Dialogue Options Vol. 5: The Binding of Isaac

Sometimes it is fun to gush over our favorite games. Talking about them with like minded individuals can allow us to discover new aspects, appreciate the small details and relieve stress about the problems. It can also lead to insider knowledge or analysis that can diminish the experience, like seeing how the sausage gets made. Our writers decided to take a look at The Binding of Isaac for this week’s edition of Dialogue Options.

No Caption Provided

This is my Isaac

by Winternet

Why stop now, right? Keep playing Isaac, dude.
Why stop now, right? Keep playing Isaac, dude.

If people asked me to describe my “gamer attributes” I would say something like: I'm PC oriented, single player focused and I play avast array of games. This means that I don’t put many hours into one game. Even strategy games like the Civilization series; if I put more than 30 to 40 hours in it for one playthrough it’s a rarity. Despite that, I find myself with over 100 hours in The Binding of Isaac (Isaac from here on out). There’s got to be something very special with this one, don’t you think?

Now, I’m far from being an expert in this type of game, so I’m just going to say that Isaac is a roguelike game and move on from that. I’m not interested in either discussing the specificities of the genre or going down the path of “well, it’s got roguelike elements, but you can’t really call it a roguelike game” (I call it whatever I want, geez you guys are worse than the Castleroid people. Well, probably not). Anyway, Isaac is a dungeon crawler shooter roguelike with a heavy focus on the gameplay. There’s some sort of story regarding the Bible, your Mom and stuff but that is as important as a guitar in a funeral (which is to say that the story is irrelevant).

You too can look this badass.
You too can look this badass.

So, if it isn’t the story that made me put so many hours into Isaac, what is then? It is a combination of two things: the item system and the metagame. The Item system is what makes the game feel fresh even when you’ve played dozens or even hundreds of hours. The countless combinations that you can produce with Activated and Passive Collectibles, Tarot Cards, Trinkets and Pills makes you feel like you’re playing a different character with different strategies and abilities each time. Every level, every dungeon you go through, the character is evolving, getting more and more powerful on his way to defeating his mother, or his mother’s heart, or Satan or himself (Wait, what is this game teaching us?). Alongside the evolution of Isaac there’s also an evolution of his visual appearance. It’s not only numbers, it’s not only attack +1 or agility +2. Isaac changes his appearance with almost every item he collects and by the end he can go from looking like an angel, with his wings and a halo and a cross following him, to looking like a devil, with big black horns while riding a horse and shooting lasers from his eye, and everything in between.

The metagame is my number two and principal reason for loving Isaac so much. Getting all the achievements, trying out different strategies and item combinations, making your “Isaac” look more and more badass. Most of all, it’s the different experiences the player goes through while playing Isaac which then end up, at some point, in some kind of cathartic moment. In my case, it happened while I was trying to get the Dark Boy and the Mama’s Boy achievements, which requires the player to complete the Depths and the Womb respectively, without taking any damage. I ended up completing both achievements in the same playthrough. By the time I successfully finished the Womb, I just dropped my arms and fell in my chair. The stress and tension that had built up through that playthrough, all of it was released at once and with tears in my eyes I felt physically and mentally exhausted, spent, but also filled with joy and a sense of victory and accomplishment that probably haven’t felt in my entire video game history. At that point I realized that Isaac was something more to me than just a game. It will always occupy a place in my video game heart. A very bloody and special place.

Challenge Yourself

by Mirado

Spending the night with all your friends.
Spending the night with all your friends.

The Binding of Isaac is a game designed to be replayed; from the randomization of its content on a per run basis to the way the game attempts to end your life as soon (and as often) as possible. It seems like every facet has been tuned to say, "Don't worry about losing, just try again!" However, randomization without a deep pool of variables to pull from can only stave off boredom for so long, so it's a good thing that the game has hundreds of upgrades, dozens of items and multiple bosses for the game to combine and throw at you each and every run. On top of that, most of the upgrades have interesting synergies (and a few cases of destructive interference) that can take dozens of hours to fully explore. The depth of the content is, in one word, impressive.

Yet, after 200 hours, I find myself scraping up against the limits of the game's expanded scope (it has received numerous updates and one major expansion since release). I've nabbed all the items, beat all the bosses more times than I care to count and unlocked absolutely everything that this game has in it. At this point, I can put it on the shelf, head held high, and move on to the next game. But...I don't want to. It scratches an itch; a combination of twitch gameplay, above average difficulty and randomized content. So, how to keep playing a game that you've more or less conquered?

So many choices...
So many choices...

