Simply put, music is magic. Music can be anything you want it to be, relaxing, motivational, liberating, etc. Similarly, video games can achieve these feats and then some. Consequently, music and gaming go hand in hand, and video game soundtracks are just as important to the overall experience of the game as gameplay.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Darren Korb, the composer for Supergiant Games responsible for the award winning scores of both Bastion and Transistor. These are two of the best scores in games, ever. In our interview, Korb and I talk about how he got started composing, his unique style of music, composing for games, and more.
How did you get into composing?
“I started doing some composing because my brother is a filmmaker, and since I was a musician, I ended up having an opportunity to write for something my brother was working on. This was my first experience composing. I hooked up with SuperGiant because my good friend Amir Rao is one of the co-founders of SuperGiant and when he was starting the company he asked me to do all the music and the composing and I said yes.”
How do you compose to the unique settings that Supergiant creates?
“My goal was to try to create music that would not remind you too specifically of anything else that you’ve heard. My thoughts were that if your thinking of something you’ve already heard, you’re not immersed in this new place we’re trying to take you to. Part of the idea was to create something unfamiliar, yet have some familiar ingredients to make it both relatable and understandable.”
You call Bastion’s score “Acoustic Frontier Triphop”. Could you elaborate on the definition of that genre?
“Essentially, I made a constraint for myself that would sort of tie all of the music together, and I figured if I made all the music within a genre, it would accomplish that. Each part of that represents the musical element of the game. There are acoustic elements to ground it, and this weird kinda triphop rythym section to give it a little bit of a modern spin, and then the frontier aspect of it is represented by both the guitar as well as some exotic instruments that are not familiar to American ears.”
How would you describe the genre that you used in Transistor?
“It was a little more challenging for me to find the center for this game, but what I eventually came up with was something like old world electronic post rock.”
Do you think that game music has positively evolved over time?
“I mean I think that the medium has come a long way technologically and there have been a lot of new things done with music in terms of implementation. Is it inherently better, I don’t know. It’s how you use the tools available to you to create music that matters.”
Do you think that certain audio technology has inhibited game music?
“Well, yes and no. Orchestrally, I kind of try to stay away from recreating strings because I don’t think you can do those convincingly without actual instruments. For me, a lot of it is the suspension of disbelief. In a game, for me at least, you want to be immersed, and anything that distracts you from that takes away from the experience as a whole, and works against that immersion.”
I noticed that in your soundtracks, the use of vocals is limited. Why is this?
“Part of it is the way that we have done our storytelling in the games so far, it is in voiceover. Having someone talk to you at the same time as a song with vocals and lyrics playing in the background can be quite distracting, I think. You have a balance the songs with vocals with the voice acting delivering important bits of story. Since vocal pieces demand more attention from listeners, we have to find the right spots to put them in. Where it’s appropriate, I like to have vocal pieces, but finding spots for them can be pretty tricky.”
Do you do a lot of the instrumentation in your soundtracks yourself?
“Yeah. It’s either me playing the instrument or loops or samples, basically. And I provide the male vocals alongside Ashley Barratt in the vocal pieces. The first instrument I learned how to play was guitar, and to this day I’m most proficient with it. Consequently, stringed instruments come fairly easy to me, so it wasn’t too hard to pick up something like a banjo and figure out some chord shapes.”
Do you have a certain place where you’re inspired the most?
“The most consistent place for me to get struck with inspiration is actually just sitting there working. I’ll be experimenting with my guitar and sort of hear something that sparks and idea. Sometimes, I’ll start with a feel or tempo in mind and experiment from there.”
Did your soundtracks evolve as the games evolved?
“Absolutely! I was making music in tandem with the development of each game. In the beginning of the project there was not a ton of gameplay, there was only rough ideas for setting, and tone and theme. As such, I ran with that for a while and did what I could do, musically. Then, I would go see where the development was, and that would influence any changes, or the next thing that I would write, and it kind of went on like that. I was very cyclical and symbiotic.”
What are your thoughts on gaming as an art form?
“I think gaming is absolutely a viable art form. It’s an interactive medium, that’s totally it’s own thing. I think it’s a really interesting art form with a lot of potential to do some crazy stuff. I think we’re just beginning to see some of the interesting things that gaming is capable of; the emotional depths and thought provoking experiences. If you can invoke emotion within a person sitting behind a screen, than you’ve accomplished something not a lot of other things can.”
What are your thoughts on indie games?
“I feel like indie games can take more risks because a businessman doesn’t have to sign off on your idea. A businessman would want something that’s proven to make money, like a shooter. Artists want to make something that hasn’t been made, and the people with the money only want something that has been made. When you take the backers out of the equation, studios can make things that they are compelled to make.”
Do you have any musical influences?
“Since I don’t have a strong background in traditional composing, my musical influences are the bands I love and listened to growing up. People like The Beatles, Jeff Buckley and Led Zeppelin and Radiohead are more directly inspirational to me.”
Do you take inspiration from other video game soundtracks?
“Yeah, definitely! Something I look at extensively is the way in which things are implemented, as well as the idea to put songs with vocals in games. Games such as Portal and Plants vs. Zombies had songs with vocals in the end, whereas I wanted to implement them into the story. As far as style of music goes, I deliberately try not to cop too much from other games, because I’m trying to create something that people haven’t heard before.”
Were you involved in the development of Bastion and Transistor outside of being their composer?
“I certainly played the games all the time and provided invaluable feedback throughout the whole development process. From the very beginning, I was playing the prototypes on a regular basis, so I definitely feel as if I contributed in some other ways to the games. With such a small team, everyone has a strong voice within the team and comments, ideas and notes are taken into account.”
How many people were on the teams behind both Bastion and Transistor?
“For Bastion, we had 7 people. On Transistor, we were up to 12 people.”
What’s the current status of Supergiant Games?
“We’re sort of recuperating from Transistor and getting some things in order. I don’t think we have anything specific in mind for the future, so it’s safe to say we’re between projects at the moment.”
“Fallout 2, Dungeon Keeper, and a lot of iPad Card Games, such as Soul Forge. Also, I’ve been playing a lot of Payday 2 with some friends.”
Do you have your own musical group outside of composing?
“I do actually! I’m in a group called Control Group and we’re kind of a 90’s garage rock three-piece guitar, bass and drums band. It’s a lot of fun!”