Welcome to the second episode of Escap3, a series focusing on the benefits of escapism in gaming and the games that offer the most immersive journeys through their worlds. Last time, we spoke about the calming effects and the draw from From Software’s Souls series. This week, I’ll be pulling you into the dark depths of the cellar to spend some time (okay a few hundred hours) with The Binding of Isaac.
I’ll admit, I’m not one who spends a lot of time with indie games. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that you really have to trawl through a lot of crap to find the hidden gem of golden sweetcorn if you’ll pardon the expression. One such game that did capture my attention however, was The Binding of Isaac. A game loosely based on the Bible story of Abraham.
In the original story, God asks Abraham to show his unflinching love to him by sacrificing his son and this is pretty much what Isaac’s Mum is asked to do in the game. Isaac finds a trapdoor in his bedroom as she bursts through the door, knife in hand, ready to serve God’s will and ends up in a dingy, smelly world of dangerous insects, deformed blobs and aggressive turds intent on helping Mom murder the poor wee fella…
Being a top down, twin-stick shooter. I expected something more akin to the arcade violence of Smash TV, a 90’s shooter that was more or less surviving wave after wave of enemies while navigating through a maze of single screen rooms. The Binding of Isaac is similar, but so much deeper than you could possibly imagine.
If you dare to get past the initial few runs, where you’ll probably die time and time again, you’ll find that each time you play, you’ll become more addicted. Addicted to finding new enemies and learning the easiest way to kill them. Addicted to the randomly generated layouts of the dungeons and working out where to find hidden rooms. Addicted to checking off the absolutely massive list of helpful (and sometimes not) items, trinkets and pills that can make Isaac either a killing machine or a useless floating head with the firepower of a water pistol.
It’s this addiction to obsessively collect and unlock your way through The Binding of Isaac, that presents the challenge that will have you playing just one more run, almost until the sun comes up. It’s the gaming equivalent of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, enticing you to taste the forbidden fruit of genuinely unlimited gameplay.
If there’s one thing I hate about games, it’s repetition. Maybe not so much in action, but the premise of collecting useless objects for an achievement, trophies or hunting high and low for packages, feathers, or just grinding mobs in an MMO to get ten items that do absolutely bugger all but satiate the quest giver’s lust for meaningless shite and to give you a tiny xp boost.
The items you collect here are so many and so diverse in use, also combining effects to create strange and powerful upgrades for Issac, that you’ll probably never have the same run twice. The different levels of the dungeons will always look the same (until you unlock more) but the layout won’t be. There are a bucket-load of enemies, that will eventually get their own upgrade to champions, making them much harder and less predictable. New depths will unlock as you finally kill Mom along with new bosses, mini bosses, playable characters and more items than an obsessive nick-nack hoarder.
Bosses come in many forms, from an aggressive giant poop, the four horsemen, seven deadly sins and the most evil Satan you’ll ever come across in a two dimensional shooter. All of them have different move sets and ways of attacking that none really feel repeated or stale. Mom can eventually be a pain in the arse, especially as one of the feats to progress further in the game is to beat her heart eleven times… But even then, you just can’t help continuing on after death to show her who’s the real boss.
If the ever-expanding main game isn’t enough for you, there are a list of increasingly difficult challenges, like completing runs in the dark, another with only the power of tarot cards and one styled on Pac-Man, where you’re stuck with a floating head and can only fire magnetic tears that pull enemies toward you, making it so bloody evil until you realise that you can set traps for them to walk right into.
Other characters also offer even more ways to play, with weaker or more powerful ones making you change the way you play. Each have their own special starting items, some of them being a total bastard to get used to. If you become good enough to finish a run with secret character, the Lost (or ???) then you’ve truly mastered the game… Or at least lucky enough to pick up items that enhance his extremely weak form.
It is the constant cycle of the risk to reward ratio that will keep you coming back to TBOI to try to conquer it. It’s endlessly refreshing to see a game that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg for something that offers so little. To be honest, I’ve ploughed more hours into this than I did on my three playthroughs of Skyrim and that must total into the 500+ hours figure. I’ve yet to see everything the game has to offer too.
With the release of Rebirth, a semi-expansion when the game was released on consoles, added numerous new unlockables, it just added to the already overwhelming combination of runs and sucked me right back in. Even better, next month sees the release of Afterbirth, apparently adding another 100+ hours of crying the shit out of monsters in a bid to escape the clutches of Isaac’s mother.
If you really need to find a way to escape the real world for hours at a time, I can’t recommend anything more than I can The Binding of Isaac. While initially you’ll feel like you’re playing something simplistic. An hour or so in the cellar will soon put you right. Honestly, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Even the creator, Edmund McMillen has admitted his ‘addiction’ (although he hates that expression) to his own game. Most developers who make this claim would seem to be a bit arrogant, but McMillen has been honest in saying that he created a game that he could play, a game that he wanted to be ultimately happy with the final result and it has paid off. He is as hopelessly tied to TBOI as many of its fans.
One more go has been taken to new extremes here and while addiction is never a good thing in the long run, escaping has it’s merits. Especially when you realise that the mental health issues present in the story of The Binding of Isaac has actual merit to the real world. It’s a tough life for some of us and still, gaming is one of the most therapeutic mediums to heal the mind.