Closet audio craftwork with Darren Korb of Supergiant Games

Interview with Darren Korb

It’s hard to imagine Bastion without the music. The moody raw guttural voice of Rucks overlaid with a trippy acoustic guitar on loop stands out among most videogame soundtracks.

And yet it’s even harder to imagine that most of Bastion was recorded inside a closet. Specifically Darren Korb’s closet in Brooklyn. Now, it might not be news that it was recorded inside a closet, which Korb claims is the most quiet room, but still — this is Rucks we’re talking about.

The Brooklyn resident is currently working on the heavily anticipated game for Supergiant Games, Transistor. The spiritual successor to Bastion has already received accolades for its early build that premiered at PAX East and E3 2013. Transistor is scheduled to come out early 2014 for PlayStation 4 and the PC. And fret not, for there will be a new build at PAX Prime for Transistor with expanded gameplay.

Korb granted us an interview inside his one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, where we quickly found out the next possible voice actor for Transistor - his dog Higgins. Check out the video interview and the full text below.

Karen: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started with Supergiant Games and composing videogame soundtracks?

Darren: Yeah absolutely. I basically just lucked into it. It’s sort of the most honest answer I can give. My buddy Amir Rao is one of the co-founders of Supergiant Games and we’ve been buddies since we were about eight years old. We went to elementary school together, we played in a bunch of bands growing up, he was my drummer for a number of years and when he was starting the company with some friends, he asked me to do all the audio and music, just sort of a leap of faith because he believed that I could do it basically.

K: One of the biggest things that I noticed playing through Bastion, is that it has music that’s really different from a lot of other games. I remember hearing the description as “Acoustic Frontier Trip Hop.” What was the process behind the creation of the music and can you talk about the themes and inspiration behind it?

D: Yeah. I wanted to when I set out, one of my goals was to try and make something that I hadn’t really heard in a game. You know, I’ve played games growing up throughout my whole life and I’m very familiar with a lot of game music and one of the main things I wanted to try and do was to break out of the tropes that I was familiar with in game music. I had heard kind of a lot of orchestral sweeping stuff. I heard hard rock kind of stuff and I heard sort of chiptune-y sort of stuff, electronic stuff and I wanted to do something that wasn’t any one of those things and wasn’t necessarily a combination of those things either. So I tried to do something that I hadn’t really heard in a game before and then further sort of targeted that goal when we started with what the tone of Bastion was going to be and how we wanted that to feel.

K: One of the biggest things that I’ve seen is indie games in general. What do you think about the current trends surrounding indie games and people’s attention to games like Journey and Bastion, which have won a swath of awards, and Transistor also won a bunch of awards at E3. Can you talk a bit about that?

Article Photo 3 resizedD: Yeah, I think it’s incredible to see smaller games getting recognized right alongside triple-A titles. It’s pretty incredible and I think it’s an encouraging time to be developing indie games for sure.

K: What do you think about Kickstarter’s role in indie games?

D: It’s been really cool to see a lot of games that sound like games I want to play and be funded by Kickstarter. I just finished playing Shadowrun [Returns] which is my first Kickstarter thing that I was interested in and then it came out and it’s the first one that I’ve been able to play through and it was super fun and I really enjoyed myself and so, you know to think, that that game wouldn’t have gotten made that way if it weren’t for Kickstarter and I think it’s very cool to see the games that maybe wouldn’t get funded that are sort of more niche or something. So that’s excellent.

K: Definitely nice to see a wide variety of things being made as a result of Kickstarter.

D: Absolutely.

K: Now going back to Bastion, you guys made a pretty big splash back in 2011 in the indie game community. And Transistor I would assume is following along in its footsteps. What do you think Supergiant has contributed to the indie game community? You guys are kind of one of the big rising stars…

D: Well thank you for that. I don’t know, it’s hard to believe any of that stuff to some degree. We’ve been thrilled with the response that Bastion has gotten and it’s kind of unbelievable to me that people have responded so well to the game and the soundtrack and all that stuff and seeing the excitement for Transistor is really sort of mindblowing and very encouraging and hopefully people will like it but as far as… I’m sorry, what was the actual question part of the question?

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K: Sure, so what do you think Supergiant has specifically contributed to the community?

D: I mean, sort of our goal in terms of stuff that we want to be contributing is games that sort of spark your imagination in a way that games sort of used to do that and maybe don’t as much anymore. And so that was sort of one of our goals, part of our mission statement I guess and so ideally we’re contributing something like that hopefully.

K: One of the other games I keep mentioning is Journey. Is it more rare to find games that have a strong emotional reaction? Bastion at its core, is an action-based, storyline-driven game. What is it about the current state of gaming that we’re not making as many connections anymore?

