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October 3, 2011 10:54 AM   Subscribe

The Binding of Isaac is a roguelike (or possibly a roguelike-like) that pits a naked crying boy whose only initial weapon is his tears, but can be upgraded with loads of self-mutilating items, against random rooms of disturbingly mutated creatures (may be nsfw) in a quest to kill his mother before she kills him.

Jay is Games and RPS (1 | 2) weigh in. Based on a (very very) loose interpretation of The Binding of Isaac. Created by half of the team behind the controller-throwingly difficult Super Meat Boy. Steam link.
posted by eyeballkid (51 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
And I can't. Stop. Playing. It.
posted by eyeballkid at 10:55 AM on October 3, 2011


Fun for the whole family!
posted by Trurl at 11:01 AM on October 3, 2011


Looks more like Robotron with RPG elements than Rogue to me. Not necessarily a bad thing.
posted by Artw at 11:02 AM on October 3, 2011


Actually, the only thing I find non-roguelike about it is that it's not turn based. Everything else is there. Random dungeons, inscrutable weaponry, death=death.
posted by eyeballkid at 11:08 AM on October 3, 2011


It is so very weird and good. And cheap. And Mac-friendly.

The Roguelike-like thing is always messy to sort out, but, yeah, the random dungeons, random items, item identification puzzles, and emergent situations based on the combination of scrounged-up scarce items really does do a lot of justice to the spirit of the RL genre even if the core shmup mechanics have nothing to do with Nethack et al.

It's basically what would happen if The Legend of Zelda had been made by someone who got wrecked on hallucinogenics and played a whole lot of Smash TV while watching David Cronenberg films.
posted by cortex at 11:08 AM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Jeez - can I get a trigger warning for folks who have a young son named Isaac?

or is it just me?
posted by m@f at 11:14 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can't stop playing it either, just wish it would perform better. My machine's all "Crysis 2? No problem. Isaac? Hnnngggghhh vector/bitmap combination.. just.. too.. hard.. Even on low settings.. ack."
posted by pyrex at 11:17 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


"...fires a wide laser beam (or menstrual blood)..."

Yeah, either or. You know.
posted by odinsdream at 11:19 AM on October 3, 2011


Jeez - can I get a trigger warning for folks who have a young son named Isaac?

or is it just me?


See, now you're just making me want to mark up the Old Testament with trigger warnings.

Trigger Warning: Genocide
Trigger Warning: Guy getting killed by tent peg
Trigger Warning: Boring land plot descriptions
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:22 AM on October 3, 2011 [15 favorites]


Sounds like a Silent Hill game to me!
posted by yeloson at 11:31 AM on October 3, 2011


SMB is one of the greatest games of all time. It took genuine mind and skill building to achieve what felt like a genuine accomplishment in beating it.

If anyone who did that is involved, I'm in.
posted by cmoj at 11:45 AM on October 3, 2011


My machine's all "Crysis 2? No problem. Isaac? Hnnngggghhh vector/bitmap combination.. just.. too.. hard.. Even on low settings.. ack."

Fucking flash. I get that flash helped them make this game as quickly and cheaply as they did, but it does suck that something so great has to be let down by the platform it was built on. Hopefully it'll get a remake into something less awful, like VVVVVV got.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 11:47 AM on October 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


This game is a really fantastic mashup of some very iconic, well-worn video game tropes that find a lot of new life when mixed up in this particular freaky way. Dual-stick shooter combat? Check. Top-down original-gangster Zelda style rectangular rooms with mobs and heart containers? Check. Random maps, unidentified items, and permadeath? Check. The tropes seem more like homages than ripoffs, and the freakish art style and black humor that tie everything together are so ... zesty! At one point I was running around with a coathanger through my forehead, a third eye, an external pulsating extra heart, pink panties, and horns, and a floating cat head was following me around and resurrecting me. Epic win.

