Games

Returning to My Own Vomit: Playing 'The Binding of Isaac'

Isaac's basement is a horrible place full of blood, vomit, and excrement. But I keep going back, and I know why.

I've spent 68 hours in Isaac's basement. It's a horrible place full of blood, vomit, and excrement. But I keep going back. I don't why.

Okay, I do know why.

It's a game about me.

Yeah, I know, I know, all games are about me. John Marston, Niko Bellic, Lara Croft, Commander Shepard? The common denominator? Me, always me.

The performer whenever I play is always me. This a medium in which I matter. My performance, my decisions, my strategy, my mistakes, all of these things contribute to my “reading” of any game. A little piece of me is always involved in the action of a game and in its resolution.

The Binding of Isaac, though, is a little bit different than Red Dead Redemption, a little different than Grand Theft Auto IV, a little different than Tomb Raider, a little different than Mass Effect. This is a game that is all about me.

My experience in games has been challenging at times. I've died, cursed my fate, and felt elated when I finally beat that very tough level. However, modern games most often recognize me for my previous efforts -- my, say, 68 hours of previous play -- by “crediting my account” anytime that I play.

Such “credit” exists as save files, as leveled up stats, as banked souls. Games know that I showed up, put in the effort, and they reward me for having “just shown up.” What I mean by this is that even though a game like Demon's Souls is punishingly difficult because I can lose all of my progress between saves, having died I still have the satisfaction of knowing that I can bank my progress at a save point, have my effort recognized by the fact that I used those souls towards leveling up a stat that is going to make it possible to not have to begin completely from scratch the next time. Any save file does the same thing. Any stat leveled up represents my supposed skill, but I'm not stronger, faster, better, just that little guy on the screen pretends that I am.

Isaac's basement does nothing of the sort for me. When I die “in some dark place” that is it. Game Over. Begin again.

The only thing that the Binding of Isaac recognizes is the skill that you have accrued at playing the game. But it doesn't offer any bonus stats or previous levels or items gained on previous dungeon dives to represent that effort. If you want to play through to the end next time, you need to have gotten better at the game than the time before. That's it, no mulligans, no padding, no hand holding, no boosts. Get better.

I need to learn the game. It's all about me. What I can do this time, what I learned about items in games past, and how I can use that knowledge this time out. Assuming that that knowledge even applies, since items are randomly distributed every time that I begin a new game. Each experience is randomly generated for a one-time experience for me and for no one else. You will never go where I have gone in Isaac's basement, and you probably wouldn't want to.

Even the dungeon layout is random, so any trip to the basement is a matter of applying what I've learned in an ever changing environment. In other words, this isn't memorizing a pattern and following through. This is remembering what things do, getting better at what you do, and applying that knowledge and skill to ever unique experiences.

This is why I keep going back to the blood, the vomit, the excrement. I'm getting better every time, and I know it, not because I read a stat on a menu screen. It is because I play better now.

Isaac made me, is making me.

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image