Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Isaac Unbound

The recent discussion of the Binding of Isaac at Rock, Paper, Shotgun features yet another thread discussing whether games which are like roguelikes should be called roguelike-likes - as I've suggested previously. The term 'roguelike-like' appears to be incredibly polarising, which is why I'm drawn to it, but calling the Binding of Isaac a roguelike-like does the game a disservice: it is a roguelike, just one which is real time and with graphics. There's the three key ingredients I look for in a roguelike: an inventory system with emergent interaction between items, monsters and terrain, procedural generation and permadeath; but Isaac has other roguelike elements missing from the likes of Spelunky or Desktop Dungeons, such as an identification system and positional combat (including the Angband staple: pillar dancing). Alec Meer in discusing the game suggests the term 'arcade roguelike' which I'm a lot more comfortable with in this instance.

The Binding of Isaac is also influenced by the Legend of Zelda, but when I've written about a procedural Zelda, I've always been referring to the puzzle dungeons which Brian Walker effectively recreates in Brogue, rather than the top down screen by screen rooms which Isaac features. Playing this game briefly draws me into an alternate dimension, where Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired as much by Rogue as the caves he explored as a boy, a universe filled with procedurally created stories instead of the linear narratives we favoured here (the only person to have crossed successfully in the other direction being one Tarn Adams). There is nothing here technically or game design wise which couldn't have been implemented in the original Zelda, and the Binding of Isaac is a superb example of how the ideas of Rogue can be extended and built on in another direction again. Discussing the game play is an exercise for another day, but I'll note here that Isaac has 131 item drops, plus 22 tarot cards of the Major Arcana and 17 pills, not to mention hearts, keys, soul hearts, coins, and bombs, and the game does not suffer from too much junk - a triumph of design.

But to enjoy the game, you have to overcome its greatest obstacle: Isaac's theme, which appears at first to be an off-putting combination of religion, child abuse and toilet humour. I was prepared completely to dismiss this game with some snide remarks ('so have you read the book it's based on?') and a few choice observations about misogyny and instead find myself contemplating the Binding of Isaac as my possible game of the year, and wondering why no one on the Internet has thought to write critically about the themes it uses.

I should point out in the interests of full disclosure that this game may speak to me more strongly than most because of the position I'm in, and not just from the roguelike perspective. I'm the full time stay at home father of 9 month old twins; so the idea of crying away piles of poo is closer to my everyday experience than the typical gamer. I'm also a huge horror fan, a result of working in a video store in the 90s, so moaning, empty eye socketed meat puppets are quite low on my disturbance scale. Having said that, this blog is called Ascii Dreams because of the phenomenon resulting from playing too much roguelikes invading your sleep, and the dreams that occur after even the short amount of time spent playing the Binding of Isaac are vivid to say the least.

I strongly believe if you put off playing this game because you are worried about the thematic content, you are making an understandable but unfortunate mistake. The Binding of Isaac is not about religion, child abuse or poop, as much as it is about the hysteria of satanic ritual abuse, the mythology of modern childhood and the totemic power of game play. And even if it isn't ultimately my game of the year (in a year which has featured Terraria, Brogue and Spacechem, and Crysis even), it is so far my most important.

Satanic ritual abuse was the widespread moral panic that there was systemic Satanic and occult physical and sexual abuse of children in the late 80s and early 90s - as a result of now discredited therapeutic and interrogation techniques particularly of children. While it should not be confused with actual child abuse, which is prevalent but not systemic, or instances of actual systemic and institutionalised neglect and abuse, the Binding of Isaac deliberately conflates the two, so that the abused and neglected Isaac gains access to diabolic upgrades and deals with the devil, by building on the same conflation and moral panic that conventional media presented stories of satanic ritual abuse, and the extremely rare, but incredibly widely reported instances of child kidnapping, imprisonment and torture in bespoke basements similar to the dungeon presented in the game. In fact, the Binding of Isaac is more truthful than the mainstream media, in that almost all instances of child abuse are intra-familial, in this case, a consequence of untreated mental illness (schizophrenia) in the family.

