A week with The Binding of Isaac

_It was a rough semester of school, the spring of 2014. I found myself being pulled in so many directions, I found myself having to put reminder notes around to check what day it was as soon as I woke up. I looked in the mirror at the beginning of this month and saw my hairline farther back than it was at the start of the year. My scalp started to peel and refused to stop for months. So, after I finished finals, I found myself with a period of time with no responsibilities whatsoever. I decided to do what any rational person would have: To get down to business being as lazy a slob as possible, doing nothing but playing video games and watching TV for a bit. I’ve dipped my toe into many things the past couple of weeks, including some kind of an illness, but the one thing that’s taken up the largest % of my time has been a video game titled The Binding of Isaac.

_The Binding of Isaac is a dungeon crawler based around procedurally generated content. Think of the original Legend of Zelda for the NES, only with no puzzles and random dungeons. Toss in a bunch of Bible references, and you’ve got BoI in a nutshell.

I don’t remember how I came to own BoI. Someone might have gifted it to me on Steam. I might have bought it when it was on sale for a buck because a good friend of mine loves the game and it would give us something to talk/complain about. I might have bought it after watching it streamed enough and decided I needed to become well-versed enough in the game so that I could adequately shit all over it when needed. I know that I purchased the additional content when it was on sale…that’s about it. It’s kind of a mystery on the specific circumstances of me actually owning it, though.

_There are quite a few things that piss me off in video games. One of them is the budding trend in indie games over the past few years around procedurally-generated levels and content. This basically means that areas are randomized as opposed to being set in stone. Think of it like one of those endless runner games for smartphones. Section A contains five hazards, B contains contains 7 hazards, section C contains only 2. When you’re playing, these sections can show up in any order: A-B-A-C-B-C-A, or maybe even A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A forever. It’s not impossible, just improbable.

Procedurally generated content has many faces. Minecraft makes random ass landscape when you approach the border. It doesn’t really give that much of a shit what it’s spewing in front of you, since you can just change everything, anyways. Audiosurf or Soundodger act like interactive sound visualizers. Left 4 Dead uses it in the form of what enemy hordes the game feels like spawning in front of you. FTL goes “Yo. Have some space. ‘ay. Maybe aliens. ‘ay. Maybe you’re fucked.”

BoI does procedural generation in the form of dungeon layout and the items you find in them. On the basic game, you’ll go through upwards of 9 floors. In each level, there are various rooms that can be spawned. On the first floor, Basement 1, for example, there are…let’s throw out a random number…30 different rooms that can spawn. Basement 1 is only going to be made up of around 7 rooms, however. And Most of the rooms might be the same. Going back to the form we used in the earlier example, Basement 1 could be made up of a Room A, a Room B, and a Room C. Or, it could be made up of four Room A’s. All with the same layout, same enemy placements, same enemies. This is how every dungeon in the game is made.

Naturally, as you get farther into the game, you start facing harder enemies. They get faster, there are more of them in a room, the rooms have rocks or pits to hinder movement, the enemies move faster, or they teleport…there’s all kinds of things that happen to make the game harder. But an issue arises in the form of items.

_For each of the first 6 dungeons, there is a treasure room which contains one of a hundred or so items. These items have varying effects. Some of them you carry around and use with a button press, recharging at varying rates [Depending on the item] when you clear a room of enemies. Others have passive effects, raising your maximum health, or making you faster or stronger. Some might just be “A bunch of bombs” or “A bunch of gold.” What items you get are…you guessed it, random. Some items are incredibly useful, while others are generally useless. A boss at the end of each floor will also drop an item for you to grab, giving you many chances to get items throughout each playthrough.

So where is the issue? It’s the randomness, obviously. Like I mentioned, the game gets harder as you progress farther into the game, but due to the random nature of the game, you might find yourself with nothing but gold or keys. Or maybe you’ll be a superpowered offensive machine…with default speed, meaning that you can’t dodge anything for shit. Or you’ll be fast as hell, with an incredible rate of fire, but you haven’t gotten any items upping your damage. Or you’ll have the same health you had at the beginning of the game. Or LESS. Everything in the game is based on total randomness. Skill can really only get you so far in Isaac. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m decent at the game. I just polished off the achievement list for BoI. The thing I managed to learn after a while was whether or not my run was dead at the start of a floor due to being underpowered due to bad luck. I’d know I didn’t have enough health or damage or speed to deal with problem rooms, and there wouldn’t be anything to do but throw my hands up in the air and go as far as I could before I inevitably died.

It’s not just in the items not appearing. After the first dungeon, every treasure room in the game is behind a locked door, which you need a key to open. Keys can randomly appear when you clear a room. Or can randomly appear in treasure chests [Brown and red chests need no key to open, gold chests do]. Chest can also appear randomly after clearing rooms. Certain enemies have a chance of dropping keys when killed. All of these appearance opportunities also apply for bombs, coins, hearts, pills and cards. But, as with all things RNG based, RNG secretly hates everybody. You’ll go through plenty of runs getting maybe 1 or 2 keys. Or no bombs. No no money. There’s nothing you can actively do to get any items besides clear out as many rooms as you can and hope to get lucky. And as any person that’s ever played video games can tell you, just because something has a 5% chance of happening doesn’t mean you won’t have to try 50 times to see it yourself.

What this leads to are frustrating situations. There were times when I played for hours, going through a ton of runs in a row…getting jack shit. Or getting something good and running into an unavoidable damage room and dying before you can take advantage of it.