D: I mean, I think it has to do with the types of stories that people are trying to tell. If you’re trying to tell a story that you know can have an emotional impact and allow your focus to be on that then I think that. I know for us, that was a big focus, we wanted to tell an interesting story, a compelling story, we wanted to get people involved in the game and if that’s part of one of your goals, I think it can happen but I don’t know that that’s a goal necessarily for some developers but I don’t know. I obviously only have my tiny sliver of the industry that I look at.

K: Looking back and also looking towards the future, what are some of the lessons that you learned from Bastion, coming from the audio side, that you’re looking to apply to Transistor?

D: Yeah, a bunch of stuff because when I made Bastion I actually never worked on a game before so I did a lot of learning real quick. Especially on the sound effects and audio integration side of things, I had no idea what I was doing.

K: Can you give an example?

D: Yes, so I never really made any sound effects before and so figuring out how to go about that, you know, how do I approach the soundscape of the game and do I want to go for realism, do I want to go for something more exaggerated and fantastical? And so I struggled with that for a while and then just the actual implementation, like how you put audio in a game, I never really had any knowledge of that before and so learning how to use the audio integration tools we were working with, which was XACT, a Microsoft thing. Learning how to use that was a big learning curve. I did a lot of experimentation just trying to get my brain around how that stuff worked. So specifically that. The music stuff was more comfortable for me because that’s sort of my background, but I still learned a lot about what kinds of pieces I felt worked well and what kinds of pieces worked less well and the things about them that worked, and etc. etc.

So I’m hoping to apply all this knowledge. I mean, already, the stuff we’re working on in Transistor, we’re doing the audio implementation side of things [and it's] much more sophisticated, we’re using a different program and we’re really trying to do some more reactive, immersive things with it. Hopefully it’ll turn out that way.

K: Now I’m trying to think specifically about the audio in Bastion, where it’s raw, earthy and I hesitate to use this term, but sort of Steampunk-y. And Transistor is totally different, it’s more sci-fi and streamlined. What kind of mindset do you think of? I’m trying to figure out a visual interface for this.

D: Yeah, uh, geez. A lot of it for me is about the feel when I’m working on something and so I’m lucky enough to be able to be a part of the development process. I started on Bastion right at the very start and the same with Transistor and I worked with the team and we all kind of bounced ideas off of each other about how we wanted the game to feel and what we wanted it to look like and sound like and so it’s really helpful to look at Jen’s artwork and see, “you know this is the visual sort of style that we want to try and go for, how does that make me feel? How do I want to express that feeling musically?” So for this game, for Transistor, we made what was called a “tone piece.” Where it was a little minute and a half, video of just kind of stills that we pan over to get a visual implication with some narration that we wrote and that Logan did, and a piece of music that I made to try and really express the feeling that I wanted to go for musically and then everyone came together to see if it was going to work basically.

K: Right.

D: And so then that helped us. We were struggling for a while on this game to really find a tone that we were all confident [with] and knew that it was going to work because we were using Bastion assets for a really long time in the development process and it was just hard to get your brain out of that mode. So, I would say that tone piece is really what I focused on and sort of the feeling that I get when I look at the artwork and stuff like that.

K: I guess this is more of an overall question. As videogame fans get older, their appreciation for nostalgia has also grown. We talked a little bit about VGO, Video Games Live and bands like Anamanaguchi… Where do you think the future of videogames music is going?

D: I… pfft.

K: [laughs]

D: I feel like the lines between videogame music and I guess all of the music is going away to some degree, so, I feel like there’s a palate, a pre-existing palate that people have come be used to and expect from videogames and so I feel like that stuff is going to happen and chip stuff is going to be a part of [it] for a while, but I just feel like now anything is an option and you know it’s audio, it’s not MIDI anymore, it’s all audio so you can just do anything with it as long as it’s appropriate for the game and I think that’s something that’s so cool about doing what I do: I get to make whatever’s cool and so yeah that’s definitely… so to answer your question, I have no idea where it’s going.

Darren and his dog, Higgins

K: Can you name a few people off the top of your head that are “breaking boundaries” in a sense?

D: Yeah. I mean Jim Guthrie, his stuff has been really cool to listen to. I was personally inspired by Jonathan Coulton, some of his stuff that he did for Portal and stuff like that and I thought that was a very cool use of a song. When I played the first Portal game, I was like, “wow that’s a very cool use of a song in a game,” and Laura Shigihara for Plants vs. Zombies and a bunch of other things. I looked at that game a lot when I was working on Bastion and they also have a song that they use in a similar way in that those two games were sort of what gave me the desire to really try and include songs in Bastion in a way that wasn’t necessarily more meaningful, but wasn’t like a sit down, happy, jokey kind of thing at the end. Which I thought was awesome in those games, of course. Anyway, to name a few, those names have really recently inspired me.

K: That’s pretty cool. The introduction of vocal tracks has really done it for me, with the exception of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater–that’s the one that pops up…

D: There’s been some out there for a while. There’s sort of like weird Japanese pop songs that didn’t have a bunch to do–I mean they did sort of, but they were sort of esoteric and weird. It’s like a different vibe.

