Thoughts About The Binding of Isaac

There are probably some spoilers here if you care about such things.

Isaac

It’s incredible the symbolic weight we can lay upon the simplest of stories. Each such story extends beyond itself like tree roots and tangles into matted carpets of narrative and meta-narrative, confused ideas about what it means to exist and to be a person, Each story is not only its own story, but also part of this grand tangle that comprises our symbolic understanding of the universe, and the simplest stories we hear the earliest grow the deepest roots, come to underlie all other stories, come to bind and be bound into an intractable metaphorical labyrinth.

When we encounter stories like this as children it’s finding what looks like a little mushroom, but is actually one nodule of a mass of fungus that comprises the ground on which we stand. It is the forest masquerading as a tree. it is the tip of the iceberg, the horn of the bull, the grit of the planet of the star of the galaxy, and we are not prepared to comprehend. Our parents’ lives seem otherworldly – it doesn’t even occur to us that they have lives beyond us – and everything past our tiny fingertips seems so vast that we touch only fragments at a time.

Instead of being a story that ties into a world-view, parable and art merges into our reality. When you’re not that far past figuring out that objects don’t actually go away when you stop seeing them, metaphor is a big ask.

The Binding of Isaac is a confused overlay of heavy Abrahamic symbolism laid onto a procedural pastiche of the Legend of Zelda. I don’t mean ‘confused’ in a pejorative sense: It evokes the feeling I was just discussing, that of being a child, surrounded by parables and adult interactions that both exceed our understanding of the world and thereby begin to fuse with one another.

It’s easy to forget that feeling of not really knowing what’s real and what isn’t. That isn’t to say that we necessarily ever really learn what is real, but we at least become more certain of our divisions. We at least become more confident that there is, that there must be some objective reality underlying all of the interpretations.

The fact is, the history of objective reality is as distant from our perception as it is from explicit fiction. The truth is something that only existed in the moment, and for us can only be inferred partially from available evidence, a tiny light in the distance sinking inexorably into the black.


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There are a lot of different ways to create art, by way of impulse and instinct, by way of calculated engineering and symbolic interweaving, through characters or through places, through eras or circumstances. Games generally tend to favor deeply analytical and structured processes because these kinds of structures line up most readily with the technical work required to make a game manifest. Making a fully-featured game with its own unique gameplay tropes in a stream-of-consciousness, impulsive and expressive fashion is quite difficult, and the rare realization of this approach to creation is what gives The Binding of Isaac such a distinct and unique aesthetic.

Because ideas are siphoned directly from the most surface-level impulses, they carry all of the biases and preconceptions of the artist, often unfiltered. This kind of stream-of-consciousness and improvisational creation is common methodology in standup comedy, which lends itself readily to intuitive  and off-the-cuff approaches. The process of a lot of comedians seemingly involves scraping their psyche for the grossest, weirdest thoughts, throwing them out there and, with a wry grin, saying “isn’t that some fucked up shit?” And it works, because all of us have some of that shit in our brains, and acknowledging that it’s there and it’s gross but it’s still ours makes us feel human, feel worthwhile even at our most flawed.

There are drawbacks to this approach. No mind can exist in our world without picking up some really toxic concepts, and sometimes that toxicity is so potent that even within the context of saying “aren’t I hilariously fucked up?” it’s hard to allow these ideas space in discourse. Between portraying toxic ideas that have burrowed into our minds, and encouraging and normalizing those ideas, there’s a line so razor thin that it can be difficult to see, and bitter and ongoing disagreements vie over where that line lies. This is a frequent point of contention between social justice activists and stand-up comics, whether a joke is mocking oppression or normalizing it, whether a joke deconstructs racism and sexism by showing how the stereotypes they are built on are absurd or whether it merely parrots those stereotypes without meaningful commentary. In cases where a comedian has a strong social consciousness it can be a troubling and conflicting open question, leading comedians like Dave Chappelle into painful crises of conscience.

I don’t think there’s really a ‘solution’ to this conflict between normalization and description. This is one of many conflicts that we must resign ourselves to in our art, and navigate in the only way true ethical conflicts can be navigated: Day by day, case by case, rough-hewn principles abandoned far back on the road as too heavy and onerous to be borne out into the real world.


 

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The Binding of Isaac is uniquely structured in games, and even though it’s kicked off a wave of imitators it still remains distinct from them in several ways. Isaac is designed to be played through multiple times: Each time the game is completed, some new facet will be revealed. New areas will open up, new enemies will appear, new upgrades will be added to the pool of items that can be found. Though at first the game appears simple, there’s more and more to discover as you go.

While many games have been released since Isaac using a similar multiple-playthrough incentive, in all cases the new aspects unlocked are about rewarding the player by making them stronger or giving them more options. In Isaac, each playthrough expands the scope and difficulty of the game while the player character remains more or less consistently powerful: conversely, with most other games using a similar structure, the game stays more or less the same while the player gets more powerful, something much closer to the traditional RPG leveling system.

