Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Rebirth of Isaac's Music

Back from the dead. Or at least from those who were writing their bachelor thesis, just to start studying once more.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. You sure have heard of this game and if you haven't, stop reading, go buy it and play it. I played the original and its expansion for 155 hours and Rebirth already stole 81 hours of my life. I'm currently training towards beating the game with The Lost on hard, but I am still afar from it.

The reason why I thought this game might be worthy of this blog is not because it's great, but because of its music. I heard and read some opinions about Rebirth's soundtrack, which you can purchase on Bandcamp or as a DLC on Steam if you wish so. Inevitably, a comparison to its original counterpart is often included. Some prefer DannyB's soundtrack to the original, others like Ridiculon's approach to Rebirth more.

First of all: The new music is, in my humble opinion, great. It fits the mood and throws you right in. I really like its interactivity; when you enter rooms with many strong enemies, the music track will play more tracks, e.g. a guitar solo in case of the Cellar. I am a huge fan of interactive and/or adaptive music in video games and will definitely write about that in the future. Also, I love how Ridiculon not just actually recorded the music, but doing so in some creative ways. As a student of music design, this immediately catches my interest.

However, as I've played the heck hell out of the original, I can't but compare the new to the old music. While I don't want to compare every single old music track with their newer counterparts, I want to share my impression with you. I like both of the soundtracks a lot. Danny Baranowsky did a great job with Binding of Isaac and Wrath of the Lamb, just as Ridiculon did an amazing job with Rebirth. If some assassin held a gun at my head and forced me to decide which soundtrack I prefer - and only under these (or some very, very similar) circumstances - I'd choose the original.

Okay now let me explain, please! I liked the original soundtrack for being thematic and melodic. The music had actual melodies to even hum along with while playing. Rebirth's soundtrack consists more of musical impressions with which the player is presented. Take for instance the music for the Depths in Rebirth. If I asked you to hum its melody to another player and she should identify it, how probable would it be, she would?

The original basement:
The original cellar:

On the other hand, Danny achieved something, I really appreciated in the original. Take for instance the BGM of the Basement and the Cellar. I don't know, what Edmund and/or Florian requested from Danny, but to me it sound a lot like he was asked to produce sound-alikes for this - and all the other alternate floors. (If you don't know what a sound-alike is, look it up on Wikipedia.) The key, instrumentation and tempo are all the same or at least similar, yet it still is a new piece of music as a whole. As a player this was a great help, because the alternate floors came with the expansion for the original, Wrath of the Lamb. So when you were in-game, you identified the floors by the music. However, if you were in an alternate version of the already familiar floor, you knew, already by the music, what stage and which version of it you found yourself in. E.g.: As much as I love the new music for the Cellar, it bears, in my recognition, little to no resemblance to the music for the Basement. All in all, I would not necessarily say that the soundtrack of the original was better composed, I'd claim, for the experience of the player, it was better designed.

Rebirth's basement:
Rebirth's cellar:

Of course, this is nothing of a big issue at all. The game is still great and I love it and if anybody asked me if she should play the original before, I'd probably reply something along the lines of "Hell, NO!" However, if you want to experience the musical feeling of the original, there are plenty of mods which implement the original music into Rebirth. Of changes in graphics, controls and everything else, music in Rebirth is probably what changed the most. (Yes, I consider it a more drastic change than the now very good looking pixel art of the game!) I, for my part, will be playing Rebirth with its intended soundtrack by Ridiculon. At least, until I reached 155 hours there, maybe I'll change then, just to not forget the original's great soundtrack.