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A Very Serious Debate About Which Supergiant Song Is Best


This image looks nicer as a top image and should not be taken as an endorsement of the winner

Supergiant's very good game Transistor turned 10 years old this week, which prompted Riley and Nathan to discuss it during an Aftermath meeting. OK, by "discuss," we actually got into an argument about whether it or Bastion had a better iconic song. Expanding that argument into a full-blown conversation really went places.

Riley: Hello, Nathan! The other night, you and I got into an argument in a meeting when you suggested Transistor's song "Paper Boats" is better than Bastion's song "Build That Wall." I failed to record the conversation, but it went like this: I said "no," and you said "yes," and then we repeated that for a while while everyone watched us.

After having an entire day to consider it, I regret to inform you that you are still wrong: "Build That Wall" is better! But in the interest of journalistic objectivity, I will pretend to listen to your argument while impatiently waiting for the chance to remind you how wrong you are.

Nathan: I will begin by saying that "Build That Wall" is a very good song! One of Supergiant's best, without a doubt. It conveys the game's themes in a very on-the-nose way without coming across as artificial. It fits perfectly within the game's universe. If you're gonna add a song with lyrics to a video game, "Build That Wall" is how you do it.

But "Paper Boats" is Transistor's emotional crescendo. It HITS harder. There was a lot going on in Transistor's story, but the relationship between Red and the narrator -- who turned out to be her partner, trapped inside the Transistor after being killed with it -- cuts through the many machinations of various cyberpunk factions. At the end of the game, Red opts to run herself through with the Transistor so that the two can be reunited. On one hand, it's an upsetting scene -- the narrator pleads with her not to do it -- but it demonstrates her determination as a character. This is what she wants, ultimately. The credits show them together as "Paper Boats" plays.

A few things are happening in the song itself: For most of the game, the narrator has spoken for Red, a singer who lost her voice. Now her voice is back. Second, the two finish the song -- which builds magnificently -- by harmonizing together. If you are a hopeless romantic in their mid-20s -- which I was at the time that I played Transistor -- that shit hits. "I will always find you, like it's written in the stars" might be a little schmaltzy, but I don't care. The song still gives me chills.

Riley: I'm a little hazy on Transistor's plot; the game came out ten years ago, which is what prompted us to discuss it in the first place. Viewed through this lens, I can see your argument. But I'd counter with this: "Build That Wall," in particular through its simple instrumentation and very good bass riff, grabs me without context. It's short and straightforward, and it doesn't need a ton of explaining. "Build That Wall" has less lyrics to start falling into schmaltz. It feels very... purely itself, without trying to sound like a song you could hear outside of a video game. I appreciate it for that.

Nathan: I mean, "Paper Boats" works without context too. It definitely works better with context, but so does any Supergiant song. Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett just make good music, lol. I appreciate that both songs also FEEL like their respective worlds, even though they're from the same people.

"Build That Wall," like you said, uses relatively simple instrumentation, whereas "Paper Boats" starts out relatively sparse, but even then, it carries a kind of synth-y menace that mirrors the human alienation that tends to come part and parcel with cyberpunk settings.

They're both good!

Riley: This is true! "Paper Boats" is a bit more... "I am a song" than "Build That Wall" because it comes from a world with more everything, including things to make music on. Where "Build That Wall" reflects the destruction of Bastion's world.

I sort of tend to judge how good I think a song is by how much fun it would be to play. After our argument, I looked up the ukulele tabs for "Build That Wall" and they're nice--the riff isn't quite so bass-y on a ukulele, which doesn't strictly speaking have bass, but it's a fun riff to play. Plus it has a G minor, which is one of my favorite chords. "Paper Boats," by contrast, features an E chord, the ukulele's most cursed chord.

Nathan: Lmao. Well, I recently sang "Paper Boats" at karaoke, and while a) it is hard, it is also b) fun as hell to belt. So I think we're tied in this category.

That said, I have a secret weapon in this argument.

Riley: Oh no.

Nathan: "Paper Boats" has never been tarnished by a live performance that prominently featured the incredibly out-of-place singer of Imagine Dragons.

Riley: Haha, I saw that this existed when I was looking up the song and decided not to engage with it.

Nathan: Look at him sway back and forth awkwardly. Even he doesn't know what he's doing there!

Riley: I found a recording of Korb and Barrett performing "Paper Boats" at Day of the Devs, and on just guitar I actually liked it more. But I have very weird musical tastes, which are a combination of punk rock, musical theater, and gospel hymns from the 1800s, that last one representing a love of straightforward lyrics and musical simplicity that make "Build That Wall" or this stripped-down arrangement of "Paper Boats" much more my jam.

That said, if you're adding Game Awards performances into all this, that sort of changes the game! Like... Imagine Dragons on the stage makes everything worse, where last year's Alan Wake 2 performance just made what was great about "Herald of Darkness" even better. 

Nathan: So what we have here is a weird performance of "Build That Wall" and a great performance of "Paper Boats" (that people decided to disrespectfully talk over). Seems like "Paper Boats" is still winning to me.

Riley: Maybe, as with your opening argument, it's the context. But then maybe what makes Game Awards "Build That Wall" worse is that it attempts to add things to a song that shines because it's so bare bones. Like Imagine Dragons is working against what makes the song great.

Nathan: I agree! But for better or worse, it's part of the canon now.

Riley: I feel like I'm letting you change the grounds of the argument in order for you to win, trickery you only require to counter the stark reality of how right I am.

"Build That Wall" just gets in and gets out! It does what it needs to do in about half the time of "Paper Boats" and lets me get on with things.

It would be less fun to sing at karaoke, though.

Nathan: Damn, giving me TWO wins in this multifaceted Olympic competition between songs? The results speak for themselves: "Paper Boats" is better. 

Riley: My love of "Build That Wall" seems predicated on simple things like a very basic, pretty song, and being able to enjoy it by playing it myself alone in my house, where your love of "Paper Boats" seems built on social settings and the stuff that surrounds it. Which does feel very indicative of our different characters.

Luckily for us, they are both very good songs. Supergiant is very good at songs! In this instance they are better at one song than another, and that song is "Build That Wall," but still: good at songs.

Nathan: While I hear and respect what you are saying, I remain unconvinced. I hope that this clear fissure does not result in one of us digging a hole while the other builds a wall.

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