_Let’s ponder on other games for a moment. Something like, say, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. In KOTOR, I got the opportunity to choose what sweet jedi skilzzzlz I wanted my character to have. By the end of the game, I had a super badass jedi master of the highest caliber…or I should have. I ended up taking a lot of skills that sounded better than they were, and spread myself too thin trying to go for balance. By the end, while I could deal with normal mook enemies, any enemy stronger than average was wiping me out completely, and bosses were only beatable via throwing grenades at them. In KOTOR, my character’s shittiness was by my own hand…and on top of that, I still had the out of grenades. In BoI, the shittiness of your character’s build has nothing to do with your own choices. You have very little bearing on how good your character actually gets due to the random nature of the game.

Granted, KOTOR and BoI are vastly different games. KOTOR was made by a development team comprising of hundreds of people. Isaac was made by two guys. But team size is no excuse for asshatery design. BoI forces replays on the player by means of frequently not giving them the tools needed to progress farther in the game due to randomness. The only guarantee you have at your character getting better is that you’ll get an item when you beat a boss and it’ll probably help out. But it might not. Maybe you’ll just get a bunch of coins. Or a dude that drops hearts. Or some pills. Or various items. Maybe for some people, the complete randomness of the game is part of the appeal, but for me, it’s the thing holding the game back from being better.

I often found myself wishing that every two floors, there was a guarantee that you’d get a stat up, considering it’s impossible to win without it. Well, maybe not. Maybe some people are good enough. Maybe some people love them some default stat runs. But I’m not one of those people. I doubt most people are “one of those people.” Make it like bosses dropping heart containers in Zelda. Unless you’re A Link to the Past, you could skip them entirely and go through the game with a max of 3 hearts! But the fact that ALttP is my favorite Zelda game might be telling, because I never gave a flying fuck for 3 heart runs…well, that’s not entirely true, ever since I heard about them, I’ve had a morbid curiosity. Anyways, just do that. It’s not like this game doesn’t have a shameless amount of Zelda inspired design already, or anything.

Really having a hard time coming up with what Isaac reminds me of…

_A recurring trend of the robust assortment of Team Meat games, totaling two, seems to be a lot of design pulled from classic NES games. Super Meat Boy was a modern twist on classic NES side scrollers. The graphics were simple by design, the game had countless references and callbacks to early 90’s title screens, bonus levels with a Game Boy graphical filter, and the not coincidental fact that the acronym is the same as Super Mario Bros. Team Meat games go for retro.

So maybe it’s because of this that there are generally very little descriptions for any item you get in Isaac. Back in the NES days, developers didn’t have enough memory to fit ridiculous things like “Detailed item descriptions” anywhere in the game itself. After a while, you start to remember specific items and what they do. But with some items…it’s really never clear. Some of them are extremely situational, and there’s no in-game description for any of the trinkets that were added in the Wrath of the Lamb add-on. They’re just trinkets you can pick up that…do stuff. Passively. What do they do? Better go check the internet, because the game itself isn’t going to tell you jack.

Hope you’re better than me at remembering what each one of these does.

In a way, I can understand the want to go back to the simpler times of Atari and NES games, before video games had 30 minute tutorial missions to teach you how to walk forward and look around. But there are some limitations that we’re better off for having. The Metroid franchise got better immediately when the series made the jump to the SNES and gained a map. RPG’s saw a similar improvement on the SNES when they acquired the space to fit crazy things like “A lot of text” so they could have these crazy things like large scale plots and character development. RPG’s saw another huge improvement on the Playstation when publishers started taking localization and English translations more seriously…not that there weren’t still some embarrassing translation work going on during that era (S’up Wild ARMs 2. What’s up, completely overlooked lines of Japanese text in Suikoden 2. How’s it hangin’ Final Fantasy Tactics?) But just because things were present back in the day doesn’t mean that it’s all fodder for nostalgia. In certain games, the “Try everything for yourself and figure it out on the fly” method could totally work. In a game with literally hundred of items, many of which you will rarely ever see, some kind of an in-game description of what it does somewhere would be extremely helpful.

_So far, I’ve generally just complained about Isaac. In a way, this accurately depicts my opinion of this game. While playing Isaac, I very often just rolled my eyes at the randomness, at the ridiculous RNG, at the stupid design choices present. But it’s not as if there aren’t redeeming qualities of the game. The game I compare it to most readily is Demon’s Souls. The games aren’t actually similar, but like Souls, there are generally more things I like about the game than I don’t like, but the parts I don’t like are so all-encompassing and so frustratingly irritating, I can’t say that I actually like the game that much. The ideas are good. The general gameplay is solid. There are some fun moments. But…I have a hard time talking about aspects I actually like about each game because the parts I hate are just…so hate. So much hate, man.

_Over the last month, I’ve also found myself dabbling in Hearthstone, the free to play Collectable Card Game based on the WoW universe. It made me think about the inherent random nature of CCG’s. The most skill one can actually exhibit comes when you finalize your deck. Once you actually start playing, there’s only so much skill you can actually put into play. You’re at the mercy of a random shuffle of your deck. Your opponent might randomly have all the cards he needs to deal with what you’ve got going on in your deck. He might just so happen to have a hand full of cards that everything you’ve built your deck around will counter, leading to an easy win. You can’t get that mad about it, though. That’s the nature of the beast for any card based game, be it based around a CCG or a deck of 52 cards and four suits. A skilled player will have a higher win percentage than an unskilled player, but the random nature of the games makes it impossible to win every time.

Maybe that’s how I should view Isaac. Maybe I shouldn’t grow as frustrated at it as I do. It is, after all, the inherent nature of the beast. But I think the difference, at least in my mind, is that BoI could so easily be tweaked to reward ability more than it does, to encourage player growth. Certain parts of the game, you will get better at. Other parts, repeated play will only shine a light on how unfair by design certain rooms and enemy sets are. I think I could accept the luck aspects of the game. But the by design stupidity?  No thanks, Isaac. No thanks.


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