In part one of my Blog tour of Gingernuts of Horror, I will be taking over George Daniel Lea’s excellent video game series to talk about a recent experience that messed me up. Enjoy.
Having a laptop die is a pain in the arse. Having one effectively murdered by a cat doubly so. It really wasn’t my fault - I was just about to start a Skype call with a publisher, and was enjoying a glass of the Christmas port when Lola decided to jump onto the table, pitching the wine glass all over the keyboard and frying the netbook - but broke is broke. I tried the rice-and-airing-cupboard trick, but no dice. This was an ex-laptop.
Everything I work on is in Google docs and backed up to Dropbox, so at least there wasn’t any existential agony over losing actual work - merely a stabbing pain in my wallet as I forked over for repurposed HP laptop and waited for Amazon prime to do it’s magic. I mean, what am I gonna do, not write?
So the laptop arrives, and I get to work… installing all the things I ‘need’, that is. And one of the things I kid myself I need to install is my Steam account. Because clearly, what a writer needs on his chosen tool for word slinging is a piece of software that allows him to access an infinite variety of PC games at stupidly low prices.
Yeah. I am That Guy.
Anyway. Turns out, my new laptop has quite a bit more grunt than my old netbook did, and I can actually run games that I’d purchased optimistically years before that made my netbook cry to even look at. Happy days. And of course while looking through the Steam library, I dimly remembered some titles I heard about from back when I used to listen to the excellent Idle Thumbs podcast a million years ago.
And one of those titles is part of the Steam sale. It’s, like 70 or 80% off. Practically pence.
So I download it, and then start it up, purely in the interests of seeing if it’ll run.
Turns out it’ll run just fine.
It starts out with a hand drawn cartoony effect story of young Isaac and his domineering, super religious mother. God talks to her, apparently, and God is clearly not a big Issac fan, to judge by the things he tells her to do. The story cumulates in Isaac, pursued by his mother wielding a knife, backing into a cupboard then falling into the cellar.
And that’s where the game starts.
It’s one of those games that you basically only ever get out of the indie community; a singular, obsessive vision, pursued with demented determination. Every single aspect of the game works in service of the theme and atmosphere the creator is trying to achieve. That includes the music, which alternates between a dreamy melancholy theme, and a fraught, pacier tune as you come into conflict. It includes the sound effects, which are viscerally organic, from the plopping sound of Isaac’s tears to the squish of exploding enemies. And it includes the art design, which holy hell.
Basically, everything looks like it was drawn by a child. I mean, everything. A bright, reasonably talented child, sure. But still. Everything has a thick black line around it. The colours are somehow primary, even though much of the backgrounds are muted browns or greys. The menus are all written as if by hand - big letters, pre-joined up writing hand. Your life meter is coloured in hearts.
It’s eerie as hell.
And then there’s the gameplay itself.
Functionally, it’s incredibly simple - it reminded me of an old Spectrum game called Attic Attack, actually. Each room you encounter following the first has some kind of opposition in it. As soon as you enter a new room, all the doors shut, and they only re-open once the threat has been dealt with. The levels themselves are randomly generated - to a point. There’s usually the same number of rooms in each level (that number increases with each layer you descend, as you might expect) but the order they occur in, and the pathway through to the inevitable boss room varies with each playthrough. Basically, there’s no way to ‘learn’ the game as such - no way you can just build up a knowledge of the layout and plan accordingly. With the exception of certain doors which are clearly marked out by their appearance (boss rooms, bonus rooms etc) you have no idea what you’re going to find behind a door until you open it.
Each room is therefore effectively a top down, twin stick shooter - you move with one hand and fire with the other. You’ll collect items as you go which will increase your health, affect your fire rate/damage/movement speed, and there are also single use items - it other words, functionally, there’s nothing you wouldn’t expect from a game of this type. On the other hand…
Well, let’s start here - your firing mechanism is Isaac’s tears.
Power ups that improve your fire rate are items like The Sad Onion, Toothpicks (which hold your eyes open), and a Wire Coat Hanger (which appears through the head of your avatar, when picked up).