K: I totally agree with that. I just know a lot of people, myself included, have been begging you guys to release a single for Transistor. Can you tell us more about “We All Become?”

D: I made it, basically I wrote it for the trailer so I’ve got a full length version in–you know, it’s happening. But yeah, I composed it for the trailer, I wanted [it to be] exciting and to really sort of try and establish the tone in the game. A lot of the music in the game is more down tempo than this song, so I wanted to find something that would really generate a lot of excitement for the trailer as well as just be expressive of the game at the same time, which was a hard task for a while and then I think I figured it out. But yeah, the response to that song has been pretty insane and I can’t believe–I think the plan is that we’re going to try and wait until the game comes out to release any of the music because I know [that] I got a lot of requests and we don’t want to spoil anything.

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K: Let’s talk a little bit about what you do outside of Supergiant Games. [introducing Higgins, the dog]. You’re also in a band called Control Group. Can you tell us about how that’s going?

D: Yeah it’s a lot of fun, we’re playing a bunch of gigs right now. I’m playing with these guys Jeremy Parker and Evan Reynolds. Jeremy used to work at Harmonix actually and we met because we were both making content for Rock Band Network, so we were both authoring songs for that and started rocking together for real and we brought in his friend Evan and another a friend who is no longer in the band. But yeah it’s been really fun and we’ve been playing together for over a year, probably a couple of years now and we decided, “oh we have a couple of songs now, let’s play some shows.” And yeah, we’re doing a Boston area mini-tour and we’re playing with the VGO at the Boston Festival of Indie Games. So that’s really exciting.

K: What else do you do outside of music that’s audio-related?

D: That fills up a lot of my time, believe it or not, the band and the game stuff. I play Rock Band pretty frequently. Those are mostly audio things.

K: The last questions. What videogame soundtrack do you think just doesn’t seem to get enough love? You get people who wax poetry about Final Fantasy among other things…

D: Can I give you three? Is that okay? ‘Cause I can’t pick. My favorite is probably Marble Madness, specifically the NES because the Sega one and the arcade one had some weird synth that was like an FM Synth and it was fixed strings instead of just the wave sounds from the Nintendo. I love that soundtrack. That was the first one that I played when I was a little kid and that was the first game that I thought the music was awesome. Like really cool, I like Double Dragon and all that other stuff but I thought wow, this is crazy. Another one is Dungeon Keeper, actually the very first Dungeon Keeper game. It’s just super creepy and atmospheric in a very different way and very dark and weird but totally made that game for me. It just completed the tone for me. That game had a really great tone and like a really interesting great narrator, or I don’t know if it was a narrator, but he was sort of like an announcer…I love that game and then Fallout 2 specifically. I mean Fallout was great and they reused a lot of the stuff in Fallout 2 but that one was the one that I played a bunch.

K: Do you still play it?

D: I played it as recently as a year and a half ago, probably. I’ll bust out that game and play it every couple of years because I love it so much. That’s one of my favorites. You know, the soundtrack for that has made a big impression on me as well.

K: What games are you currently playing?

D: Well I’m playing too much of the Magic game for the iPad, Magic: The Gathering, I’ve been playing too much of that. I just finished Shadowrun [Returns] which is really cool. I’m just finally getting to Fallout: New Vegas which I never played. I just downloaded Beat Buddy, which I’m about to check out. It’s from these German developers and I’ve been talking to them for a while about it, it’s like a rhythm… it’s sort of an action-y adventure-y game that is all–everything’s tied to the music it’s all about the scenery and everything.

K: That sounds kind of like Patapon almost [goes off on tangent about Patapon].

D: That sounds cool. I haven’t played it yet, so I don’t know too much but you’re a dude, that does music stuff. I think those are it, but I feel like I’m missing something. I gotta go buy a PS3 so I can play Dragon’s Crown though.

K: Oh yeah, I have a lot of friends that are really into it.

A: I hear it’s real good. I have a soft spot for the old school Golden Axe brawlers, so I’ve got to do it.

K: All righty. And just to backtrack, Transistor is still coming out early 2014?

D: That’s the plan.

K: Awesome. Cross your fingers.

D: I know, we’ll see.

K: Thank you so much Darren.

D: Yeah, yeah no problem.

(A very special thanks to Mark Basedow for his photography featured in this article as well as his cameraman skills. You can check out more of his photography here.)

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Author: Karen Rivera View all posts by
Karen Rivera is a multimedia reporter based in New York City. When she's not awkwardly bumbling around the city streets, she's cozying up with her iPhone, iPad and PS3. She will explode into a pink cloud of glitter if you present her with anything ridiculously Japanese, cute and anthropomorphic (see: Hello Kitty, Nyan Nyan Nyanko).