When confronted with a game as excellent as Bastion, the challenge of writing about it becomes where to start. Everything about the game is good. Super Giant Games set the mark so high for each facet of Bastion that it all blended together into one seamless masterpiece of gaming, but one aspect, the sound, served to amplify each part of the game, adding depth to the characters, enhancing the mood and giving context for the story. Those elements combine so wonderfully that with little dialogue, each character is still a dynamic and fully-developed personae that speaks to the player.
Darren Korb is the maestro that built all things aural in Bastion. While serving as Audio Director, Composer and Vocalist, he did the sound effects, wrote the soundtrack, sang a few songs, played the instruments and oversaw the excellent narration, voice acting and vocals done by Logan Cunningham and Ashley Barrett. The most impressive aspect of Korb’s work is that this was the first game he had ever worked on and that he had never attempted to do sound effects before.
“We knew our strengths. We knew what resources we had and we used the shit out of them,” he said.
When Korb’s childhood friend and Super Giant Games co-founder, Amir Rao, presented him with the prospect of working on a video game, Korb accepted the position only to realize that he knew next to nothing about sound effects. While he has been a musician his entire life, he said he had never wanted or needed to do any sound effect work.
“The initial kind of learning curve was the toughest part for me,” he said. “Learning the tools and learning how to do sound design, which I had never done before. Getting a handle on all that stuff was the most difficult part, but also the most intimidating part because it was stepping into this realm that I really didn’t know that much about.”
He set out to downplay the sound effects, instead relying on narration and his strongest asset, music. He said he believed people would notice the sound effects less if there were other sounds covering them up. After working on the project for several months he felt more confident in his abilities and began to have more fun and became more creative in the way he approached his task.
“For sound effects I’m like, let me dig through my library of thousands of sounds and see if anything sounds like it could represent this random made-up thing that we’re trying to have a sound for,” Korb said. “What does it sound like when you hit a genie with a hammer? What does that sound like? I’m asking myself these questions and I’m like, ‘Well I have no idea. Let me figure that out.’”
Korb said being roommates with Cunningham, who did the voice of the narrator, Rucks, dramatically improved the project since they were good friends. Cunningham has years of traditional acting and visual arts experience and has been in numerous low-budget productions. The recording process for Bastion was similarly low budget. Cunningham did his voice work in Korb’s bedroom, where an elaborate system of blankets hung from the ceiling to block out noise. Korb said that the entire setup was ridiculous, especially having his bed set up as a loft with his computer underneath it and blankets draped all over.
Part way through the project Korb said he moved to another apartment and tried to replicate his blanket technique, but soon realized that it was much easier to do work in an office with a converted closet for a sound booth.
While working with Cunningham to come up with a voice for Rucks, he said they did a bunch of tests and discussed what kind of narrator they needed. They toyed around with sounding like Alec Baldwin and did their own version of Sam Elliott from The Big Lebowski, among others, but eventually Cunningham made his voice as low and gravelly as he could to create Rucks.
“It is very different from his regular voice,” Korb said. “People are always surprised if people are talking to him and they learn that he is Rucks from the game. He is definitely not new to having to work on different speaking voices.”
For a bonus track on the soundtrack, Korb wrote a song modeled after Bob Dylan’s work for Cunningham to sing as Rucks. Korb said he was impressed with how well Cunningham sang The Pantheon, considering how much he had to alter his voice.
While composing the music for Bastion, Korb said he employed a style of music he calls acoustic frontier trip-hop. He said he wanted it to sound faintly Middle Eastern while having some hip-hop beats hold the song together. He was proud of the way the pieces helped set the tone of the game and highlight the mood in individual moments.
He said Zia and Zulf’s theme songs had a great deal of blues influencing their somber tones. Lyrics gave the characters much more emotion than there would’ve been without. He said he knows that the choice to include lyrics was a unique one, but was glad that it turned out the way it did. He wanted their songs to really reflect both the mood of the moment and reveal something about the characters. They were each meant to be something that the character would’ve recognized and felt akin to during their lives.
Korb said he felt his greatest accomplishment was the song Setting Sail, Coming Home, a combination of Zia and Zulf’s themes, which plays during the credits, because this concept came to him early on in the process.
“My idea was that you meet these two survivors through the course of the game and I wanted each one to have their own theme,” he said. “At the end of the game, I thought it would be really nice to play off both of their themes by combining them in a way that you wouldn’t have thought of. I’ve always been a sucker for that. When I see that as part of an old theater trick where they will write a part and then they will write another part that is designed to work with that [first] part, but when you hear them separately, they are totally good stand-alone parts. That was my idea and when I finally was able to complete the piece and see that it worked I was really happy about that.”
The Bastion soundtrack received an overwhelmingly positive reception, and Korb was further excited that he could sell the album as a digital download and on a CD with extra concept art included. He’s even had a few requests to put the album on vinyl, but despite his excitement at the prospect, he doubts that will be possible considering the cost required. He said he wanted to sell the soundtrack separately so people could listen to a higher-quality version of the music outside the game.
“I was so excited when we finally came out with the soundtrack,” to sell separately he said. “Until we did that, a lot of people would just hang out and listen to the [in-game] gramophone.”