The Games of Christmas ’11: Day 16

The first snow of the year made an appearance today, blanketing the world outside with the ghostly beauty of a whispered veil, as the fire roared, pressing freshly cut logs to the glowing bosom of its warming embrace and casting flickering shadows about the room. Christmas is a time for tortured and twee metaphor, that’s for sure, but it’s about much more than that. Above all else, perhaps, Christmas is a time for family.

It’s… The Binding of Isaac.

Alec: “Do you want me to die? yes/no.”

You utter bastard, McMillen. As if it wasn’t difficult enough to quit The Binding of Isaac as it is, and now you’ve got to guilt-trip me on the exit screen too? The Binding of Isaac is not a gentle game. It is a game of child mutation, faecal mounds and dead cats. It is a game where every enemy is a twisted distortion of the pink baby you’re controlling in his plip-plip-shooty quest to confront the forces of maternal, emotional and biblical darkness. It’s a game that’s a monstrously compulsive horror-cocktail of retro Flash shooters and perma-death dungeoneering.* It’s also the game I’ve played the most this year after Skyrim.

Funny thing is, I don’t feel guilty about that. I feel semi-guilty about how much time I put into becoming slightly better at crafting helmets and picking locks in Skyrim. I feel very guilty at my unhinged disappearance into the unforgiving bowels of Realm of the Mad God. My dozens of hours of Isaac, I’m fine with. Partly that’s because I still haven’t beaten the bloody thing, despite having found almost every item, unlocked all but one of the bonus characters and made it all the way to Mom more times than I count.

Yes, I’m rubbish: but it does mean there’s still a shining golden goal to aim for, and the game won’t lose its appeal until I’ve made it. Partly my lack of guilt and ennui is because Isaac is so clearly ripped raw from one man’s soul as well as being a very confident entertainment product. Visually, it seems so complete in both aesthetic and function, a single vision rather than a melange of several people’s ideas squeezed to fit around the mechanics. Despite all the poo gags and the fact it’s about shooting things and picking up hearts, it feels… worthy.

Mostly I play it cos I want to get all the stuff, though. There’s a lot of stuff. I want to get it all. One day, I will. Of all the games on this (not in any order apart from when it is) advent calendar, this is the one I most expect to still be playing come this time next year. There are three games that I’d nominate as my favourites of the year (I’m a dirty little polygamist in my gaming desires), and this is one of them. The others? Ah, that would be telling.

* The is it/isn’t it a roguelike or a roguelikelike or whatever debate is, for me, the most tedious games conversation of the year. Go and keep things in carefully numbered jars if you like, but please leave me to enjoy the game rather than try to impose your boringly meticulous cataloguing system on me.

Adam: If the Binding of Isaac was an arcade machine, I would have spent a fortune dropping coins into its slot. I sometimes like to imagine what the cabinet would have looked like as well. Intimidating and grotesque, I reckon. It’d probably have the world’s least desirable scratch n’ sniff panel on the front.

It’s a horrible little confection, not only in its narrative of attempted infanticide and triumphant matricide, but in its every detail. In the short time it takes to die or succeed, most of what happens on-screen involves flies, shit, disease, deformity, suffering, torture, Satanic ritual, dead cats, blood and piss. Plenty of people are put off by that, which is understandable, but I think the aesthetic actually matters.

Isaac is a game about growing stronger by surviving the worst of everything. Instead of toughening up with a new set of armour or a shiny sword, Isaac’s bruised protagonists become more damaged, demonised and disturbed. They are much abused and they must find a way to turn that to their advantage, either by turning to dark arts or by using the sticks, stones and words hurled at them to somehow become more resilient.

Ok, sure, it’s also a game about shooting piles of poo with streams of urine to see if they contain coins so it’s perhaps a bit much to argue for a greater meaning, but I’d rather acknowledge than ignore the allusive title and the occasional cleverness of the many powerups. I’m sure McMillen is trying to provoke and disgust, but that doesn’t mean that’s all he’s doing.

Of course, beyond any bum-baring, willy-waving shock tactics and keen commentaries on the nature of child development, he’s providing a huge dollop of entertainment. After playing for two days, I made the argument that Isaac is a game about imperfection, about attempting to succeed with the hand you’re given. There certainly is a randomness to it but the more I play, and talk to other people who are far better at the game than me, the more I realise that it’s possible to master this game.

I’ve had playthroughs when everything has gone against me – the wrong powers, for the wrong room with the wrong enemy placement. Times when all I have are coins and nothing worthwhile to spend them on and others when my most desired treasures are laid out on the floor of a shop and there hasn’t been a coin in sight. It’s not a fair game but it’s one in which practice does make more perfect.

