For Our Consideration

The Binding Of Isaac

The Joy Of The Forsaken

The god who rules The Binding Of Isaac doesn’t care about justice. That’s what makes the game great.

By John Teti • July 30, 2012

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.

The Binding Of Isaac

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.

The Binding Of Isaac

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.

The Binding Of Isaac

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.

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  • caspiancomic

    Oh man, I have been super digging The Binding of Isaac for the last several weeks. Which is funny, because in a lot of ways in runs totally counter to my preferred game design philosophies. I guess what this game taught me is that “well designed” doesn’t necessarily mean having an anal-retentive level of control over what happens in your game, and that a game predicated almost totally on chance can still be well designed. After all, Isaac beautifully plays on a couple of my favourite elements of gaming: surprise, exploration, discovery, helping a character grow stronger and change, etc. You know how in Symphony of the Night, when Alucard is petrified, he has like a 1 in 100 chance of turning into a statue of a huge demon? This is like that little finishing touch exploded into an entire game. I’ve put like 45 hours into this game and I’m still finding stuff that not only have I never seen before, but it didn’t even occur to me I might see. True surprise.

    And sure, when I get three levels deep into the world and I have to fight tooth and nail to find a key to unlock the treasure room, and what’s sitting inside is a crappy situationally-useful trinket that I’d be better off without, or something that doesn’t complement or even outright conflicts with my current character layout, that’s pretty upsetting. And walking into a room with like four Keepers in it will always make me want to pull my hair out. But on every, like, fifth or sixth playthrough, when through sheer good fortune you turn into an immortal flying fifty-hearted killing machine with an army of followers and 70 keys, and you trash every boss in like three hits, that’s some seriously satisfying gaming. It’s strange, because in any other game being absurdly overpowered would suck all the challenge- and therefor fun- out of the game. But in Isaac, when the same petty enemies that killed you your last seven runs are getting ground into dust by your newest build, it kind of balances it all out. One really good run it satisfying enough that the frustration of the last five sort of melt away. An aspiring designer (like me!) would do well to study the relationship between frustration and satisfaction in this game, and learn how frustration is not always the enemy of progression, as we discussed in the comments a couple of weeks ago.

    (Also, I usually roll with Cain, since he starts with the Lucky Foot. I’m going to try and clear the game with some of the other characters in the future since I hear you unlock new junk by beating Mom with different folks.)

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    ‘Binding of Isaac’ is one of an burgeoning category of games where I love hearing about it, love reading about it and really enjoy all the conversation it sparks, but have no desire to play it myself. I had countless opportunities during the Steam sale to pick it up for the digital currency equivalent of two bottle caps and a mouse skull, and always almost… But never did.
    Perhaps it’s the art style, which has some great ideas, but I find ultimately off-putting; or knowing that no matter how high concept, I’ll never enjoy this progress-by-attrition style game play.
    Which is a shame, because the largely taupe landscape of gaming had instilled in me a belief that a game should be rewarded with my time and money just for trying an idea, even if the attempt is a failure. I guess one of the sole metrics by which to gauge the success of indie game development is the number of these games now available has greatly thinned out that sense of obligation.
    Besides, I only like to play games that promote gnostic theism. I like a game to really feel like the broken creation of a wretched demiurge. Which is why I’m currently enjoying ‘Duke Nukem Forever’.

    *Badum-cha*

    • Juan_Carlo

      Don’t let the art style put you off.  There is really no more “playable” game than BOI.  Games last like 15 minutes to and hour, so they are short, and there’s always something new to see.  My steam account says I’ve played for 65 hours total and I still have a ton of stuff I haven’t unlocked yet.

      I usually hate it when games use gimmicks like achievements and unlocks to keep you playing, but BOI does this really well as the items ad extra levels of strategy and new ways of playing to the game, rather than just being pointless digital trophies. 

      If McMillen ever wanted to sell out, remove all the questionable content from the game, and stick it on facebook–charging people for items and plays–he’d make 1 billion dollars.

      • Aaron Riccio

        I dunno. I’d add that the basic MOBA like Dota 2 is extremely playable, too. Games are always an hour or less, the combinations of heroes and items keep bringing up new things, and the only difference between it and BOI is that there’s nothing random about it (except for a few character skills). Your winning or losing is based entirely on the skill of your teammates, and as I said in an earlier post, I prefer games that are either pure skill or pure random — which is why I’ve sunk a similar amount of time into both.

    • blue vodka lemonade

       I usually avoid games touted for their difficulty or randomness but the specific blend of difficulty and randomness in Isaac is addicting. After three or four failed attempts to clear even the first basement level, or making it thisclose to the end and then dying, there’s a rush of pure rage and frustration and I quit and I tell myself that the game is Not For Me.

      Twenty minutes later, I’ll be playing again. When you get a good power-up, or you defeat a boss that’s killed you a dozen times before, or you find some new shiny *thing* that is unlike any other thing you have seen in the game, you get a hit of endorphins that make you feel great for the rest of the afternoon.

      Basically it’s drugs, or the life of a con man. You keep saying this is the last time, but you know you’ll be back.

      • The_Misanthrope

        “Basically it’s drugs, or the life of a con man.” :  Can’t it be both?  That would explain why the three-card-monte guy down the street feels the need to explain that occasionally the queen, instead of being one of the cards, will manifest in real life and demand her cut of the money.

    • PPPfive

       Don’t assume, it makes an ass of u and me

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       I had similar reservations, but the insane cheapness of the game (it was only 1.25 during the sale, I think it’s only 2.50 regularly) gave me the impetus to give it a shot. I certainly won’t put as many hours into it as most here have, but it’s definitely worth trying out.

      I haven’t beaten it yet, and only have a handful of failed playthroughs under my belt, but the small time commitment of a playthrough, and the low cost of the game, make me feel like I’ve still gotten my money and time’s worth to try something relatively interesting and novel, if not entirely my cup of tea.

    • The_Misanthrope

       It is rarely a progress-by-attrition game.  Even in a game where you have had nothing but bad luck in your treasure draw/loot drops, you can still beat the game through sheer force of will and some pretty basic skills.

      The Legend of Zelda comparison gets tossed around a lot, but gameplay-wise, I think the more apt comparison might just be Robotron 2084/Smash TV as it uses the move-and-shoot-in-any-of-four-directions mechanic.  Mind you, you will never have to go up against massive waves of enemies, but the rooms are smaller and more obsctructed, so I guess it balances out.  The strategy is the same throughout–move and shoot, keep the wall to your back if possible–so even on a bad run, you can still calmly work your way until luck turns your way or until you beat the game. 
      While the enemies start to get harder the further you get in the game, they are never impossible.  And since you will get to know some enemies/bosses really well over enough plays, you can adapt your strategy to them.

      And, if this point didn’t come through in the article or the other comments, some playthroughs are exceedingly fair, giving you just the right combination of items to make the game a cakewalk.  Like a rechargeable item that allows you to instantaneously do significant (often deadly) amounts of damage to all enemies on screen (Necronomicon) and a power-up that ensures the item will charge fast enough to be used in every other room (The Battery).  Or an item that turns you into a chubby boy with health to spare (Bucket of Lard) and one that gives you nine lives to waste/cherish (Dead Cat).  Or items that power-up/quicken your shot (numerous) and power-ups that allows you to shoot through both obstacles and enemies (Ouija Board, Cupid’s Arrow).

      One might assume I’ve played this game a few (dozen) times and that assumption would be correct.  Once I actually pick up the Wrath of the Lamb DLC, I’m sure I will fall off the wagon and start playing obsessively again.

      • Placeholder

        “Even in a game where you have had nothing but bad luck in your treasure draw/loot drops, you can still beat the game through sheer force of will and some pretty basic skills.”

        That really depends on what you consider to be the end of the game. With bad luck, you need a lot of skill to survive the Womb, and you’ll have no chance in the final levels (Wrath comes with a whole new final boss)

        • The_Misanthrope

          I suppose I can dial back my statement a bit. I have only played Classic BoI thus far, so I can’t make a blanket statement. I have beat the game a full nine times and most of the games I lost were due to panic or fatigue. But, yes, I have noticed a few very-difficult-to-impossible situations that can emerge: having low speed (1 or 2) and going against a fast, chasing boss (Gemini, Steven), never/rarely getting a health pickup (especially as Judas), and possibly a few others. Sometimes what seems impossible at first glance is merely a pain in the ass after a few playthroughs. The Womb can get pretty hairy, but there is no reason to play tourist in those levels,either (no treasure room, no merchant); The best strategy in The Womb is to make a beeline for the boss.

