It’s three-AM in the morning on some stupid school night. I’m taping keys, huddling my knees close to my chest with tissues up my nose. I’m sick. The snots and coughs of the night all captured in little bits of tissue paper throughout the room. Bits of tissue dust illuminate in the moon light, the window wide open, the hands of frost tapping me on my naked shoulder. I shift about my little pyjamas. I am captured, held hostage, by this tormenting video-game. Yet I am developing Stockholm Syndrome, a desire and fundamentally incredible relationship with this thing playing out on my screen.
I die for the tenth time.
I have never completed The Binding of Isaac.
This is a video-game that is built within the court of an absolute relentless lack of forgiveness. You die once, you go back to the beginning. The end. Far Cry 2‘s world allowed for this to happen and it made it all the more special, Binding‘s game rules are restrictive in that it is utterly compulsory. No auto-saves, no check-points, no invincibility. Just you, power-ups, monsters and a rogue-like series of systems and dungeon-crawler reminiscing bits of game design. An absolutely lovely nostalgia-goggled trip into the very heart of interactivity itself.
I gave Binding the ‘Best Design‘ in the 2011 Blogossus awards. I still stand by it having some of the finest level design work of the last few years, relying around this incredibly well built system of emergent levels and power-up placement. What Binding truly excels at, however, is mood and atmosphere. The palpable beats of the gothic underbelly of Isaac’s basement and sub-sub-basements just all add to this wrathful inertia of utter disgust. It is one disgusting mess of a video-game, filled with maggots and some heavily atheistic undertones. All of it made, largely, out of Edmund McMillen’s own experiences.
But, however, this is where the shiny ends. I do believe that the downfall of Isaac is not that it is too ‘hard’ but because it simply is unforgiving. Being ‘hard’ doesn’t mean shoving enemies in your face and just having a punishing slope of difficulty, but true ‘hard’ comes in a challenge of patience, preservation, skills, reflexes and all sorts. It’s about interactivity itself and Binding revels in rewarding those who excel in ‘challenge’. It is a punishing game, absolutely, but it is ultimately incredibly unforgiving in what it asks of the player.
The game relies on chance and luck to a degree which, will not appearing unfair, does appear unbalanced. Some characters and bosses and bits have only a small percentage of spawning and sometimes you’ll just be given a ‘hell’ of a game. It’s gratifying to see how far you can get through it, but still, that little bit worrying when your friend completes it three times in your lone sitting. Not a revolt against the game’s design, persay, but rather my inability to adapt to new environments. Ich bin ein traditionalist. In fact, this let’s me talk about something new.
Video-games are a new medium, a challenging new frontier of new expressions and ways of human communication. What is one of the most challenging problems we face is our transition from linear state media to non-linear state media. How we go from film to video-games, basically, and it’s probably one of the reasons in explaining why we still bloody love the likes of Red Dead Redemption and Heavy Rain. A glorified middle-man narrative and a glorified set of cutscenes with abuse of player empathy and such. I am then convicting myself of something with Isaac; not following my own philosophy.
I want to evolve with video-games yet here I am complaining about one of the core principles of interactivity; challenge. It’s why I shake my head when people just go on hacked versions of flash games or cheat their way through Grand Theft Auto IV. Instant gratification just isn’t up my alley, I’m a slow-burner. I like to get my money’s worth and half of the fun is just slowly letting that world and game flow into oneself. Isaac prides itself in its palpable tones of decadent heights and satanic swift kicks to the mind’s guts. I should love this game but instead I just love it.
I’m still in that transition phase, I feel, inviting others to come out into the ocean. We’ve waded out into the ocean of interactive expression and the waters seem inviting (one cookie if you get that reference). We’re hurtling ourselves towards a revolution, I feel, of when linear state media becomes distinguishable to non-linear state media. For now, obviously, video-games are living in the shadow of cinema and the brave souls who free the dark lands are heralded to account. They are scrutinised and then applauded. Isaac does this just as well as any other great example of video-gamekind.
Except it’s too demanding for me, it’s relentlessly unforgiving in just how far ahead it is of the curve. It seems so ironic to have a game so bound up in its nostalgia-goggled vision of the world of interactive minutia but then absolutely smack interactivity itself into further bounds. I feel Isaac is probably one of the best showcases of emergent gameplay, permadeath design and difficulty itself. Its systems of chance and luck are somewhat hurting but, punishing of all, is its unforgiving lack of empathy for me. A games writer who just cannot keep up with its incredible pace of which it considers the medium.
On the point of ‘luck’ and ‘chance’ actually…
The world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.
Two-Face, The Dark Knight