Day 10: The Binding of Isaac

binding of isaac 2

“As you’ve likely already gathered by this point, I’m a man of very refined and distinguished taste”, I planned on starting today with before remembering that I spent last week talking about skeezy racing games and my love of beach volleyball, but as someone that prides himself on being open-minded, one to frequently champion the obscure and the underrated, it can be hard for me to come to grips with my own biases.

Namely, I can be surprisingly shallow at times, letting my initial impressions of something often irreversibly paint my opinion before taking a minute further to consume it. I suppose that’s common enough with most of us, to the extent that I shouldn’t consider it a point of shame. At least, that’s what I’ve decided to tell myself.

Similar to my harsh impressions of Dark Souls, I really didn’t give the Binding of Isaac more than a cursory glance upon release. While I love aversive aesthetics as a rule, Isaac seemed to cross that line between grotesque and gross-out; a Ren and Stimpy-esque desire to linger on the disgusting a moment too long. It felt like the wrong kind of contrast, macabre horror polluted by toilet humor. Isaac, a tear-firing bobblehead looking for treasure inside piles of feces didn’t mesh with my desire to fight terrifying miscreations.

Even at this point, long after my mind has been changed, I still worry that those choices detract from the most important point, that Binding of Isaac is a hell of a goddamn game underneath it all.

It really shouldn’t be that surprising, considering that Super Meat Boy (Edmund McMillen’s other hit) was probably my favorite game of 2010 and shared a very similar look. I’d always been searching for an entry point into the world of the roguelike, but found the idea of even engaging with a Dwarf Fortress or Angband to require the sort of commitment that I couldn’t offer. Dare I say, they were much too “hardcore” for me. But nonetheless, for someone wanting to understand the appeal of procedural death labyrinths, Isaac was as good a start as any.

Though I still don’t find myself any more prepared or enthused to delve into those harsher offerings of the genre, there’s something to be said for purely gameplay-driven experiences that you still find yourself not wanting to spoil for anyone else, the basic framing device of Isaac and his mother really nothing more than a backdrop to the stories you create through pure luck and random seeding, the sort of thing that you go on to tell other people that will never be able to replicate it.

There’s something incredibly cool to that, hearkening back to junior high, when kids would share completely ludicrous fabrications about cool hidden things they discovered in games that no one else could see. My Isaac once went on a legendary no-hit run of four floors before making one wrong turn and getting stomped by an enhanced version of a boss I’d beaten dozens of times before. I was using a combination of powerups that some players will never use, killed by a boss that some will never see.

There’s an odd ownership and connection there, ironic in a game designed to constantly reset your progress; the sort of thing that’s constantly at odds with the perception that games have poorly written stories, when in most cases, the narrative created by the player’s actions are the ones we should be paying attention to.

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