We interviewed Hades composer and audio director Darren Korb about his rifftastic ‘Mediterranean prog rock Halloween music’ for the smash hit action roguelike.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Sometimes it happens the right way.
Sometimes a video game releases in considered stages. Players’ expectations are appropriately managed. The stable team of developers prioritises their own health and creativity throughout the process. Marketing buzz is generated because of concrete demonstrations of the game’s design potential. The community around the title is respectfully listened to but not pandered to.
A firm, realistic 1.0 release date is set and met. A complete package is made available across multiple platforms. Critics and customers are made to feel happy about the whole affair.
If only this were the case for more games. With Hades, at least, it feels like the industry and gamers have been blessed with a positive example of how it should be done. The game has scored highly with critics, won major awards, and graced (and topped) more than a few 2020 end-of-year lists.
An indispensable part of Supergiant Games’ four titles to date has been the music and audio efforts of Darren Korb. Laced With Wax caught up with him in November 2020 over an Internet call to chat about his Rock Band obsession, mad riffage, and royal British accents.
Listen to the Hades soundtrack: Spotify | Apple Music
Korb’s musical path was somewhat traditional: singing and performing from a young age; picking up a guitar and forming bands in his teenage years; becoming fascinated with multi-track recording and studying music production; interning at a studio and producing local bands; and picking up gigs.
What brought him to game music was long-time friend Amir Rao. The pair had played in bands together and shared a love of D&D and video games. After working at EA, Rao co-founded Supergiant Games in 2009 with Gavin Simon, and called on Korb to contribute audio and music for their debut game — what became 2011’s colourful isometric smash-em-up Bastion.
“When I got the call, I was like ‘yeah, of course I'll do that! I don't have any experience, but thank you for asking!’ I jumped at the chance even though I’d never really imagined myself doing audio for games. Once I started, I realised that ‘duh, of course this is what I should be doing.’”
Laced With Wax spoke with Korb a week after the Xbox Series X|S consoles were released. He was especially giddy that his 2,000 song Rock Band library would load faster over 10 minutes faster on the new machines than on previous consoles. “I come back to Rock Band every week or so and jam out, so I had to grab a new console just for the time saving!”
More than just a hobby, Korb also was part of the winning team at the Total Rock Total Rewards 2010 Rock Band competition, getting to meet a certain Starr in the process. “I don't claim to be the most proficient Rock Band player in the world,” admits Korb, “but I can certainly put on a show!”
“Playing Rock Band 150% informed Hades’ score. I started off playing on guitar and bass because I had come over from the Harmonix Guitar Hero games. Rock Band really helped me hear bass parts better, and allowed my producer ear to become more finely tuned to what was going on.
“I started playing a ton of Rock Band drums, eventually ramping up to ‘Expert.’ At that difficulty, it’s basically translations of the actual drum parts. It improved my timing and my drumming got a lot more precise. I’m not someone who loves practising where you drill exercises for two hours. I’ve never had the patience for that. I like to play songs and practise sections that I can’t yet do. Rock Band helped me push at the edges of my ability over time.
“I wasn't a big Rush fan before playing a bunch of their songs in the game and now I kind of dig Rush! Their riffs are just fun to play.”
In the house
The remarkable thing about Supergiant as a studio is its stability over the course of ~10 years and four games. With very few departures and relatively few additions, the team and its workflows are well-established; something which clearly helped them ship Hades despite the COVID-19 pandemic forcing a shift to remote working.
Korb himself tends to be the first name mentioned when in-house video game composers are discussed. This is partly because there are seemingly so few, but also because his body of work through Supergiant Games is so distinctive.
There are some advantages to being an employee at a stable indie studio: “The deeper you can be embedded in a project, the better you’re able to write stuff that's going to feel right. Getting in right at the beginning from the earliest discussions about high level ideas [is great because] I can then start experimenting and bring that back to the table. There's a lot of synergy that we're able to create by working together throughout a project. A lot of us found our groove on Hades.”