The simplicity of a series of single-screen rooms randomly strung together also belies the masses of content, bolstered by the substantial Halloween update. I still haven’t collected everything and it’s one of those rare games that I don’t want to leave alone until I have. Arkham City may taunt me with the shockingly small percentage completion rating that finishing the story confers, but it’s to Isaac’s basement that I find myself returning more often, looking for fresh aberrations.


  1. Redsplinter says:

    I still think my sanity is already too tenuous to play this…

    • meatshit says:

      The only thing that tested my sanity was it running like a slideshow. My computer can handle Skyrim and The Witcher 2 decently well, but somehow a simplistic 2D shooter is just too much. I just can’t comprehend how something like that is possible.

    • fishdinner says:

      @Meatshit: update flash and you’ll be fine.

    • Just Endless says:

      I don’t know about updating flash, but the game itself has updated several times. Used to frame out for me; it doesn’t anymore.

  2. sinister agent says:

    Go and keep things in carefully numbered jars if you like, but please leave me to enjoy the game rather than try to impose your boringly meticulous cataloguing system on me.


    • Chris D says:

      Yes, this. Well, mostly this.

      Sometimes it can be an interesting discussion if it sheds more light onto what a game is doing or why it works, but not if it’s just about sticking things in jars. Genre distinctions are a tool; use them when they’re helpful, discard them when they’re not. And always remember the edges are blurry.

    • Premium User Badge

      Hodge says:

      Yep, this.

    • Synesthesia says:


      also, someone please make the Binding of Isaac cabinet pronto, please! I want just that for christmas.

    • Heliocentric says:

      Regards. Please. Gamers

    • PleasingFungus says:


    • LennyLeonardo says:

      For the record, when I said it was a roguelikelike was just trying to make a funny.
      Nobody cares…

      P.S: Lots of love to Mr. Meer for the above words.

  3. Rinox says:

    After trying both Gish and Super Meat Boy and not liking either (my dislike for the latter is quite legendary), I steered clear from this in any way I could. Then a friend told me about it and made it sound very interesting, and later gifted it to me. Turns out it’s an amazing game. Easily top 5 of this year for me. Good to know I can still be surprised in my old age cynicism. :-)

  4. Kdansky says:

    Isaac is like SMB: A game distilled to its core with great (if disturbing) visuals and sound.

  5. subterana says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading this. ^^ Twisted little game it is.

  6. Vorrin says:

    I haven’t enjoyed this all that much instead. Sure spent a few good hours with it, but dunno, it wasn’t so fully rogue nor so fully satisfying as an arcade shooter, to keep my interest after a while.

  7. InternetBatman says:

    My main problem with Isaac is the lack of retreat and coins. You die because you’re unlucky not because you make bad decisions. Also, it’s rare on a playthrough for me to buy anything at the store because I normally don’t get enough coins for a big item and hearts don’t always appear randomly.

    • Lambchops says:

      The key to getting enough coins for a big item is often finding the secret room. Once you’ve played for a bit you’ll learn where it is likely to be (for the basement and maybe the caves at least, after that the levels get too big to find it reliably without items). That’s one of the joys of this type of game for me, figuring out the little tricks which allow you to make life easier for yourself. Sometimes the secret room might contain items but more often than not it will be coins.

    • IAmUnaware says:

      The secret room is VITAL. Each level has one, and you really need the money that it usually contains. The short version of the secret to finding it is that it is almost always in a position where three room are adjacent to it. On the earlier levels, that bit of information alone can often narrow it down to one or two possible positions.

    • Wunce says:

      There is a retreat feature, isn’t there? You bomb a door and run through the damaged frame.

    • Jackablade says:

      Eve seems to have a much high probability of getting money and larger amounts of money from drops than the others. If you’re having financial troubles she’s probably the one to run with. Plus she gets the best starting items.

  8. SMiD says:

    I only recently started to get into TBoI, and it’s a motherfucker. It’s simple enough, but the complete randomness can be brutal; but somehow, despite how ruthless it can be, I always have the strongest of urges to try again after each death. Actually quitting the game may be the hardest thing about it.

    • Maldomel says:

      The randomness gives that little thing to the game, the one that forces me to replay it over and over again.
      Sometimes I find items I never saw, sometimes it’s the combo you can make with those items and upgrades that keeps me going. Sometimes I find nothing of great worth and I just die.

  9. Teddy Leach says:

    I haven’t even made it to Mom yet.

    • Rinox says:


    • WombatDeath says:

      If you’re having problems (or even if you’re not) I suggest checking out this “Let’s play” series: link to

      He starts off playing with no information and ends up being rather good. It’s entertaining and very instructive.

  10. Lambchops says:

    Bizarrely, since I’m rarely an achievement chaser or someone who feels any desire to master a game I’ve been doing so with Isaac. I think it’s just the need to have an excuse to keep playing the game which has become this years Spelunky for me, the game which I use to fill an idle hour (and often feel compelled to play more) and so end up playing more hours than any other.