          I will freely admit that I have only fought Satan twice (ahem…in the game, many more times in real life) and I lost both times (though the first was due to the Bible autofail). The first two forms (or rather The Fallen and Satan’s first form) are a pain in the ass but manageable. I haven’t survived long enough into the third form to develop a good strategy for it.
          Then again, the first couple times I went up against Mom, I was pretty cowed by the encounter, but in time, I developed a strategy to deal with her.

          The point that I seem to have wandered quite a way from: if you’re on the fence about BoI, buy it anyway. Even at its full price, it is still pretty cheap and you have the added bonus of supporting the indie games scene.

        • http://www.facebook.com/JimmBennett Jim Bennett

          @The_Misanthrope:disqus I find a good strategy with Satan’s third form is to run around and drop bombs behind you, if you have enough. Otherwise it’s really a matter of running one way and shooting the other. It’s less pattern based than the first two forms, but he mostly stomps directly behind you. The bomb leeches are the biggest problem sometimes.

        • Aaron Riccio

          @The_Misanthrope:disqus : The Bible auto-fail is hilarious. Then again, I still haven’t had the Bible when fighting Mom, so I can’t unlock that achievement. Sadly.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      @Juan_Carlo:disqus , @green_gin_rickey:disqus , @bakana42:disqus , @The_Misanthrope:disqus 

         Thanks, all.  You each do a very compelling job of sparking my interest in Isaac.  Now my only excuse for not trying it is the formidable backlog of games I’m currently sitting on.  I’ll be sure to pick it up the next time it’s on Steam sale.  In the meantime I’ll just listen to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Story of Isaac’ while lying face down on the couch with a bottle of Manischewitz spilling out of my hand.

  • Enkidum

    Still haven’t played BoI, but the way y’all keep plugging it I’m gonna have to get it eventually.

    The article says that there are relatively few completely procedurally-designed games – I guess “relatively” is a relative (heh heh) term, but don’t all roguelikes qualify, by definition? But roguelikes aren’t all that popular, I suppose.

    I like a lot of key-for-every-lock style games (from games I’ve played recently, Halflife comes to mind, as does Bioshock, and that’s just FPSes), but I always have this moment when I’m playing them that the coincidences just pile up too much and it drives me crazy. What kind of supervillian would stock his lair with one key for each door, colour-coded so you know which one matches with which? The suspension of disbelief really falls apart at that point. Of course after I shoot a few more things I usually forget about it, but that’s just because I’m easily distracted. Pew! Pew! Pew!

    • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

      I didn’t use the term “roguelike” because the piece isn’t so much about genre as it is about worldview—a worldview that I don’t think needs to be constrained to a single sub-genre—but yes, roguelikes certainly constitute a large subset of the “deist” idea I’m talking about here. I think their approach to the role of the creator is underappreciated and has a profound resonance to the eternal debates (both public and internal) over the role of our own creator, if such a thing exists.

      • Enkidum

        I guess open world games generally occupy a sort of middle ground. In, say, Infamous or GTA, there are tight missions (as @The_Misanthrope:disqus mentions below) where every thing you need is laid out precisely. But then the rest of the time you’re running around dealing with largely procedurally generated events.

        I never really think of the creators of such games as gods, exactly, but if they were I guess they’d be something like the God many Christian denominations think of these days. Effectively deist for the most part, but occasionally intervenes for “mission-critical” stuff (tweaking evolution to produce humans, putting Jesus on earth, helping with American wars, saving people from disasters if they pray enough, etc).

    • dreadguacamole

        There’s a section of suspension of disbelief that’s wholly owned by gaming that I find fascinating – instant health recovery, small, easily traversible cities with just enough NPCs to be interesting, conveniently blocked-off corridors… – we learn to ignore them to a degree because we recognize that they’re necessary contrivances for gameplay reasons, and also because they become tradition at some point, kind of a shared language between similar and not so similar games.
       The more games try to be immersive and “cinematic”, the more they need us to ignore these tropes, and the more they lean on them (because it’s very hard to create a directed experience that’s also open)…
       …and I’ve completely gone off-rails. But I often have the same problem with Bioshock and other modern games, especially when they do a shoddy job of hiding these conventions.

      • The_Misanthrope

         Yeah, Bioshock gets cut a lot of slack because the “lack of free will” theme is woven into the story’s end-game, but it doesn’t make the “Sorry the Princess is in another castle”-routine any less frustrating, especially when they spent the better part of the last few levels telling you that you only had *one* more hoop to jump through.

        Of course, there’s my obligatory mention that the GTA games have tended towards narrower and narrower mission parameters.  Sure, on your off-mission time, you are free to fuck around however you like, but there is one and only one way to complete your mission successfully, so stop being so clever.

      • Enkidum

        Well one way around this is to have really long cutscenes where the player doesn’t do anything at all, interspersed with long sections of fairly open gameplay. The trouble, of course, is that this tends to be boring as hell, and creates a strong disconnect between the immersion in the gameplay and the immersion in the story.

      • doyourealize

        Not only “instant health recovery”, but the idea that we have some kind of health measure like hit points that we can refresh in the first place.

        • George_Liquor

          Well, the alternative is you suffer injuries until you die and the game ends. Now that I think of it, you might be able to wrap an interesting game around that concept.

        • dreadguacamole

           Quite a few games have done away with discrete hit points, and instituted other weird conventions like blood splatters across the screen or the edges of the screen going red/dark. Dark Corners of the Earth and the latest Alone in the Dark (ugh!) come to mind.
           My favorite, besides Dark Corners of the Earth, has got to be the one in NeverDead: you play as an immortal, your wounds are very visible on the character model, and you lose limbs when you’re damaged, until eventually you’re just a head rolling around.
           You need to regenerate by rolling over your shed body parts, katamari-style.

           Don’t take that as a recommendation of NeverDead, though – I can’t really rate it better than “interesting failure”.

        • dreadguacamole

           @George_Liquor:disqus : that actually sounds pretty awesome – something based off the (sometimes very silly) combat and health system of Dwarf fortress, where you can’t heal, only plaster your wounds and soldier on…
           I guess you could say Dwarf Fortress adventure mode, but I like my games with a little more game.

        • doyourealize

          @George_Liquor:disqus That was in response to the idea of suspension in disbelief in video games. I wasn’t suggested we should do away with that. Also, didn’t Bushido Blade have a health system a little like this?

          Also, to add on to the game, maybe you could go to a hospital to heal those wounds, but since it takes time, enemies will become stronger and more abundant while you’re waiting to be healed.

        • Aaron Riccio

          Whatever happened to “get your health up by banging a few prostitutes in a rockin’ van”? 

        • George_Liquor

          @doyourealize:disqus Pfff! You can’t expect me to read these comments and actually comprehend their meanings, right? I mean who has time for that?

          There’s an old adventure game called It Came From the Desert that has a hospital mechanic kinda like what you described. When you get shot, stabbed, attacked by giant ants or succumb to heat stroke, you wake up in the hospital (staring at these two) and you’re given the choice of accepting treatment and losing a couple of days, or trying to escape, which launches a really hard mini-game. Since you’re only given two week of game time to win, and the giant ant menace gets worse as time goes on, it’s always in your best interest to try to escape.

        • http://www.facebook.com/arthur.chu.94 Arthur Chu

          That one moment everyone finds so awesome in the first CoD: Modern Warfare game is awesome precisely because up till now you’d been playing a game where you can make it through any battle scenario by finding cover, holing up, and veeery carefully inching your way forward — only to suddenly be thrust into a situation where there is literally no cover that can be taken.

        • George_Liquor

           @dreadguacamole:disqus Mr. Bones for the Sega Saturn has a very similar health mechanic. You play a skeleton in the game and as you take hits, you drop arms, legs, hip bones, etc. until you’re just a skull and spinal column pogoing along. In the same way, you regain ‘health’ by grabbing replacements for your lost bones and reassembling yourself.

  • Fist Beefchest

    I remember reading recently that some developer (I think it was someone working on Torchlight 2) said that balance is boring, and I agree. I mean, it’s fine, and probably necessary, for big, linear AAA titles like Batman. But what keeps me coming back to games like Isaac is the possibility of finding a powerup that will allow me to blast even the strongest enemies into paste with a mere glance. There’s a true anarchic thrill in feeling as if I’ve broken the rules (as the article says, it’s the power of unfairness), and this game doles out those moments at a perfect pace.

