Interview: Darren Korb
The fact that people responded well to the voiceover, and the characterisations of everybody, and the fact that people gravitated towards all of the characters – seriously, it seems like every single character has fan art or is somebody’s favourite character – was really cool. The deep connection that people had made with these characters over the course of spending so much time with the game was exciting to see.
In terms of escapist gaming, we’d hardly have thought that a Groundhog Day-esque tale of repeatedly attempting to escape from actual hell only to end up back right where we started was quite the antidote to 2020 we needed but then Hades happened and somehow it just kind of clicked with everyone’s weary psyches. It has since gone on to win over 100 awards, with everyone from IGN to The Guardian praising its gameplay, writing and, more importantly for us, its soundtrack. Composed by Supergiant Games’ audio director Darren Korb, these songs capture the spirit of Hades’ mythological origins in ways that are fanciful, beautiful and often undeniably metal, so to heap more praise on his mountain of successes David Bowes caught up with Korb to discuss the project’s genesis, the demands of his role and the recent orchestral rework of his compositions, Songs Of Supergiant Games.
E&D: How are you getting on at the moment? Are things calming down yet or are they still quite hectic?
Darren: They’re calming down a little but until recently it was consistently pretty nuts. There’s still residual Hades support but it’s all good stuff. It’s only happening because people responded so positively to the game. It was so well-received; people are talking and it’s getting all sorts of crazy award nominations so it’s not a bad problem to have.
E&D: It must feel strange for you to think back on 2020. A lot of great stuff happened for you and the team.
Darren: On the macro-level, it was a garbage year by all accounts but in my life, for the company and the game, some incredible stuff happened in that respect. The last three months were especially crazy, after Hades came out.
E&D: The big thing coming up is the release of Songs of Supergiant Games, which sounds incredible! How long had that been in the works?
Darren: We recorded it in January of 2020. We had done the arrangements for a performance at PAX West in September 2019 so over the summer the arrangements came together. After we did it, we thought, “Hey, we should make an album out of this. This was fun.” So Austin (Wintory) threw some arrangements together, some potential studio places we could go to record and estimates. He threw Abbey Road on the list just for funsies, but I thought, “Why shouldn’t we go to Abbey Road?” It was a combination of it being a bucket list thing and the quality of the musicians that were there that we figured we should do it there if we had the chance. I wrote a couple of tunes for Hades that we’d record there as well. We recorded it over two days. Steve Kempster, the mixer, I went to his place in February and sat in on the mix. We got through six of the tracks, went to PAX East and did the performance with Austin and Ashley (Barrett) and everything, and then the pandemic happened! I was going to go down to LA in March to finish the mixes but he cancelled that, finished them on his own and sent me versions I could send notes on. By March we were finished mixing the album and I had it mastered in March or April. We’ve been sitting on those masters for ages – the vinyl has been in the works for a while but that takes forever, especially now, so we decided to release the digital version sooner rather than later.
E&D: How did you find the process of creating the orchestral arrangements? You typically perform everything yourself so it seems like a leap to go from that to having a whole team working with you.
Darren: It was a strange feeling for me, certainly. I really enjoyed the process, and it was super-different from what I normally do so that contrast is really fascinating for me. Because I had Austin there to help with all of that stuff, on the day I was just really a set of ears and a performer. I would just listen, decide whether I liked it, and do my vocal parts and maybe play guitar sometimes. I delegated the stuff away that I couldn’t do myself but it was a lot of fun. I got to have an incredible time doing it, and I can see myself doing it again if I have ideas for instruments that I don’t play but would really love to have. I now feel more comfortable incorporating that into my music a little bit more.
E&D: So the two from Hades that you recorded there, you actually wrote them with these kinds of arrangements in mind?
Darren: Yeah, it was my first time doing anything like that, writing music to be played by musicians who aren’t me and it was awesome. Austin did the orchestral arrangement; I sent him the first pass of a mock-up of the things, broaching what I had in mind for the orchestral stuff, and he basically sweetened it up, added more nuance to the arrangements but it changed less than I assumed it would. It turns out my first pass went better than I thought it would go and it turned out okay. I’m really stoked how those tracks sounded in the final product so I’m very happy with how that process went.
E&D: How was the process of composing for Hades? Given that it was released on early access, you basically had the music trickling out over time. Did you prefer working that way?
