Bastion and Transistor are complicated games with emotional depth. Supergiant Games’ latest, Pyre, follows its predecessors—this time with a focus on existential questions of freedom, religion and dogs with mustaches. Accompanying the games are equally as complex and gorgeously arranged music by composer Darren Korb.
As the audio director and composer for the now eight year old company, Korb has covered a wide range of musical styles which helped shape the identities of all of Supergiant Games’ efforts.
The studio’s first game Bastion is defined by its fantasy and Wild West aesthetics and narrative tone, with a musical journey which incorporated folksy guitar twangs and trippiness in one of 2011’s best soundtracks. 2014’s Transistor is an action RPG with a fantastic Operatic quality thanks in part to its protagonist, Red, and a soundtrack that’s layers of synth and electronic sounds to match the sci-fi elements of its world, Cloudbank.
Pyre, a game with a huge cast of characters inhabiting Supergiant Games’ biggest world yet, is Korb’s most diverse soundtrack to date. The game is an eclectic mix of fantasy RPG adventure, sports, and visual novel. In an e-mail exchange with him, I was able to find out some more about the creation of the thoughtful music of Pyre’s world, The Downside, as well as his favorite character composition. We also discussed which games and music he’s into these days, and more.
But first he gave some insight into his creative process. He says, “When composing, I almost always begin with a tonal direction and a goal for the ‘feel’ of the piece. I’ll often start with a guitar part or a drum pattern that I find compelling and build from there. An important part of this process for me is selecting the musical palate for a given piece, and building a connection between the instruments I choose and the character/area of the game world.”
With Pyre, Korb found that he had to take a different approach. This presented a challenge as he explains, “For Pyre, the biggest difference in process from the previous games, and also the biggest challenge, was composing for stem-based implementation. Basically, most of the pieces in the game have between five to eight tracks that can plan in almost any combination based on player actions (guitar, bass, percussion, mandolins, etc). The challenge here was to create compelling arcs to each piece without the ability to use the musical arrangement to help me do that. In other words, I couldn’t add or take away components from the piece at will as a compositional tool, since that’s happening dynamically in the game!”
This all seems to be a part of a growing process which stemmed from his work on his first game Bastion, as he says, “...that was my first time composing for a game, so the challenges on that project were mostly ‘learning curve’ related.” Whereas for Supergiant Games’ second effort Transistor, he notes “I’d say my main challenge was finding the initial tonal direction for the music when we began work on the project. It took me months of experimentation to find a sound I was happy with that felt unique to the world of Transistor.”
With each of the three games’ tonally different styles reflected in gameplay and worlds, Korb agrees that Pyre is the most diverse. The game’s music has a searing rock quality to some of its tracks, with bard ballads for others including a beautiful one that plays whenever players face off for freedom in the games’ Rites. As Pyre pulls from various genres—visual novel, sports, RPG—as well as deals with various themes such as freedom, societal hierarchy, and is steeped in religious ideals and overtones, I wondered if rock was always the musical direction he wanted to take to translate the game’s complex topics.
As it turns out, it took a while to settle on a particular direction. He says, “Finding the definitive sound of the game took me a while. Originally, I was leaning more occult/gothic/ceremonial, which is still present in some of the music you hear during the Rites themselves, but particularly for all the music you hear during the Blackwagon travel and interior moments, I knew a bardic acoustic rock feel was what I was after. As far as translating various themes into sound, I tend to focus on the feeling we are trying to convey with a particular character or moment and that is usually enough to carry the theme through.”
In Pyre, there’s a focus on character compositions that speak to the personalities of its wonderful, large cast. One of my favorite themes is “Grand Ceremony” for the character Manley Tinderstauf, who isn’t a favorite of mine. So stately is Tinderstauf’s theme, however, that it’s hard not to appreciate how perfect his theme matches his boastful personality. All of Pyre’s characters receive this tailored treatment with compositions that speak volumes for their respective personalities.
