Supergiant Games | Interview with Darren Korb

Darren Korb talks about working with Supergiant Games and composing music for indie games like Bastion, Transistor, and Hades.
July 10, 2020 1:29 PM by Henry Stenhouse

Supergiant Games’ indie releases have experimented with a wide range of gameplay genres, and accompanying each and everyone is a superb soundtrack produced by Darren Korb.

Partnered with Supergiant since their first release, Darren helped turn Supergiant into an award-winning studio through his immersive and experimental soundtrack to 2011 hit Bastion.

With each subsequent release, he’s tested himself with new genres and methods to meld soundtracks with gameplay.

Currently working with Supergiant on the continued development of early-access roguelike Hades, Darren kindly took some time out from his busy schedule to chat with us about how he approached composing for each of Supergiant’s catalogue, and the ways in which his work has changed for their most recent release.

Supergiant Games | Interview with Darren Korb 

© Supergiant Games

How did you go about making the compositions for each game with Supergiant so different? Did you come into it planning to make them different, or was that a reactive thing upon seeing the theme for the game?

Darren: I think for Transistor it was definitely both. And for the other games it was more just “what does this game say to me?” You know, Transistor had that too, but there I specifically wanted to make something very different to Bastion.

For me the most important factors in determining what kind of music a game should have are: What is the tone of the game? What does the game world feel like? What instruments would make sense in that game world for people to play or listen to? Or for the player to hear based on the game world?

In a way I’m trying to make the music diegetic to the game world. It may not be coming from the game world but it feels like it could be coming from that game world. If that makes sense. I’m trying to express the location and the place and the tone of the game by the instrument choices and the style of music.

Do you have a planning process you go through when you’re starting a new soundtrack from scratch?

Darren: Initially I’ll establish some theory about how I’m going to approach the soundtrack: What kind of instruments I’m planning to use based on the setting and tone of the game. What style of music I would like to attempt. Then I’ll start making pieces for different contexts.

We’ll start prototyping the game and I’ll make music for that prototype and I’ll see how I can incorporate it and what it feels like. And once I start making pieces, I then start considering how it might be implemented and the structure of the game.

For Hades, for example, it’s a pretty unique game structure for us; it’s very different from stuff we’ve done before.

So when you’re sorta traversing the underworld and going through chambers I have what we call biome music – that's the internal name for what we call this type of piece – which is a piece that will play and has three distinct sections. As you advance through chambers it will advance section over section.

So I have a synth pad pulsatic section with some percussion that’s the timid, sneaky section at the beginning and that’ll play for a chamber or two. And then you advance to the sort of mediterranean folk instrument arrangement which is full percussion but is not a drumset and is all acoustic for the most part.

And then we have that same arrangement again but with full, rocking boss fight music. So when you get to a boss or miniboss it’ll advance to the same climax section of that piece and should have the effect of amping it up quite a bit. So we settled on that and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

In addition to that we have stems that we can turn on and off. We have the drum stem, the bass stem, and the everything else stem. And basically what happens is in combat the drums turn on, out of combat they turn off. And in the beginning of each chamber we play some combination of just bass, or bass and the other stuff.

I tried just guitar and without the bass it didn’t feel good. So that kind of consideration is something that comes much later in the development, once you really have your structure nailed down and figure out ways to noodle and nuance the implementation.

With Hades specifically, Supergiant has been updating the game and releasing new levels over time. Are there any difficulties in composing game music on a shorter deadline as they release new floors and areas? How has your process changed?

Darren: It’s actually been a really nice change of pace for me. [Usually I’m] working on a soundtrack for three years and having no one hear it. And then it’s like welp, here you go! It’s a little more nerve wracking and it’s actually harder, I find, to keep pace and schedule it out.

For [Hades] we have a sort of built in schedule of when I wanna release the pieces. I have a really clear understanding of what the game structure is and as we add more to it I know that I’m gonna want to add more music here and there. So it’s actually been more clearly scoped out because of the nature of development. Well, it has to be, right? We can’t just break the game in the middle. It’s gotta work constantly.

It’s actually been really nice, and having the tracks come out as I make them is really fun. It’s a much more immediate gratification of hearing people react to the stuff in real time. Having a sense of people seem to dig this, maybe I can lean into that a little more or I can try something else - that’s been fun because it’s a pretty unique position to be in.

A lot of the time you can’t really respond to that stuff. It’s a finished thing and it’s out and people will like what they like and that’s that. But the way that we’re approaching it now, it really feels like the community is part of the process, at least to some degree.

We know it’s a hard question, but what’s been your favorite composition so far?

Darren: That’s pretty tough. That’s a tough question. I think, maybe just because it was some of the most fun I’ve had making a piece, I really enjoyed God of the Dead, which is like the ten minute boss fight music from Hades [laughs]. It was a ton of fun to make and it has a few distinct sections.

The first part is like a reiteration – but a much heavier, sort of severe reiteration – of the main theme of the game. And then, that happens and it matches up with the first phase – it’s a two phase boss fight, spoilers, sorry if you haven’t played it yet. So it’s a two phase and that matches up with the first phase, and then when the first phase is over there’s an ominous pad that plays until the next section begins, and then it’s full-on speed metal and punk.

It’s like Oh dang! It really ratchets up as much as I could ratchet it up. I’m not like a metal dude but I’ve been trying to lean into that for this game and it’s like how fast can I play this riff and still make it sound decent? And then I dialled it back like ten percent because that’s how fast it should be, y’know? Balls to the wall, full out as much as possible - it was a ton of fun to make.

We’d like to thank Darren Korb for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions!

Give him a follow on Twitter to catch more of his work and idle thoughts, and be sure to check out Hades (or Supergiant’s other titles) on Steam or alternative platforms like the Epic Games Store