The bones are really just a casual flash game, but there's tons of meat on 'em!
posted by mindsound at 12:00 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


P.S. aarrrrgh I can't beat Gurdy
posted by mindsound at 12:12 PM on October 3, 2011


Gurdy's not so hard once you know what to do. Watch his head. When he ducks in, he's about to fire a hard-to-dodge fan-spray of bullets towards the side where you were when he ducked his head in. So that's your cue to move to a different side.
posted by baf at 12:19 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Regarding Gurdy: Watch his face and get ready to dodge when it retracts into the body, because that means he's about to fire his spread shot. Prioritize the little tumors he drops, because they will make the fight very uncomfortable very quickly. He's easily the most difficult of the regular bosses.

I wonder how many people were driven away from a purchase by the game's aesthetic. I'm not particularly prudish or anything, but a couple screenshots of some urine/feces-splattered rooms had me uninterested until the RPS guys set me straight. I've come to appreciate it now with the understanding that the whole game is essentially the nightmare of a terrified young child, but I would likely not have tried the game without the glowing reviews.
posted by IAmUnaware at 12:22 PM on October 3, 2011


baf, it is a measure of how cool this game is that I want to drive home from work early to try your advice...
posted by mindsound at 12:22 PM on October 3, 2011


Glad to know I'm not the only one having trouble with Gurdy. The fact that he's a bullet sponge doesn't help much either.

> Can't stop playing it either, just wish it would perform better. My machine's all "Crysis 2? No problem. Isaac? Hnnngggghhh vector/bitmap combination.. just.. too.. hard.. Even on low settings.. ack."

I found success lowering the resolution to 800x600 and setting the quality to Medium. (The quality setting resets itself to "Auto" each time you quit, although that may have been fixed with the latest update.) Fucking Flash.
posted by neckro23 at 1:40 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Happy Rosh Hashanah! (This is one of the Torah portions read during the holiday.)

Interesting to me that this is turned into a mother-son story, when the reference text is about Abraham's willingness to bind his son and sacrifice him to God.
posted by liketitanic at 2:04 PM on October 3, 2011


As I recall, the version in Genesis also didn't have Yahweh shouting at Abraham while he was watching TV. There may have been some liberties taken.
posted by cortex at 2:35 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]



As I recall, the version in Genesis also didn't have Yahweh shouting at Abraham while he was watching TV. There may have been some liberties taken.


Har har, cortex. I am aware that a video game has no claim to verisimilitude.
posted by liketitanic at 2:46 PM on October 3, 2011


I found success lowering the resolution to 800x600 and setting the quality to Medium.

Wow, just setting the quality to Medium helped a lot. THANK YOU
posted by The Devil Tesla at 3:04 PM on October 3, 2011


I can't wait to play this, despite being put off initially by the graphics and the (seemingly) abortion-centric storyline. The gameplay way outweighs those concerns, however.
posted by codacorolla at 4:32 PM on October 3, 2011


The mechanics make it sound like my perfect game, the gross out humor sounds like it would repulse me, and my computer is broken so the point is moot. I still think I'll try it out, though.

There was a recent shooter/roguelike with with very low-fi graphics, but I can't remember the name.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:13 PM on October 3, 2011


There's Forget-Me-Not, Hack / Slash crawl, and destructadelic dungeons might all qualify for that.

I think that indie designers are getting constantly closer to developing my ultimate arcadey-roguey game. I just wish they could translate it effectively to a third dimension.
posted by codacorolla at 6:19 PM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Gurdy is my indication that my current run is not going well. Easily the worst boss.
posted by graventy at 8:06 PM on October 3, 2011


On the one hand people are calling this a roguelike and seem to like it.

But on the other hand, I have a strong aversion to this kind of playful-blood-n-guts theming. As in, it just seriously bothers me. It doesn't make me ill, it doesn't offend me, I don't think it should be stamped out from the face of the earth. I just really really find it distasteful. It is not something I choose to spend my time trying to enjoy. Super Meat Boy was similar for me.
posted by JHarris at 8:47 PM on October 3, 2011


On the one hand people are calling this a roguelike and seem to like it.