Darren: It was fun. By the time we launched into early access, I had about 14 tracks and in total, I think there’s 30 now, so about half-and-half before and after. It was fun and mostly confidence-boosting when it came out, and people received the music well. I could see by internet sentiment and YouTube views, which tracks people dug the most. Then I could lean in, make stuff rock a little harder, and I was able to respond a bit more to what was going on – just like the game itself, where you can shore up the areas that are not as interesting to people and lean into what people seem to dig. That was fun, instead of working on something in secret for three years, then putting it out there and going, “I hope you like it!” I can get a sense of whether people are digging it, and then an equal amount of work is still to come during the release, so I can use that as wind in my sails for the rest of the project.
E&D: Much like all of your work, your score fits the game well in terms of tone, but also atmospherically and even visually. How early did you decide what direction you would take the music for Hades?
Darren: The first three months of working on the project, we were prototyping and di a ‘creative redirect’ around that time. Initially, for those first few months it was going to be about a maze, more like Theseus and the minotaur with Theseus as the protagonist – it was a whole different thing. Once we redirected to, “You’re Zagreus, son of Hades, trying to escape from Hell’, like a reverse Diablo, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Make it rock, have the same idea but make it kick ass and then once we discovered there was more lightness to it, I added the theremin-like keyboard part component as a pillar to express that aspect of the tone. It came together really fast, honestly. Once we did that redirect, it took me not a lot of time to settle. Normally it’ll take a while but with this, I felt I knew what I wanted to do right away.
E&D: I loved the more overtly ‘metal’ moments on the score. Can I take it that was especially fun for you?
Darren: Oh yeah, it was a blast! My natural tendency would be to rock a bit harder than I get to do on the Supergiant stuff, but maybe slightly less hard than the Hades soundtrack? It was a fun challenge for me to throw, say, a couple of double-kicks in there sometimes. Why not? I’m more of an alternative rock, grunge, classic rock kind of guy but it was a fun challenge to try and bring a little more metal than I’m usually used to.
E&D: The other big push for you seemed to be the voice acting. Was it always intended that you would be contributing anywhere near as much as you eventually did?
Darren: No, it built over time. It was not a forgone conclusion that I would play any characters in the game either, so the fact that I ended up as Zagreus was just down to the fact that I recorded scratch VO for Zagreus and Skelly, a couple of other characters, we got auditions and found that we liked what I did for those characters the best and I just kept doing them. As far as the volume of the content, that just came together over time. We didn’t necessarily know how much there was going to be and how much we would need to support; we just kept adding and adding, like a thousand lines of dialogue, so in the we ended up with, I think, 20,000 lines of dialogue.
E&D: I’m guessing it’s a lot more comfortable for you to be doing that now, or is it still a little strange?
Darren: It’s strange, but I’ve had a lot of opportunity to do it now so I’m more comfortable now. I enjoy it, it’s a fun thing to do. The VO for Pyre – except for when I was recording with Logan (Cunningham), which is always fun – was often a source of anxiety for me as I wasn’t used to working with non-Logan actors. It’s a high bar so I always wanted to make sure that, in the limited time we had, we would be able to get everything we needed performance-wise. This project gave me a lot more confidence and I was able to enjoy it more. Even though there’s a lot of work to get through, it became less stressful over the course of the project for sure.
E&D: Maybe something of an ignorant question but your title with Supergiant is ‘audio director’. Beyond scoring and VO, what does that role entail?
Darren: I do all the sound design, the majority of the implementation stuff, all the voice-over direction, recording and implantation; I don’t hook up the all the VO in the game but I do set up the actors and stuff, but Greg (Kasavin) does all the actual implementation. I’d say there was a pretty even divide over the three things – sound effects, voice over, music. I maybe spend less time on sound effects, and this time I spent more on VO than on the other two things, but it’s still pretty close to even.
E&D: For the Songs Of… recording, you focused almost exclusively on the vocal cuts from the back catalogue. Were there any instrumentals that you would particularly have liked to have done with the orchestra, even just out of curiosity?
Darren: Not necessarily. The idea for me was to have the Bastion medley, which contained a couple of snippets of instrumental pieces from Bastion, and that was cool. We thought it would maybe be cool to do it with other stuff and moving forward that’s maybe something we’d think about but it was all dictated by the format for us, which was going to be a 45-minute show. 45 minutes of music, that’s the show, that’s the one vinyl disc, and that was part of the constraint. It all depends on whether we want to expand this show going forward, because I can see that happening. If and when shows happen again, it would be fun to do that kind of thing.
E&D: Would you even consider taking it out on tour if the situation arose?
