Hades Interview — The Beatles, Tom Hiddleston, And Creating Zagreus
I have been writing a lot about Hades recently, so it should come as no surprise that I wanted to have a chat with Hades composer and Zagreus actor Darren Korb. What is surprising, though, is the immense irony in the fact that I showed up over half an hour late to the interview because I lost track of time while writing this Hades guide.
“It’s alright,” Korb says after my fifth profuse apology. “It’s easy to get lost in Hades.”
Korb, for those unacquainted with Supergiant Games’ wider oeuvre, composed and recorded the scores for Bastion, Transistor, Pyre, and, most recently, Hades. He’s also the voice behind Hades’ main character, Zagreus, which sort of happened by accident.
“I originally recorded some stuff as scratch voiceover for both characters,” Korb tells me, acknowledging the fact that he also voices Skelly, the immortal skeleton you get to beat up with your fancy Infernal weapons. “It was just a placeholder while we were trying to cast the game, [but] people on the team just decided that we liked my performances better than the auditions we got for those characters.”
Korb notes that there was a huge advantage in having the main character be voiced by someone on the team — whenever creative director and writer Greg Kasavin wrote a bunch of new lines, Korb could go away for half an hour, record them, and submit the recordings for implementation pretty easily. When you have a game as VO dense as Hades — in which there are over 20,000 lines of dialogue — this kind of turnaround makes iterating on new sections a whole easier.
But Korb was born and raised in California — where did Zagreus’ English accent come from?
“I saw him as sort of… Tom Hiddleston’s Loki was a bit of an influence for him,” Korb explains. “Also Asa Butterfield, but mostly Loki from Thor and The Avengers. It’s a characterization I thought had a lot of the ingredients Zagreus has.”
Korb also notes that they didn’t want to make the British accent a specific regional thing — instead, they were interested in going for a Lord of the Rings, Western fantasy take on the dialect, “where it’s sort of like anything goes, vaguely British-y.”
“We do have some variance in the different characters that are of the British-y variety,” Korb adds. “When I think about the way Greek Gods and Olympians sound, it’s all from old movies where people are portraying them with British accents. That’s sort of burned into my perception and a lot of people’s consciousness of how people imagine these Greek Gods to sound if they’re speaking English.
“And then we ended up having a delineation between the divine characters from Olympus and the Underworld characters that are of the Underworld and are monsters and creatures — mythical creatures all have an American accent. That’s fictionally how we explain that divide.”
But Korb isn’t just the voice of Zagreus — he’s the man behind Supergiant’s iconic sound, and has been ever since the studio launched its first game back in 2011. Despite the throughline of consistently revered soundtracks threaded through the company’s output to date, there’s no concrete way in which Korb approaches writing music for games.
“We’ll usually have something in mind when I begin writing it,” Korb tells me. “[But] there have been a few exceptions — for Transistor there were one or two tunes that didn’t have that when I started writing them. The approach was a little different: the idea was that the songs were songs that Red had already written — the kind of songs that a recording artist might make. They helped express the character of Red and we found a way to apply them to a game scenario [afterwards].”
For Hades, however, Korb knew exactly how he wanted to approach the music from the get-go. He also knew that In The Blood, added as part of Hades 1.0, would be the end credits music, and that he wanted it to be a song written by Orpheus and Euridyce.
“I had some challenges trying to figure out what my take on Orpheus was gonna be,” Korb explains. Orpheus, for those who don’t know, is seen as the greatest musician and poet of all time in Greek mythology. His music had the ability to tame animals and make trees dance — so how do you go about writing music that is vicariously played through that character? Korb even performed as the famed vocalist himself. No pressure, eh?
“When you’re trying to embody the supposed greatest musician of all history, who moved the gods to tears with their singing, you can’t just make something standard,” Korb tells me. “I tried to choose a gimmick — at least as far as the singing was concerned — to have Orpheus always sing in falsetto, because I figured, ‘What kind of a voice would move the gods to tears?’ It had to be something angelic and ethereal.” So Korb dug into his own personal taste in music to figure out what that might sound like.
“Thom Yorke, or Radiohead — they’re always in there,” Korb says. “They’re always an influence. But specifically I imagined a ‘when Thom Yorke sings in falsetto’ kind of vibe for the stuff I might write for Orpheus.”
This isn’t the first time Korb has used his love of Radiohead for inspiration, though. “The aesthetic of OK Computer was important to me on Transistor for finding the sound of the game,” he tells me. “Particularly the moment in Exit Music (For A Film) when the filthy bass comes in. The feeling of that moment — I wanted to create my version of that for Old Friends.”