The answer is challenge runs. In the Wrath of the Lamb expansion a list of challenges was added into the game. These modified your starting conditions by adding items, or altering the way the game operated (removing item rooms, for example). They added a bit of freshness that I felt was missing, as no matter which character you chose, they always started with the same attributes and items listed on the select screen. Along with this, intrepid individuals, using a hex editing program called the Cheat Engine, have cracked the game wide open; using a simple series of check boxes in that program, you can alter or modify almost every aspect of the game and your character within it. It, of course, can be used to cheat; you can max out your health, give yourself the most unstoppable items, and so on.

I'm not sure this qualifies as an
I'm not sure this qualifies as an "upgrade" anymore...

Where we get into "two great tastes that taste great together" territory, however, is the idea of using this hex editor to build your own runs that would otherwise be impossible in the game. Simple ideas, like the fact that you can usually get only one instance of each upgrade, take on a hilarious and insane bent when you realize that giving yourself an odd mushroom for every room (an item that increases your damage and slightly grows the size of your head) will eventually cause poor Isaac to grow to moon-size proportions, eclipsing everything else on the screen. Those original interactions, the source that makes the game so enjoyable to replay, are now magnified and expanded upon to a staggering degree. What happens when you give yourself infinite item power and a teleport remote and then challenge yourself to randomly warp around with every hit? How about starting with Ipecac and My Reflection (which causes your shots to explode and boomerang, respectively)? Can you make it to the end if you only use tarot cards that you can spawn in whenever you want, and resign yourself not to use your primary attacks?

The possibilities might not be endless, but I can already see another 200 hours slipping away...

McMillen's Dungeon

by gamer_152

The Binding of Isaac is a game that feels inspired, yet original.
The Binding of Isaac is a game that feels inspired, yet original.

While The Binding of Isaac is in many ways the kind of game we could never see coming, it also makes some degree of sense that it’s the kind of game artist and designer Edmund McMillen would make after developing Super Meat Boy. Not only did the money he make from SMB give him more financial support to take risks but he was likely to be seeking a shorter project after SMB’s two year development time. We’ve seen in Indie Game: The Movie that McMillen has a deep connection to the Nintendo titles of his childhood, and SMB seemed in many ways like his Mario. The aesthetics may make it look as distant from Mario as it’s possible to get but the title, the simplistic platforming and even the character archetypes, it’s all there. And it only makes sense that after creating their Mario, a Nintendo-loving designer would create their Zelda.

I think there’s a good argument to be made for the idea that Isaac may be the most important entry in the roguelike genre; not just because it’s good but because it brought the genre to so many new people. Accessibility is often not a word I hear come up when we talk about gaming for people who are as familiar with games as we are; in fact sometimes it’s used as a dirty word, synonymous with “dumbing down”, but we can’t ignore its importance. Roguelike is a genre that has remained so niche partly because of dry mechanics and combat, steep learning curves, relatively complex UIs, and other issues. Isaac provides a simple UI, mechanics that anyone can quickly and easily understand and action based combat, while retaining that gratification of collecting loot and a punishing difficulty, with the sense of replayability and discovery that comes with a procedurally generated world.

McMillen's reputation is well-deserved.
McMillen's reputation is well-deserved.

Isaac also has unique worth in that it shows us that the pervasive myth that video games have to be serious to tackle serious topics, is just that. Despite the fact that Isaac is cartoonish and filled with humour, McMillen has said outright that the game is a satire of religion and that the contents represent the way he felt as a child; that religion was inspiring and creative but also caused him pain and pushed him away from his family. One possible interpretation of the game is that Isaac is a young, exaggerated McMillen. Even if the “dungeon” only exists in Isaac’s mind, the image at the end of the initial playthrough, in which Isaac sits alone in his room doodling dark and bizarre creations, seems oddly akin to how McMillen has described his childhood.

However you view The Binding of Isaac we can all observe that, unlike so many other games, it feels genuinely reflective of the person who created it. Similar to many indie games, it proves that even if a game is mostly developed by only two people over just three months and with a small budget, it can still be just as good as, if not better than many AAA games.

Items of Interest

By AmatureIdiot

The Binding of Isaac is a compulsive game. Once hooked, it is not uncommon for the time played to easily nudge past the 100 hour mark. What makes people go through hundreds of runs through the basements and caverns of what looks from the outside to be a pretty basic $5 game? Of course, its main strength comes from the roguelike nature of the game, each run is different, with varying items and interactions between them keeping the game fresh. This can also be a game’s weakness; where loss is the only option whether in victory or defeat. How can it keep interest when the player has reached the end of the game once?

