Returning to My Own Vomit: Playing ‘The Binding of Isaac’

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.