The Holistic Master of Video Game Music: An Interview with Darren Korb

The Audio Director of Supergiant Games talks Bastion, Transistor and Pyre’s music composition.

When Darren Korb was attending New York University, he never thought that he’d end up merging his two passions in one full time dream job: composing music for video games. But when his buddy from way back in the day, Amir Rao, came to him with the idea of Bastion in his mind and a soundtrack that didn’t yet exist, he took his biggest leap of faith.

Creator of the original soundtracks for Bastion, Transistor and Pyre, and Audio Director at independent studio Supergiant Games, Darren Korb engaged in a long conversation with The Indie Game Website about his inspirations, his gaming background and the unique approach he and his team have when designing music for video games.

TIGW: You studied at New York University. Were you aiming to make music for video games at that point? How did it all start?

DK: I grew up loving and playing video games and music, but I never really put two and two together that that could be a job I could have. I started singing when I was a little kid, and then learning guitar around eleven. I began writing music and playing in bands in middle-school, and in highschool I got into multi-track recording and learning around music production. So when I got to college I was in one of those “choose your own major” kind of things, so I sort of studied music business and production and some other stuff. So really the production aspect of recording is what’s exciting to me, and it stimulates the right parts of my brain because it’s a sort of a creative process that has a technical component to it, so I feel fully stimulated doing music production.

So my background is of a songwriter and a sound engineer/producer mainly. I hadn’t had a lot of experience as a composer coming into Bastion. Basically the way I ended up getting into it was that my buddy, Amir Rao, was co-founding Supergiant Games. We had worked together creatively in the past, we’ve known each other since we were 8 years old, and he just had faith that I could do it. When he asked me I was like “Of course I want to do it, that totally makes sense with something I’d like to do!”.

TIGW: You’re a gamer, you’ve talked about video games a lot in other interviews. When you played video games back in the day, did you think that music was an important factor of  those games at that time?

DK: Yeah, absolutely. All the way back to games like Marble Madness and Contra, and old NES games that I loved. Those are still some of my favourite soundtracks and they made a really big impression on me. Even games like Dungeon Keeper and stuff like Fallout and Diablo. They had really compelling soundtracks. Dungeon Keeper had like a weird half-sound design, half industrial music, creepy score that incorporated sound design, it was really interesting, really atmospheric. Definitely those things made an impression on me.

TIGW: What kind of music did you listen to at that time of your life?

DK: I never really listened to game music out of the context of the games except for maybe a couple like Dungeon Keeper and Marble Madness. My favourite band was, and probably still is, They Might Be Giants. I also loved the first couple of Weezer albums and Ozma. I also was into Björk and Imogen Heap, she’s amazing. Radiohead for a long time, that’s a big influence for sure. A couple of albums by Nada Surf also.

TIGW: Could you identify any of those influences on the soundtracks that you created for Bastion, Transistor and Pyre?

DK: Definitely. A couple of influences I didn’t name are Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Jeff Buckley. And in Bastion in particular there’s definitely some acoustic, bluesy Led Zeppelin and Robert Johnson. The open music, pentatonic stuff. There’s some more interesting dissonant Jeff Buckley elements. Usually I’ll start with a tonal goal, how I want the music to feel, and what the vibe is gonna be, and I’ll look at music that I like that’s not related to games that have those characteristics and those feelings. Inevitably they kind of get blended up and twisted around with my own spin on that stuff. I try to take components from a lot of different places and mash them up against each other and have that contrast between different elements create some tension. That’s always exciting for me.

TIGW: Could you give us some details on the process of composing for a new video game? Do you get a version of the game without any music to work from there or do you get some kind of script, how does that work?

DK: I’m involved with the projects from the very beginning because I’m part of the development team and I have access to the whole idea and high level concepts about the game. I’m composing music during the entire process. For Bastion one of the things I had to go on was that very first idea of an action RPG where you kind of build the world around you. One of the high level thoughts about that was an RPG where you can see the sky, and in an isometric game you never see the sky. So what if we could do that? Another thought was, tonally, what if Cormac McCarthy made a fantasy video game? That’s one of the things I really ran with tonally to start to experiment with music at the beginning. And I just went on to try to interpret that musically. Pretty much everything I composed made it in the final version of the game. Maybe the second or third thing I composed was “In case of trouble”, which is sort of the theme music of the Bastion, which sort of represents the tone of that game.

