How El Paso, Elsewhere Mixes Hip Hop and Max Payne

Times have changed for indie developers. Many have been given access to licenses and franchises that they’d never dream to even touch even a few years ago. We’ve seen remakes by small indie teams as well as fan games being adopted as part of a main series. It is now definitely possible for a young developer to imagine having access to their dream: making a sequel to a game that meant so much to them growing up. But naturally, with that possibility comes a lot of pressure and potentially crippling self doubt. Could they ever be capable of doing that dream justice? Ultra prolific indie developer Xalavier Nelson Jr. has successfully dealt with that impostor syndrome. Seemingly, for good.

Under his development label, Strange Scaffold, Nelson has been promoting his next project: a third-person neo-noir shooter, very much inspired by classic 90s action the likes of Max Payne and Die Hard Trilogy. El Paso, Everywhere is shaping up to be exactly the dream game that its creator originally imagined. Still, while the Max Payne comparison might come easily looking at the gameplay and screenshots, there is much more at stake for Xalavier Nelson Jr.

Not only is he voicing the main character, but also fusing ideas about the balance of powers within unfair systems with the game’s narrative and mechanics. Protagonist James Savage will literally be going through hell and back in order to stop his ex-girlfriend from destroying the entire world, as the only person capable of doing so, years after their abusive relationship came to an end. To make matters worse, James’ ex is none other than the Lord of the Vampires herself, which might make the trip to go see her a little more complicated than first envisaged.

Blending Genres

When the first gameplay trailer for El Paso, Elsewhere dropped, it definitely caught many of us by surprise, since it featured something quite unexpected: an aggressive hip-hop song, with Xalavier Nelson Jr. himself dropping lyrics behind the mic. Clearly, that was no fluke. Nelson and composer RJ Lake wrote the entire soundtrack themselves. The game includes a whole album worth of exclusive original music. And it will not simply be an average collection of hip-hop tracks, but an entire concept album which will give to the player new insight into the world of the game.

RJ Lake and Xalavier Nelson talk about it enthusiastically, mentioning how the whole process happened almost by accident. “We were starting to think about the music for El Paso, and I was going for this kind of mid 90s industrial/noise electronica. But then the more we listened to it, the more we thought about doing something else entirely,” mentioned the composer to Guide Fall. In the beginning, those early electronic tracks sounded so late 1990s that Xalavier pointed out it sounded just like the soundtrack to The Matrix.

Establishing the Groove

However, as the creators went back to the drawing board, they realized the gap between the tracks inspiring them and their early attempts was a lack of vocals. The composer repurposed these early works and Nelson decided to try and do some rapping over them, and they ended up liking the hip hop vibe so much that, as Nelson put it, they soon came to an epiphany. “We realized… oh man we’re going to make a whole rap album, aren’t we?”

After deciding to create an original album for the game, RJ and Xalavier began discussing how to go about composing the other tracks. They mentioned reaching out to unique voices in the hip-hop genre like Killer Mike (from Run the Jewels). But, in the end, they decided against it, especially as Nelson felt his confidence grew while continuing to lay down vocals for the album. His research in preparing for this entirely new experience has been a deep dive into hip-hop history, from N.W.A. and Wu-Tang Clan to Kendrick Lamar and, obviously, Run the Jewels. “I feel like the music is going to elevate the whole game experience to what it should have been from day one,” Nelson said.

RJ has experience in producing rap and hip-hop albums and Nelson has already contributed vocals and wrote songs for other games, but this is still an entirely new experience for both of them. “We are squeezing out an album alongside the already challenging development cycle of a game. In researching, I learned that many of those classic hip-hop albums took months or even years to produce, but we don’t have that kind of time. … Honestly, if a version of myself went back in time and told past-me that we would be doing this, I’d do my best to try and stop it!”

Tying Music Into Action

How is the music related to the story of El Paso, Elsewhere? Lyrically, Nelson decided to not feature any songs from the point of view of any of the in-game characters nor go the route of lyrics about his own demons, Kanye West-style. Instead, the songs will play as a collection of stories, a horror anthology which builds on the atmosphere of the in-game world. The developer briefly mentions stories of haunted whaling towns and underground fighting rings run by billionaires, with more tales to come.

The project is still very much a work in progress, a journey that leads to new discoveries every day. So much so that at one point during our interview, Xalavier suddenly stops in his tracks and mentions: “What about a Frank Sinatra showtune?” His composer RJ seems already on board with the process. How will they fit a Sinatra showtune together with a hip-hop album? That’s not entirely clear, but if there’s someone who can make it work, it would clearly be them. Promoting the album is also something they’re thinking about, perhaps by releasing a single on Spotify before the game goes live. Xalavier has also decided on his rap name, but, “Terrifyingly, I will be announcing it at a later date.”

Nelson has already related how his experience as a Black creator used to be a huge obstacle towards even thinking about doing something that resembled his “dream game.” But over time, not only has he told that internal voice to shove off, but this new hip-hop album experience seems to be an even greater step to gain a newfound confidence as a creator. “The first time we recorded, I felt that I wasn’t really owning the mic. That’s still not something I’m comfortable doing. But, over time, I realized I could own the stories we were telling, and that’s gone on to transform every song we’ve made together.”

Raze The Roof

El Paso, Elsewhere sounds like it has already changed the lives of the people who worked on it. Xalavier and RJ mention how this new process of working closely on music and vocals together will definitely come back in their future projects. Beyond that, Nelson has found new pieces of his voice, both behind the mic and in front of it, with his objective to make games that, along with being unique, also benefit the industry as well. As he also told me in a recent interview, he’s through making games for cowards. El Paso, Elsewhere will definitely see the player confronting these demons once and for all, and hopefully, will change the lives of the people who experience it as well.

El Paso, Elsewhere is planned for release in early 2023.