Isaac Unbound

So here I am. Again. Judas in Sheol (that’s Hell), all his stats maxed, more than half a dozen hearts, enough followers to make Jesus blush. And here I go, dead in four rooms due to sheer, dumb luck. This time I’m killed by a floating eyeball leech, one that explodes. This was a statistically unlikely occurrence: the room had four Knights with Isaac’s face on the back, too, and a betting man would have put it to one of them to kill me.

Dead, killed by some strange monster in a horrible basement, there’s only one thing left for me to do: restart and try again. That is the nature of the genre.

Roguelikes, in many ways, are the “manliest”, the least accessible, of games: they demand perfection, both in your mental preparation and in an adaptability to deal with whatever comes your way. They have numbers, sometimes hundreds of them, and many require you to train yourself to see symbols as objects, @’s as yourself. Yet everyone’s playing The Binding of Isaac, a game about crying and the Bible. Even this small change has made the genre so much less obtuse, so much more playable by those outside the roguelike circle. Me, I’m lagging behind people like my girlfriend, who plays few games but very obsessively, and other folk who don’t play video games. In spite of its gross, ridiculous premise and its high degree of difficulty, Isaac has managed to become the rare game that can appeal to people who don’t play games. It’s done what “casual” games have long tried to do: make the “hardcore” accessible.

Isaac makes you imagine more than other video games do. Other games make you simultaneously an actor and a passive appreciator of art. Play your role right, and the video game can possibly become art. Isaac doesn’t do this: it makes you a big kid, eight or nine, watching that Dragon Ball Z influenced episode of South Park, flailing nunchucks around like a badass. Similarly, the star of Isaac isn’t its complexity or its sense of discovery, but rather the visceral weight behind Isaac’s tears thudding into twisted abominations. It’s the child-like wonder of creating something so heavy, so impossibly powerful. More than that, this tactile pleasure has an incredibly low barrier for entry.

The Binding of Isaac‘s physicality is most present in two items: one that adds to your own might, the other that removes it. Brimstone, which turns your tears into an improbably satisfying laser beam that cuts mercilessly through anything, turns the force feedback dial up to eleven. Its intense motion comes closest to games on the DS and on smartphones where touch mechanics let you actually feel the game. Brimstone reminds me, paradoxically, of playing Kirby: Canvas Curse, a game all about drawing sweeping, dramatic lines with the DS’ stylus: they produce the same sense of child-like wonder, of the theatrical. It’s Cartman swinging around a two dollar pair of nunchucks in a dirty parking lot and imagining himself as a character in Dragon Ball. It’s satisfying on both gameplay and imaginary levels.

The opposite, though, is true of the Ouija Board power, which allows your tears to go through enemies. Suddenly the feedback loop is shorted. Instead of a dull thud you get a swish, a response that is nowhere near as satisfying. I’ve stopped playing games of Isaac before because I’ve gotten it, because it turns the game into something more obsessed with choices and statistics than it is with quick, visceral thrill.

But Isaac, more than just a physical force, rewards obsession. That is its mechanic. The player who wins the most is the one who can predict her enemy’s movements, knows the difference between the game’s sundry items. It pairs this with its feedback. It has more in common with Tiny Tower, a game about obsessive-compulsion and physically clicking, than it does to other roguelikes. Its nod to the hardcore isn’t in its obsession but rather through the fact that the same hand that rewards constant play punishes failure. It flips the traditional “casual” paradigm on its head: instead of giving us experiences that only reward perseverance, Isaac also punishes incompetence, demanding you learn something, create something.

In  the end, rather than playing out like the player defeating statistics, The Binding of Isaac plays like a gladiator fight: it demands all of your patience, all of your cunning, and rewards you with the satisfaction of salt water on flesh. Every moment places you right there with Isaac, and every moment it watches for kinks in your obsessively constructed armor. You make some choices, and sometimes the computer punches back. Sometimes you get four Isaac Knights and a bomb leech and the game laughs triumphantly as you struggle and die. But sometimes all of your skills align with your compulsion, and the game opens up before you.


Tom Auxier writes about games, stories and narrative from the snowy confines of Western Massachusetts. He is Features Editor at Nightmare Mode, blogs about fiction and music on his own site and can be followed on Twitter @trueaxiom.