    • Aaron Riccio

      I think this is the key phrase right here: balance in boring. Isn’t that why, according to religions, “deities” gave us free will in the first place? If everything is on the rails, if everything goes exactly according to plan, you’re not really playing a game so much as following a cleverly disguised series of QTEs. The best of them, like Mass Effect 3, mask a fairly rigid system by offering the ILLUSION of choice, or by scripting various options, but there’s nothing like the freedom offered by a pure game like BOI, which creates a bunch of items, rooms, and enemies, and then lets you encounter them in a new way each time. The expansion, which I’m not sure if Teti played or not, takes things one step further, by offering alternatives to the basic levels (e.g., cellar/basement) so that even the areas you’ll descend to are random, as opposed to mapped out. 

      And yes, there’s an order and a difficulty curve that scales way up through Sheol and the new final level, but there’s something maddeningly enjoyable about figuring out what stuff does simply by interacting with it enough to learn from the process. (For instance, getting permanent hearts by gambling with the blood banks.) 

      Please, sir, may I have some more? 

      (Oh, and a final note: the amount of content McMillen released for this game, both in free and for-pay DLCs is more than most developers put into a regular game, so kudos to him for sticking with a title. I wish more designers shared this level of commitment.)

      • caspiancomic

         Woah, you can get permanent hearts by gambling with blood banks? I usually blow them up in the hopes of collecting a few cents? Unless I’m using My Little Unicorn, then I spam the thing for free.

        • doyourealize

          There’s always something to find out in this game that you didn’t know about. I can’t tell you how long it took me to realize that the different shaded blocks gave you gifts if you bombed them. And that bombing blocks created a bridge over chasms.

        • Basement Boy

          I, too, once feared the Blood Banks… find yourself a Bloody Penny and go to town on those things!! I accumulated over 99 coins and 3 Blood Bags (which = 3 new hearts) in one sweet run last night…

    • caspiancomic

      Extra Credits did an episode about this idea recently. They have a pretty illuminating talk about the idea that imbalance is actually good for a game, and I totally agree. Subtle imbalances are a particularly driving force in high level fighting game circles. If you follow ‘the scene’ surrounding a fighting game for a few months or years after its release, you can see an ad hoc tier system develop around which characters have the statistical upper hand, and then as players develop methods to throw the balance off and conquer previously undefeatable characters, the tier system is tweaked and refined. Same deal with high level Pokemon play: certain mons, builds, and strategies are seen over and over because either they’re the most powerful, or they can exploit the weaknesses of the most powerful setups.

      • Maudib

        The imbalance is actually pretty addicting to me.  So much so that after 500+ hours sunk into the game, I’m hoping to hit Eve or Blue Baby every time I hit random.  I definitely always ditch powerful starting items for crappier ones, because I want to master the use of lemon mishap or the bean effectively.  Flubbing around with them is fun when it isn’t frustrating.  The rage is short lived since the goal in my mind is to be able to succeed at the game no matter how many “trash items” I am fed.  Maybe, one day, I’ll even keep swallowing the bad pills even after I’ve identified them. 

        Even if I can’t, I at least have the difficulty ramped up thanks to the expansion pack.  I can’t imagine how futile it feels being new to the game and getting both the game and the expansion.  The jumping spiders and greed heads with some of the room layouts are downright impossible to get out of alive.

        • caspiancomic

           Aaarghrgh, avoiding those bad pills is one of the main reasons I roll with Cain. Putting 35 cents into a slot machine and having it finally dish out a pill only have it reduce your speed or range is a real killer. With Cain you can stick any old garbage in your mouth and the worst case scenario is that nothing happens. Plus, it makes getting Mom’s Coin Purse as good as getting three or four other normal items. Unless you get like, two telepills and a puberty pill.

          And yeah, I started the game with the expansion right away, and the greed heads are a complete nightmare. Funnily enough, though, when I read about all the stuff the vanilla version doesn’t have, it sounds almost endearingly easy. All told Wrath of the Lamb has almost twice the content, and I can’t really imagine a version of this game without something like the Harbingers, or a game that ends the second you kill Mom. Killing Mom is like, less than halfway through the game! You haven’t even gotten to the point where there’s no treasure, no shops, and enemies are twice as strong! That’s The Binding Of Isaac!

        • Aaron Riccio

          @caspiancomic:disqus : Yes, but by the time you reach the levels with no shops, you shouldn’t really need them any longer. One of the interesting things about Isaac is how perfectly it scales up: barring any misfortune with pills, as you say (and I similarly played a lot of Cain, although I’ve switched to Samson and am now attempting to complete it with everyone else, including ????), if you’ve made it far enough, you’ve probably got a good enough build to keep going — though there are of course rooms that’ll be trickier than others.

          (I, for one, can’t stand those headless jumping guys, especially when they catch on fire.)

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/gorfious,4040/ Gorfious

          Ending after Mom was only ever the first time you beat her.  The Harbingers and Mom’s heart were in there since the game launched, and Satan was added in the Halloween patch.  It wasn’t quite as tough as it is now, but it was a complete game.

          What I think would be most off-putting about jumping straight into the expansion is the heavy bias it has to dropping the new items.  This is great for veterans such as myself who have played all the old items to death, but it has to make completing the Collection a real motherfucker for the new people.

      • Ghostfucker

        I usually enjoy extra credits, but that episode was bullshit. He either didn’t understand his terms, or failed to properly define his version of them. None of the things that he was describing as good unbalanced gameplay were actually ‘unbalanced’ gameplay. Asymmetrical yes. Potentially interesting metagaming, yes. But the core systems of those games were not good because they’re unbalanced.

        The League of Legends example is pretty terrible as well. If that’s the future of proper game balance…god help us.There’s a better take-down of it here if you’re interested: http://www.sirlin.net/blog/2012/7/18/a-discussion-of-balance.html

        • caspiancomic

           I am interested! I tend to take EC’s word on something as gospel, which I think even they would describe as a bad move, so I’ll be interested to see the argument from another perspective. I’d be interested in seeing a discussion about balance vs. imbalance vs. asymmetry.

          Out of curiosity, do you think the EC episode was bad because the points they made weren’t valid, or because the terminology was incorrect? If you replaced any occurrence of the word “imbalance” with “asymmetry” in the video, would you still take umbrage with it, or would it then be more or less accurate?

        • AHyperkineticLagomorph

          I’m also interested in what @caspiancomic:disqus asked. I saw that episode a while back and thought it sounded pretty spot on. I’ve seen a number of games where the “best” strategies change over time, mostly due to everyone adopting the “best” strategy or weapon or what have you, thus making counter-weapons more effective.

        • Ghostfucker

          My problem is that he used the term imbalance to describe what are actually a number of completely different game systems that have little to do with balance; and the things that he described as being bad because of perfect balance were not so. Unbalancing chess would not solve any of the problems he described about it (if white suddenly started off fewer good pieces it would just make it less enjoyable, the same memorization problems would still apply. If Starcraft suddenly became wildly unbalanced toward one race, it wouldn’t solve the need to quickly put pre-defined strategies into play) the problem with chess is that the play field is always static. The problem with starcraft is that there is too much of an in-game benefit to fast click-per-second ability.

          In the article I linked Sirlin also uses the idea of collectible card games as well, and the fact that at high level play it’s all about the meta-game of deck building and very little about the actual game anymore. Some people love the deck-building, but it’s still kind of lame that actual gameplay hits the sidelines at some point. Again, unbalancing magic would not solve this problem. BETTER balance would, as in limiting the types of deck builds that can be created.

          I think the original video made a couple good points. I just think that most of it doesn’t make any sense, and comes to lots of conclusions that it hasn’t actually proven in any way.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          Let me just bust on in here with having not seen the Extra Credits thing in question and only skimming that article linked and say that anyone calling League of Legends “balanced” is pretty much totally wrong. The fact that most of the characters are behind a paywall is absurd, and the rune system they have is just awful as well.

          That’s all I’ve got.

  • Juan_Carlo

    I always wanted AV Club to do a “Gateway to Geekery” for Rogue Likes. Binding of Isaac isn’t a straight up roguelike but it does maintain many of the core mechanics of the genre (perma-death, randomized items, character stats, etc etc), so I actually think it works as a great intro to the genre for people who have never heard of roguelikes.

    I say next stop would be “Dungeons of Dredmor,” which is a bit like “my first roguelike” (although I don’t mean that as a put down.  It’s easy to approach, but is still as fun as any more complex rogue likes), followed by maybe Doom Roguelike, Nethack, and topped off by the granddaddy of difficult interfaces and complexity: Dwarf Fortress.

