The Binding of Isaac

In Ultima IV, the is a dungeon room where a mob of children attacks you. To most players, this was just an interesting repurposing of a tile not normally used for monsters to produce a things-are-different-here vibe. (The previous game in the series famously has floor tiles attack you toward the end.) But some found it upsetting, and at least one even claimed that it promoted child abuse. Richard Garriott, Ultima‘s auteur, had intended this scene as a kind of ethical challenge, and has pointed out various solutions that don’t involve killing children in self-defense, such as using charm or sleep spells. 1One of his proposed non-lethal solutions was to unwield your sword and punch them with your bare hands until they run away, but that doesn’t really help much with the child abuse allegation. But players tend to be in kill-everything-that-moves mode at that point in the game, and forget about these options, and feel like they have no choices but atrocity or quitting in disgust.

Garriott considered this little controversy to be one of the game’s biggest successes, and he included a “child room” somewhere in every subsequent Ultima. But he had better taste than to push the idea further, to take it to its logical extreme. Enter Edmud McMillen and Florian Himsl, of Meat Boy fame. This pair once created a shooter about fighting diseased vaginas. Taste is no obstacle to these guys. Their latest work, The Binding of Isaac, is the story of a horrifically abused little boy trapped alone in a basement, naked and with no weapons other than his tears, forced to fight grotesque abominations. And he really is forced: unlike the child rooms in Ultima, the game doesn’t let you leave a room until Isaac is the only thing alive. 2Actually, there are exceptions to this. There are certain items that let you teleport away, and an explosion in the right place will reveal a secret passage regardless of whether the the room is in lockdown. But these are just exceptions. Many of the enemies, particularly the early ones, appear to be deformed children, variations on Isaac’s character design. There’s one sort that doesn’t even attack you, but just runs away, sobbing piteously. You still have to kill it to continue.

In a sense, though, that one type does attack you: it occasionally emits hostile flies, like guided missiles that you have to shoot down. Monsters that flee from direct confrontation and birth more monsters are not without precedent — see the Roach Queens in DROD, for example — but the way it’s presented here makes it seem like the guy you’re trying to kill is even more a victim of the flies than Isaac: his face is a mass of lumps presumably full of insect eggs. More advanced versions of this creature are only recognizable as once-human because of the legs supporting the bulging fleshy mass.

Yes, this is a truly repulsive game. There’s blood and feces all over the place, a synergetic combination that’s far grosser than the sum of its parts, and the monsters all look like things you really, really don’t want to touch. And to survive in this world, Isaac has to make himself as monstrous and grotesque as the things he fights. There are a great many upgrades to be found (a random assortment available in any session), and most of them physically alter Isaac in some way, usually for the worse: a permanent snarl, a bent coathanger through the head, a third eye. They stack, too, which can look ridiculous even when the components aren’t ridiculous individually (which many are). All this is overlaid on a style of exaggerated simplicity and sarcastic neoteny, like the Powerpuff Girls. It’s a dead-baby-joke-like juxtaposition that’s at times troubling and at times merely puerile. And sometimes it pulls out a bit of Satanic imagery for cheap shock value.

So I really can’t blame anyone for simply being turned off by the style and unwilling to play it. The problem is, such people will miss out on a really good game based on the gradual mastery of a complex system and the endless variability provided by combinations of randomly-selected game-changers.

The gameplay is a surprisingly harmonious combination of blatantly swiped elements. The basic design of the dungeon, the use of bombs to open secret passages, the appearance of the shopkeeper rooms, and the way that bosses show up later as ordinary encounters all hail from The Legend of Zelda. The horrific imagery owes a little to Silent Hill, as does the questionable reality of the whole experience, which is implied to be all a dream or hallucination that Isaac experiences while locked in his room waiting to be murdered; the cutscene after you win the game the first time shows a much more prosaic ending than the boss battle you just endured. The shooting mechanic, with its dual eight-direction controls for shooting and moving in independent directions 3Accomplished here entirely through the keyboard, WASD for movement and arrow keys for shooting, which is a curious choice for the people who were so adamant that you use a gamepad in Super Meat Boy. The fact that the entire game is in Flash might have something to do with this., are pure Robotron, down to the effectiveness of circling around the edges of the room while shooting inward, although with the twist that your movement affects the trajectory of your bullet/tears, making most of your shots somewhat diagonal. And there are sundry minor references, like a miniboss based on Bomberman.

And then there’s the rougelike elements. Other commenters seem to have mostly focused on this, and on debates over whether it really qualifies as a roguelike; the comment threads at rockpapershotgun coined the term “roguelike-like” to describe it. It seems to me that it’s got a better claim to the genre than some other things that have been described as roguelikes, such as Spelunky, whose only roguelike attributes as far as I can tell are randomly-generated levels and inability to go back to earlier saves. Isaac has these attribute too, but it also has other pointed rogueisms like randomized items: where Rogue randomly assigned colors to different potion types, expecting you to learn what each color does by drinking it, Isaac does the same with scavenging Mom’s pills, putting the mechanic in a new perspective that makes you realize just how awful it is underneath.

For that matter, the whole setting is something of a subversion of the dungeons-of-doom cliché, or perhaps a reinforcement of it, giving the idea some of the power it loses by being set in a pure fantasy environment. I’ve seen it argued that the intrinsic unfairness of the luck factor in roguelikes, where your ability to win is largely determined by what items the random number generator picks, complements the utter unfairness of the underlying story, of a little boy unfortunate to be under the power of a psycho who thinks God talks to her. For these and similar reasons, I think it would actually be a worse game if you reskinned it to be less horrible.

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1. One of his proposed non-lethal solutions was to unwield your sword and punch them with your bare hands until they run away, but that doesn’t really help much with the child abuse allegation.
2. Actually, there are exceptions to this. There are certain items that let you teleport away, and an explosion in the right place will reveal a secret passage regardless of whether the the room is in lockdown. But these are just exceptions.
3. Accomplished here entirely through the keyboard, WASD for movement and arrow keys for shooting, which is a curious choice for the people who were so adamant that you use a gamepad in Super Meat Boy. The fact that the entire game is in Flash might have something to do with this.

1 Comment so far

  1. Sean B on 16 Oct 2011

    _Meat Boy_ was a Flash game by Edmund McMillen and Jonathan McEntee.

    _Super Meat Boy_ was a non-Flash game by Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes.

    Florian Himsl was not involved in either, as far as I know.

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