My favorite games of the year were Bastion, Skyrim, and the Witcher 2. Wow, that was easy. And hey, I already wrote extensively about allofthem. Convenient! So, for the next few days, I'm gonna discuss some of 2011's lesser-known greats. Last week, I turned into a quivering pile of mush on BioShock 2: Minerva's Den, and today, I'm taking a crack at Team Meat teammate Edmund McMillen's blood-soaked solo smash, The Binding of Isaac.
The Binding of Isaac is the game that finally pulled me away from Skyrim.
Like any gamer in the target demographic of Bethesda's behemoth (read: “a human capable of drawing breath”), I pretty much sacrificed my every waking hour on Skyrim's altar. Sometimes, it was 30 minutes here or there. Other times, it was 30 minutes here, there, and everywhere until a family of mice had taken up residence in my flowing gray beard. Point is, that game consumed my life.
That is, of course, until I bought Binding of Isaac and learned a very valuable lesson: Most modern big-budget games? Yeah, they're kinda crappy.
Granted, Skyrim's not as guilty of the design woes Binding of Isaac so deftly re-purposes as, say,Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, or numerous other games that treat you like you're a deaf, dumb, and blind kid in need of constant hand-holding. See, Binding of Isaac does the polar opposite: It doesn't tell you anything.
So you, as Isaac – a boy being hunted down by his crazed mother thanks to an alleged “message from God” – fall into the game's hauntingly lonely dungeon. And then you fall on your face. Repeatedly. Isaac's diabolical gameplay concoction – made up of one part Rogue-like dungeon-crawling, one part Robotron-style twin-stick shootery, and zero parts kindness – doesn't leave room for mistakes. When I took my first wobbly, Bambi-like steps, it pounced and sank its teeth into my fluttery little heart. And then I had to start the game all over again. At first, I definitely didn't succeed. But I tried again. And again. And again.
Other games make failure an absolutely dreadful chore. But in Binding of Isaac, that's the whole point, and – believe it or not – it's really, really fun. An arsenal of hundreds of incredibly varied (and absurdly demented) items can take a bow for that nearly unbelievable achievement. Some of them are so powerful that entire universes quake at the mere mention of their name. Others, er, kill you. And others still turn you into a rainbow unicorn of pure destruction. I'm not making that part up.
The beauty of Binding of Isaac, however, is that I had to discover all of that for myself. If other games' items are willing to spill their guts at the drop of a hat, Isaac's force you to ring them dry until your palms are red and blistered. The only way to learn is by doing. Anywhere else, that'd quickly devolve into rote trial-and-error – perhaps one of my absolute biggest gaming pet peeves. Isaac, though, never removes the possibility of success from the equation. Each do-over is accented by a teensy dash of luck that staves off hopelessness with Gandalf-like fervor.
Every time you start anew, the dungeon's floors and rooms are randomized. Enemy types, placement, which items you'll find and their locations, bosses – all of it. It's as thrilling as it is completely compulsive. One attempted playthrough might roll out a red carpet so that you can cakewalk through an entire floor. Another, however, might have so many murderous flies and blood-spewing disembodied faces leap out at you that you'd think it was some kind of surprise deathday party.
Regardless, each room feels like opening a Christmas present. Will I find some awesome new item? Will I have to fight tooth-and-nail just to keep my tenuous pinky finger grip on life? Both? That element of unpredictability positively permeates Binding of Isaac. It's the game's exposed, beating blood pustule of a heart, and it creates some absolutely incredible moments.
For instance, I once discovered an item that claimed to “increase my chance of Curse.” It auto-equipped to my character and then proceeded to do absolutely nothing for two floors, so I sort of, you know, forgot all about it. After a while, I found myself face-to-exploding-death-spore-pod-things with a boss – a charming pile of bleeding intestines by the name of Gurdy – that had me against the ropes. I was one hit away from death's door when – out of nowhere – I transformed into a giant horned monstrosity with a snazzy emo haircut. “What the he-- Curse!” I bellowed in confusion, followed by understanding. And then I made Gurdy regret the day it was... um. Congealed? Honestly, the less I know about stomach monster physiology, the better.
And yet, in spite of all that craziness, Binding of Isaac never made me feel like things were out of my control. In fact, it's subtly insidious in that respect. The game rarely – if ever – put me in any cheap insta-death situations. Instead, it chipped away at my health in bits and pieces. It gave me time to understand and regret my mistakes. When I screwed up, I knew it and – more importantly – I knew why. I learned, discovered, and ultimately succeeded. I did it. Me. Without help from anyone else.
Too many games are enjoyable in spite of themselves. They force you to endure endless tutorials and frustrating drudgery to get to the “good parts.” Binding of Isaac, however, beats even the religion it so openly criticizes at miraculous acts. Instead of turning water into wine, it turns typical videogame fat into meat. Isaac, then, is one of the most sublimely satisfying games out there. Unless you use a guide (see also: “doing it wrong”), you can't help but own the experience.
Here, though, is where it gets crazy (and SPOILERY): By the time I reached the game's conclusion, Isaac – transformed by countless occult items and mementos from his abusive mother – looked just as hideous as any of the malformed creatures he'd been fighting. The abused becomes the abuser. It's a very real, very disturbing cycle of helplessness and dis-empowerment that Binding of Isaac depicts with horrifying effectiveness. And yet, paradoxically, it's a game designed to make the player feel utterly empowered. Isaac battles foes – literally – with his blood, sweat, and tears, but my blood, sweat, and tears were what ultimately won the day.
In the end, Isaac snaps out of his morbid, religion-inspired dungeon fantasy and huddles in a chest to escape his mother's wrath. That's when I finally realized what was going on, and suddenly, I didn't feel so powerful anymore. Other games force us to jump through all sorts of tedious hoops to get to the explodey, artificially ego-boosting bits. Binding of Isaac, on the other hand, gives us the most authentic power trip of any game in years – all to drive home the point that, no, this isn't actually real at all.