The “quirky and weird” musical voice of Jesse Harlin.
Harlin, whose credits include Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (the special editions), and Mafia III, spoke about the experimental nature of Yoku’s Island Express’ soundtrack and how he needed it to be almost like a character in and of itself.
“Yoku’s Island Express is an adorable and charming oddity,” said Harlin. “In short, it’s an open world Metroidvania pinball game about a tropical island with a Cthulhian elder god problem. As strange a mashup as that description is, I knew I needed to create something just as charmingly strange musically so that the score could function as a character in the game all on its own. Game players hear everything from beat boxing to bebop, medieval madrigals to chiptune basslines, and sinister reggae to Keystone Kops-styled piano chase music. There’s a song with pinball machine sounds in the percussion tracks, and that same track has banjo, ocarina, talking drum, and a drunken trombone. There’s even one track that uses the DNA sequence of yeast run through a robot-voice generating vocoder as part of the backing track. The score is definitely a little out there… ”
Working with Swedish studio Villa Gorilla also gave Harlin the freedom to do things his way, and the composer almost had to rediscover himself in order to create soundscapes that fit the style of the game.
“The developer Villa Gorilla was super encouraging about all of the nutty ideas I wanted to try,” said Harlin. “I got to just stretch out and run as wild as I wanted with it. They basically said, ‘Just do whatever you want. Just do you.’ And for a composer who’s spent 15 years working with other people’s franchises like Star Wars, MARVEL, Avatar, and Futurama, that was not exactly an easy request to fulfill. I had to go back to those old influences to figure out who I was again. What exactly is my own musical voice? Turns out that it’s kind of quirky and weird, but it works. And in a sense, that’s exactly the same way I’d describe Yoku’s Island Express. It’s quirky and weird, but it works.
“The imaginative design of the game and the freedom to do whatever I wanted was the biggest influence on the score. I ended up building the soundtrack to be like those in the games I grew up playing: melody is king and the goal is to make you walk away from it humming the songs for the rest of the day. I basically tried to make it a chain of earworms – songs that get stuck in your brain and then won’t leave you alone – but, you know, in a good way.”