Due to Pyre’s detailed writing which fleshes out their characters, Korb didn’t have much trouble creating a composition for each, except maybe initial difficulties with a particular pair. “Oddly enough the character themes came to me more quickly than anything else. Their personalities were so clearly defined that I had a pretty good idea about what to do for each character right from the start. That being said, I think Dalbert and Almer were a little tougher to get started on,” he recalls. As to his favorite to compose for, that honor goes to The Downside’s resident anarchist. “I think Barker and the Dissidents were maybe the most fun to write for. I came up with Thrash Pack really quickly and had a blast recording it!”
For a couple of characters, their roles were always in the stars. Long time collaborator and the female vocalist behind many of the games’ celebrated songs, Ashley Barrett, plays a key character in Pyre along with Korb. As Celeste The Gatekeeper, and Tariq The Lone Minstrel, respectively, their roles are integral to the overall narrative. Also, as Korb agreed, when you have Ashley Barrett as a talented vocalist on board, every opportunity to include her vocal prowess into a game is one that should be taken. “Definitely! We knew we wanted to have characters for which Ashley and myself could provide the singing. The sort of opposed bards thing seemed like a great opportunity for that.”
Recently, Korb and Barrett performed songs found across all the games at MAGFest. Picking a setlist from his extensive game catalog is thought out carefully, as he explains, “When coming up with the set list, I tried to choose songs that would translate to a spare acoustic arrangement, and that would feature the vocals. Most of these tunes were written on a guitar, so the core of the piece is still there. We ended up playing about 10 songs from across all three games!”
And of the three games, which was his favorite to compose for? It’s the latest which helped his growing process further from his days composing for Bastion. He muses, “Pyre may have been my favorite to compose for. Since the tonal range of Pyre is quite a bit wider than the previous games, it really allowed me a lot of creative freedom. The diversity of the pieces I made for Pyre really helped to improved my creative stamina, I think.”
Although Bastion was the first video game Korb composed for, music was in his blood from a young age. He recalls, “When I was about 5 years old I started performing in musical theater and I did that all the way through high school. At around 11 I started playing guitar and playing in bands. I started writing around that time as well. In high school I became interested in recording and continued to pursue that through college. Game were always another passion in my life, but they existed separately for me. I never really imagined that I could make music for games as my job, but Amir Rao (longtime buddy of mine and Supergiant co-founder) asked me to come on board doing music and sound for his new company in 2009. That’s how I made the jump to games.”
Working for Supergiant Games, while not much different in certain aspects from his previous work on television, film and being a member of the band, Control Group, has one key difference. “Much of my process is the same as it’s always been. I’ll start with a tonal direction and experiment with tempos, riffs, loops, etc. until I find a way forward and go from there. Having written a lot more music now then I had when I started with Supergiant, one thing I’ve learned to do is to be less precious with each new idea. I’ve learned to be a bit more free in the initial stages of the process, whereas before, I tended to self-edit as I was coming up with ideas.”
As busy as Korb has been with Pyre’s recent release and critical success, including attendance at PAX, he still finds time for his other passion—and that’s not just making outstanding music for games but playing games as well. Lately he’s been catching up on one of this year’s biggest releases while spending time with an old favorite.
“I’m finishing up Breath of the Wild right now. That’s been fantastic. As always, I’m playing Hearthstone. The new expansion is really cool,” he says. He’s also been listening to music too, and so if anyone’s looking for a recommendation, maybe try these: “Hmm...the new Grizzly Bear record is really groovy. I’m liking the new Phoenix record fine, but not as much as their last couple. Not sure if this counts as new, but the Sgt. Pepper’s remix album is pretty amazing!”
As a final question, I really wanted to know which game series Korb would like to compose for if given the chance. “Hmm… that’s a tough one. If there were to be a new isometric Fallout game (like 1 and 2), maybe it’d be cool to score that? I love Mark Morgan’s scores for those first two games. They also happen to be a couple of my favorite games.”
With Bastion’s, Transistor’s, and Pyre’s scores being as emotionally-driven and layered as they are, I’m pretty sure Korb could put his unique twist on anything and it’d be just brilliant.