Darren: I feel like the demands of the job I do here at Supergiant would make it difficult to take the time off from the work. The primary thing is the game work and all of this is in service to the games, and more or less advertisements for the games. I could absolutely see doing some shows here and there and travelling for them, taking a week and doing a couple, but taking multiple months or anything in that region seems out of scope for a secondary project like that. If the world goes back to some kind of normal, I would love to travel and do that shit though; I’ve been itching to do it even more lately.
E&D: In terms of influences, do you find yourself drawing much on external sources or is everything driven by the game itself?
Darren: Generally speaking, I look for influences when I have something in mind. If I want to add heaviness to a particular track in a specific way, I’ll go and seek out bands or albums that execute on that ‘heaviness’ vibe really well. One of the newer Alice In Chains records, with William Duvall, for example, is extremely heavy and feels awesome. That, or Soundgarden, just anything where I feel this vibe is executed on really well. Then on Transistor, I had specific things I was looking for like Radiohead and Imogen Heap and Björk. There’ll be, like, a ‘moment’ in a Radiohead song and I’ll think, “I want something that feels like this moment.” That’s the level of influence right now, and I’ll try to have some production influences that nod to that, or orchestration, and try to incorporate that technique into what I’m trying to do. So yeah, my influences tend to be artists that I like but I don’t tend to draw from other video game music, for whatever reason. It’s what I love to listen to and has made an impact on me, or has an interesting vibe or interesting production, or creates some kind of interesting space. That’s what fascinates me and a lot of times, what I’m trying to do is have it so that the production aesthetic is almost as important as the composition – the sound of the record, how it’s presented.
E&D: How has it been with the expansion of Supergiant into a larger team, as there were very few of you when you started?
Darren: There was seven of us when we started and now it’s up to almost 20. We were 12 for Transistor and Pyre, so we’ve basically expanded over the course of Hades.
E&D: Has this changed things somewhat? It kind of sounds like expanding a band.
Darren: I use the band analogy a lot especially when we were fewer people but now, it’s still like a ska band or something – you could fit 20 people in a ska band, right? I think the thing that’s the most noticeable when we started adding more people and delegating a little of the work that people had been doing all themselves, we really increased our ability to just make more stuff. The effect was incredible and it made me think that we really should have done this earlier, because these people are making such a huge difference and allowing us to execute on the level that we want to. We always have to scope everything very carefully because we’re such a small team and make sure that everything we do is tailored to getting bang for our buck in terms of time spent. Carefully and slowly adding people, in a measured way, to help relieve the pressure in the development, to alleviate some of the chokepoints and allow us to have higher output of stuff is just amazing and was really noticeable throughout Hades.
E&D: Obviously this is incredibly early days but have you started thinking about what the next project will be?
Darren: Honestly, we haven’t figured it out. We’re still supporting Hades and keeping those wheels spinning, getting a lot of stuff sorted, so we don’t have anything on the horizon.
E&D: What of the reactions to Hades has taken you aback the most? It seems like everyone has lost their mind over this.
Darren: One of the things that’s most heartening, and the biggest delights, was hearing how people reacted to the VO in particular because it was an aspect that we hadn’t fully committed to in a big way, with such a large cast, before. We had Logan, who I knew was great, but then adding a giant cast speaking English for the first time – in Pyre you could kind of get away with whatever as people were speaking gibberish most of the time – that’s when the bar goes up. The fact that people responded well to the voiceover, and the characterisations of everybody, and the fact that people gravitated towards all of the characters – seriously, it seems like every single character has fan art, or is somebody’s favourite character – was really cool. The deep connection that people had made with these characters over the course of spending so much time with the game was exciting to see. I had maybe the impression that that was going to be the case in early access but it was hard to tell because the increase in talking about it, the people playing it and who owned it, when 1.0 happened was just a lot. The other thing that was amazing was just seeing the game that we worked on be the game that I’m seeing all over my timeline. It’s the game that everyone is talking about, not just my friends. The Washington Post did an article on it, and Time Magazine, and it’s crazy to be with the big boys in contention for Game of the Year. That is fully mindblowing to me, that our scrappy little team of about 20 people, is in the same league as these humongous games.
E&D: I can’t really recall seeing an indie make such a huge impact in this way. The Washington Post thing in particular felt like something from another world.
Darren: Yeah, the only thing that springs to mind was when Journey came out, and that won some game of the years but I can’t think of a lot of other examples of a low-level little game. Maybe Undertale, but there aren’t many small games that have had the outsized impact that it feels like Hades has had so far and it’s wonderful to see.