    • KidvanDanzig

      Yeah I was sort of disappointed in Teti for not mentioning Dorf Fortress. It’s the epitome of procedural generated games in that it’s really less of a game and more of an insane story generator. There are tons of really great written accounts (in and out of character, some illustrated) of how the merciless algorithms of the game conspire to undo everything they seek to accomplish. Death is certain, failure is fun. 

      Most of the really incredible ones come from the old versions of the game, before they implemented a z-axis for the world and thus the complexity and randomness of the terrain (and thus the difficulty of the game) were much, much lesser. The most famous is probably Boatmurdered - http://lparchive.org/Dwarf-Fortress-Boatmurdered/

      Oilfurnace is another (illustrated!) - http://www.timdenee.com/oilfurnace/

      • Fist Beefchest

        My favorite Dwarf Fortress story is that of Zaneg Thazor, the despotic lunatic barrel fetishist. I strongly recommend a Googlin’ if you’re not familiar.

    • The_Misanthrope

       Would you count Desktop Dungeons?  It has a lot of roguelike elements, but it really subverts the whole play-style.  At least it did in the early version; I haven’t played the Beta one.

      • doyourealize

        When you open the credits (at least in the alpha), it says, “might just be a ten minute roguelike.” So at the very least, the designers think it is.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      Nippon Ichi’s and System Prisma’s last couple of dungeon crawlers are the best I’ve played since those made in the mid-1990s.  Those 3 games are rock-solid, difficult without being inaccessible, quite innovative in their gameplay, and easily outclass their competition in aesthetics.  Those 3 are worth a PSP, easily.

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

    AAAAAAACTUALLY, the binding of Isaac is 1 of the greatest stories ever written, as duly explained in the greatest blah blah Kierkegaard Fear And Trembling blah blah made me cry.

    Really, though, this was absolutely excellent.  It made me think 2 things.  1, we need a whole video game cosmology.  We had the benevolent and neutral God.  Malevolent?  Shoot-’em-up/Puzzle greats Compile, surely.  http://hardcoregaming101.net/aleste/compile.htm  The A.I. makes the game harder and more attuned to you based on what weapons you have.

    2, I think this only works if the gameplay mechanics and numbers behind the game are very obvious.  There’s something so simple about dungeon crawlers and battle-focused role-playing games; the numbers game is ruthless.  If you lose to a randomized event, it’s too “deist,” too removed to be painful.

    Play an S.N.K. fighting game final boss or a masterful opponent.  It’s still very much a numbers game: frames, damage, chaining opportunities, range.  There, the complexities are too dressed up and personal.  Being outclassed or cheated out of a win on a random shot or ring-out is absolutely deflating.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      If only they made a Cabin in the Woods videogame…

      Seriously, that could be fucking awesome. Videogame making people, get on that.

      • Aaron Riccio

        I really, really need to see this movie now, don’t I? 

        • The_Misanthrope

           Lana from Archer:  Yep!

          (Also, watch Archer S1-3 if you haven’t.  Remember how Simpsons quotes became the lingua franca of the bright young things, then Family Guy and Arrested Development quotes.  If you want to stay au courant, you have to know your quotes.)

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      All the mention of Zelda made me wonder about the cosmogony/theology of the first Zelda game. Teti criticizes the Zelda games’ “intelligent design” approach, where every lock has a key and so on, but in the first Zelda game, that wasn’t always the case, and you could just buy keys at the shops until you get the Magical Key – which I’m pretty sure was an optional item itself. In fact many of the items – even the sword! – are optional, and the levels, while numbered, can be tackled out of order.

      The world isn’t procedurally-generated, but it is a bit more loosely designed. It is a product of deliberate design decisions, but ones that allow for player agency and exploration rather than following a prescriptive track. In many ways it splits the difference between BoI’s anarchic design and later Zeldas’ linear design.

      Also relevant: You are a little man with a crucifix on his shield assembling a golden triangle to kill an unclean pig wizard. You can also set diabolical enemies aflame with a Bible. It seems the God of Abraham (or some perverse Japanese approximation) looms large in the first Zelda game. No wonder the first cartridge was gilded.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        Maybe the first Zelda’s God is the Christ of The Grand Inquisitor. You have a goal/ideal you are meant to pursue, but you can’t pursue it via a rigid, hierarchical system for salvation. Rather, you must use your freedom to pursue this Ideal, making it more challenging but also more meaningful to do so.

      • George_Liquor

        Seems like a good place for this:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejFDw4yz56o

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        Y’know, I’m envious of Japan’s ability to appropriate western religious iconography as aesthetic flavor that can just be tossed into games.  It’s the kind of thing I’d love to see in more western games, though unlikely due to outcry from people not wanting to see their faith exploited in an offhand manner simply because a cross is incredibly easy to render with a simple pixel palette.
           I guess I’ll just have to remain content with our casual assimilation of eastern religious iconography, like getting a shiny foil yin-yang sticker from a grocery store vending machine, or the girl I know who inadvertently got the Muslim star and crescent moon tattooed on her backside, because she saw it on a ‘Black Crowes’ album.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           Your closing bit about the yin-yang sticker is pretty much on the money. We ignorantly bastardize their mythic and religious iconography, and they repay us in kind. I remember in high school when Evangelion came out thinking it was Japan’s payback for years of handwavey bullshit “Eastern Mysticism” in American media.

  • Aaron Riccio

    Sure. In a competitive game, everybody should always be either on equal footing (results determined by skill) or both subjected to the same random whims (results determined by chance, with a skill modifier). It’s the games that do neither that are frustrating: so many FPS games, especially the ones that have instituted ranking “bonus” systems, are filled with blatantly unfair and unbalanced match-ups, and consequently, with such nasty personalities that why should any of us even bother? 

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      I’ve been playing a lot of Dota 2 lately, which is super competitive, but also has a level of variation that’s sort of similar to Binding of Isaac. There are something like 100 characters to pick from at the beginning of each match and then there are probably over a hundred items that you can buy with money that you earn in the match. Everyone starts out equally but the games themselves are never ever the same. So you can experiment with different item builds or team composition and get wildly different results. 

      And the way it all comes together is fascinating as well. There are hundreds of different timing opportunities opening and closing throughout a game of Dota (whether or not to push, take out Roshan, put vision wards in certain spots, set up an ambush, etc etc) that it can seemingly never get boring. Also, rounds last about an hour or less, so you can try out a new strategy pretty easily.

      The more I think about it the more I like the comparison between the two games. Though BoI is a LOT more luck based than Dota, they really complement each other pretty well.

      • Aaron Riccio

        @Douchetoevsky:disqus : Great minds think alike. Not sure when you posted this, but if you scroll up (or down) I posted a similar comparison to Dota 2 in one of the other threads on this page. They’re the two games I’ve invested the most time with so far, not counting Mass Effect 3, which I think I’m done with for now, outside of the themed weekends. (Too time-consuming/frustrating trying to earn enough money to get random permanent items that will eventually make it easier for you to collect said items.)

        • Staggering Stew Bum

          @google-19efbd0104cbaffa5782aef5b7104019:disqus  Don’t worry, you don’t need decent weapons or characters to regularly beat gold in ME3 and rack up the credits, you just need good teammates and common sense. I know because I have zero good weapons and have beaten a ton of gold games despite being decidedly average. Like all online modes, this is much more fun with friends. After a few golds with friends the credits start to mount up but it doesn’t matter anyway because you’re actually having fun.

          The ’random’ unlocks from the packs I purchase give me shotguns, assault rifles, more shotguns and yet more fucking shotguns, when I use a sniper rifle and pistol with every single class except the adept (pistol and smg). Am N7 1060-something and still haven’t got the Black Widow, this is the only weapon I want and yet is the only weapon I will probably never get. I played with a random with N7 30 the other day in a bronze match rocking a Black Widow II, which is kind of spirit crushing. I have a theory that the game analyses your most used class and weapon type and makes sure the packs give you the opposite of what you’d want, to tempt you to buy more packs with real life money. Sorry EA, but I’m on to you.

        • Aaron Riccio

          @Staggering_Stew_Bum:disqus : I purposefully mess around with different builds just to confuse the game as to what I want — I use everything EXCEPT sniper rifles and SMGs. And I have no problem beating Gold maps with good players. I’ve found, however, that Silver is actually a little more rewarding, since you can more often beat it, and with good players, you can do so in about 19 minutes, as opposed to Gold’s 38. 
          But if you’re playing on XBOX and want to give it a go, I play a mean Engineer or Adept. (I reset my Infiltrator to Level 1, so I’d have to build it back up.) 

