If you look at screenshots of The Binding Of Isaac, you’ll see something like the mid-1980s Legend Of Zelda, as filtered through a demented toddler’s vision of the Old Testament. There’s blood and crucifixes and puke and Satan everywhere. This qualifies the game as “subversive,” where “subversive” is defined as “extremist Christian folks would probably be pissed, if they cared.” (The right wing doesn’t pay much mind to indie PC games, though, so no uproar. Cultural obscurity has its fringe benefits.)
Isaac’s cartoony, poop-stained Christian pastiche is clever and funny. But the game is even more deeply subversive than its visual style indicates. With Isaac, designer Edmund McMillen takes a look at the Old Testament version of God and says, sure, God, you could rule the universe that way—a real hands-on approach—but what if we did it like this? And then, as the deity of his own little game world, McMillen shows off his laissez faire concept for ruling the universe. Giving stage direction to the Almighty—THAT’S subversive. And that’s the more profound message of Isaac, the one that lasts after the initial shock wears off.
I’ve always been amused by the biblical telling of the Isaac story. It’s essentially the tale of this huge meddlesome jerk in the sky. One day, God tells this guy Abraham that he should kill his son, Isaac, as a demonstration of his love for God. Abraham goes along with it, and at the last minute, God tells Abraham he was just kidding. The end. (Actually, God sends an angel to do it, probably because God’s too busy snickering and wiping the tears from his eyes.) If the Book Of Genesis were the first act of an ’80s college flick, God would be the blond, muscular frathouse prankster, and Abraham would be the hapless nerd who gets his revenge by act three.
But the Bible isn’t an ’80s college flick (yet), so the real upshot of the story is that God has His fingers in everything. He’s an interventionist. If He doesn’t like the way things are going, He futzes around until we humans get back on track.
Isaac, the video game, is built by a creator who doesn’t futz. After the prologue—a modern revision of the Bible story in which young Isaac’s mom hears the voice of Old Testament God, and that voice tells her to stick a kitchen knife in her son—the concept of a creator is relegated to the sidelines. Once Isaac retreats to the basement to begin the game in earnest, The Binding Of Isaac makes its world up as you go along. Rather than sticking to a handcrafted template that plays the same every time, in Isaac, each dungeon is built on the fly, and at random.
In the sterile jargon of game design, this is called “procedural generation.” What this means is that instead of, say, hand-crafting a level, the designer will instead build some basic rules that a level should follow. For instance, they might program a rule stating that each room should be connected to other rooms, so that it’s possible to get from the beginning to the end. (That’s probably a good rule—if you’re building your own procedurally generated game, you can have that one on the house.) When Isaac builds a dungeon, it also makes sure to include things like a shop and a final boss room.
These are the basics; Isaac’s rules are intricate and deep, and they allow for huge variations. In one play session, you might find a forehead-mounted laser for Isaac. The next time, you might instead be blessed with a useless “power-up” that allows Isaac to soil himself. In fact, there are a couple hundred different items in Isaac, and you’ll only get a few of them each time you play. That’s a far cry from Zelda, which doles out each of its gadgets at a pre-appointed moment. If you’re gonna need a pointy grappling-hook thing, the game gives you a pointy grappling-hook thing. (Another important difference: Link never craps his pants.)
Game developers can call this setup “procedural generation” if they want; I call it deism. Deism has been banging around in one form or another since the Enlightenment, when folks like Thomas Paine sang its praises. Unlike the Genesis God, who’s always fiddling around with humanity to make sure things go according to plan, the deist God doesn’t have a plan. Rather, God created all of existence, set it into motion, and then kicked back for an eternal beer. God’s work is to set up the rules by which the universe operates, not to punish sinners or scare pious folks into almost-murdering their sons.
If game creators are like little gods, then McMillen and Isaac programmer Florian Himsl are from the deist school. They only make the rules of their universe; the game’s program and the player do the rest. When Isaac strolls into a den of spiders and half-skulled zombies, it’s not because the creators pre-ordained that it would happen that way.
There are plenty of games that incorporate some form of procedural-generation randomness but relatively few that take the whole-hog “deist” approach and let it define the world—games like the venerable dungeon-crawler NetHack or the recently revamped Spelunky. One reason it might be so rare is that deist games can feel awfully unfair. In The Binding Of Isaac, sometimes your supposed “power-ups” actually make life harder. You might have to face two powerful bosses in a row, or even two at the same time. And if you die, you have to start all the way over at the beginning. Like I said, really freaking unfair.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. Fairness is overrated. We game critics love to praise fairness. We say stuff like, “This game is tough but fair,” as if we’re judges at a spanking contest. We’re the arbiters of redass, and pink cheeks are the rule. The underlying assumption seems to be that no matter how hard a game is, it ought to reward players in proportion to their effort and skill, and never abuse them.