So, there’s that.
Then there’s the nature of the opposition you face. As you’d expect, they increase in complexity, strength, aggression and numbers as the game goes on, but even on the opening level, there’s something very disturbing about them. For example, there are creatures that appear to be like sad faces drawn on clouds with legs. These creatures shuffle away from you, moaning sadly, and crying out when you shoot them (which, again, you have to do to progress to the next room). After four or five shots, they explode into a cloud of flies which then swarm towards you. A little later, similar creatures appear with bombs in their heads, and explode upon killing.
Flies are a recurring theme throughout the game - small black ones meander more or less aimlessly about, red glowing ones swarm in on you, ones with distended abdomens shoot at you, you even get some as ‘pets’ with certain power ups - as is, and there’s no polite way to put this, shit. Coiled turds appear often in rooms (sometimes with orbiting flies). You can ‘shoot’ them to remove them. Very occasionally, one will contain a coin.
Money exists in the game, as do shops. The shops are locked, requiring keys to open (keys, like money and bombs, are a very limited commodity, meaning you’ll often be effectively prevented from accessing parts of the game due to a lack of resources).
What I’m not sure I’m conveying here is just how oppressive the atmosphere of this game is. I know the regular writer of this column has played the game extensively, and will be writing about it in due course, and you should definitely tune back in for that. Because it’s the way all the elements combine that really delivers the psychological punch. Beyond the sound and the graphics, the very mechanics feel faintly hostile and out to get you.
It’s not that there aren’t ways that Isaac’s plight can be improved - as with other games of this type, there are powerups, one use items, heath boosters that often drop after you beat the bosses (oh, God, the bosses - nope, sorry, not going into them, I’m sure YouTube can help you out). It’s that you basically have no idea what anything does until you pick it up and use it. And while most of the effects are, theoretically, helpful, not all of them are, and even the ones that are can often require a substantial adjustment to strategy to work properly. An adjustment that, first time, you’ll have no idea how to make. And there’s close to a hundred items, with more being added to the pool as you play through and unlock them by various means (usually in similar ways to how you’d unlock trophies in a normal game except - again - you’re not actually told what those goals are, so it all feels very… arbitrary).
And that’s the genius of the game. Because, of course, to a victim of abuse, that’s exactly how the world is - hostile, random, and arbitrary. Behaviour can lead to you being rewarded on one day and punished the next, because the abusive person is working from a rule set that you can’t fathom, can never fully anticipate. You’re trapped with trying to second guess patterns of behaviour, but conscious that the sand could shift beneath your feet at any moment. In a way, it’s worse than there being no rules at all - because you feel like they do exist, but they’re too opaque, to baroque, for you to ever really have a shot at mastering them and escaping the vicious cycle.
It’s a profoundly brilliant bit of… oh hell, I’m just going to go ahead and call it art, okay? And sure, you can, as I eventually did, look up how to actually play it on the internet, find the wiki page that tells you what all the items are, what they do, and how they are unlocked. And yes, absolutely, that helps - it doesn’t solve the game, but it gives you a handle on things, helps you to make informed decisions about what to pick up and what to ignore. And if you really want to stretch the metaphor, I guess you could say that works as part of the metanarrative of the game - that victims of abuse can find other survivors and learn effective coping strategies. It is a stretch, but not a totally unreasonable one, I don’t think.
That said, it’s a bell that can’t be unrung. And I have to say, while I’ve played the game since, it hasn’t had quite the same intensity as those first 20 or so hours when I was playing my way through ‘blind’ - trying to make sense of this horrible rabbit hole, trying to figure out what everything did, what the rules were… trying to survive in a hostile, scary, profoundly alienating environment.
The Binding Of Isaac is a good game on a mechanical level, no doubt. But as an exercise in atmosphere, it’s so much more. In fact, it’s a little dark masterpiece, providing a visceral glimpse behind a curtain that (for most of us) will remain, thankfully, forever closed.