  • KidvanDanzig

    I generally fuck with roguelikes but I can’t really stand the whole Newgrounds aesthetic. It was all very… High school. I could barely tolerate Super Meat Boy. Might as well drink mountain dew and wear cargo jeans while I’m at it.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      Yeah, the whole premise is kinda like that to me. I’d have been all over it when I was a shithead 14 year old. I get the feeling that Edmund McMillen is a kind of 4chan dwelling neckbeardy type though, given the subject matter/artstyle of his games and the bits and pieces I’ve heard about his public relations and stuff.

      That said this and Super Meat boy are loads of fun, though I really wish it wasn’t actually running on Flash (because, you know, Newgrounds). The game runs pretty terribly all things considered.

    • blue vodka lemonade

       @Douchetoevsky:disqus The “Newgrounds aesthetic” gives me vague freshman-year warm fuzzies. It was a fun time!

      The decorative trappings kind of fade away as you play, or they do for me. Art that seemed ugly and simplistic when I first got the game is now barely noticeable, because the different enemy types and power-ups and stuff just read as their function/behavior now.

      And the music is kinda catchy.

    • Aaron Riccio

      I was in the Steam Gameological Chat Room the other day, cursing up a storm about a level in Super Meat Boy that was just about unbeatable for me — not something ridiculous like the kid’s levels, mind you, but a level that I could tell exactly how long it was going to take me to perfect. I posted a bunch of screenshots at each “step” of the level . . . 

      But then again, I think I like a little masochism in my games.

      • Effigy_Power

        Way to plug the Steam chatroom, which a lot of people don’t seem to have noticed yet and is always full of cold beer, warm pie and lots of naked people.

        Also love and money.

        • Aaron Riccio

          I aim to server. 

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          For the record, I have always been fully clothed while using the Steam chatroom.

          But it does get steamy in there sometimes. *rimshot*

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       McMillen’s games are definitely ones where the ludic aesthetics do a lot of legwork offsetting the ugly and sophomoric visual and narrative aesthetics. Super Meat Boy held no attraction to me based on its ugliness, and the internetty “ha-ha, meat-boy” humor tone, but when I finally got it in a bundle and gave it a shot, I realized the REAL reason why the game was such a big deal. Binding of Isaac is kind of the same way.

      And, to be fair, 99% of AAA games come from a decidedly high school (or middle school) mindset, but even some of them are still worth playing.

    • James Bunting

      Yeah, I played the game, beat mom, beat mom’s heart, and mastered a few contingencies, but the “haha look it’s poop and fetuses” thing did not really do it for me. The combination of resource management, strategy, and execution made for a very fun game, but I’m not convinced that the setting was anything more than a wild grab for the lowest common denominator….

      • Aaron Riccio

        Oh, believe me, the lowest common denominator hates to work at things. There’s no way that they’re playing Binding of Isaac multiple times. They’d be way too frustrated. The LCD enjoys the couch and all things couch-related. They’re eagerly awaiting remote-free TVs. ::sigh:: Welcome to America!

        • James Bunting

          Ok, you make a good point. Maybe. I think you do. I’m conflicted.

          Maybe LCD wasn’t the right descriptor, but I still don’t think Issac’s setting is worth anything more than the shit it so rampantly paints the walls with.

          Gamers who get amazingly good at games - masocore gamers – often get that good in order to compensate for their overall lack of accomplishment. I’m speaking as somone who got the ultra ending in ADOM, so don’t think I’m being condescending. Being awesome at a game can make up for never kissing a girl, or working for minmum wage in a very wealthy country, or for being unable to muster the courage to tell the clerk at the fast food counter that you ordered your burger without mayo. It’s a great way to avoid confronting your devastating character flaws by honing your razor-sharp skills. Plays right into evolutionary biology… back in the day, I’m sure gamers were awesome at fletching or knapping or whatever, even if a mammoth had crushed their leg two winters ago.

          I’m trying to think of a way to summarize an essay-length post here. What I mean to say is, Issac, with its combination of total immaturity and high difficulty, discreetly validates the infantile behavior that’s so rampant in hardcore gamer culture - and that plays into casual misogyny, homophobia, racism, yadda yadda yadda. I’m just saying it’s a very subtle factor, not trying to call apples oranges.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           @google-c497d74a90843bcb9d0e6224d21998e3:disqus : I can sort of see where you’re coming from. It’s like they decided that gameplay was far more important than narrative or tone, but rather than make an abstract, Tetris-like pure gameplay experience without narrative or tone, they instead opted to make the narrative and tone as grotesque and stupid as possible.

          Maybe we can find an analogue in other willfully trashy media like Troma films, or something? Maybe there’s some way to frame the non-ludic aesthetic decisions in this game that redeems them somewhat? Or maybe they’re just hopelessly adolescent.

      • The_Misanthrope

         Two points before I reply to the “Newgrounds aesthetic”/ infantile humor argument:
        1.  I’m still playing Classic BoI, so if WotL changes up the story significantly, then you may disregard the following.
        2.  There are some minor story spoilers, but most of this is thematic spoilers.

        There are multiple interpretations (and indeed multiple endings) on the game, but the first time you kill Mom, you get a short scene showing a piece of paper that Isaac was drawing on and then it goes to the “I Killed Mom!” title screen (after the credits, natch).  All this seems to lead to the interpretation that all this is simply the revenge fantasy of poor Isaac.  Of course, further ending complicate this idea more than a little bit. 

        Of course, all of that could be a bullshit way of covering for the puerile aesthetic of the game.

        At this point, I may have written more words about BoI than the article.  I may need to work on my concision.

  • http://theladyfingers.blogspot.com/ Ladyfingers

    The best retelling of the story of Isaac is the song “Beatiful Child” by Swans.

  • Staggering Stew Bum

    I have a damning confession to make… Steam says I’ve only logged a mere 11 minutes in Binding of Isaac! The thing is, that was all it took for me to become too frustrated by the keyboard controls to carry on. To put things into perspective, Super Meatboy got over 2 hours out of me before the keyboard controls became untenable and that damn thing needs super precision.

    So looks like I have failed the Gameological hive mind. But hope is not lost, perhaps I can get back into it’s good graces by pretending to like Bastion, Psychonauts and LIMBO when they get their due 11 minutes.

    EDIT: Apparently Psychonauts already got 10 minutes. Damn it!

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       Sounds like your problem is less with the games and more with needing to pick up a gamepad for your computer.

    • PPPfive

       I have to agree with Girard, your problem sounds like an easy fix

    • Effigy_Power

      The controls turned me off the game as well when I gave the demo a try. I sort of like the simplistic, comicy graphics, the subversive dealing with biblical lore, the music was good…
      I simply can’t get “move with these four, shoot with these four” into my brain. I never have been able to. If the game was keyboard and mouse I’d probably be a tiny bit better, but in general I am terrible at separating movement and firing direction.
      It sucks, but from hours and hours of past experience I know that no amount of cool story, randomness or platinum rimjobs could ever make that control scheme palatable for me.
      It makes me sad, but we have to live with our limitations.

      • doyourealize

        In order to play with a joypad, you need to download JoyToKey or something similar and map keyboard buttons to your controller. But mouse controls are built right into the game. Instead of using the arrows to fire, just move the mouse and click. Just make sure you’re in fullscreen mode. Clicking outside the game box could be deadly.

        • Effigy_Power

          I did not know that.
          I retract my previous criticism. Now I have to find another excuse to not buy yet another Steam game, especially since this one seems to be for the GS what Arrested Development is for AVC.

        • Aaron Riccio

          Yeah, but you’re not afraid to stand against the so-called “popular” opinion on certain games/TV shows, so don’t feel as if you need to play BOI. Especially since you’ll have sixty hours of your life missing afterward, at minimum.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          Nooo. The mouse control in BoI is terrible. You can still only shoot in 4 directions. it’s very strange feeling. That said, i guess it wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot. I never had a problem with the keyboard controls so i guess your mileage will vary.

        • doyourealize

          @Douchetoevsky:disqus I don’t like the mouse controls either, but I like the arrow keys even less. In fact, I couldn’t play this game for any extended periods of time until Teti gave me his J2K config. Then my life changed…

          I was just providing @Effigy_Power:disqus with an alternative control scheme.

      • Mike Mariano

        Yup!  The controls for the Binding of Isaac made it a never play this game title for me.

      • Enkidum

        I’m not sure what a platinum rimjob is, but it sounds… interesting. Go on…

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         I could see mapping the movement and shooting to the twin thumbsticks of a controller and playing the game Robotron 2084-style. Do you think that would me any more intuitive?