“That aesthetic helped to find the rest of the music for me on Transistor,” Korb adds. “On Hades, it’s Lament of Orpheus and my approach to Orpheus, and In The Blood to a lesser degree. The Radiohead influence is there for sure.”
In The Blood has an interesting story to it. Although Korb knew it would be the end credits song as soon as he wrote it, the official recording for it was done in Abbey Road in London — where The Beatles recorded all but one of their albums.
“In January we had just gone to London to do an acoustic show, and we recorded an album at Abbey Road,” Korb explains. By “we,” Korb is referring to himself and Ashley Barrett, who is responsible for several of Supergiant’s incredible vocal performances.
“In addition to recording that album at Abbey Road, we recorded two tracks for Hades that I wrote for a chamber orchestra to get the most out of the session, and partially to justify doing it,” Korb continues. “Because if it was for a game and not just an album, it was easier to justify for the company.
“That part of Hades in particular — going to London, recording in this place that is a revered location… I’m a huge Beatles fan, so recording this in the room where they recorded all but one of their albums was pretty mind-blowing. Working with these incredible musicians, and having [Journey composer] Austin Wintory involved — he helped me arrange [the Hades tracks], and he conducted them as well. It took me so far out of my comfort zone in the best way. I’m really thrilled with the result and I love how In The Blood came out from a production standpoint, and creatively. I’m so pleased with how all that happened, and the experience of doing it was such a dream. That’s probably, for me, the highlight of the project, even though there’s been so many incredible highs.”
The other track Korb and Barrett recorded in Abbey Road was On The Coast, the instrumental song that plays when… well, that would be spoiling Hades, wouldn’t it?
“It’s hard to pick a favourite overall thing,” Korb tells me. “This whole last year was a series of, ‘well this is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,’ and then it would top itself over and over. It’s like in The Lord of the Rings when Sam takes that step and is like, ‘This is the furthest away from home I’ve ever been,’ and then it’s like every step after is the same. I’ve had a lot of those moments this past year, like, ‘Who tricked people into allowing me to do this thing that I’m doing right now?’”
Obviously this has been a challenging year as well. Hades originally launched in Early Access in December 2018 — since then, the team has been gradually updating it bit by bit, with the game’s true ending having been officially implemented as of last week. But the development of that ending corresponded with this year’s impossible-to-predict pandemic.
“There was some adjustment for sure,” Korb tells me. “Most of the people already worked from home one day a week, and so moving everybody to home full-time was a change, but maybe not as big of a change as if we hadn’t been already working from home a little bit.” Korb notes that the work-from-home adjustment happened fast at Supergiant — as soon as the first community transmission in the Bay Area was reported, everyone said, “That’s it — we’re working from home.”
“I will say that it has been nice to have something to just pour myself into to distract me from everything else that’s going on, and to try to make something that brings people some joy and occupies people’s minds in the insane times in which we live,” Korb explains.
“I’m beyond proud of everybody on the team for pulling this together in the way in which we did, because it’s crazy circumstances to have to continue to go about your normal life,” he continues. “This project is something we’re all really passionate about and we wanted to make sure we did it justice. I wanted to make sure that we didn’t take our foot off the gas or stumble here at the finish line because it’s been such an incredible ride, and the response up until that point had been so positive that we really wanted to make sure we delivered for people who had invested themselves in the game over the last couple of years and to try to put our best foot forward for 1.0.”
As for the reception to Hades, which has been astronomically positive so far — if you check out our review, you’ll see we awarded it full marks — Korb says that although Supergiant had some idea of how people were going to react, praise like this still comes as a bit of a shock.
“We had some sense based on the Early Access response that people would like it, but we’ve never had a game where the response has been so unanimously positive,” Korb explains. “I don’t think you can ever expect that kind of thing — if you do, that’s naive. It has to hit at a specific time, it has to get people in the right mood… There’s quite a bit of luck and timing that goes into stuff being well-received.
“You never know how people are going to respond to anything new you put out, especially because a lot of people have been sitting with this game for so long and putting a lot of time and investment into it,” he continues. “Making sure the story is satisfying for those people and new players alike is a real challenge. There’s a lot of considerations there. We really didn’t know how people would react, but I know that I was happy with how it turned out. Just in my playing of it, I was really moved and satisfied emotionally by the way it resolved. And if you do continue playing, there’s quite a bit more stuff after the credits roll.
“Obviously there’s an end to it eventually, but there are still ways to engage with the game that are gonna be exciting for quite a long time.”
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