In an exclusive interview, the BAFTA award-nominated composer opens up about Telltale Game’s closure in September 2018, his process when writing music for games, and the impact that fans have on him.
When Telltale Games announced their ‘major studio closure’, Jared Emerson-Johnson was shocked. Despite spending a majority of his time working from his own studio, Bay Area Sound, the composer also worked alongside the video game developer on different projects.
During his average week, Jared reveals he would visit their headquarters on a weekly basis for meetings. But, everything changed for both himself and employees at Telltale Games towards the end of September.
“Suddenly there was this one meeting called. It wasn’t like we’re going to be winding down, it was just like 95% of you don’t have a job now,” he says. “It was pretty crazy and horrible. I don’t think any of us would have ever guessed that it would end the way it did.”
Following the meeting, Jared says his first thoughts were towards his friends and colleagues that were now out of work. “For all the people who were there, they were just coming in for a regular day at work,” he says.
While Jared thought it was sudden for everything “to have evaporated overnight”, he says it wasn’t a “complete surprise” for him. “We already knew there were some difficulties and there had already been the rounds of layoffs in the past year,” he says.
Considering the amount of work he was doing with Telltale from the beginning until the end, Jared says the news felt like “a real end of an era” for him.
“We were doing more and more work with Telltale because they kept growing and were making more. I would say 80% of my time was just working on Telltale stuff,” he says. “We had to figure out how we were going to make up for the time lost. We reached out to new clients at the time to make sure the news didn’t bring us down as well.”
Just before their closure, the Californian-based company was working on multiple projects. One of these included the finale of their most popular video game franchise, The Walking Dead – set in the same universe as Robert Kirkman’s comic of the same title.
However, despite the closure, the admired franchise was revived later in the year thanks to the publishing division Skybound Games – founded by David Alpert and Kirkman himself.
Following the official announcement, it was revealed that a team consisting of former employees at Telltale would complete the final two episodes of ‘The Walking Dead – The Final Season’. “Overall, its been a big year of transition,” Jared says.
With Skybound Games, Jared says he followed a similar regime to the one at Telltale in order to finish the game.
While some may think he works ahead of others, Jared says he works on his music at the same time as everyone else. “It was definitely in parallel. I was always working at the same pace as the writing and directing,” he says. “Having it all done ahead of time wouldn’t make sense because we might need to shift the plan on the fly which would mean more work.”
To stay on track, he discloses that during his regular meetings with the directors, they would break down a rough script of a scene or look at concept art to determine what sort of music could be used. Sometimes, the directors share their own ideas and other times they let Jared do whatever he felt was best.
“After doing this work for so long, I had a good handle of the music and the sort of instruments that we would use,” he says.
In terms of writing music for a particular scene, Jared says the process can be quite long and that he starts off by focusing on an emotion and building on it from there.
“I always tell young composers that are looking to get into this business is to just listen to a lot of other music,” he says. “Listening to a lot of different soundtracks can help you have a strong sense of what’s already out there and how you can create a different emotional feeling. It’s all about finding your own voice.”
‘The Chimes’, one of Jared’s most popular songs from ‘The Walking Dead – The Final Season’, followed this approach. This particular tune, which played during a scene involving zombies (known as ‘walkers’ in this universe) in a barn, gained a lot of attention from fans because of its unique meaning and sound.
“It’s the first and only time we ever pull back the curtain on even suggesting there might be something more to walkers,” he says. “We wanted the sound to be different from the other walker music we had but to also use the same instruments. I focused on sadness and almost like a childhood wonder so I included the chimes to reflect that.”
Thanks to the success of Jared’s work, Skybound announced in September 2019 that his BAFTA award-nominated soundtrack for the entire game series would be released for digital download and on exclusive vinyl records.
Jared reveals that he was delighted at the news because it was something he wanted to happen for a very long time. He says that in the past, the idea of creating a soundtrack was taken off the table completely but he continued to ask every year to see if anything had changed.
“When we were first talking to Skybound, it was one of the first things that was on my mind,” Jared says. “It’s something I’ve always been passionate about and whenever people reach out to me, they always ask why there isn’t an official soundtrack.” Eventually, Jared proposed the idea to Skybound and he says, “they were immediately enthusiastic”.
“I often say, if a game works great, but you never really notice the music, sometimes that’s the best thing in the world because you know the music is supporting it perfectly. It’s not just there to jump out and distract your attention,” he says. “That was one of the philosophies we followed in The Walking Dead, we didn’t want to leave too much with the music.”
Overall, Jared says the support of the fans has also helped him a lot over the years.
“It’s the best thing about doing this work. The whole point of everything we do is for the fans, the people playing the games,” he says. “I hope that everything I do is going to work and I hope that people notice it and appreciate that. It’s amazing when people do. It makes me grateful that I get to do this work.”
Jared says its encouraging when he receives feedback from fans, even when it can be critical. “It can be difficult to deconstruct what went wrong and see what didn’t land as well with the audience. It’s good to know the good and the bad because I think it makes you better.”
“It’s really useful to get that feedback; it’s the only way anyone can improve.”
What is your favourite video game of all time?
Jared: “Well lately it has been Breath of the Wild. That game is insane. I haven’t deeply fallen into a game like that in a really long time, mostly because I also just don’t have the time. The game just took over my life. I used to sneak little 15 minute bursts of it whenever I could but it’s great. I also loved Grim Fandango, I often gravitate towards older adventure games, that game was great too.”
What is your favourite video game that you have worked on?
Jared: “That’s an awesome question. It’s quite difficult. Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse was so much fun. I love that there’s something different about the comedy and there’s so much freedom in those games to do whatever with the music. It’s always ‘jazzy-ish’ but the boundaries are very wide whereas with a game like The Walking Dead, while it’s really fun, the sound is a more narrower sound because it works for the story.”
If you had to make a list of your three favourite Telltale Games characters, who would you pick?
Jared: “Well you have to pick Clementine, you just have to, all of the leads in Tales from the Borderlands were really fun and original characters, and of course Max from Sam & Max, a classic.”