    • Aaron Riccio

      I made it fairly far in Super Meat Boy without a controller (a result, perhaps, from playing the original freeware flash game) before quitting. I ended up getting a Microsoft Controller online for like $24.99 or something, and it actually HAS been one of the better purchases I’ve made. Even for all that people talk about the awesomeness of a mouse for FPS games, I think I enjoy the gamepad that I’m more familiar with (only recently being able to afford a computer that could run big games). And I appreciated that in Super Meat Boy, it at least ACKNOWLEDGED that you really shouldn’t be playing without a gamepad. 

      That said, I’m kind of shocked that McMillen *hasn’t* offered a gamepad mapping for Binding of Isaac. I don’t want to find one elsewhere. Or does he instinctively know that the game will play better on the keyboard? 

    • caspiancomic

       I’ve never had a problem with Isaac’s controls (and am actually surprised to see how many people have), but for all the love I have for Super Meat Boy, the keyboard controls are terrible. Which wouldn’t be a deal breaker, except that as far as I know, you can’t change them. So it’s always shift to run/special, spacebar to jump, which on my keyboard means twisting my fingers into a gnarled claw in order to navigate the levels properly.

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    We say stuff like, “This game is tough but fair,” as if we’re judges at a spanking contest.

    Okay, Teti, this is probably the greatest analogy mankind has ever wrought. BRAVO.

    • Effigy_Power

      I wouldn’t have expected any less from a certified studfiend.
      And someone who has put this many hours into a single game. I salute your determination, Mr Teti.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        “Your clever metaphors and catchphrases escape me. Like a fat girl waving her trophy from the smell contest.”

        • Effigy_Power

          I am sure that’s a clever quote, I just don’t know from where.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           @Effigy_Power:disqus : It’s from this skit that is surprisingly fantastic considering it is an SNL skit featuring Ray Romano.

          The talk of clever turns of phrase, including a turn of phrase evoking an inane contest, immediately conjured that line in my mind.

  • dreadguacamole

     I love this game. When I originally got it I spent ages on it and could reliably kill mom’s heart even after it gets really hard (after the ninth time you beat the game, I think).
     The thing is I stopped playing it for a few months after I accidentally lost my savegame, and when I tried to get back onto it later (after the expansion hit) I’ve bounced off it repeatedly; I can barely make it to the first encounter with mom. It’s kind of weird, even with the expansion’s added difficulty, it’s as if I’d stopped playing the game for a lot more than I actually did. And I’m finding it hard to click with the gameplay as I once did. I’ll keep on trying, though.

     Oh, and Link totally craps his pants in those green diapers of his. He’s just stoic about it.

     

  • BigBoote66

    Like many others commenting here, I really want to like procedurally driven games, but the problem seems to be that the for developers, procedurally driven means “fucking impossible unless you’re willing to devote dozens of hours into the developing the useless skill of playing this game, or have a natural affiniity to twitch & jumping puzzles.”

    As an old-school gamer, I cut my teeth on roguelikes even before rogue existed, so I’m not against the concept.  The issue I have is that even though these games are short, they’re also structured in a way that the only way to win is “win” (get to the end), and failure is just failure, no matter how far you get. 

    Spelunky was like this for me; the fact that how far you progressed through the game looked something like a bell curve mean that once you got past a certain level, your chances of dying started to go up tremendously, but since you rarely got that far, there was no way to practice the skills that would let you proceed.  I eventually just lost interest when it became clear there was no way I was going to ever get past the first or second level with the floating islands given the amount of time I was willing to put into the game.

    The irony is that these games seem to be pitched at adult gamers with a sense of perspective, but they’re only playable by kids who have many hours of disposable time per week.

    What I’d like to see: procedural games that are simpler to “complete” but offer graduated ways of winning that encourage you to replay the game in order to do it more perfectly.  Obviously this would include a high score list that goes beyond mere high scores – stuff like “Fastest” or “Least damage” or “only killed red enemies” or any other strange metrics for success.  Similarly, it would be cool to have your best game preserved in replay form so that you could relive your victories, etc.

    • PPPfive

      What you seem to be saying is you personally don’t have time for these games, so they should make them easier? That would annoy a lot of people. The idea of arbitrary ways of winning would ultimately, I think, leave the player thinking their actions were of little consequence, and the lists would still be dominated by the slothful kids you mention. Personally, I enjoy playing these games without winning, and I know that dying is a huge part of the appeal. Look to the Dwarf Fortress community who refer to death, enemies, disasters etc. collectively as ‘fun’. It’s more about learning than failing; when it comes to perma-death games, dying a lot is inevitable and shouldn’t be an issue.

      • Enkidum

        Nah, I think @BigBoote66:disqus is saying that they should make games like BoI that are easier. Not that there isn’t a place for the super-difficult BoI-style games – but there could also be a place for the games which are a little easier.

        To be fair, I guess that place already exists, and it’s called my iPhone. Jetpack Joyride, Whale Tail, and so forth, are easier procedurally-generated games with all sorts of ridiculous achievements/high scores. Of course they’re also “always on” – there’s no way of getting to a certain room or whatever and just relaxing, which would perhaps be nice.

    • doyourealize

      I think this view of these games is a little off. After all, even short AAA titles can take 6-8 hours to beat. In those games, you have to take your character through some kind of journey, and then beat the final boss.

      Think of all your Isaac failures as the journey. You don’t lose, you just have to keep playing. And since it’s random, you don’t have to get bored doing the same things over and over.

      It took me around 5 hours to complete the game for the first time. It’s a pretty short game if you look at it this way…with ridiculous replay value.

      • BigBoote66

        I can’t speak for Issac – I haven’t played it.  Maybe it’s solved the issue.  I put in at least 6 hours into Spelunky, on and off, before I realized I was never going to get any better, and I was far from “done”.  The game didn’t have the complexity of Dwarf Fortress to lay claim to the “losing is fun” boast, and there was no “journey” to the failures, just a wall you hit where you realize, “welp, that’s it for me.”

        I don’t think the games should be made easier across the board, but that there should be gradations in achievement other than “You are a winnar” and “total failure”.Right now, challenging games with a decent learning curve are almost nonexistent.  Almost all games out there today, including all AAA titles (with maybe the exception of Demons Souls or Ninja Gaiden, from what I’ve read) are all designed so that even the most poorly skilled gamer can complete them.  Or, they’re these crazily difficult things that require a doctoral thesis in gamer awesomeness to even complete on a basic level.I don’t think what I’m asking is so radical – games can still be hard, but also rewarding for those who aren’t in the elite tier.  Think of real-world sports, such as tennis.  To be the best, it’s plenty hard, but it can still be fun for the untalented amateur.  The way I felt playing Spelunky was like being taught tennis by Roger Federer, who would always let you win a game or two before starting to play full blast, resulting in blowouts.  Without an “in-between” level, you have no chance of ever improving.

    • Effigy_Power

      I hear the “the game is only good for kids, since adults don’t have the time” point a lot, but I can’t quite buy that.
      If you have a hobby or a passion, you make time for it, which should be possible unless you are a medieval Frankish serf or an impoverished iron-miner, in which case the length of video-games as a whole shouldn’t really be an issue for you.
      Not to toot my own horn, but I work a full-time job with a lot of commuting, bought a house that is in the mid-phases of renovation and I am just finishing a degree over distance education.
      Have my hobbies suffered? Absolutely. I haven’t painted miniatures in years, I had to stop drawing my weekly webcomic and I can barely get myself to go golfing anymore.
      Gaming however is an outlet I can throw in just about at any time, either on my computer or one of my portables. If time for me got so tight that I couldn’t divide some up to enjoy at least one of my hobbies, I’d have to make a pretty definite change in my life. I can’t live the way people tell me they lived 2 or 3 generations ago. All work and no play make Effigy a dull girl.
      I’d argue that all it takes is some time-management and even the busiest person can allocate a few hours here and there to a bit of gaming, even if it’s only once a week or even only every now and then in a month.
      The only people justifiably so busy that they can’t even manage that are those who have much more critical priorities to attend to, such as paying off debt or the ever popular “not starving”. But those people don’t usually have the time to even comment on gaming pages, much less play anything.

      • BigBoote66

        I have a wife.  I have two kids.  I own a house.  I have a no-commute job that keeps me busy from 8:30 until 5:30 during weekdays.  

