About games and gaming thereof!

The Binding of Isaac

Heads up: The Morrowind stream will be happening today at 5:00 PM, Central Standard Time (that’s 11:00 PM in GMT). Jarenth will (hopefully) be joining me for voice commentary. The stream will be featured on this link: http://www.livestream.com/ninjagameden

Anywho, I got The Binding of Isaac awhile ago when it was first released. I’m not a fan. I didn’t talk about it then, but I want to talk about it now. I hope you don’t mind.

I think it’s fruitful to compare The Binding of Isaac to Super Meat Boy. On the surface they seem like exceedingly similar games. They’re both projects led by the same person (Edmund McMillen), they have essentially the same art style, they both have gameplay based heavily on classic Nintendo titles (Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros., respectively), they both have very silly stories, and they’re both aggressively challenging.

But get past the basics and you can start to notice that the general philosophy behind the games are almost diametrically opposed; specifically, in how each game regards the player.

Every level in Super Meat Boy is carefully designed to offer a fair and gradual progression of difficulty. It introduces you to gameplay mechanics and then tests your ability to utilize or overcome them. It starts off fairly simple, and then gets harder and harder until you’re facing obstacles that seem impossible on the outset, but are entirely beatable using the skills you’ve acquired.

And if you should die in Super Meat Boy, the game respectfully lets you retry the level you’re on as many times as you like. The levels are generally very short and concise (until the ending, that is) and so you never feel cheated. And if you exit, you can go back to that same level whenever you want to retry, or you can go back to previous levels to try to beat your time or collect bandages.

The game can be excruciatingly difficult, but it never feels unfair or disrespectful. (With the exception of the Warp Zones, which seem like deliberate attempts from the game to make you ragequit.)

The Binding of Isaac, by extreme contrast, does not give a fuck about you or your time. Everything about the game is randomized, from the levels themselves to the powerups you find. And those powerups are severely unbalanced. I still remember the first time I tried to play the game, one of the first items I found was something that permanently reduced my max health to one heart (33% of the normal maximum) which pretty much guaranteed that I would fail. That was the first of many times the game would give me the middle finger.

If you die in TBoI, the game spits in your face and forces you to start at the very beginning again. Checkpoints? Save systems? What are those? Never mind that you had some items you actually liked, because you stepped the wrong way one too many times, so now you have to start at the beginning!

Coupled with the fact that some powerups are far, far worse than others, and that some of them actually hurt you, and you have a game that inordinately wastes your time. When you finally do beat the game it probably won’t be because of your skill or coordination; it’ll be because you found the most overpowered items.

I find the best way to summarize The Binding of Isaac is with two simple words: Fuck You. That sounds like hyperbole, but it really isn’t. I said that to a few of my friends who actually like the game, and they agree with me. This game is mercilessly mean-spirited. It hates you, and it does not want you to feel gratified or entertained.

Maybe you like an unfair challenge. Maybe you want a game to treat you like its bitch. I can’t empathize, but I won’t tell you you’re wrong to enjoy something. But what really bugs me is when I hear people say that this is how all games should be. You know, those people who say that “gamers these days aren’t willing to WORK for their fun!” I will never understand that. I already worked for my fun. I worked fucking minimum wage for the privilege to play this game. All I ask for in return is for the game to provide me with some sort of entertainment value without treating me with disrespect and wasting my time.

Super Meat Boy made me want to punch my monitor at times, but I’d still recommend it to anybody who enjoys platforming. I would only recommend The Binding of Isaac to masochists.


8 responses

  1. Tobias

    I think the admiration many people ( while I never played TBoI much, I am an avid angband player ) have for the permadeath playstyle, comes from the way the game has be build to allow this.

    Those games are specially designed to make the deaths and replays fun, fair and possible.
    Just like the wall-banging difficulty in SMB or touhou comes from honestly difficult levels, and not from controller issues or trial and error gameplay.

    If you design a rougelike you can never include a trial and error puzzle. In other genres you can rely on the player to do the same combat or puzzle a hundred times until he finds the correct but stupid solution. In a rougelike people would quit after the first few unfair deaths.
    This requires a game designer to pay much more attention. A lot of games could be improved if designers had to keep the permadeath playstyle in mind.

    btw. personally I don’t like tBoI. I don’t think permadeath and realtime gameplay fit well together.

    January 6, 2012 at 6:14 PM

    • JPH

      That is true. I don’t mean to discount roguelikes entirely; it’s just that it really doesn’t fit in TBoI. It’s the completely unbalanced items and abilities, the unforgiving fast-paced combat, the randomization. When you combine it all, it just forms a perfect storm of frustration.

      January 6, 2012 at 6:25 PM

      • Falcon

        The complaint about realtime permadeath seems to be the most apt. Bullethell plus Zelda plus permadeath is brutal. In Dungeons of Dredmor (a rougelike I enjoyed this year) I’d be ok if sOmethung went wrong. Oh so the wierd attack nearly killed me, I have 2hp, and am facing 3 enemies. Well I can take a potion, attack and hope for the best, or use this random item I found and see what happens.

        The turn based nature allows me to weigh options. TBoI you just go CRAP!, splat.

        January 6, 2012 at 8:10 PM

  2. Sadly, I failed at reading timezones. I blame Josh for this, as I usually do.

    Isaac is pretty brutally random, yeah. To be honest I didn’t enjoy it that much either, as I wrote about and will gladly link to here. I imagine that it’d be even worse for you, as you have a lower stated tolerance for random bullshit.

    January 6, 2012 at 6:42 PM

  3. Niryain

    Well. TBoI isn’t -entirely- luck based. If you play the game enough you’ll learn what things do what and how certain enemies attack, and the skill that develops through that will allow you to progress based on said skill. It will be painful if the RNG is saying ‘fuck you’ on the playthrough, but it’s not impossible.

    And I personally had quite a rush when I finally beat Mom on my first successful playthrough. The same rush I get on my current game whenever I actually beat a boss in it. Dark Souls, heh. The two games are actually kind of comparable in a way, in that DS also doesn’t care about you. But DS also doesn’t force you to rely on if the RNG is being nice or not today, it’s more or less pure skill (And a healthy dose of trial by error memorization, again much like TBoI).

    I suppose I enjoy these types of games because of that aforementioned satisfaction that most games can’t manage. It’s like I’m saying ‘fuck you’ right back to the game when I conquer something. But I can fully understand that such is personal preference, and that some people just want straight up entertainment.

    January 6, 2012 at 6:49 PM

    • JPH

      I think what pisses me off more than anything else is the fact that the game doesn’t tell you what any of the pickups do. In my most recent attempt I picked up an item that literally caused a giant foot to step on me. Gee, thanks, game. It’s not like I’m hurting for HP or anything.

      January 6, 2012 at 9:01 PM

      • Niryain

        Yeah, I’m not going to defend that decision. I don’t care for it either. Annoys me to no end not knowing what anything except basic stat upgrades do. The most obvious and aggravating way the game says fuck you.

        January 6, 2012 at 11:03 PM

      • I had that item twice in a row last game. SO GREAT.

        Screw you, Empress card.

        January 9, 2012 at 9:55 AM

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