At first glance, horror might not be the word you’d use to describe The Binding of Isaac. It is grotesque, or perhaps macabre, but the slightly animated nature of Isaac and the monsters he faces don’t tend to evoke fright in the player. This is especially true early on, with bosses like Monstro and The Duke of Flies smiling at the player and posing little threat to anyone with more than a few hours under their belt. They are inviting you in, getting you comfortable in your surroundings and in the tears you use as weapons.
Of course, these are all things that you never want to do when playing a roguelike, as every mistaken hit and wrong turn can lead to instant failure. Isaac is terrifying in that it conditions its players to attach themselves to fragile glass cannons, to care more and more about the world as you explore, and to reveal itself only at the end of a run as an uncaring guardian. Not unlike Isaac’s mother, The Binding of Isaac has no need for you or the fiction you wish to imprint onto it.
One of the many things that Isaac does right is that it puts so much craft into Isaac himself. Each time you play, the power-ups you collect shape your character. What was once a blank slate can transform into a winged demon, a masked priest, or a sickly cat. Attachment easily sets in as a player feels that they have crafted their own image, leveling through the game’s dungeon and becoming a damage spewing machine with bombs and keys to spare. On every run, you get to that point where you feel that you have cheated the game and become invincible. Ninety five percent of the time, the game finds a way to cheat you out of that victory, and you have to say goodbye to your custom child.
If there is one thing that the game does better than character customization, it is its unique procedural levels. There are many games out there with rougelike elements, but few have levels that feel as if they were handcrafted like Isaac does. Even with the knowledge that everything was randomly cobbled together by a computer, Isaac‘s basements somehow feel like they’re puzzles to be solved. There are rules to where secret rooms spawn, items that synergize appear together, and enemies logically group in a room. There are few times when playing the game where a player can see the stitches holding each level together.
When you run into a room that asks you to sacrifice your life, you feel as though it was placed there for a reason, even if you know it was just an algorithm. You find pills and tarot cards, many of which can help or hurt, but you always feel a compulsion to try them, because why else would they be there? You’re either rewarded with more life for your trouble, or punished by losing it. Isaac keeps the player in a constant state of indecision, going over their choices over and over, staying distracted while it circles in for the kill.
The game never fails at that. Players might gain victory over time as they acquire the skills to succeed. Eventually, fighting Isaac’s mother at the end of the game becomes child’s play. Of course, Isaac isn’t done with you, and new floors open up, with more difficult foes and fewer items to help you. The game does this three or four times in its current incarnation, each extending out the requirements for what players believe to be a perfect playthrough. At certain points during this process, the player even unlocks achievements that make the rest of the game more difficult, adding in more powerful bosses and colored alternate versions of monsters to the mix. None of this is really explained. The game instead just gives you a simple message. Everything is terrible.
Even in a single run, Isaac is watching and judging the player. If you manage to topple your foes with relative little effort, an extra room appears after your boss fight. The devil room, filled with some of the most powerful items in the game, and they could be yours for only a heart container or two. Mechanically, it’s an attempt to handicap the player even in exchange for power, as the player will likely have no idea what vague boosts each item grants. Beyond that, it’s symbolic of a theme running throughout the entire experience. These devil items are common, a few of them even appearing outside of the devil room from time to time. They are also corrupting, shoving the player down a specific path and blocking access to the other powerful items located in angelic rooms. Rooms that only appear if the player does not expose themselves to the darkness.
Of course, if you give in to the darkness, the game’s secrets spill out to you. You gain access to Azazel, a character that can fly over obstacles and drown foes in a stream of blood. Few would argue that he’s the most powerful character in the game, and you can unlock many of the game’s secrets just by learning his traits. Of course, eventually, the game runs out of things for you to gain by using the devil child. You have to go back to one of the other characters. After a brief glimpse at power, the game snatches it away from you and forces you to relearn its harsh rules. Your instincts cause you to run into spikes and trap yourself in a corner. Run after run ending in abject failure as you come to terms with your weakness once again. Once again, you’re the lost, running away from the game’s traps trying to find hope in the darkness.
So yes, The Binding of Isaac is a horror game. It’s a gaping maw of indifference, encouraging and punishing exploration in the same breath. It’s a game that actively discourages players from continuing, giving no mind to tutorial and letting trial and much error rule the day. I’ve seen many give up after a few tries, writing the game off for any number of reasons. Isaac ultimately wins, getting to be left alone in the ever-changing hell of its own design.
Of course, there are those that master the game eventually. Those who persevere and find all of its secrets, unlocking every character and discarding every power-up. You’d think that the game would be done with them. What mystery can a game hold for the platinum gods who gain every victory and slay every monster in their path?
The game never fails. Everything is terrible.
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