        I have about 4 hours a week (Tuesday nights from 8pm to midnight) where I play whatever games I want, although I spend that time mostly playing online games with my friends from my college years.  In between those times, I have maybe two more hours during the week that I can do casual gaming during 10 minute windows.If I were to spend any more time than that gaming, I would consider myself a huge asshole – playing games when I could be doing stuff with my kids, taking care of the house, or any of the various daily/weekly chores (making dinner, cleaning/fixing the house, yardwork, etc.), or, you know, spending time with my wife doing stuff we both like (like multiplayer games).

        I don’t think my demographic is so small, even if you consider it’s just guys like me that used to game a lot more before the rest of life came to fill my time.  I think developers ignore people like me at their peril.  The huge rise in popularity of casuals that require more skill to play that stuff like Arkham Asylum is a sign that people who like challenges don’t always have the time to spend hours mastering the timing of jumps in platformers.

        • Effigy_Power

          I haven’t played Isaac myself and I didn’t read it in your post, so I didn’t know it had no way of saving your progress.
          That of course makes stop-and-go playing pretty hard. But of course if your focus is on multiplayer games (again, you didn’t mention that in your original post) you won’t want to sacrifice that for playing what is essentially a “casual”… That changes the whole point and in that case you are right.

          I don’t think it would break the game to allow save-points every x rooms as long as they can’t be used to restart after death.
          Sure, people could just quit the game right before death, but if people want to cheat, they will find some way.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           I think having a family is a huge variable that makes a major difference. For overworked people who haven’t spawned, like EP or myself, at least all of our precious, rare free time is largely our own. You are responsible for other human beings in a way we aren’t, even considering social obligations or academic/professional obligations to other people and so on.

          If I only have a spare hour a day, I can choose to spend it doing something receptive (playing a game, watching a show) or productive (writing, painting, or programming something). While the former is slightly more guilt-inducing than the latter, it’s nothing compared to the choice you have to make between spending time caring for your kids or doing something personal/sedentary.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        I still find time to game with a family and job and other hobbies, but the save anywhere function has become pretty much mandatory to my enjoyment of a title.  Having to replay a mission over and over again is the only time I question my choice in hobby.  Incidentally, if you’re not above a bit of self-promotion, what’s your web comic?   I’d love to see your work. 

        • Effigy_Power

          Nah, it’s not good enough for shameless self promotion… that’s just sort of hardwired into me. Center-of-attention-itis.

          But since you insist: http://www.rpgeneric.com

          Just don’t look at the old stuff… then again, it improves, it improves. It starts off as a ripoff… homage to Order of the Stick and eventually goes downhill before it goes uphill…

        • Spacemonkey Mafia

          @Effigy_Power:disqus   Right on.  You weren’t fibbing about either your roots with Order of the Stick, or that you’ve been refining and improving your work since.
             I especially like the large splash pages of Cthullu-esque sky squids.

  • AHyperkineticLagomorph

    I particularly believe and support the first paragraph, in that a lot of moral guardians only seem to notice or care about the games that are all the rage. From people claiming Poke’mon is from Satan, those that believe Grand Theft Auto causes children to find grenades hidden under park benches, or the folks who think Call of Duty gives people military-level accuracy with real life weapons, the only games that get outraged over are the games that could be casually mentioned on the evening news.

    Meanwhile, Shin Megami Tensei games have had a demon/god/what-have-you that takes the form of a giant, green, tentacled, chariot-riding space penis for quite some time.

    No, really. http://megamitensei.wikia.com/wiki/Mara

    But as long as little Billy isn’t asking for a copy of Nocturne for Christmas, they’ll never realize the game lets you, quite literally, punch God in the face.

    • Effigy_Power

      Well, that’s the thing. Popularity, just like obscurity, is a very double-edged sword.

      On the one hand popularity guarantees high production values (which of course don’t automatically translate into any sort of quality) and a wide range of promotion, meaning you can make enough money for the inevitable sequel. You do however more or less shackle yourself to the prevailing taste-consensus the moment you become involved with studios or appearances on talk-shows or advertising in gaming magazines.
      Obscurity means you’re free and wild to explore whatever insanity you have in your head, but you’re going to have to be pretty good in order to make it out of the starting blocks.

      Personally, and I believe that the majority at GS would agree with that point, I think that obscurity is also a great motivational factor. With the big budget games… why bother trying anything? Enough people will buy any shitty game so that you get a return on it. It’s pretty hard to make an actual financial loss with games, which explains the income-curves of EA and Blizzard and other giants in the last 10 years.
      Indie-gamer or mod-builders don’t have those built-in guarantees. You have no market data, no consultants, only the idea and the drive to make something memorable.
      And let’s face it, the satisfaction from making a small flash-game that outsells and outrates a high-budget sequel to some shitty shooter we’ve seen a billion times must be huge.

      • doyourealize

        “It’s pretty hard to make an actual financial loss with games.” – I feel like this needs more explanation. I guess if you’re making sequels to Call of Duty this makes sense, but I was under the impression that video games are a tough business to break into.

        Kingdoms of Amalur is a particularly exaggerated example, but it sold 1.22 million in 90 days, and the studio still went belly up because they needed to sell 3 mil to break even. This is a pathetic business plan, of course, but games are by no means a sure thing, financially speaking.

        http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-05-25-kingdoms-of-amalur-reckoning-needed-to-sell-3-million-to-break-even 

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          That Eurogamer article is a little out of date. Actually, the deal with Amalur was that EA bankrolled the project and agreed to let 38 Studios keep the rights to the IP in exchange for not sharing profits until 3 million copies were sold. The project broke even for 38 Studios by dint of the contract. The huge money sink for the studio was their unfinished MMO.

        • doyourealize

          @Merve2:disqus Thanks for the update. That article is the last I remember reading about it.

        • Effigy_Power

          I guess I should have made clearer that once you sign with a bigwig like EA, the financial loss is pretty much mitigated.
          And yes, since most companies are busy cranking out countless sequels, which is safe, instead of investing in something new, which isn’t safe, it’s pretty much assured that people will buy whatever is on the market.
          That’s also why mainstream games are targeted at kids between 12 and 16 still, apparently they have all the money (I sure as shit didn’t back then. I had to save 3 months to buy a damn GameGear game and then it turned out to be shitty… something with penguins).
          If all else fails, the game will go into the bargain bin a few months later and pretty likely make its money back.

          Amalaur’s problem was that it competed as the new MMO against Old Republic and lost, at least that’s the version of the story I heard.
          That would also explain why Amalaur felt like a shitty MMO. The problem was how much money they invested in a project that was less than sure.
          If you calculate a little more shrewdly, you just make “Tour of Awesomeness – Navy SEAL command shooter 4 – Shoot at dark people” and pretty much count the coinage.

  • http://twitter.com/skullmandible Cohen

    I recently played this for the first time, live-streaming my experience for a group of friends. I apparently had an impossibly, indecently good run of items: polyphemus, technology 1, book of shadows, spirit of the night, peeper, & 1up. I beat Mom on my first attempt. I recognize that a blind drinking bird could have beaten the game with those items, but the reaction of my friends (furious) was worth any future RNG karmic debt. That, and apparently I’ve unleashed a bunch of terrifying minibosses I have nothing close to the skill to deal with.

    • doyourealize

      And I’ve put 16 hours in, beat it once, and still don’t know what some of those items do, or are.

      • Aaron Riccio

        Technology is the laser, right? Yeah, that’s a pretty boss skill. 1UP is rad, too: much better than 9 Lives. And yes, if you’re a skillful player, anything that boosts your damage output, especially things that allow you to shoot THROUGH objects (like spirit of the night, right?) or to fly . . . that will make you unstoppable by most rooms.

        • doyourealize

          Just beat it for the second time, and the combination of Technology 2 (the laser, still don’t know what 1 is) and Chocolate Milk (charge shots) is so good I think it might be a glitch. No tears, just a steady laser that does ridiculous damage.

        • http://twitter.com/skullmandible Cohen

          Guys, seriously, what I’m talking about is even better than that. Massive ghost laser and flying over all pits, yes

    • caspiancomic

       Hahaha, oh man, I too had stupidly good luck on my first run and didn’t know how good I had it. I didn’t really know yet that “beating” the game takes like an hour, and that you’re supposed to play the game over and over again. I knew it was procedurally generated, but I thought it was going to be more like Diablo, where to “beat” the game still takes several hours and requires you to save your game and take breaks and stuff.

      But yeah, my first playthrough I got mutant spider (four tears at once), homing tears, and poison shot, so my every shot was four homing, poisonous tears. After a few more runs of getting much shittier items I was cursing myself for throwing away such an awesome loadout on my amateurish first game.

