Music can really enhance a game's atmosphere. It can take an already great experience and really help sell the mood, something composer Danny Baranowsky has become well-known for. Danny B has worked on a number of indie games, including Cannabalt and Super Meat Boy, and he's now lending his talents to the recently-released The Binding of Isaac and the upcoming Cave Story 3D. We recently had a chance to chat with him to find out about his creative process, and to learn his thoughts on game music in general.
Above: The Binding of Isaac isn't what we'd call a "happy" game.
GamesRadar: For people who may not know you; can you start off by introducing yourself and giving a little bit of background on how you got into making music for games.
Danny Baranowsky: I’m Danny Baranowsky and I do music for movies and games… mostly for games nowadays, though. I started by doing music over at Overclock Remix about ten years ago, and over time I got better and met game developers. I did a game called Cannabalt, and then I did a game called Super Meat Boy, and it just kind of grew from there.
GR: How early did you get involved in The Binding of Isaac?
DB: Pretty much as soon as Edmund started thinking out loud about it. Back when it was going to be a flash game that he was going to do in like ten days. I was out of the town when he actually started it, so I couldn’t do it right away, but as soon as I got back I started doing some sketches and stuff. We did a very symbiotic thing, where he would send me art or builds and I would write music, then I would write music and he would do art to the music. It was very intertwined.
GR: Is that your ideal way to work on a project? Do you like being involved in the process?
DB: Absolutely. It has to do with how well I get along with the developers – and that’s not to say that there aren’t a lot that I don’t – but if we work well creatively together, which me and Edmund of course do, it’s the best way to do it. I think you can kind of feel that in Isaac, it’s very cohesive. Everything about it feels fluid and solid, and I think that’s why.
Above: Disturbing doesn't begin to describe Binding of Isaac.
GR: Absolutely, and Isaac is a very, very dark game, and the music is extremely fitting. Have you ever done anything this dark before?
DB: It’s sort of my preferred music. My favorite kind of music is sort of… dark. One of my favorite bands growing up was Stabbing Westward, who did that song “Save Yourself,” and it was super-crazy gothic-angsty pop. But people keep saying that Isaac is dark, but I don’t see it that way. I guess the music is sort of dark, but I see the game as sort of… melodrama for sadness. I guess. I don’t know a good word for it.
I guess if you think of it in human, real-life terms it’s dark: it’s a baby killing his mom, and blood and poop and all that stuff. But it’s so silly… I really tried – and I did this in Super Meat Boy, too – to not take it too seriously. Meat Boy, in the end, got super dramatic and epic music, but I was trying to be melodramatic and tongue in cheek. Maybe I failed, since everyone thought that I meant to be super epic, and that’s the same thing with Isaac. I guess it’s dark, because of the way the music is written, but in the back of my mind there was always this voice saying “Well this is a pretty silly game. You’re crying at poop. And coins come out.”
GR: I guess the reason I find it dark is because when I hear the music I see the game. When I hear the music I see a crying child, it matches the game so well.
DB: And I have to draw another parallel to Meat Boy. With Meat Boy it was match the old-school feeling, and that was sort of the whole mantra of it. With this one it was dark, but sort of silly. It’s a little slower and more tense, punctuated with stress. It’s always on the top of my mind: how is this music going to match the pace of the game? The setting? All of it. I don’t think you can just write music from the art of a game, it has to match the feel of it. I was one of the number one testers for the game, and before I did a bulk of the music I was familiar with how it played.
Above: Danny's work on Super Meat boy turned the awesome, silly game into an awesome, silly, epic game.
GR: It comes across, the game and the music work well together and that’s something not every developer appreciates yet.
DB: Oh no. Oh no. Not at all.
GR: Have there been any games you’ve played that you feel like the music is working against the game?
DB: Some Star Wars games, when they just put Star Wars music in it from the movies… like, when I was a kid I played Shadows of the Empire and I thought it was amazing. But I was a kid – I didn’t think of things critically at all. It was a cool game, but they just dropped music from the movies into it. I remember running around Hoth and having that music from random scenes from Star Wars in there randomly crescendoing and going up and down… when nothing was happening. Like, some Star Wars games have custom soundtracks and do an amazing job. The Force Unleashed series, as criticized as they were for other reasons, I thought the music was done really well. It was made for it, and it matched the pace of the game.
GR: It felt like Star Wars music without actually already being Star Wars music.
Click to the next page to hear about why Danny isn't too worried about Cave Story 3D fans...