    While with Spelunky (which i’ve only won a few tmes) my excuse to play is finding the city of gold, with Isaac I’m almost all out of excuses. The only achivements I’ve got left are to find two more items (both rare, so it’s just a case of keep on playing and they should crop up) and to complete the Caves and Depths without damage (Caves should be achievvable with a high damage character like Judas, Depths is going to be tough, I need the extreme doses of luck that enabled me to pass the womb without taking a hit).

    It will be interesting to see if the game still holds any appeal if I do get all the achievements, somehow I doubt it, it’s a game where finding more stuff is at its heart. It definitely relies on hearty doses of luck but I’d say it gets easier the more you unlock (when the game declared itself more difficult I noticed little difference as the more powerful items balanced out the slightly tougher bosses).

    Still great game, definitely in my top 5.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    Probably my game of the year, even though I’ve hardly had the time to play it. I’ve also been playing it on a bunch of different PCs so my unlocks are scattered across them – the game could really benefit from a cloud saving option.

    And on the ZELDA OR ROGUELIKE debate, I firmly stand in the Smash TV camp.

    • Lambchops says:

      We all know it’s a rougelike-like anyway (cheers Adam!).

  12. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    And while I think of it, my prediction list from yesterday. There was never any doubt that Isaac would make the list, so nothing’s really changed.

    To The Moon
    Frozen Synapse
    The Binding Of Isaac
    Human Revolution
    Trine 2

    outside bets:
    Dungeons Of Dredmor
    Gemini Rue
    Stealth Bastard
    The Blackwell Deception

    • Premium User Badge

      zapatapon says:

      There better be Atom Zombie Smasher coming up, or I’ll be very unhappy for christmas.
      I’ve been enjoying it far more that Isaac.

  13. pitak89 says:

    I’ve always hated how this game looks, not graphics-wise but art style. And it just seems like it’s trying to barrage you with all this horrible imagery to force an emotional response.

  14. fauxC says:

    I really don’t understand the love for this. The mechanics are awful (8 way movement but only 4 way shooting?) and the setting is so tediously banal.

    It was vaguely fun enough for me to play for a few days, beat Mom and collect a few secret items, but there’s nothing drawing me back to it. Also the difficulty curve within each attempt is too screwed up. It starts boring, gets vaguely fun (if you get the right items) and then progresses onto more bordeom. In fact, it’s nearly always boredom that causes death, rather than any lack of skill.

    • MondSemmel says:

      I really don’t understand the hate for this. The mechanics are appropriate for the 2D-Zelda style it’s aiming for, and having only 4-way shooting makes some things much more interesting: For example, momentum is preserved when shooting, so given enough skill/practice, shooting to the right while running downwards allows you to, in fact, shoot almost diagonally.
      Argue all you want about the aesthetics and the setting, but that shouldn’t diminish the game’s entertainment. In fact, I really like Isaac’s mutations when finding more items from an aesthetic point of view.

      The claims about the difficulty curve are too baffling to me to merit a response. Try to kill the last boss (after the Halloween update) and tell me boredom killed you, not lack of skill…

    • ScorpionWasp says:

      > Bible inspired child abuse > tediously banal


  15. MasterBoo says:

    Got 60 hours+ on this game, now trying to defeat The Devil with the rest of the characters (got a completion with Cain).

  16. terry says:

    Checking Steam, I see I have 74 hours of Isaac on record, twice as much as Skyrim or Saints Row 3. I have literally no idea how that happened, but think that probably makes it my game of the year or something.

  17. Shouldbeworking says:

    As mentioned in the article, it does feel to me like TBoI is trying to say something – I think something about base human fears. At the same time, I feel that if TBoI could hear me talking about it like this, it would point and laugh… It’s almost like the game points at some ‘truth’ but then is cartoonified to the point where its underlying statement is mostly camouflaged.
    /reading into it too much

  18. Angel Dust says:

    While I’ve admired the design of McMIllen’s games they’ve never clicked with me but this did in a big way. It’s my GOTY by a considerable margin and considering what has come out this year, no one is more surprised about that then me.

    Oh, and Alec: I AM THE GOLDEN GOD!

  19. thebigJ_A says:

    It’s not a real RPG if there aren’t dice-rolls and I can’t sleep with dragons instead of killing them!!

    Am I doing it right?

    • Jackablade says:

      I do look forward to the dragon shagging mod for Skyrim.

  20. Saul says:


    That is all.

  21. MattM says:

    Brimstone is massively good, its all the offense you need and you can then focus on getting more health. If you stand to the side of mom’s hearts you can kill her minions as soon as they spawn and deal damage to her at the same time. If you have bombs, try and find the hidden rooms. Heavy use of the arcades gets you lots of nice things. Starting with the lucky foot is very good as it improves arcades and pills.

  22. LennyLeonardo says:

    Reply fail