In a society where we're prepared to let more than 95% of rapists walk free without being successfully prosecuted, we have a bizarre fascination with the incredibly unlikely event of stranger initiated abduction of children. Child abduction is primarily an issue of contested child custody, and child abuse is most frequent from someone known to the child, but we do not choose to warn our children that we are the most danger to them rather than a (non-)relative stranger. The Binding of Isaac here serves as a cautionary story in the tradition of Grimm's fairy tales, as a counter balance to the myth of abductor-captor as other. Isaac serves as a macabre narrator, documenting his deaths, in childlike writing and pictures, and feigning that he will die if the player leaves the game (in reality, a sop to avoiding having to save the in game state), but his voice frames the whole game and not ironically undercut in any way.

A childhood fascination with death and mortality is as conventional as Stand by Me. And notably, as the Brothers Grimm made their collection of stories increasingly child friendly, they did so by removing sexual references and increasing the level of violence. The virtual Isaac is in no more real danger when we play the game, than any child play acting out cowboys and Indians, for how can a picture of a child be in any kind of danger at all. Of course, we have criminalized some pictures of children, and Isaac is noticeably, but abstractly naked.

I've seen Edmund McMillen accused of misogyny - an easy target for a developer who has released a game called Cunt - but the Binding of Isaac doesn't feel misogynistic. Instead, the choice of Isaac's mother as the atagonist feels simply lazy, a conventional and boring genre decision. Which is a shame, because the Biblical story offers a chance to explore the complex relationship between fathers and sons, rather than the horror movie cliche of mad, estranged mothers. The movie Frailty, starring Bill Paxton, is an exploration of schizophrenia, the Bible and fathers and sons, that could have been one source of inspiration here. If the Binding of Isaac is misogynistic, it is merely because the source material it draws from, religion and horror movies are - in a simple reading - although the reality is more complex (Horror has a tradition of heroines which few other genres match). Change Mom to Dad and the Womb levels to Prost(r)ate levels would have little impact on the overall game - except some item drops would leave Isaac's father a cross-dresser or require some manly alternatives.

The Binding of Isaac does highlight how poor Hollywood is at representing childhood. One of the first things that struck me when looking after my own children was how little media I could draw on to understand their needs - in fact, the closest analogy to a real living helpless child I could think of was the zombie baby in Braindead (another movie with mother as monster), as a way of thinking about their restless, helpless energy. The absurd intra-level vignettes are contrasted with the touching, piteous, huddled Isaac crying as he is thrust into a new level to be explored - much as a real child can be overwhelmed by the new and unusual.

What lifts the Binding of Isaac above horror movie cliche and 'significant' themes, is the thematic interaction between the protagonist and the items he finds in the game. Pickups are expressed in either terms of their relationship to Isaac (Sister Maggy, distant admiration) or as a singular object that Isaac must have encountered (the Bible, not a Bible), or both (Dead Cat (Guppy)). More importantly, in the context of playing as a child in a world defined by childish wants and fears, the relationship between an item and its game mechanic is exposed for what it is, an arbitrary rule defined by one child (the game designer) in relationship to another (the player), much as two children playing together negotiate the rules of a game. The random drops from game to game are the toys that happen to be the closest to the playing area, each map the way they are strewn about, procedural generation as a virtual sandbox. Playing the Binding of Isaac exposes the elemental nature of game play as a child's endeavour, Isaac is as much a childlike game as it is a roguelike one.

It is the context of poo, and tears, and toilet humour, that forced me to think like a child and broke down my relationship between the game and myself so that I could see all game mechanics for what they are. A +1 sword is only significant in a certain way because of the years of accreted adult 'wisdom'. Whereas Max's Head is what Edmund McMillen decides it is, and I can either agree it is useful in this playground or ignore it; but nothing in the presentation of the game forces me to take this item seriously. It brings to mind the titular Wasp Factory, a death trap maze for de-winged insects which a similarly disconnected child uses for prognostication. The rules of this death trap maze are random and capricious in a way that only a child playing can be.


