Sep 23rd, 2017, 05:39 PM

Press Play to Start — Part 2: Three Sides to the Same Coin

By Ofir Ben Dor
Image Credit: Steam/Edmund McMillen
Looking into The Binding of Isaac series and how the soundtracks handle mood and atmosphere differently.

The Binding of Isaac series only consists of two official games and their expansions: the original, that was released on Sept. 28, 2011, and its remake — The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth — released on Nov. 4, 2014. Both received high critical praise, sold very well and have developed a strong fan following. A small group of these dedicated fans worked on their own expansion to Rebirth which they released, for free, on Dec. 20, 2016, called The Binding of Isaac Antibirth. The fan-made expansion was so impressive, that even the creator of the series (Edmund McMillen) reached out to them to talk about integrating their game into Rebirth — before their game even came out. Each one of these versions of the game has its own unique soundtrack, and thus, its own slightly different take on the narrative.

While the game has a pretty clear premise, the real story is only told in small bits through the game's multiple endings. Most of the narrative, instead, is conveyed through the symbolic visuals and the locations you visit, and it involves a complex relationship between a child and religion. The game may sound incredibly dark and disturbing, but at its core its "a pretty silly game", as the original game's composer Danny Baranowsky described it. The colorful and cartoony style, the (somewhat) immature and dark humor and the music help convey a much more balanced narrative that mixes a dark and foreboding story with the innocent, fun and imaginative mind of a small child. Even though the end result was the same, each version of the game handled it differently through its soundtrack. For this article, let us examine the three versions of the "secret room" music.

The Original: Respite Composed by Danny Baranowsky

Simple, mellow and melancholic; Baranowsky's version represents a quiet moment where the player is separated from the rest of the level. In a way, it gives the player a moment to slow down and relieve some of the stress from the hectic gameplay. His intention was for it to be a:

"kind of a contrast to the madness/insanity/evil of the rest of the game"

The soft melodic piano is not only eerie, but also nostalgic; it paints a scene of loneliness with a small tinge of hope.

Rebirth: The Forgotten — Composed by Ridiculon

"Ridiculon" is a small band of two artists: Matthias Bossi (who did some voice acting for the original game) and Jon Evans. Edmund was a fan Mathias's band and had requested both of them to do work on a different game originally before this one. According to them, he wanted them to:

"push the music, harmonically and structurally away from what people would consider 'normal' for a video game soundtrack"

It is this approach that explains the disharmonious, subtly chaotic nature of this piece. It is quiet like Baranowsky's one, but there is a much stronger sense of dread with the sounds of the wind and chimes in the background. The constant soft piano chords and glockenspiel notes, while a bit soothing, Never make the player feel completely safe.

Antibirth: Forgotten Lullaby — Composed by Mudeth

Antibirth's soundtrack was made intentionally to be "evocative of classic Isaac". Gone are the more atmospheric tracks of Rebirth, replaced with more thematic ones like in the original. The theme of crippled innocence specifically is strengthened in this piece with its (again) soft melodic piano, quiet, "music box" like background and small bells. The theme is a variation of the game's title theme, though much more hopeful in tone and focused on the main melody. Unlike the previous two the song changes and evolves, adding strings and developing the melody; It creates this image of a person feeling alone entering this room, only to slowly be filled a sense of hope, of a better future. While answering some questions on Reddit, the artist said something that reveals a lot about his music:

"I can't please everyone, but I hope that at least there's enough going on in a track that people feel something"

To discover Part one of the series, check here.