But on the other hand, I have a strong aversion to this kind of playful-blood-n-guts theming. As in, it just seriously bothers me. It doesn't make me ill, it doesn't offend me, I don't think it should be stamped out from the face of the earth. I just really really find it distasteful. It is not something I choose to spend my time trying to enjoy. Super Meat Boy was similar for me.


I kinda feel like you'd help settle the 'Is it a roguelike or not?' question.

Would you play it if someone paid you? Its like, sometimes Roger Ebert has to see A Serbian Film or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or something.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 8:51 PM on October 3, 2011


I think the question of whether it's a roguelike is largely irrelevant. I mean, Spelunky certainly isn't literally a roguelike, but I find it much closer in spirit to Rogue than many turn-based ASCII games with random dungeons. There are a number of games like that. ToeJam & Earl is another one.

I find that the games that are spiritual descendants of Rogue tend to be more interesting than those that follow the form without the intent. I don't know if this game is or isn't, but maybe this will help you in making your own determination?

As for if someone paid me, well, I do get a small amount of money for writing @Play but it's not really enough to make it a paying proposition. I write about roguelikes because I enjoy them, and when I enjoy something I can fuel my extremely idiosyncratic thought processes into analyzing it and figuring out why I like it, and then I can generalize from there to the mindset of the average gamer. Binding of Issac breaks that because I don't enjoy it.

I probably could force myself to play it if it came to that, and it would even be possible that the gameplay strengths could outweigh the terribly exclusionary choice of theme, but I wouldn't enjoy it as much as if they had gone for a less obnoxious setting.
posted by JHarris at 9:06 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]



I probably could force myself to play it if it came to that, and it would even be possible that the gameplay strengths could outweigh the terribly exclusionary choice of theme, but I wouldn't enjoy it as much as if they had gone for a less obnoxious setting.


Yeah this.

OTOH I think certain aspects of gaming have the ability to reflect a disordered state of mind. Its starting to be played with in indie platformers but I can see, say, an adventure game that uses bizarre Adventure Game Logic as a metaphor for mental illness.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:16 PM on October 3, 2011


I was thinking a couple of weeks ago about an impossibly time-consuming project wherein I'd try and break down video game mechanics into a big exhaustive set of atomic components—basically reduce every game to the smallest descriptive bits possible, and make every game describable in terms of a very high dimensional vector space.

Start with jumping, say. At a basic level, a game has jumping (Super Mario Bros) or it doesn't (say, Maniac Mansion). But you've got to go a lot deeper than that: what are the subcomponents of jumping? Does the game allow running-accelerated jumping? Jumping-higher-by-holding-jump-longer? Double jump in mid air (Samus with an upgrade)? Wall-jumping (Strider)? Can you steer your jump in midair? Does the game, despite having no jump button, provide scripted in-game jumping (certain bits of Final Fantasy 7)? Crouch jumping? And so on, there's a lot of subtle details in something like a jump mechanic that I'm not going to catch off the top of my head.

But, so, yes. You do this for everything, every little molecule of game design. A universal taxonomy of video games. And then you take every game and you code it by those components that comprise it, and you get this vector representation in this hundreds- or thousands-deep dimensional space.

And then you can say, yes, look, here is the relative similarity of these two games. Here is the points of commonality between these twelve games regarded unassailably as true roguelikes; here, at last, is a way to sidestep entirely the subjective partitioning of genre and subgenre and just say, "this game has bits of that game and that game". Roguelike or roguelike-like stops being the point of contention, it's all thresholds of similarity in generic terms. Genre as description rather than prescription.

After that, I'll move on to world peace.
posted by cortex at 9:22 PM on October 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


But on the other hand, I have a strong aversion to this kind of playful-blood-n-guts theming. As in, it just seriously bothers me. It doesn't make me ill, it doesn't offend me, I don't think it should be stamped out from the face of the earth. I just really really find it distasteful. It is not something I choose to spend my time trying to enjoy. Super Meat Boy was similar for me.

