If you want to learn how to design games, you have to play them–a bunch of them. But playing alone is not enough; you have to think about what made the game good, bad or indifferent. This series does just that.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, a reboot of The Binding of Isaac (which started as a flash web game), is good. Very good. It’s play for hours longer than you expect to good. And, maybe most importantly, play until you’ve squeezed the last breath of life from it good. (Much in the same way that Isaac’s mother wants to squeeze the last ounce of breath from her son). Yeah, the game is kind of messed up.
I’ll explain. It’s a rogue-lite indie title, in which the protagonist’s religious fanatic mother hears the voice of God telling her to kill her son. Isaac escapes into the basement of what apparently is the scariest house in the universe, and finds his way through some caverns, (because this house has caverns). Eventually he ends up against mamma herself. Who he kills. In your second play through, you climb through your dead mother’s womb and…
So, what did I learn from it?
Aesthetics make your game stand out. There are dozens of rogue-lite, randomly generated games these days. Plenty of them are dungeon crawlers, and some of them are top-down shooters, in which you collect a bunch of power-ups to offset the insane difficulty that is a staple of the genre. But none of these games is The Binding of Isaac. Why? Because Isaac has a truly original, or at least less familiar, aesthetic. When I say aesthetic, I’m using a fancy word to describe the overall feel of the game, as rendered by the interplay of graphics, art design, and sound design. The Binding of Isaac’s aesthetic is twisted to say the least.
Isaac is a cute, wide-eyed, globular thing with a permanently terrified expression, which makes it all the more horrible when the grotesque enemies–including animated poos and sphincter mouthed flying things–kill him. The fact that everything is cartoonish adds to this effect. It’s funny and upsetting at the same time, and I can’t think of many games that have achieved this kind of off-beat horror. It’s the kind of title that won’t necessary scare you, but might give you nightmares.
Give the players inches. Like many games these days, those part of the post-Demon Souls, hard as nails renaissance, the monsters in Isaac’s basement will kill you. A lot. Puddles of slime will kill you. Flaming torches will kill you. Flies that are also bombs will kill you. The game requires practice. I’m not a particularly great gamer, so maybe the ten hours it took me to “kill mom” for the first time was an anomaly. But overall, you’re going to rack up hours finally finishing a run that in truth only requires half-an-hour of actual game time.
But The Binding of Isaac kept drawing me back because it gave me an inch on a regular basis. An inch, by the way, is not a unit of measurement used in many of the world’s societies. On the contrary, it’s an official gamic term for making enough progress to create the illusion that you are improving little-by-little, and are thus accomplishing something in life.
I’m ornery, and get easily frustrated. I’m also weighed down by the existential burden of life in general. The last thing I want to do with my free-time is experience yet another series of crushing failures through which I learn the ultimate meaningless of an indifferent universe that cares little about whether you live or die. I want something! Games like The Binding of Isaac give it to me, if only in small doses. But it’s enough to keep me playing, and to temporarily assuage the constant desire to cry myself to sleep.
Secrets are addictive. There are a ton of secrets in the game–secret passages you blow in walls, secret characters to unlock, secret items that appear once certain conditions are met. Explaining too much about this would ruin the fun. So, I’m not going to. From a game design perspective, all these hidden ‘achievements’ make the game infinitely replayable. As I said earlier, after the initial difficulty, it is possible to get through a play through in less that an hour. The randomly generated dungeon design helps keep things varied, but it’s the unexpected surprises you can unlock that add something. The game doesn’t give you many hints in this regard, and you often find things by accident, at which point the game will say “x (usually a vaguely weird or horrifying descriptor) has been locked in the basement or another level).” This gets you to wonder a) what is x, and b) where the hell can I find it, and c) what is it going to do to me when I do? There’s nothing particularly original about this design element, but it’s one younger gamers and designers might not be so familiar with. Before games had save points, beating them in one sitting was a necessity, and to get your bang for your buck you needed a reason to play the game again. Secrets were these reason. They continue to be this reason. And reason is good in an indifferent world.
You can make some pretty salient emotional statements without being heavy-handed, and/or allowing story to eclipse game play. The Binding of Isaac is most definitely a gamer’s game. More than anything else, it demands reflex, hand-eye coordination skills, and a good deal of patience. There might be a little strategy, but overall the game is of the old-school, learn how to play well variety. Iit still has a story, and it still deals with heavy subject matter–heavier than most heavily cinematic AAA titles.
This is about a religious fanatic wanting to kill her son because God tells her to. If you’ve read the Old Testament, you’ll know where this story comes from: The Book of: Wow! That’s Pretty Fucked-Up. The religious critique is inherent. As is the general feeling that abusing and killing children is wrong. Not that anyone but a sociopath needs this explicitly stated, but the game still makes you feel for Isaac. It’s funny, but it’s also heart-breakingly sad. Take the fact that Isaac shoots his enemies with his tears, for example. When you stop to think about it, that’s really sad, and it’s especially sad for me because, full disclosure, my two-year-old’s name is Isaac. Although, I assure you, God never told me to sacrifice him (yet), and he’s not a globular white sack.
Also, when you die, the game over screen is a crudely scrawled “will” that Isaac leaves to his cat. It details Isaac’s possessions (the items you found along the way), and a brief doodle of the ‘thing’ that killed him. Very sad. Kind of funny. Similarly, in the loading screens between levels you see that Isaac was bullied, and generally lived a kind of sucky life, which isn’t as heavy as it sounds, because the game definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously. But it made me feel things. And feeling things is good. I guess?
Poo is terrifying. Seriously. There’s shit everywhere in this game, and for some reason it wants to kill you. (Oddly enough, there are few rats in this basement). But that’s beside the point. The designer definitely had some issues in the anal stage of his development, and he’s put them to good use. But the poo. Yeah.
Okay, the last “point” was a non-point. But I honestly couldn’t think of anything else to write.
The Binding of Isaac is a hidden gem. And since it’s 2018 most of you probably know this. I’m always late to the party when it comes to jumping on bandwagons. But once I jump I’m usually not disappointed. Except with Stardew Valley. That game put me to sleep.
So what’s the takeaway from this? I’ll go back to the first point. Aesthetic. A lot of games are good mechanically, and from a strict design perspective. Few games are truly memorable. They’re far from a waste of time, but after the title screen fades it’s onto the next thing. A great game has a great “feel” to it AND great mechanics. You need both. The game Lisa has an amazing “feel”, but I didn’t love the gameplay.
This truth applies to any game your making. Even if your working on a traditional fantasy or sci-fi setting, you need to find a way to give it that little something extra. And if you can make it deeply disturbing then you get bonus points. With me at least. Normal people will probably just assume you belong in some kind of institution.
So…Think of a way to make even tried and tested game mechanics seem different, even if it’s not: i.e. have the gun be a little boy’s tears. It’s basically a gun, but you won’t forget it. Make this mechanics jive with the concept in a cool away (again the tears). And when somebody tells you your idea is ludicrous–as ludicrous as a top-down shooter about a child trying to kill his mother, then you know you’re on the right track.
Sanity never did an artist any good.
NOTE: Ed McMillen, the twisted genius behind The Binding of Isaac, is developing a card game (non-digital) based on Isaac’s adventures. More information can be found at Kickstarter. Yup. Check out a couple of images below: