In Real Life

The Best Game Music Of 2011: The Binding Of Isaac

We’ve done a lot of big-budget games so far in our Best Video Game Music of 2011 series, but there were some great indie soundtracks released, as well. One of the very best of those was Danny Baranowsky’s dangerous, dark, synthy work on the Zelda-esque roguelike The Binding of Isaac.

Described by our own Stephen Totilo as “A wonderfully warped Old Testament Take on The Legend of Zelda,” The Binding of Isaac was a rigidly difficult game that centered around punishing exploration and experimentation as players made their way through a series of randomly generated basement levels in an attempt to help the titular hero escape from his mother’s zealotous captivity.

It was a wonderfully challenging, creepy game, but what put it over the top for me was Baranowsky’s sinister soundtrack. A dark combination of synths and electronic beats, it took a bit of Danny Elfman, a touch of Muse, a hint of old-school Final Fantasy boss music, and brought ‘em all together into something dark and unique.

For this entry in our series, I thought it would be fun to chat with Baranowsky about the process behind writing three of my favourite tracks.

“Sacrificial”

This is one of the first tracks to play in the game, and one of the most evocative. It’s got this winding, ever shifting 6/8-ish thing going on, and the melody twists and turns and never quite resolves the way you expect it to. The chord progression almost reminds me of a creepy (or, creepier) version of “The Carol of the Bells,” which feels appropriate, given the sinister biblical allegory of the game. Here’s Baranowsky:

“Welcome to the basement” was kind of the idea [with "Sacrificial."]. Something brooding, a little “music-box”-y, and inspired by classical choral music (to fit in with the biblical allusion). But at this point the way I write is very based on state of mind, I try to consume the aesthetics of the game and the situation of the track at hand, and just be absorbed in it and just…..go.

That it ended up being in 9/8 with other parts in 6/8 just kind of happened, I felt like the asymmetry of it would help to make people not get comfortable in any kind of familiar rhythm, while at the same time having sections that were something to ground the track and give people a feeling of progression.

“Respite”

This piece is gorgeous. Nothing says “a moment of calm in the storm” like some wide, wandering ambient chords. I love the natural sixth that turns up in here — most minor tonalities have a flat sixth, but here, we’ve got an “A” landing while in C minor (kind of sounds like it’s over a Bb chord, actually). It’s that brightness that gives things a pensive air, as opposed to the driving dread of most of the other tracks on the soundtrack. Which is fitting, since it plays inside of the “safe” secret rooms in the game.

Late in development, most of the music was done, and I had some time to polish/add extra shit, and so I started doing like the “Shop Theme (Greed)” and “Ambush Room Theme (Burning Ambush)“, and I felt that the secret rooms (you find them by bombing walls) was a great opportunity to introduce music unlike most of the rest of the game, kind of a contrast to the madness/insanity/evil of the rest of the game.

Indeed it was.

The funny thing about “Respite” is that the idea for the arrangement came to me instantly, and the whole track was sone in about 15 minutes. Not terribly impressive, it’s very short, but the funny thing is Omnisphere (the VST used to make it) had some some dumb arse bug that made it POP every time it looped. I spent hours screaming at my buddy Jimmy Hinson (Big Giant Circles, worked on Mass Effect 2 soundtrack) who is kind of an Omnisphere guru and he calmed me down and helped me fix it. and then, to top it all off, because of the way the game was coded (flash) all the tracks have gaps when they repeat anyway, so it didn’t even matter….

“Divine Combat”

This track is shit-hot. In my opinion. What starts out as the sort of typical boss-battle-ish driving thing quickly morphs into something more notey and more compelling. Right around 0:33 shit gets real, as the beat double-times with this cool-as-heck ascending sixteenth-note line in E minor, pulling up, up, up and back around to the driving, building main theme. A terrific example of boss-style music done right.

I don’t know why but boss music has always been my favourite music from probably anything ever. I can’t begin to try and guess how many hours of my life I’ve listened to the boss themes from FF4, FF6, FF7 and FF8 on loop. I like to think my boss themes are very Uematsuean (i just coined that), which feels like blasphemy to say, but he is by far the greatest influence on my with regards to music in general, and certainly boss themes.

As influences go, you could certainly do a lot worse than Final Fantasy maestro Nobuo Uematsu, a.k.a. the guy who wrote J.E.N.O.V.A.

You can download the The Binding of Isaac soundtrack for ridiculously cheap from Baranowsky’s BandCamp page, and he has also just released a very cool album of piano renditions of tunes from his killer Super Meat Boy soundtrack. Check ‘em both out.

We’ll be back tomorrow with another of 2011′s best video game soundtracks.

“The Best Game Music of 2011″ is a multi-part series highlighting the best video game soundtracks of the year.