His actual job role — Audio Director — stretches far beyond music, encompassing sound design, voice direction, and voicing protagonist Zagreus and his talking punchbag Skelly in Hades.
“Being a composer is only about a third of my job — the most fun part — and the other 66.6% of my time is spent on other aspects of the audio. I really appreciated the different kinds of work [music, sound, voice] because it was nice to bounce between them and not become fatigued. It's a bit of a marathon working on a project like Hades especially because it was in early access for a while — you're chugging for a long time. It was creatively helpful to focus on different aspects of the audio and then go back to making music [feeling refreshed.]”
Whose line is it anyway?
A common refrain among players in 2020 went something like this: “Zagreus’ voice acting is great. Who played him? No way, the composer? Wow! Huh.”
Voicing both the main character and a supporting role in a large game with thousands of lines of dialogue would be a tall task in and of itself. Korb not only fitted it into his workload — he knocked it out of the park.
In the captivating and candid documentary series Developing Hell by noclip, Korb can be seen smashing out dialogue at a crazy pace. He admits: “I'm maybe a harsher critic of my own performance than when I'm directing other actors. I can do 10 takes in the time it might take me directing another actor to do two or three because I’ll know as soon as I finish whether or not I want to do another one.
“I’ll often do quite a few takes, especially on some of the chunkier lines where there's more nuance involved and there are a lot of beats that I want to get across in the delivery. I've certainly spent 15 to 20 minutes on an individual line. But there are also hundreds of lines that are just ‘Over there’ or ‘Urrrggh damn it.’”
He agrees that, in general, Supergiant’s games are shaped around the strengths of the individuals that make up the relatively small team. Zagreus as a character wasn’t necessarily molded around Korb as an actor. “Greg Kasavin [Hades’ Creative Director] had a pretty clear idea of what Zagreus should be like, and [Art Director] Jen Zee’s concept art gave us all an idea of what this guy should sound like. We had some actors in mind as reference, for instance Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from the Marvel universe, or Asa Butterfield.”
Formal auditions were held, but Korb ended up winning the parts of Zagreus and Skelly because the rest of the team fell in love with his temporary ‘scratch’ voiceover recordings, which were only supposed to be placeholders during early development.
There were some obvious advantages to having the protagonist’s voice actor be accessible 100% of the time. A principal benefit was that the team could record iterations on lines almost instantaneously.
A good example is that of the game’s self-imposed difficulty system known as ‘Heat’. Korb says: “We noticed right away after adding the system that not many people were engaging with it. Somebody came up with the idea that Skelly could reward the player with statues as prizes for completing the game at different Heat levels. Greg wrote a bunch of dialogue for Zag and Skelly, I recorded the lines, and Jen created amazing art for the statue prizes. We were able to crank it out in a day and put it straight into the game. It was so fast! That agility is a real benefit of the way we like to work.”
What’s with the accent, mate?
If anyone around the world knows anything about the UK, it’s that there are a gazillion different, often befuddling accents. And any born-and-bred Englishman playing Hades would surely be intrigued by Zagreus’ smooth on the ear, louche patter.
Korb explains: “Our approach to Zagreus’ accent and the gods in general was to play upon what people imagine them to sound like based on media portrayals of Greek mythology. We went with Lord of the Rings’ [fairly loose] approach where we could have British accents for some parts of the cast — like when you get four different accents for hobbits that supposedly grew up together — and American for other characters to delineate them.”
One of Zagreus’ most agreeable ticks is his love of calling people ‘mate’, and there is plenty of playfulness around formality and class divides within the underworld. Korb admits: “I didn't consciously think about that while we were doing it. The writing is awesome and I suspect that ‘code-switching’ — where the royal prince changes his language while slumming it with a servile skeleton — was something Greg considered. As a choice, that little detail makes perfect sense to me in hindsight.”