While I don't expect you to suddenly be okay with the theme after I talk about it, I do think it's worth saying that the grossness of the setting is about more than just being weird (although it is a lot about being weird). At the core of the game is the weird imagination of this kid and his over-exaggerated struggles with severe depression, shame about his gender preferences, and an Oedipus complex. While the initial reaction to many of the game's elements is shock, and if you're like me a giggle, but as you become used to them their meaning comes to light.

I think that part of how I got through the game (well, not through the game yet, I haven't actually beaten it) is that I'm 99% sure that this is all in Isaac's head. After the rather entertaining opening explaining the story through a series of drawings, we see Isaac smile and hold up the pieces of paper that make up the menus. There are so many levels of distance from the game's subject matter, but it is still something that is very interesting to explore.

I really really hope that you can play it and enjoy it someday!
posted by The Devil Tesla at 10:28 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


But, Cortex, once you've got all the n-dimensional vector space stuff worked out, you can make a meta-roguelike that is a coherent yet completely random game every time you play!!
posted by valrus at 11:10 PM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


cortex, I've thought a bit about that myself. It'd basically be like the Aarne-Thompson classification system for folktales, but for video games. I'm not sure how useful it is to break it down quite that far however.

The Devil Tesla, Super Meat Boy was just over the line for me. You leave this red trail everywhere you go and it makes squicky noises as you go. I tried to get into it, I really did, but ultimately it just bugged me too much, it killed the game for me. I think I was grossed out a bit over that. Now we have Binding of Issac, which by all accounts seems to be worse, and... I'm sorry, it's not happening. Even if it's all imaginary, it's still very unpleasant for me.
posted by JHarris at 11:20 PM on October 3, 2011


cortex, I've thought a bit about that myself. It'd basically be like the Aarne-Thompson classification system for folktales, but for video games. I'm not sure how useful it is to break it down quite that far however.

It might be good to help remove mechanics from aesthetics and let people tailor their tastes more specifically.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:31 PM on October 3, 2011


eyeballkid

OH GOD YOU'RE ONE OF THE BOSSES
posted by tumid dahlia at 3:17 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


provide scripted in-game jumping (certain bits of Final Fantasy 7)?

I'm sure there are earlier examples (FF6) but the definitive example of this might be the Zelda system that debuted on Ocarina of Time: ubiquitous in the game yet never draws attention to itself.
posted by ersatz at 5:46 AM on October 4, 2011


Even if it's all imaginary, it's still very unpleasant for me.

Yeah, I get you. I don't have the same reaction, but, well, see Cronenberg reference above: the aesthetic is knowingly, willfully button-pushing at a visceral level and it totally makes sense that a lot of folks will just react to that with a big No Thanks regardless of any feelings about the abstract legitimacy of that aesthetic one way or the other.

If one of the sound effects in X-Com was a recording of a metal rake being scraped over concrete sidewalk, it would not be my favorite game because I would not have gotten more than five minutes with it. Some of this stuff is just weird dealbreaker human wiring.

But, Cortex, once you've got all the n-dimensional vector space stuff worked out, you can make a meta-roguelike that is a coherent yet completely random game every time you play!!

It'd be interesting to make a meta-game in a given genre by breaking down all possible variants on each mechanic and then having those all be configurable.

Like, platformer as sort of genetic algorithm testbed, where you get a specific set of jumping and running and turning and shooting and climbing and powering-up genes for your character and you try to get as far as you can with what you've been given, and if you do well you get a chance to spawn and thus perpetuate your branch of Platformus protagonus for future playthroughs.
posted by cortex at 8:03 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


eyeballkid

OH GOD YOU'RE ONE OF THE BOSSES


Shhhhhh. I'm hoping cortex wont notice the self-link.
posted by eyeballkid at 8:17 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


JHarris, if you couldn't handle Super Meat Boy, you definitely don't want to go anywhere near this one.

