Adventuring Through Video Games: An Interview with Telltale Composer Jared Emerson-Johnson
If you were a budding composer keen to work with a narrative in the past, the chances were that you would be seeking to work in film and TV. Over the years, however, games have blossomed as an avenue of interest for composers. These days, scores are incredibly important in building the overall texture of a game. It’s possible the industry is at a point where those that work on the sound and music of video games are not necessarily seeking to move up in the world to film and TV, but are challenged, involved, and enthused by the games they are working on.
One such composer is Jared Emerson-Johnson, whose connection with Telltale Games stems back to 2005, and who has been an integral part of their rise to fame, scoring hits like The Walking Dead and providing the building blocks for the enrapturing atmosphere of The Wolf Among Us, all the way through to his work on Guardians of the Galaxy, the first episode of which came out on Tuesday. We spoke to Jared about how he came to write music for video games, his continuing partnership with Telltale, and the differences between scoring games and scoring other media — as well as a whole lot more.
How did Jared get in to the industry in the first place? His passion for music started at a young age, blossoming from there to the point where he had to make a choice on which avenue he wanted to take if he wanted to make music his career.
“Music was something that was always close to my heart. I started playing when I was 4 or 5 years old. Music was always just part of my life throughout, and it kind of got more and more important as I grew up. I started out mostly playing the violin then I got really in to singing and theater stuff. It was only really in college when I started composing seriously. I kind of fell in love with that and realized that I actually liked that much more than practicing for hours and hours every day. It was more fun to be thinking of the big picture, so I started doing that. I was a music major, and I wasn’t assuming that I would definitely go in to music, because that’s easier said than done, but I realized I wanted to give it a shot and was looking at the options.”
Jared’s choices included a career in academia and concert music, which he didn’t find unappealing, but felt like he wanted to branch out and write music for something beyond that. “I wanted to write for a story, for something, not just writing music on its own. That led me to film, TV, and games so I had a look at which of those was viable,” he said. “I grew up in the San Francisco bay area. My family still lived there at that time, so I would be there every summer between years of college. While there, I decided to look for internships, and while it isn’t a big area for TV and film, there was, and still is, a massive games industry presence there, so I decided to focus on that.”
It was the pull of LucasArts that was most enticing, and so he decided to approach them, or more specifically those that already worked in music for the company. “I loved them and I loved the music in those games, so I reached out to the big three composers from the classic 90s LucasArts era, Peter McConnell, Michael Land, and Clint Bajakian. I told them I was interested in working on the kind of music they were doing, and asked if they needed an intern for the summer. They all got back to me and said “Thank you, but I don’t really have anything that I need help with at the moment,” but a few months later I kind of checked in again and Clint said he actually had a big Indiana Jones score that just came up, which he had a really quick turnaround for. He needed to record it with an orchestra at the end of the summer, so the timing was perfect.”
It fit in perfectly with his time off from university, and Jared explained how his work with Bajakian started from that point. “Basically, when I was home for the summer, I drove up and met him, and he interviewed me to make sure I wasn’t a fool. After that, I started going to his studio every day and we collaborated on the score. Most of my work was doing part preparation: getting the sheet music ready for the musicians because it was a very quick turnaround. I think it was something like 6 or 8 weeks — really fast for roughly an hour and a half of music.”
This time working with Bajakian helped Jared come to terms with working in music that compliments a story, and more specifically how music and games go together. It also gave him an insight in to writing music in the “real world” as opposed to the more theoretical side at university.
“We spent the first week co-composing sitting side by side, and it was great for me because I learned so much about the realities of working in this sphere. When you’re in college, you’re writing stuff and you’re doing stuff, and you’re kind of in your own little world, but then seeing what it takes to do it for a big budget game where they’re actually expecting things from you, that was a great education for me.
It was an experience that Jared looks back on fondly, realizing that things could perhaps have been very different without his time as a “minion” (as he calls it affectionately) for Bajakian. “That was my first experience and it was an incredible one, I have to say,” he told us enthusiastically. “At the time I don’t think I appreciated quite how unusual that opportunity was, I was just like ‘oh great I’m doing what I really wanted to do,’ not really realizing that the chances were sort of one in a million for the timing of something like that to work out.”
After the summer ended, Jared returned to college but kept in touch with Bajakian and he knew for sure not only that he liked working with stories and entertainment, but that he wanted to work in games specifically. He looks back on the standing video games had at the time, and the sense that even though film was seen as the pinnacle, there was something in particular about games that was attractive.
“I think coming in to it at that time, film sort of had an image that was classier or somehow better than games in the public sphere. Games weren’t quite as big then as they are now, and though I always liked playing games growing up, I wasn’t the world’s biggest gamer. That experience with Clint kind of opened my eyes to all the possibilities of what you can do with music in games that is really different from writing to a linear medium. When you are writing interactive music, apart from it being really fun, you also end up thinking about it a lot more. You’re not just scoring directly to a picture, but there’s an infinite number of directions that the music can go at any time, so thinking about that as I was working was exciting to me. I realized that this was sort of my calling.”
Jared continued to talk to Bajakian, a relationship that eventually resulted in him being offered the chance to work for him full time. “He was trying to build his company a little at that time and I needed a job, so it just worked out and I started doing it. That was the beginning and it’s one of those stories that I hesitate to tell to young composers who contact me now because it’s so unusual that I don’t want to get people’s hopes up too much.”
Despite this, Jared thinks his experience is worth sharing, primarily because it encourages those hoping to work in the industry to be ready, no matter how competitive it has gotten as games have become more complex and more universally popular. “At the same time,” he continued, “it does and can happen, so when I do tell the story I use it as kind of a cautionary tale, where I say that even though it is unlikely, when it does happen you need to be ready for it. You shouldn’t have your hopes up, but you should always be ready for the moment you have that opportunity and just be ready to do the work that needs to be done.”