Preparing for the underworld
Supergiant’s four games make for fascinating case studies in terms of game development. The sophomoric Transistor and party-based fantasy basketball RPG Pyre seem to have been challenging projects in part because it was hard to nail down mechanics and tone, extending the pre-production phase. If you’ll permit the pun, they were striving to zag where they had previously zigged.
Korb explains: “The one big difference for Hades was that our pre-production period was relatively short. That was exciting for me because it created a situation where we couldn't spin our wheels too much. We had to trust our instincts a little bit more. I enjoy that process where you follow where your gut tells you and see what happens.
“The long pre-production periods for Transistor and Pyre led to interesting stuff that was maybe a little headier than what we gravitate towards when we don’t have as long. Our strength as a team is making stuff — that’s my favourite. So it was fun to be able to spend even more time on Hades, going to town and making lots of things.”
“On previous projects, especially [debut title] Bastion before I was a full-time employee, I would make a piece, get some feedback, and make some changes. As the projects have gone, there’s less of that [simple back-and-forth] as everybody’s more confident. There’s less meticulous oversight and everyone’s increasingly the ruler of their own kingdom.”
“Hades was liberating because everybody was just so on the same page. Everyone could go and make stuff — or at least I could! I went to town and just put pieces into the game, occasionally iterating on them.”
Artwork by James Gilleard for the Supergiant: 10th Anniversary vinyl box set.
Supergiant soundtracks are never straightforward when it comes to musical genre. Over the years, Korb has heroically tried to categorise them. Bastion was ‘acoustic frontier trip-hop’. Transistor was old-world electronic post-rock. For Pyre he was trying to “extrapolate out a whole subgenre based on the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. It was like ‘70s occult fantasy rock — or something like that!”
Hades’ OST is no different, with Korb describing it as “Mediterranean prog rock Halloween music.” He settled upon the sound a little way into pre-production: “For the first few months, we knew the game was going to be Greek myth related, but we had a pretty different approach, protagonist, and story focus. There was going to be a labyrinth, a minotaur, Theseus, etc. We were into it, but it wasn’t exciting in the way we wanted.
“So Greg [Kasavin] pitched a creative [reworking] with Hades and Zagreus and instantly we thought that was better. The first piece I made in that style was “Out of Tartarus”. Once I had that sound, [I stuck to it.]”
Time to reach for the Finnish line
Even if they don’t realise it, there’s a history of gamers being exposed to fairly diverse music genres including prog rock and folk. Perhaps the most well-known example of prog exposure is Nobuo Uematsu channeling the keyboard-led bands of the 1970s into 1990s Final Fantasy pieces like “Dancing Mad” and "Battle at the Big Bridge". Around the same time, Uematsu’s Squaresoft colleague Yasunori Mitsuda was also experimenting with Celtic influences in the Chrono and Xeno series.
As the 2020s get underway, Korb and his prog-loving contemporaries — including Risk of Rain composer Chris Christodoulou — are riffing it up to the delight of their fans. He explains: “I wanted Hades to have a metal rock component because it's in hell. It's just right there for the taking — I had to grab at it. But I was also coming at it from a couple of different angles, so it's not just regular old metal. It’s a little spicier.
“The prog rock [label] speaks to the rocking nature of it, and there's also something unsettling and hellish about weird-ass time signatures! They can add an extra layer of subliminal excitement.
“In terms of the folk aspect, I was using Mediterranean instruments while listening to Finnish folk and other stuff that has crazy time signatures as well. That was a common ingredient [between prog and folk.] The Finnish band Värttinä have a song “Tielle Heitetty” that’s in 21/8 compound meter!”“For a lot of traditional folk music like that, the time signature is based on however long a particular vocal phrase is. I thought that that was an interesting approach to writing, so I would write a riff for Hades and the time signature would be defined by the riff.
“It’s super fun to go a bit more nuts than that I've previously been able to do; rock out to my heart's content. I even had to push myself to rock a little harder than I instinctively would. I tended to find that the crazier I would go, the more the rest of the team said ‘oh, rad!’”