Though these games are overtly inspired by the structure of The Binding of Isaac, when it comes to the intent behind the structure Isaac is far more similar to something like Frog Fractions, an experience of discovery, than it is to Rogue Legacy, an experience of empowerment.


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The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a remake of the original, undertaken primarily because that original game grew too large to be a manageable project in the confines of the antiquated version of Flash it was built in. it was built quickly, in a matter of months, and architected in ways which were more expedient than they were expandable: This, more than any limitation of design or vision, is the flaw that Rebirth was released to rectify.

For all that Rebirth adds, there’s something missing. For all the technical woes born from creating the original game quickly and haphazardly, it captured a spontaneity and energy that’s distinctly different from that of a long-term project. For a game like Isaac, that is so inspired by the muted and confused impressions of childhood, so shaped by intuition and free association and reckless expression, taking a large team and long time to express it in its most refined form gives the whole experience a different impression than when it was expressed as quickly and intuitively as possible. Not only does this make the vulgarity of the game appear more calculated, and therefore less justifiable than before, it makes the entire experience less coherent. It is the difference between the quick sketch and the painstaking portrait: The latter may take more time and technical execution, but the former sometimes captures a spirit, a moment of movement, that’s lost if you try to polish it, to ‘fix’ it.

This slight conflict is echoed and amplified throughout Rebirth: The game employs a ’16-bit aesthetic’, presumably intended to hearken back to the Zelda games which inspired it – but, as with most modern games employing ‘retro’ styles, it doesn’t really commit. The resolution is higher and wide-screen, the frame-rate is targeted at 60 frames per second, the color range is essentially unlimited and operates via RGB tinting rather than palette manipulation, objects are translated and rotated and scaled with sub-pixel accuracy… It’s an inversion of the kind of up-res filters that are popular in emulators for old games, which draw interpolated pixels between the jagged edges created by the limited resolution: Rebirth appears to use high-res pixel images, perform operations on them, and then filter them down to lower resolution to hide the ugly artifacts that result from these kinds of operations. This is a peculiar choice in particular because the vector art the original game uses was resolution independent, and it was designed to take advantage of that capability, freely scaling and tinting objects. Translating a design made with these decisions in mind directly into a technical situation where it’s much more expensive, challenging, and aesthetically inconsistent to perform these operations seems a bizarre choice. The end result of these decisions isn’t ugly or unappealing – the underlying art is well-executed and it runs well – but it does seem somewhat inconsistent and ill-considered.

The music carries the action well, and layers fade in and out based on gameplay situations which adds an element of excitement and discovery that wasn’t there in the original, but it feels less consistent in tone and intent. The original soundtrack had a balance between excitement and melancholy which evoked the difference between the game’s action gameplay and its dark and strange story framework, and though the new soundtrack never detracts from the experience it trades away this complexity of emotion for a colder and more technical complexity. It’s a worthy soundtrack, but along with the new graphical style seems slightly at odds with the intuitive and personal stream-of-consciousness of the game’s expression.

Where these technical improvements don’t conflict with the fundamental soul of the game, they shine. Almost every item in the game has been carefully developed such that it interacts with other items in an appropriate and interesting way, in many cases obviously requiring custom code to handle a specific interaction. It would be hard to argue that this isn’t an improvement over the original, where many items didn’t work with each other at all, in some extreme cases making it impossible to progress. The game runs stably and reliably on most systems, and enemies and items have been added which add so many projectiles the old version would have slowed to a crawl. Room layouts are more varied and interesting compared to overwhelmingly symmetrical layouts of the original, and native controller support and game-saving make enjoying the experience much easier than the occasionally convoluted issues of control and time-investment required to play the original.

Nevertheless, some aspect of the joy and horror of the original Binding of Isaac has been lost. As someone who tends to overthink and overwork every creative endeavor, I have to wonder: Is this my fate as well? Am I destined to have my creativity confined by a box of my own craftsmanship? Or is there a light shining through, a way to capture that spirit and spontaneity, a way to express myself through the meticulous constraints of game technology, supported without being constrained?


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One of the most interesting and nuanced changes from the original game involves the health system. In the original, there were two kinds of health: Hearts and Blue Hearts. Hearts are what you would consider your standard health: You start with 3 of them and can upgrade your maximum with a number of different health upgrade items which allow you to collect more. Blue hearts completely ignore your maximum health capacity and just get added to the end of your health meter with no limit: They can keep on going beyond what the health meter can display. They are more useful in every way than standard health pickups, but generally less useful than health upgrades, and collecting a huge number of them is frequently a certain path to victory. Rebirth completely changes this dynamic by making it so that your maximum health and blue hearts together cannot exceed the maximum displayable health value, making blue hearts useless once you’ve accumulated enough maximum health.