TIGW: What changed in that process for the creation of Transistor’s and Pyre’s soundtracks?

DK: Well that part of the process is the same. The way I sort of start experimenting based on some sort of ideas that we have, as in tonal objectives. As the game progresses there’s stuff to play, and that’ll influence what I’m making, and there’s art to look at too. That’s been kind of the same on each project. One of the main differences for me between the games is how interactive the music is and what we intended to do with dynamic interactivity. So in Bastion we didn’t have the technology to do that with the audio tools that we were using, so we just had a stereo track that would play and we could loop it or stop it. In Transistor we tried to do some fanciness. Each piece had some stems that would allow us to turn the drums or the vocals on and off, that sort of state base thing when you go into turn mode, and then you’d have this sort of low pass filter on the music and then an ethereal vocal comes in, the humming parts and all that stuff. We couldn’t have done that on Bastion with the tools that we had. On Pyre we tried to push even further on the reactivity of the music so there’s tons of stems that are firing depending on the state of the game you’re in. I’d say that the complexity of the implementation has changed a little bit and that leads of course to different composing challenges. When you have tons of stems that the player can hear at any given time you have to have something happening at each stem constantly. So I might use these tools to build a piece up and break it back down and have it change and move, and then add and remove elements as the piece goes on. That’s a very simple way of doing that, but I didn’t have that tool on Pyre because you can’t really take any parts out all the time because the player is going to create that cadence by himself when they play. That’s all generated by the player. It was definitely a compositional challenge. That was probably one of the biggest changes between the games in terms on how I compose the music.

TIGW: What place do you think Supergiant Games occupies in the indie game industry?

DK: It’s hard to know. There’s so much happening these days in independent games. There’s so many games released every year, and so many great ones. It’s really incredible. When we came out with Bastion there were fewer companies in the space that we were in. Fewer games had the team size and quality that we were shooting for: a polished audiovisual presentation of a small independent game. There’s a lot of games in that space now. I think we’ve been doing it for a while, relative to a lot of companies in this space, but other than that I think there’s all sorts of awesome stuff now. Even when we began we were inspired by other companies doing the same kind of thing, making awesome games with small teams. Castle Crashers, Limbo and that stuff. I think it’s a tough question to answer. Consciously or subconsciously at least we’re trying to just do our thing as well as we can and hope that enables us to keep doing it: sell enough copies of a game to make another game. To keep doing this is the objective for us.

TIGW: Why do you think that the soundtracks you’ve created have been so well received by players? What makes the work you’ve done for Bastion, Transistor and Pyre special for the gamers?

DK: I think a lot of it is the sort of holistic approach we take to the games development that includes music as an integral component and looks at the audio of the game as being equally important to, say, the art, the design or the story, and not being something that you just wedge in after everything else is done. I think it provides an opportunity for us to have a sort of integral feeling to every component of the game, not just the art or the gameplay. It’s the view that music and audio in general is as essential to the game experience as all the other components. I think just making a game with that mindset give you an opportunity to really enrich it as much as possible from an audio standpoint.

TIGW: What was the thought process behind the decision of making Transistor and Pyre’s soundtracks available for free on Youtube and why didn’t that happen with Bastion?

DK: After seeing the unexpected response to the music for Bastion and how the demand for the soundtrack was instant, and we didn’t expect that, I was like “I’d better put that out!”. So we reacted as quickly as we could but the reason we started putting it up on Youtube was just because someone else is going to do it if we don’t, so we might as well do it to make sure it’s a high quality, official version of the thing. That’s what we started doing with Transistor, to make sure that. We decided not to run ads on our music because we see it like an extension of the game and if people become excited about the game by listening to the music then that’s achieved its goal. With Bastion we didn’t know, and we didn’t do it afterwards because the person that had done it already had millions of views. He was very nice and he put some links to the store and stuff in his description. So we just left that alone. We’re OK with it. We started doing it ourselves afterwards to attract people to our channel. Get people engaged with us directly.