For every victory you are rewarded with a chest containing a strong new item.
For every victory you are rewarded with a chest containing a strong new item.

The Binding of Isaac solves this problem by a robust unlockables system. This gives each run a new objective, whether it is defeating the final boss one more time to get that that cool new item or being prompted to play the game a slightly different way in order to get the reward of a new character. This gives each run through the same caves a meaning and a purpose, each journey may go down a similar path; but along with what you meet on it, the reward will always be new. The system also adds persistence to the game and gives the feeling of achievement and progression, even as Isaac starts at square one every time.

The challenges in the expansion was a further extension of the
The challenges in the expansion was a further extension of the "play differently to earn items" theme.

The slowly expanding pool of items grows in proportion to how much time has been put into the game, so the game naturally grows and expands as you play. This smartly counteracts any feelings of repetition with a steady drip of new tools and experiences that go with them. This is aided by the crucial role of items and upgrades in the gameplay. At a base level what you can do with the game is pretty simple; you can move, shoot, drop bombs and activate items. By keeping the base game simple the effect of items is magnified, allowing each the potential for them to drastically influence the course of the gameplay. The” number two” upgrade turns every enemy encounter into a nervy knife fights, while Dr Fetus casts the player as a pyromaniac, as much as a danger to themselves as the denizens of the dungeon.

In the end the Binding of Isaac is a game of kleptomania, inside and outside of the game there is always the compulsion to gather more objects. This is for good reason rather than arbitrary numerical increases. Most items garnered in the game have a unique effect, each allowing every run to be special in its own way. As you play on the game grows with you to keep the experience fresh even after hours of play, with only the game’s elite phalanx of golden gods able to say they have truly experienced all that the Binding of Isaac has to offer.

Duder, It's Over

That's all for this week. We would like more contributors. Dialogue Options originally started with roughly 20 interested writers. The number of active writers has dropped off to a small handful. If you would like to contribute 400 to 600 words roughly twice a month then send me a PM.


EA was much more interesting than Microsoft

Within 30 seconds of the EA press conference I was stoked. Need for Speed by Criterion has been known to exist for some time, but looks fantastic. It had me smiling and I kept smiling throughout the EA press conference. I even had a headache and was almost passed out but it made me super excited about games. 
Microsoft wasn't interesting to me at all. I haven't played a Call of Duty game since CoD2 and I don't intend to in the future. I've never played an MGS or Gears game so those don't interest me. Halo looked fine, but it's more Halo. Kinect still looks boring. It's not for me. It's for the same people who bought a wii and never use it. Codename: Kingdom looks decent, but 1 interesting game in 2 hours is not a good show. That 1 game didn't even show gameplay footage! 
Hopefully Ubisoft can be as interesting as last years was, and Sony will have a lot to show. Nintendo will be interesting, but they have lots of potential to fall on their face with the 3DS and Vitality Sensor.


Response to David Jaffe's Twitter Question

Yesterday on twitter @davidscottjaffe wrote:

 What elements do you feel add to a prolonged online life of a console game? Hearing Split/Second community is already dying. Reasons?    

I'm fairly opinionated on the matter so I ended up writing for 3 hours and posted it in the topic that was made on the subject on the Eat Sleep Play forum. I figured I'd post it here too.  Why not head over there and let David know how you want the multiplayer in his next game to work.

 Perks and Upgrades

I'm against perk systems because it is incredibly easy to break the game and that can kill the community prematurely. It tips the balance in favour of players with free time rather than players that are skilled.  

Perk and upgrade systems cater to players that are selfish. They aren't in it for the team, they're in it for the upgrades. They won't go for the objective if it won't help them get their upgrades. Having a bunch of players that leave you out to dry can cause players to lose interest. This is why standard team death match is more popular in games with perks than in games without them. Once someone has gotten all the perks they'll probably lose interest because they have nothing to work for anymore. Selfish players are also more likely to run their mouth on the mic. 

Upgrades do not have to break the balance. Uncharted 2's seemed very balanced. Most of their abilities were hardly noticeable. The only one that people hated was the ability to see names through walls. The higher level players didn't even use perks that helped them. They used perks that are disabilities. The reason they did that was because they still had levels to gain and the money required to do it was massive compared to the lower levels. The disabilities paid out 4 or 5 times more than playing without them. 

I've played about 800 hours of warhawk. I'm pretty skilled, but I have zero advantage over a new player other than my knowledge of the games nuances. I'm better than some players with 1500 hours and there are players with 200 hours better than me. The only difference between us is how we use the resources and how well we handle the terrain. We all have the same resources. It's just a battle of wits and skill. Which leads to the next section. 