One thing, though - the whole intro is done on a piece of paper, with pencils and a hand (?) in view. At the end, a smiling Isaac puts it up on the wall and it then becomes the main menu screen. This is all in his (crazed) imagination. The game does not proceed on the premise that any of this actually happened.
posted by sensate at 10:24 AM on October 4, 2011


If you took out the aesthetic and the context of the game and just left the mechanics the game would be good. It would be a fun little shooter with some new ideas and some mechanics to maximize replayability. But the game would be incomplete and a lot of things would seem like strange choices. The Binding of Isaac is more than its mechanics plus a coat of shiny paint, it's one of those very rare games where the story, context, and mood of the game are bound tightly to the gameplay.

Isaac, like most roguelikes*, is about unfairness. In some games nearly every room will spawn full of that one enemy you just can't figure out, and the power ups you get don't synergize, and you don't have enough keys to even go into half of the gold rooms. Other games you become a monster, easily ripping apart each room and ending up with more gold, bombs, and keys than you know what to do with.

The items really reinforce this unfairness. There's one item (the Nail) that has guaranteed an easy victory for me every time I've gotten it, and it accounts for about half of the time I've beaten the game. Others (I'm looking at you Kamikaze) are usually actively harmful.

All of this takes place inside a story about unfairness. What is more unfair than being born into an abusive household? And that's just one aspect of the game. I could go on about what it has to say about abuse and the way that the abused turn around and perpetuate violence by becoming like their abusers (look at how many of the monsters in the game Isaac can come to resemble with the right combination of items; look at how many items are about Isaac being abused or transgressing in response to abuse).

As a work of art it's fascinating, emotional, and could really only have been done as a game.

* I like the category "action roguelikes", which would also include Splunky (and maybe Diablo 1 when played hardcore)
posted by Rictic at 11:11 AM on October 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Another thing I'd say in defense of Binding's roguelikeness is that while it's fundamentally an action game at the combat level, it's also effectively turn-based at the room level—you explore and make most decisions at leisure, in a classically wait-and-think tough-decisions-with-limited-resources way.

Spelunky shares that quality to some extent as well. You can generally stabilize your situation between moments of significant action: you can (at least partially) assess your context, make a decision from the imperfect information available to you, and then move onto another short bit of action. (Spelunky's ghost timer violates this a bit by giving you a real-time clock to beat at the per-stage level, though.)

And yeah, Rictic, I like "action roguelikes" as a shorthand for that sort of dynamic. Gameplay that is roguelike in its larger exploration/speculation/identification/gambling design decisions while expressing some of the core interactional stuff in a realtime/twitch fashion instead of traditional turn-based combat or tit-for-tat movement.
posted by cortex at 11:49 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


As I get better at the mechanics of the game, the more I think of it as a relatively softcore bullet-hell shooter. That might just be because that was the first genre that I really got into the hardcore versions of, so I've got some bullet-hell wiring going on in here, but at the same time the sort of "soft" collision detection and pseudo parabolic projectiles (though, importantly, it doesn't feel arbitrary, so I can't acuse the game of cheating) undermines that. The structure is mostly roguelike, but lots of the mechanics are all over the place.

Also, the more I play the more I feel like this is an internal world, and Isaac is fighting components of his self, which makes playing sort of odd because I feel really sorry for a few of the creatures. Those crying things full of flies, mainly. They don't even chase you and they're just MUHWUUH-ing around until you pop them and flies come out. :(
posted by cmoj at 11:58 AM on October 4, 2011


I've yet to reach Mom. A few times I've lucked into weapons (guided tears, upped damage, extra armor) that have made me near invincible and each time brains and their damaging trails have made short work of me.
posted by eyeballkid at 3:26 PM on October 4, 2011


If one of the sound effects in X-Com

"tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak...tak tak tak tak tak tak"*

*Footsteps. Duh!
posted by tumid dahlia at 9:31 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


"tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak...tak tak tak tak tak tak"*

WHOOOOSH! BANG! ***spinny gurgle deathrattle***
posted by Artw at 10:31 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Alright, I've had some time with it, and I have mixed feelings.

