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The Games of Christmas ’11: Day 16

You better watch out, perhaps even cry

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.

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.