      Also, you want an awesome set up? Polyphemus + Brimstone = everybody, everywhere is dead.

  • MisterFishes

    Yo, this article is awesome. It’s like, real, honest-to god criticism that uses   the canvas of a piece of art to get to a deeper point. Which you probably already know, but it is awesome.   

  • doyourealize

    1. Also necessary in all these games is they have to be ridiculously easy to say, “Okay, just one more time.” BoI and others accomplish this by having short play periods, but I also think this game would be nowhere near as addictive if you had to go back to the main menu every time you die in order to start a new game. Instead, that “replay” is right there, and it’s so easy to click.

    2. Looking at BoI through a religious lens is pretty obvious, but I’ve only kept this lens on the game level. However, this is an excellent take on deism vs. theism (and, by proxy, intelligent design) in game design, not to mention the ideas in general.

    • BarbleBapkins

      In a similar fashion, I love that the “Are you sure you want to quit?” screen of Dungeons of Dredmor says something to the effect of, “One more game wouldn’t hurt, would it?”

      • Aaron Riccio

        Here’s the biggest issue I have with rogue-likes or games with minimal stories. If I’ve got BoI, why would I ever need to play ANOTHER rogue-like game like DoD? How would I even have the time?

        • BarbleBapkins

          It seems that, judging from the comments, I’m one of the few people for whom BoI just didn’t click. So I luckily get to spend hours playing, dying, and cursing at other games! Muahahaha!…ha…hrm.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          Well, Binding of Isaac plays entirely differently than most roguelikes. As for comparing Nethack to Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup it just comes down to personal preference. A lot of the subtle differences in mechanics can really add up.

          Also, I’ve played this one FPS/Platformer/RPG/whatever so why should I play another one?

  • Alkaron

    “Because in a game where every encounter is pre-planned, and every moment carries implicit intent, you can perceive unfairness as cruelty.”

    I can think of one example of a game like this: Pathologic. The game is specifically designed to be unfair and pull mean, cheap tricks on you. At the end of the game, it even *SPOILERS SPOILERS* makes it clear that the entire time you’ve literally (and yes, I’m using that word correctly) been a doll in the hands of capricious child-gods.*END SPOILERS* It’s totally unique in that respect. Plenty of other games posit a chaotic world where there’s no god looking out for you, but I can’t think of any that introduce the concept of an out-and-out malevolent deity (and actually take that idea seriously instead of using it as an excuse for God-of-War-like nihilism).

    In Pathologic, the designers WANT you to perceive the unfairness as cruelty. Their whole goal is to see what you’ll do once you accept that fact. If the game is cheap and unfair and not fun, will you quit? Get angry? Decide “screw it” and just start killing everything in your way? What if your character is the only thing standing between thousands of people and a horrible disease that causes their blood to literally boil in their veins? Will you still quit, even then?

    What does that say about you as a person?

    It’s a fascinating game, and one of the only games in existence that actually has the guts to pursue artistic meaning over and above “fun.” It’s an ordeal, but if you manage to stick it out to the end it leaves a mark on you. Personally, I think it’s one of the most brilliant videogames ever made, and a good contender for the long-awaited “Citizen Kane of games.”

    • Aaron Riccio

      Hm; you’ve made me want to check out this game. So far as “unfair” goes — that’s fine. The only spot where I draw the line is with a game that is “unbeatable.” (Mind you, this is distinct from a game in which your “beating” it results in you “losing.”)

      • Alkaron

        Oh, it’s perfectly beatable. Its difficulty isn’t of the “make this jump with perfect precision every time or start over” variety. “Exhausting” is probably a better word to describe it. Pathologic is long and ugly. Its survival mechanics are unforgiving. The way the plot progresses makes you feel hopeless.

        You can beat it without too much trouble if you just persevere to the end. The hard part is summoning the will to persevere.

        It helps if you have someone else to talk to as you play, someone who’s playing through at the same time as you or who’s already played it. That’s what my friend and I did. (For those who are curious but don’t want to subject themselves actually playing the game, we blogged our way through every day at pathologistics.blogspot.com.) I can’t imagine how rough the experience would have been if I’d attempted it by myself.

        • caspiancomic

           Thanks for the link mate, I’ve watched a solid LP of The Void (same company as responsible for Pathologic, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you), but I haven’t yet been able to vicariously experience Pathologic. I’ll check out the blog.

    • caspiancomic

       Oh baby, I’ve read a lot about Pathologic and really want to try it out. It seems crushingly difficult, which I usually don’t like, but I think this game might squeak its way in to my heart on sheer strength of tone and setting alone. I don’t think I could name another game where you would willingly and happily trade your only weapon and bullets for a tin of vegetables and bottle of milk.

      Actually you’ve got me thinking about this whole “religious” interpretation of games that the article deals with. Your suggestion that the bone-deep unfairness of Pathologic suggests a malevolent God got me wondering about what other games or genres could be said to have malevolent creators based on their design philosophies.

      What I landed on is Japanese-style Strategy RPGs, particularly Final Fantasy Tactics and the Disgaea series (probably Tactics Ogre as well, but I haven’t actually played it). These are games that in order to win, you are practically required to “cheat”. If you go traipsing through the game’s world casually, you’ll hit a wall really quickly (as early as chapter 1 in FFT) that you simply can’t pass with your current team and skills. In a lot of these games, the only way to really progress is to learn the mechanics of the game, and find a way to cheese them to your benefit. In FFT, unless I have my every unit using the Basic Skill ‘Accumulate’ on their every otherwise inactive turn, I’ll just never have the EXP or JP necessary to build a unit strong enough to deal with the game’s more demanding maps. Playing the game casually isn’t an option: the odds are stacked way too heavily against the player. The only way to win is to turn the game’s logic against itself, and exploit the weaknesses in not only the enemy armies or AI, but the actual programming of the game itself.

      It also helps the argument in this context that the final boss is, indeed, literally a malevolent God.

  • http://twitter.com/TheDeadTexan Andy Lopez

    No love for Dark Souls? Still think that it and Demon’s Souls are the best thing to come out of this current generation of consoles. Just excellent in every single way. 

    • doyourealize

      While I agree with you, I’m not too sure how this connects to the article.

      • Aaron Riccio

        I think maybe in the sense that Dark Souls is a game that you have to keep playing and replaying in order to finally beat it? Difference being that Dark Souls is pure skill/memorization; I don’t think there’s a single random occurrence in it, which is sort of the point, right? (Outside of other player interference.)

        • doyourealize

          Oh yeah, I get the comparison (I actually connected the two in a comment last week), just not the implication that an article about The Binding of Isaac needs to also include, without exception, a mention of Dark Souls.

  • evanwaters

    One point about the story of Abraham and Isaac- it’s most likely there in response to rival religions that practiced actual human sacrifice, and so would claim the Jews were less faithful to their god because they weren’t willing to make that sacrifice. The story says that if God wanted us to sacrifice people we would, but instead He provided the ram.

    • Aaron Riccio

      And the rams have been stewing ever since. Get it?

  • duwease

    “(Another important difference: Link never craps his pants.)”
     WELL, *pushes up glasses*, neither Isaac nor his alternate compatriots sport pants either, a fact clearly referenced in each and every one of your screenshots.  How can one crap pants which clearly do not exist?  I mean, what are we to believe, that Isaac is wearing some sort of.. MAGICAL INVISIBLE PANTS?  Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.

    • doyourealize

      He obviously is referring to when Isaac is sporting the latest fashion of his mom’s underpants.

    • Aaron Riccio

      Reading this made me consider that perhaps that between-acts-scene of Isaac screaming because he’s run out of toilet paper could have been avoided if he’d just realized that there was MAGICAL INVISIBLE TOILET PAPER. 

    • caspiancomic

       They do have pants! Spun from spider webs. By pixies!

  • Ralphie_in_Vegas

    What an awesome review.  I never play PC games but I actually might seek this one out.

  • Raging Bear

    Of course Isaac calls her “Mom,” but it would be more appropriate for the rest of us to refer to her by her given name, Baberaham.

  • deafscribbler

    Very cool and deep dissertation… actually reminded me of a Babylon 5 quote which sums up the idea– “I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.”

  • Basement Boy

    Shit! Been so overworked this week, saw the headline about unfair games and couldn’t think of any… the whole thing is TBOI!!! This game has consumed more life-hours than any other in my over-35 years of electronic gaming!!  (Zelda’s Link to the Past would now rank #2 I suppose, or Illusion of Gaia on PS2…)