Tobias said...

Interesting thoughts.

The beginning reminded me of a deeply philosophical question I pondered recently.
Is rogue itself a roguelike?

Andrew Doull said...

Of course it isn't.

No classes/races, no deity system, only one stat. Clearly not a roguelike.

Antoine said...

Nice review.

Hollywood's also pretty lousy at representing sex, pregnancy, childbirth and death.


Bantam said...

I'm definitely of the same mindset that 'Isaac' is a rogue-like too. I see the genre as more of a spectrum rather than a simple boolean TRUE or FALSE.
Perhaps the name is a barrier for some, but there is a need for a term to describe games that incorporate these common elements, especially as they seem to be becoming more widespread and diverse.

Enne Walker said...

I have a hard time agreeing with your argument that the Binding of Isaac has an item identification system. Pills are the only item that you don't know what exactly they do beforehand and the only way to identify them is through use.

For example, it's quite dissimilar from something like potions in Nethack where you can drink, dip, throw, watch monsters use, or sell potions to try to figure out what they do.

Determining what pills do feels a lot closer to using a slot machine that's biased in your favor, where you only have to suffer through bad results once. The only choice is to play or not to play.

Andrew Doull said...

Enne: I have a hard time agreeing with your argument that the Nethack has an item identification system, because it is possible to safely work out what every item is.

For example, it is quite dissimilar to Brogue, which allows you to see what items you no longer have identified, and where there are only two possible ways to use an item and not whole lot of unintuitive methods.

Determining what items do feels closer to reading a wiki than identifying them. The only choice is to spoil yourself or not.

Enne Walker said...

Andrew Doull: Well played. :)

I think for me a critical part of item identification systems is that there's a few interesting decisions the player has to constantly balance:

1) Blindly use an item directly, but possibly facing bad consequences.
2) (More) safely waste an item to get more information about it.
3) Defer using that item until more information can be gathered, at the cost of potentially deferring character power in the short-term.

One could argue that any item identification game inherently creates spoilers. All three of those points above require foreknowledge: what the set of potential items are, ways to identify them, and which items you need to identify early and which you can defer. Is this not the case in Brogue?

In Nethack, knowing the best decision surely requires spoilers, but there's still tension at times between those three possibilities that depends on your character's circumstances. (Tangentially, I would also argue that Nethack shops provide too much information, making the item identification game even less interesting.)

I don't feel any of that tension in Isaac, where the only decision is to use items blindly. And worse, it's always a good decision to do so, because you will have ridiculous numbers of pills from slot machines later to offset any early negative effects. So, it's not even a decision at all from my point of view.

Andrew Doull said...

I don't disagree that the Binding of Isaac's identify system doesn't have a huge amount of depth. But it meets the minimal requirements of an identify system, which the other games I was referring (Spelunky, Desktop Dungeons) don't.

Holsety said...

Binding of Isaac is not a roguelike.
It´s just a semirandom action game.
Feel free to call it a semirandom action rpg or a semirandom action adventure game since the terms rpg and adventure have been abused and bastardized so much you can slap them on just about anything that seems remotely appropriate.

Copy-pasted rooms in a random order with a power-up (randomly selected from a fixed set) does not a roguelike make.

BoI is just Zelda 1 with bad controls if said game had had only a single dungeon. The Shuffle Dungeon.

Glowing Face Man said...

Agreeing with Holsety. I was excited about the premise of BoI, but the game was basically unplayable. To call it a roguelike is an insult to roguelikes... it's a very shoddy flashgame which for some bizarre reason has been extremely overrated

Andrew Doull said...

How can a thing (roguelikes?) be insulted by another thing (Binding of Isaac?). Is that even possible?

SkipHopz said...

Unless I'm missing something obvious, its just a shooter with a random powerup at the end of each level. Binding of Isaac is as much a roguelike as Minecraft or Terraria.