That’s an elegant idea. It can also get dull. Take Batman: Arkham Asylum. Here’s a game where you’re one dude in a madhouse full of criminals. By all appearances, the odds are against you. Late in the quest, you might find yourself in the midst of a 20-crook pile-on. Of course, by this time, you’ll have the benefit of a super-strong Batman and plenty of practice. There’s no such thing as an unfair fight in Arkham Asylum—just fights that look unfair.
Oh, and just like Zelda has done for almost 30 years, Arkham Asylum gives you new tricks and gadgets where and when you’ll need them. Call it the intelligent-design approach—every detail has a reason. It’s all part of the plan. That’s a pleasant fantasy of how the world should work: You get everything you need to win, and if you fail, it’s your own fault. Bad things only happen to bad players.
In Isaac, bad things can happen to good players, and vice versa. It’s closer to how the world really does work. (Even Jesus said that rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and I guess he would know.) I recently spent a couple months’ worth of weekends trying to conquer the underworld in Isaac while playing as the Samson character. Now, McMillen and Himsl’s vision of Samson isn’t quite the Philistine-slaying superhero that you get in the Bible. Aside from a Tom Brady-esque coif, he doesn’t have much going for him. He’s slow. He’s feeble. About the only thing he’s good at is getting angry—when he kills a lot he gets stronger.
I lost count of the number of times I fell short with poor Samson. But I do remember one attempt, after weeks of failure, where I came close. I’d been wily, and I’d been a bit lucky. This time, I was going to make it. And then, one room away from my final glorious destiny, I ran into two horsemen of the apocalypse. The four horsemen get all the headlines, but trust me, the double act is no picnic, either. I panicked, and this latest journey was over.
It was a freak occurrence, maybe a one-in-100 shot. Totally unfair. If I had been playing Arkham Asylum, I probably would have pouted and fantasized about mashing the programmers’ faces in their stupid jerk keyboard. Because in a game where every encounter is pre-planned, and every moment carries implicit intent, you can perceive unfairness as cruelty. You can justify shaking your fist at the creator.
In Isaac, I guess I could have cursed Edmund McMillen for creating a system that would let that happen, but rage tends to be more satisfying when you don’t have to shake your fist at some indirect causal abstraction. So the truth was that I just felt a profound loss. It’s not that I failed again but rather that I failed knowing that I hadn’t really done anything “wrong.” I did the best with what I had, and it wasn’t enough. Moreover, I wouldn’t get to retrace my steps. In Isaac, as in reality, greatness and rightness provide no guarantees of success.
The lack of that implicit “do well and you shall be rewarded” promise not only makes Isaac feel true to life, it makes the game feel alive. The situations you encounter weren’t carefully laid out in advance; they are happening for the first and only time right now, as you play. They might be glorious, and they might be cruel. Without an intelligent designer protecting you from undue harm—with the knowledge that yes, the game could be unfair—your sense of self-determination can come to the fore.
That’s the power of unfairness. It’s not that the caprice of Isaac is inherently superior to the scripted fairness of games like Arkham Asylum or Zelda. These are great games, and I wouldn’t presume to change them. I just think that if we dispense with a critical bias toward assiduous fairness—if we welcome different interpretations of the way the world might work instead of insisting on one particular fantasy—we can discover experiences that the fairness-first model simply can’t offer.
My most lasting takeaway from my experience with Isaac is that video game worlds can act as spaces where we “try on” different conceptions of God. Isaac operates on something like the deist model, and Zelda’s key-for-every-lock setup is clearly the work of an intelligent designer. Maybe when you run up against an invisible wall at the edge of a game world, you’re bristling against the overbearing hand of a meddling, Old Testament-type deity—and you should just be grateful He didn’t ask you to stab a loved one.
Screwing around with your idea of God in real life is like rearranging your emotional furniture. Sure, every once in a while you feel like you’ve got to do it, but it’s not something you necessarily look forward to. The miniature theologies of games are more digestible. They can let us see how an uncaring deity, or a vengeful one, affects the way we act and the way we see the world. Games can challenge and shift your conception of God without forcing you to reinvent your Sunday morning schedule. And while the ideal “justice for all” creator is a perfectly fine one, I think it’s time that we also give some other gods their chance in the spotlight. Seems only fair.