Deep into Freudian Hell with The Binding of Isaac

I’m lying in bed, eyes closed. I’m on one and a half hearts, scouring bloody, bombed out rooms for a health pickup before facing the boss, dodging spiders, rushing past spiked blocks, or setting fire to my mother’s leg as it stomps down from above. Even when I have my eyes closed, I can see the flashing interface, and feel the urgency of my shots and movements.

The Binding of Isaac has taken over my life.

My first reaction to Isaac (and all games of its kind) used to be: “nope, too hard and frustrating”. It was also an unfair eye-roll at it and all games of its kind that seem to rely on outdated mechanics and graphics because of budget.

Now I realize that, somehow, the frustration (and limitation) is most of the fun. In fact, Isaac is a tiny game. It can be ‘completed’ (e.g. one successful run) in less than half an hour. What held me back from discarding it after the first completion (or feeling like it was $8 badly spent), is the huge amount of unlockable content, constantly evolving levels, the intriguing hidden storyline, and its addictive compulsion for ‘just one more run’.

In this article, I’m going to write my analysis on the different elements of the game. Partly because I’ve played nothing else for 2 weeks, and partly because I’m excited right now having just finished an insane run with Azazel:

It hit me recently that I haven’t enjoyed playing a game as much as I’ve enjoyed TBOI all decadeThe storyline is right on target — not too little to make me think it’s generic, but not too much to detract from it core as a rogue-like game.

Storyline in The Binding of Isaac

Like the games from which it takes its visual cues, Isaac doesn’t rely on story like an RPG. Story is more of an easter egg; the cut scenes are revealed if you wait long enough on the main menu, when you unlock the last two levels, and every time you complete the full game.

Given out in parts like each ending is part of a different alternative universe, Isaac’s storyline is fluid and never ‘final’ because it’s ended over and over again in different ways, and in different expansion packs.

Isaac follows the story of a young boy who’s chased into the basement by his deranged and violent Christian mother that believes her son is possessed by satan (or, more likely, some complex Freudian allegory).

“Scrambling around his room to find a hiding place, he noticed a trapdoor to the basement, hidden under his rug. Without hesitation, he flung open the hatch just as his mother burst through his door and threw himself down into the unknown depths below.”

The basement becomes Isaac’s personal hell, with references to his fear of his overbearing mother, memories of his father, and all kinds of terrifying imagery from his imagination.

binding of isaac mom

Isaac’s mom stomps down into hell

Isaac’s head generates and dramatizes the world you see, and the enemies you face. He uses his tears to kill flies, maggots, shit, hell’s creations, and his aborted siblings; the story and its visual representation in Isaac is heavily metaphorical and prone to a lot of fan theorizing, but also gives analyzers a lot of mythos in the form of cut scenes, creatures, item names to work with. For someone like me — a chronic over-analyzer — Isaac is story-heavy enough to keep me up all night after an entire day of relentlessly dying and retrying.

The fact that the game is set inside the psyche of a young boy isn’t just something that affects the story, but the gameplay itself:

Procedural generation in The Binding of Isaac

There are a small number of games that do procedural generation well: Minecraft, Diablo III, Terraria, andThe Binding of Isaac.

In Isaac, the layout of rooms is randomly generated, as well as the selection of enemies in them. Depending on which level you’re on, these will be created from the relevant set of monsters and objects: spiders in the cellar, Monstro in the basement.

As well as that, the items you pick up appear at random. This means every run is unique in your character’s combination of items, abilities, enemies, and level designs. Without procedural generation, the game would get boring quickly because the fun isn’t mastering one particular layout of obstacles — it’s in mastering the mechanics of the game.

Developer Edmund McMillen on the game's randomly generated levels

Developer Ed McMillen on the game’s randomly generated levels

The reason it works in these cases (but fails in others) is that the fast-paced combat and relies on catching you off guard, or at least presenting situations that could range anywhere from easily avoided to near-impossible.

The other algorithmic element to the game I noticed is its adaptive difficulty:

While on a winning streak, I’ve spawned in increasingly difficult versions of the same levels. If I keep dying, the difficulty goes down to the point where there might be only a single fly in a room, or only a handful of enemies in the whole level.

Why Isaac over other indie games?

Like startups, the vast majority of indie games will fail. Pixelly, arcade-style games are ten a penny, and marketplaces like Steam and itch.io are overrun by substandard releases. In recent years, people have grown used to a big chunk of those games being a disappointment, but Ed McMillen has a track record and gained fame with this style even before Steam was popular enough to bother with — his first popular release, Meat Boy, was released on Newgrounds:

NG Meat Boy

And, while there are a shitload of imitators, Isaac has the hidden depth to keep you interested. Sure, it’s a short game, but the shroud mystery around the items, hidden levels, obscure synergies and evolving storyline set it apart from the shallow dreck in Isaac’s clothes.

Space landscape-obsessed dreck penman. Appears on TechCrunch, The Next Web, and on Secret Cave in a far less restrained capacity.