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 favorite tracks.
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.
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 ass 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....
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 favorite 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.
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.
Good news and less good news from the Humble Bundle camp today. The happier end of the bargain is that purchasers of the current Humble Bundle 4 now get the base contents of Humble Bundle 3 (i.e. VVVVVV, Crayon Physics Deluxe, Cogs, And Yet It Moves, and Hammerfight) added to their pack. That’s if they’ve bought HB4 already. If they haven’t, they’ll have to beat the average price to get the bonus goodies. The average price is currently $5.17 million. (more…)
Did that headline get your attention? Good, because you should go and read this super-cool piece by Kill Screen's Lana Polansky about mechanics, practice, saxophone, jazz, and Street Fighter. (It also features the amazing illustration above, drawn by Daniel Purvis.)
Wait, why the heck am I referring to myself in the third person? Ugh. Anyhow, Polansky's piece is tackling an angle near and dear to my heart, looking at how Street Fighter requires a strict, musical mastery of its systems before play is possible:
I can't imagine a more perfect example than Street Fighter for how a game system can treat practice and play. It not only demands a fairly profound understanding of how its mechanics work, but allows players to combine those mechanics in intriguing and unusual ways once they understand them. Once mastery is achieved, the feeling of play emerges.
From there it goes to a lot of super brainy places, like… the work of Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Bit.Trip Beat and Super Monkey Ball.
It's a cool piece, and worth a read. Everyone we can get to start talking about music and games in this way is a win, as far as I'm concerned. The two have so much in common, we gotta get those crazy kids together more often.
Please Try Again [Kill Screen]
We've seen our share of Humble Indie Bundles over the past year or two—independent developers who gather under the "Humble" brand and release a bunch of their games priced at whatever people want to pay.
The latest one, Humble Bundle #4, might be the best one yet—for any price you want, you can get Super Meat Boy, Bit. Trip Runner, Jamestown, Shank and Nightsky. Pay more than the average price (currently tracking at $4.61 on the Humble Bundle site), you get Cave Story + and Gratuitous Space Battles as well.
There's no shortage of gaming to be done this December, but these are all great games, for a great price. And not only will you be supporting indie devs, you'll have the option to give money to either the American Red Cross or Child's Play.
Check out their (endearingly cheesy and reference-laden) trailer above. It's funny, I was quoting that bit from The Rock all last weekend for some reason.
Humble Indie Bundle #4 [Humblebundle.com]
Details of the next Humble Indie Bundle have once more leaked, because Steam’s Content Description Record Viewer Thingamie is so ludicrously easy for people to spy. And it looks like it’s going to be a bit of a corker, as spotted by DIY Gamer. In the pay-what-you-want collection it seems there will be Super Meat Boy, BIT.TRIP.RUNNER, Jamestown, Nightsky and Shank. That’s the first wave, and then there’s even better to get added in.