This results in a very strange dynamic: If you have a high maximum health but are running low on current health, you can end up dying surrounded by blue hearts you can’t pick up because you have no room for them. Health upgrades are no longer objectively positive: Some of the most powerful runs have no health upgrades at all and run entirely on blue hearts. In practical terms, the optimal strategy is usually to choose either health upgrades or blue hearts and structure your approach around that choice: Items which provide blue hearts get more powerful the lower your max health is, and items which restore health get more powerful the higher it is, so depending on which you have you may want to collect or avoid health upgrades. Though it’s sometimes difficult to find health upgrades, depending on how you’re playing it can be nearly impossible to get rid of them, so the choice of whether or not to take them is far more loaded than it may, at first, appear.

While this system is likely not intended to convey anything in particular, or even necessarily intended to be an interesting gameplay decision so much as to hem in overpowered blue heart maximization strategies, it does have a weird kind of symbolic meaning. Generally, in Isaac, hearts symbolize life and vitality, with red heart upgrades being provided by items like food and drink, where blue hearts symbolize faith, the supernatural, and the life of the mind, being provided by religious symbols like the rosary or the miter. Being asked to choose between one or the other in order to maximize a run conveys a message about temperance and faith and the difficult decisions that go into how a life should be best lead.

This is particularly interesting in light of the running theme through Edmund McMillen’s games of balancing, or failing to balance, between the creative life of the mind and the real world. This suggests that the ideal balance isn’t some simplistic 50/50 time split, but a situational equilibrium that changes with each moment – sometimes, to survive, you must dedicate yourself to your spirit, towards improving and healing your mind through focus and faith – sometimes, to survive, you must rest and replenish, eat and drink and become physically whole. Trying to do both at once just makes you less capable of pursuing either.

Is this implication intentional? Probably not. We ascribe meaning to the patterns of stars in the sky, though, even though the lights above neither know nor care about our petty problems. Some messages are important not because of why they were sent, but because of why they were received.


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The intro and the first ending are the only segments shown in Isaac’s hand-drawn style, and also are together the only instances of spoken dialogue within the game. This suggests some striking divide between the narratives provided in those segments versus those provided in the brief ending cutscenes, which are rendered in a more traditional animated style. In many stories, these shifts would suggest a divide between the ‘real world’ of the fiction and something just happening in the character’s mind, but given the contradictory and fragmented nature of the rest of the narrative I doubt that there’s any such underlying ‘reality’ in The Binding of Isaac. Rather, I would suggest that these strike the divide between the conscious world, the world that Isaac constructs out of drawings and stories to make sense of what he’s feeling and cannot understand, and the unconscious world, his world of dreams and symbols which feed into his thoughts but is wild and incomprehensible.

This evokes to my mind the first Silent Hill game – two worlds, one seemingly ‘real’ but cut off from the reality we know, grey and muted, the other a purely nightmarish world of decay and rust, a purgatory where sinners and lost souls wander. There’s also a parallel between Isaac’s last ending, showing Isaac hyperventilating, locked in a chest, in his presumably final moments, flickering back and forth between a scared child and a vicious demon, and the ‘bad’ ending of Silent Hill, showing Harry dead in the wreck of his car, the preceding story perhaps just a dying hallucination.


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The D6 is an item you get once you defeat Isaac playing as ??? – who is essentially Isaac’s corpse. The D6 allows you to change any item you find into a random different item. There’s a couple of interesting points to note here: First, a notable effect of ‘random’ items like this that they essentially end up decreasing the overall randomness of a game’s outcome through means of increased, rather than decreased, randomization. There’s a certain naive approach to randomness in game mechanics that intuits that the more randomly selected numbers there are, the more random and unpredictable the experience is. In fact, the practical result is frequently the opposite: If just a few numbers are left to chance, the outcome of those numbers gives a huge impact to a single individual random chance – but, if the game is built on large amounts of randomly selected numbers, then over the mass of them they’re almost certain to balance out. This principle is neatly illustrated by the D6, which allows you to introduce more randomization in order to increase your average odds of success.

The D6 is also interesting because it provides your only means of escaping bad luck. This, along with the item’s description, ‘reroll your fate’, suggests gaming in general as an escape from the punishing vagaries of real life – though, in the end, it won’t help Isaac escape the doom ascribed to him by the confines of the game, it will give him a moment of ease, a moment of escape, a tiny bright spot shining through a keyhole


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Isaac suggests a number of interpretations through its several endings, none of them pleasant and few of them suggesting the actual gameplay moments are anything more than a hallucination or creative construct of Isaac’s mind. However, no matter what happens in this crazy scenario with hundreds of interacting elements, no matter what comes before, at the end, every single time, he has to climb into the chest. Each play of the game is just one of a million feverish escape fantasies, each suggestion of an escape from death an attractive lie. The only prize that can be won, the only ending that doesn’t require you to climb back into the chest, is when you collect the key to the lock, fight the greatest of all imaginable evils – and find yourself already in the chest anyway, in a brief moment of lucidity, a shining light through a keyhole.

Then you play again, as a different Isaac with different adventures, but the chest is always waiting. The chest contains the game, contains every experience you might have within it, the fate you constructed for yourself by playing.

 

Next time: The Swapper

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