Jedi Outcast, or, Why Licensed Music Isn’t Always a Good Idea

by James M. Potter

Jedi Outcast (or to give it its full, ponderous title, Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast) is enjoying a little nostalgic attention this week, with the sad news that publisher LucasArts is closing its doors, causing magnanimous developers Raven to release the source code for the game. People have been rightly praising how much Raven got right with JK2 – the lightsaber combat was satisfying (not an easy thing to achieve), the level design was pretty good, and the storyline didn’t jump the shark. Being a product of that golden sequence of Quake III-engine games, it was endlessly mod-able to boot. I and many others were tinkering with it for a long time after it came out (and with the source code now floating around, it might be here a while longer). It wasn’t perfect though, and what this week’s news also reminded me of was one of the first things I did to the game when I got my hands on Pakscape – I changed the music. 

I’ve discussed before the various challenges inherent in scoring a Star Wars game. Few people would expect the budget of a 2002 game to make a great deal of room for someone to write a long score in the style of John Williams, rich in motifs and melody. LucasArts, as they often did, kept the audio development in-house, but unlike the following year’s Knights of the Old Republic (for which they commissioned an original score from Jeremy Soule), they elected in JK2 to edit together chunks of Williams’ movie soundtracks.

The result is rather awkward. The post-Romantic ebb and flow of Williams’ score, carefully tailored to the screen action of the films, is quite often disjunct with the game. It’s quite rare that you get a felicitous moment where a recognisable snippet of the classic soundtrack coincides with you doing something appropriate. The minute-to-minute emotional highs and lows of the movie score don’t match the longer spans of action and inactive puzzle-solving of the game – and, unlike KOTORthe music doesn’t adaptively respond when you enter a fight. The music for the Yavin section of the game, a largely combat-free training environment, uses the glorious ‘two sunsets’ moment from A New Hope, within the first minuteIt’s emotionally incongruous and rather draws attention to itself. The use of the Force Theme might be appropriate for a part of the game in which you learn to use the Force, but Williams’ system of motifs doesn’t make a great deal of sense without a systematic framework.

Of course, it may well have been a budgetary decision. Editing together preexisting music was certainly thrifty, and I’m thankful that gameplay got the resources it needed. My point is that whatever you gain from the authentically ‘Star Wars-y’ experience of having Williams’ music accompany you as you cut down swathes of stormtroopers with a lightsaber, you lose the immediacy and urgency of a score properly tied to the game’s action. One might argue that without Williams, you would feel like you were merely cutting down swathes of generic white-helmeted goons with a laser sword, as if you were playing some piece of knock-off merchandise. But that’s to do the visuals a disservice, and Jeremy Soule’s work shows that it is possible to communicate the atmosphere of Star Wars in an original score.

Despite all this it’s a great game, and it’s well worth the £6.99 on Steam. And I’m not against the use of licensed music per se. To take just a couple of examples: the Grand Theft Auto series relies on it for the pungent sense of setting that characterises the franchise. So does Civilization IV, using a very well-chosen set of pieces to illustrate all the ages of the game, from plainsong to contemporary minimalism (whilst also nabbing a Grammy for its theme song). Amongst many other things, though, Jedi Outcast is a lesson in why licensed music, even from the same franchise, isn’t always a good idea.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what I changed the music to – I tried several things. One that worked particularly well was a Karajan recording of ‘Mars’ from The Planets. I’m not sure why it worked, but it might have been because that was one of the pieces that directly influenced John Williams when he sat down to score A New Hope. I think he even quotes it somewhere. It has all the right ingredients for a space opera: it’s utterly redolent of majesty, mystery, and the martial.