TIGW: Bastion, Transistor and Pyre have soundtracks that involve vocals. Not every game does that. Why did you choose to involve sung pieces in all three?

DK: The reason why we do it is because of my background as a songwriter. Honestly, it’s because it’s something that I felt confident that I could do and execute, and it was something that I enjoyed when other games did. I thought that maybe we could do something different with it. At the time, when we were with Bastion, I thought “What if we do something more earnest and emotional to try and heighten the emotional experience of playing a game?”. I knew I wanted to do a vocal piece and originally I thought just of the end credits, I didn’t really know how we’d do it. I was happy that we ended up incorporating multiple vocal pieces into Bastion. I think it’s one of the tools that we had to enhance emotional moments of the game. We had a very little budget and part of the decision to do that was that it was something we had access to because of my background as a songwriter and my friend Ashley as a singer. It’s kind of the same reason why we decided to have narration in the game. Because Logan Cunningham was my roommate and good friend. We were trying to figure out how to convey narrative without stopping the action of the game. We thought “Hey let’s try some narration, Logan’s awesome at it, let’s get him to read some lines and see how that feels”. A lot of the decisions we made on Bastion and a lot of decisions we continue to make are like that, because we are a small company with limited resources, we want to maximize the impact of those resources. We want to really lean in to the things that our abilities on the team allow us to do.

TIGW: Where would you like your career to go from now? Are you working on any projects that we could talk about?

DK: I’m not doing anything else in games right now, I’m working full time for Supergiant Games. I did something for fun for the Tooth and Tail soundtrack, and I have a project that’s like a rock band that I play with. We went in September and recorded an EP, called Control Group. It’s kind of a garage rock trio. We’re looking to release that EP pretty soon. That’s my main side project.

TIGW: Which would be your biggest goal in composing music for video games?

DK: My dream is to just continue doing what I’m doing with Supergiant Games indefinitely. That’s the dream: just to not have to stop.

TIGW: But is there like an ideal game you’d like to compose for?

DK: The only sort of ambition I have around that stuff is sort of merging a little more the two worlds in which I sort of live in. I really enjoy playing rock music in a sort of garage style, that’s what I grew up doing. Maybe someday it would be cool to have a game where that kind of music would be more appropriate to merge my passions. But I really have a blast at Supergiant. I realize that it’s sort of a unicorn in terms of the uniqueness of the position and the fact that I’m able to be a full time audio person for a small game company. That’s not a thing that a lot of people can say that they do. I feel very lucky to do that. I love what I do and I just want to keep doing it.

TIGW: After the release of Pyre, which are the plans regarding new ideas for games?

DK: The plan is that we’re definitely going to stick together and keep making games. That’s the most important thing for me. We play it pretty close to the chest to talk about that stuff until the time is right. What I can say is that we’re sticking together as a team and making more games.

TIGW: What are you playing right now, as a gamer?

DK: I just started Into the Breach, it’s really cool and hard, but I enjoy it. I loved Octogeddon, I played the heck out of that.

Where do you think indie gaming is right now as an industry?

DK: I think it’s hard to tell. One thing that I’ve noticed as a change in the space since we came out with Bastion is that there’s a lot more stuff now. Tons of people are buying games and playing them and it’s a very flourishing industry, but there’s a lot of competition and it’s hard to make a splash. There’s so much, people have so many choices with so many great games coming out all the time. On the one hand that’s awesome because there’s a lot of incredible stuff. On the other hand it probably makes it tougher for a studio starting out to break through and you need to have a lightning in a bottle situation these days to have something that becomes a big success. I think something similar happened a while back with music, when anyone could be on iTunes and you’re just as available to the world as Jay Z or The Beatles. You’re in the same store with everybody. Anybody could make music in their bedrooms, so I think something similar has happened with indie games. People can make spectacular things in a short time span like never before, so it really is incredible to see the work some people are doing, but on the other hand it’s a little terrifying.

Stay tuned for more discussion about music in indie games in upcoming features.