1) It has a very effective atmosphere. I almost don't like playing it because of the bracketing information that makes Isaac's life seem very hellish and abusive. The cutscenes show him being relentlessly bullied, and then tormented by his mother at home. Every item is like something that a boy in a poor family, without much in the way of toys or entertaining stimulus, would invest with meaning. Every penny counts, and trash becomes treasure. All of this, combined with the body horror element of the graphics, make it an unpleasant yet addictive experience. It manages to tell a much better story with cartoonish graphics and minimal information than schlock like Bioshock. I'd say it's one few games which make me feel genuinely unnerved and uncomfortable with the act of playing it, while still managing to be entertaining.

2) There aren't enough meaningful choices for my liking. Even in standard roguelikes there are a lot of choices you can make to mitigate the randomness, but so much of the game seems dependent upon finding the right combination of items at the right time that I don't really feel like I'm building my character. You decide what to use money and bombs on, and have limited options in choosing a subweapon or taking pills, but this isn't very deep. I feel like I've experienced most of what the game has to offer, and don't really feel compelled to explore.

3) I don't really like the bullet hell mechanics - but then again I'm not a fan of the genre. I'll give the game credit in making the enemies each have distinct and interesting mechanics, but combat is mostly a boring chore. Not being a fan of the genre, maybe I'm not the best judge of this.

Basically: it's not bad. I think it's a lot better than most triple A titles out there at the moment, but it also has a lot of flaws that keep it from being a great game. At least it's interesting.
posted by codacorolla at 9:41 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


There aren't enough meaningful choices for my liking. Even in standard roguelikes there are a lot of choices you can make to mitigate the randomness, but so much of the game seems dependent upon finding the right combination of items at the right time that I don't really feel like I'm building my character

Other than the combat, this is probably the biggest difference between this game and most roguelikes. The truth is, you aren't building your character. You have to work with what you have. It also makes the few choices you do have seem to have a greater significance (see the deals with the devil you can make).

The randomness also is a lot of what makes the game different every time as well.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 10:03 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


online demo up at Newgrounds
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:02 PM on October 9, 2011


Thanks for this post; I first saw the game on Steam, thought it looked intriguing but weird and I wasn't sure if it would be weird in a good way, and then I saw it had a MeFi post and rougelike and Zelda elements and I went ahead and bought it.

Oh my god, I am hopelessly addicted. I've beaten it five times so far and I've only owned it a few days. This is one of my favorite games ever. It's both weird, unnerving, and has some very dark humor. So many items only make sense when you think about them, and then they're really messed up -- like why does a teddy bear head increase my damage OH BECAUSE I FOUND MY TEDDY BEAR'S SEVERED HEAD AND IT MAKES ME CRY HARDER. Plus all the weird abortion-related items, taking your mentally ill mom's pills, and even all the blood/poop/pee stuff didn't bother me as much once I realized wow, this kid basically is imprisoned in his room with nothing and he's poorly taken care of. I mean, it bothered me in a different way then that was more poignant, not the "this is annoying because it's gross and serves no purpose" way.

I am a big fan of roguelikes (Nethack and Angband mostly) and I actually like this much more; I feel like combat is more exciting in TBOI because it can happen quickly, whereas combat in most roguelikes is stressful and slow. I also like it better because I felt like a lot of time in Nethack is spent managing inventory and you really do need certain kinds of items to have a hope of winning at all; in TBOI you *can* win no matter what, it's just hard, and you just have to make due with whatever you find. I also like that TBOI games really can't go for too long a duration; even if you do a lot of work in the arcade room until the slot machines explode, a single game won't last more than two hours, usually much less.

All I've wanted to do since I got this is play it. Aaaaaargh!
posted by Nattie at 11:49 AM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh, and the music is GREAT. I'm gonna buy the soundtrack and make ringtones.
posted by Nattie at 11:49 AM on October 10, 2011


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