Balance and Competition

What makes me keep playing a game is a very competitive environment. The competition needs to be close. I don't think matchmaking is the solution to this, but rather the design is. I've played tonnes of Uncharted 2, Killzone Liberation, Warhawk, Motorstorm Pacific Rift and Unreal Tournament 1999. UT99 and U2 are 5v5 while KZ:L is 4v4. Warhawk is 32 players, but the maps have 7 or 8 bases to capture plus the air and areas in between, so most of the time there are 2 to 5 people there when you encounter combat. In Motorstorm you are going to end up in a pack of 2 or 3 and either push forward to the next group or fall back to another group. These all have something in common; small battles. You can quickly move on to the next small battle. The fighting genre does this as well. Counterstrike does it. Starcraft is a 1v1 game mostly. The battles are larger and not as quick, but it's still not a complex battle with many parties involved. 

The opposite of this is crowded battles. I hated Killzone 2's multiplayer and eventually stopped for many reasons. One of the reasons I stopped was because both teams would drop their spawn grenades in the same room as the objective and 32 players would spawn into a room the size of an elevator, trow a grenade, fire their shotgun, then get killed by 1 of the 8 turrets shooting into the crowd. The players could not easily influence the outcome of the battle because there was just too many parties involved in the battle. Most of the map had no activity because everyone was in 1 group. 

Battles don't have to be crowded to be unfun. Look at GTAIV. That game is not competitive at all. That mainly has to do with auto aim and constantly being on the radar. Another contributing factor is that you can set the map to be a small area, but you can leave the battle area and explore the entire city. Most of the time you have to search for a fight and run for way to long to get there. GTAIV also isn't a good online game because of the lack of communication. Players without mics can't hear players that have mics. 


Updates are good, but they can fracture the community. You can prevent this by waiting a few months before the first DLC. The dedicated players are still playing and will all buy it, while all the casuals have stopped playing by then. As new people join the community they realize that everyone has the DLC and also buy it.  

The updates need to be good. Killzone 2 had 3 DLC packs out very quickly and they were just a couple of maps. People bought them but only played them for a few days. They had easy trophies and not everyone thought 2 maps was worth the price. Guerilla Games had plenty of patches and they listened to the players. Unfortunately players are not designers who think about balance or streamlined gameplay. Listening to players can break the game. It is good to listen to the players, but the designers need to evaluate the benefits versus the negatives before doing what the players suggest. I'm not sure GG thought before they removed spawn protection. 

Burnout Paradise, WoW, Warhawk and many others have spiked their active players by putting out free updates. They also have premium support, but the free stuff came out first. That good will keeps people around longer than a paid update. They are also more likely to buy future updates.

General Design Decisions

The reason I've played a lot of Warhawk is because of the long rank up process and medals. The only rewards for ranking up are outfits and paint jobs for the planes. I believe Halo Reach is also just having outfit unlocks. After my 600 hours of ranked Warhawk I'm still not the highest rank. I'll probably go back and play some more when my PS3 gets fixed. I mainly played for the badges and medals. Those were just goals to strive for that were a real challenge. They required a cumulative stat and an in 1 round stat to be achieved and many of them are required to rank up. 

The rank up process needs to be drawn out. In Killzone 2 I reached the highest rank in 12 hours. I'm still not done with Warhawk or Killzone Liberation.  

I'm a big fan of server browsers. I like knowing how many players are in a room before I join it. I like knowing the ping. I like being able to pick out which rooms to avoid just by looking at a few things like the name, map and game type. I hate matchmaking because it generally looks for ping and because of my location in eastern Canada I often end up with European players that speak French or Spanish because my ping is better to Europe than it is to the continental USA. I don't mind playing with people I can't understand if the ping is good, but I'm never going to get paired with someone that I might become friends with. It also takes a while for matchmaking to find a room for people not in heavily populated areas. I can more quickly find a game with a server browser than with matchmaking. Matchmaking can pair players based on skill. Uncharted 2 does this somewhat. I think rank restricted servers are good ways to get players of similar skill together as long as the ranking system is skill based and not time based.    

Giant Bomb Tip #1

If you are going to edit a page, save all your work to a word processor.  I just spent 3 hours adding 6 sections to the Killzone Liberation page, and clicked save changes.  My wireless had cut out while I was working.  Long story short, my work is not in my pending submissions, and I need to do it all again, because it's not saved anywhere.