Big jet engine flange effects, rotary speakers, playing around with stereo panning--all of those are things that I played around with when writing my part of the score for Mafia III.

For instance, recording and reversing tracks was very experimental in the late 60s. The Beatles recorded vocals backwards in "Rain." Hendrix played with revered sounds on Axis: Bold as Love. There's this single sound that keeps coming back again and again of a long, grainy metallic swell. You get it by hitting a low sustained note on a piano, letting it ring out, then reversing the recording so that it fades up from nothing. Yes used in on "Roundabout." I used the same sound in the Mafia III score. You can hear it at about 1:00 into the track called "Chance of a Goddamn Lifetime." Getting to dust off old production techniques like this that are no longer in fashion was a ton of fun.

I am personally a big fan of the '60s time period when it comes to music. The full, 100-song soundtrack was announced recently and it looks like one of the better catalogs in any game ever in terms of prominence and variety--what are some of your favorite songs on there?

Man, there's so much good stuff on that list. I've always been a fan of things like John Lee Hooker's "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer," or the Stones' "Paint it Black." But I think the one I chuckled when I saw had made the list was the Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains."

I have a habit of engrossing myself in obsessive projects. Three years ago I decided to watch every single episode of Doctor Who in order from its 50 year history. For the last year and a bit, I've been working my way through Rolling Stone's "Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time." It's slow going, as it's hard to listen to music while you work if your work is writing music. Anyhow, number 381 on that list is the 5-disc Beach Boys album "The SMiLE Sessions," where they dissect the incredibly layered production work of Brian Wilson. After nearly an entire disc of nothing by pieces and variations on "Heroes and Villains," it's probably the song on the official soundtrack list that I know the most intimately.

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