Stemming the flow
The careful, puzzle-solving work of implementing music into a game is perhaps more important to the player experience than many people give it credit for. In a combat game where the action constantly waxes and wanes, getting this balance right is key to avoiding music fatigue.
Korb explains that the team employed a semi-randomised system where discrete instrumental parts (or ‘stems’) of a piece would be chosen programmatically at the beginning of each chamber “to keep things fresh and get some extra longevity out of the music.”
The music in Hades is ever-present and contains some strong flavours as discussed, but the developers made sure that it took a back seat where appropriate.
Once Zagreus has dispatched his foes to the sound of more percussion-heavy, energetic cues, the mood simmers down while he collects treasure and passes between rooms. Sometimes no instruments are left in the mix; sometimes it’s just the bass; or sometimes it’s bass and guitar.
Despite being a 2018 early access game, Hades’ 1.0 launch was a highlight in an otherwise pretty miserable 2020. It was present on — and frequently topped — many Game of the Year lists (including Time Magazine’s.) It won Best Indie Game and Critic’s Choice at the Golden Joysticks and Best Indie and Best Action at The Game Awards.
With a 93 rating on Metacritic (the same as behemoth titles Red Dead Redemption 2, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and The Last of Us Part II) and maintaining an ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ review aggregate label on Steam, Hades is a solid gold critical hit. A masterpiece.
Supergiant Games has set higher standards for themselves with each release, but Korb doesn’t particularly feel any extra pressure. “That’s not at the front of my mind when I'm working on music. It's all about serving the project and enhancing the experience. I also [carefully consider] the moments in the game that I want to execute on. For example, I wanted people to love finding Eurydice in Hades.”
**SPOILERS FOR A HADES CHARACTER REVEAL**
“The response has been thoroughly overwhelming to say the least. People have had nice things to say about all of our games, but it’s never been this unanimous and at this volume.
“It's super validating because we set out to [make something with this] clarity of concept. Each game we make is very much a response to the previous one in a lot of ways. We wanted a game we could describe in a sentence, whereas Pyre would take a while [to explain.] It feels good to have that acknowledged — that it’s clear and people can understand what it is right away. But we’ve also tried to build in as much depth, excitement and surprise as we could.
“We’re acutely aware that the industry is more crowded than ever, and there are more and more incredible games releasing every year. When Bastion came out in 2011, there were 10s of games releasing — now it’s thousands. We don’t take for granted how miraculous it is to be able to float to the top of the conversation.”
“[In terms of awards] we’re super grateful and honoured to be up next to these games that a lot of talented people spent a lot of time creating.”
Darren the Brave
(Left) Ashley Barrett, (right) Darren Korb.
Korb puts a lot of himself on show through his work without seeming the least bit ‘showy.’ His multi-instrumental performances make up the vast majority of Supergiant Games’ soundtracks, and his voice acting is a confident constant in Hades.
As well as continuing a long-term collaboration with vocal muse Ashley Barrett, Korb has also sung several Supergiant songs. The pair have played live shows internationally, and recently released the 10th anniversary album Songs of Supergiant Games with orchestral arrangements written by Brian LaGuardia, conducted by Austin Wintory, and recorded at Abbey Road Studios.
Beyond putting a lot of himself in the work itself, there’s an earnest transparency to how Korb and company operate. Members of Supergiant often share their knowledge through industry talks, panels, interviews, and the aforementioned noclip YouTube documentary.
Korb agrees that being part of a stable team has enabled him to encounter and capitalise on the various opportunities, to some extent. “Were I a hired composer for a project like Hades, I wouldn’t have been providing scratch voiceover. It just wouldn't have come about in the same way.
“The live performances [and extended music projects are all] super interesting to me and I like doing them a lot. The 10th anniversary Pax West orchestral show came about because we wanted to do a cool thing for fans, and ended up developing an elaborate plan! I saw it as a learning opportunity, a chance to branch out.
“I'm always interested in expanding my comfort zone and trying new things. It’s important to find a balance between the things you already do competently and the things that you are nervously excited about.”