It's about a week before the new version of The Binding of Isaac (BoI) is released. You can't really call it BoI 2 because it's basically the same game with (much) more content. But you can't really call it a DLC because the game has been completely revamped and details emerged disclosing certain old content has some new behavior. Gameplay should remain mostly the same, but has been extended in certain ways. Most of this we don't even know about because the devs have been very tight lipped about it, not wanting to spoil too much before launch.
This post is partially about how I bail on games once I go Matrix on them, and reflecting on the current and next version of The Binding of Isaac, Rebirth, to be released next week.
It's safe to say I've been a gamer all my life. I was obsessed with the Philips MSX computer when I was not even 10 years old. My foster parents got one. Unfortunately they only let me play it a few times, not actually code on the thing, citing I was to young. Well that's how I remember it, anyways ;) Not that I even knew what programming was, but my sisters would copy code from a magazine and voila, there'd be a game. I was enticed by the whole magic of it. The only game I remember from it at this point is a lode-runner kind of game where you had to collect the gold. Apparently I played it a lot while Dirty Dancing was on because that's the game that the main song remembers me of. I know, such geek :)
I'm gonna save you the whole back story of my affection towards gaming, so long story short, I like games as long as they are games. As long as I can be emerged into a game, I'll have full tunnel vision and time flies like nothing else. It's crazy. But, as soon as the coded game mechanics become too obvious, I lose interest quite fast.
For example; I've played Ultima Online. It's been a curse and a blessing. Caused me to quit school, twice. But one may argue I may not have been who I am today had it not been for that game. I've played for 10 months during 2000. Quit cold turkey when I realized I was addicted. No, I knew a long time, but I became aware of some of the symptoms and that scared me into quitting the game. And I was good at the game, oboy. A few years later I came back. The game had changed, of course. Pretty much all the players I knew were gone, of course. But I picked the game back up again. Explored some angles I had not played before. But I quit after a few months. The reason was simple; the game had become stats to me. If I had this many skill points vested in Tactics, Anatomy, Swordsmanship, Healing, etc. and the opponent had this many skill points vested in Anatomy, Parry, Healing, etc. it would take ..... 3 minutes for me to win. Skill had little to do with it, it was just a computation and a matter of keeping in contact with the other (melee). This works the same for pretty much anything. Add to that that I had exhausted most of the content at this point and was still disappointed with the game changes (oh Trammel, oh lack of IDOCs...) I just quit again. For pretty much good this time.
The point is, stats. Game mechanics. As soon as a game gets there, I can only see the code acting and it becomes a little boring for me. There was a Wii game a few years back. I think it was like a Mortal Combat game, though I don't remember the actual title. You were able to create your own warriors, assign them a certain style and give them certain skills. But thing was, they were just the looks and skills picked from other characters. You'd get a fireball from this guy, an uppercut from that guy, bandana from her, and shiney armor from him. It was literally a Mr. Potato sub-game. But it also clearly showed how the game worked behind the scenes. They weren't characters, they were Frankensteins! Eew :( I probably played that game least of all, even less than Mario Party (which takes so much time for no good reason nobody in their right minds really enjoys it anymore).
The last few years I've toned down on how I play games. Sort of. I don't enjoy multi-player so much anymore. In part because I don't have that many friends that play friends (seems they grew up ;)) and in part because multi-player games actually take even more chunks of time because you can't really pause them mid-way. So if I'd play multi-players, I'd probably say the lines "Almost there, honey. Nearly finished. Just one more boss." etc. more often than I'd care for. Or she'd care for. So I'm on single players. Having nobody familiar to play with leaves you with pubs and that generally just leads to a bad gaming experience in any game.
Furthermore I've gotten a thing for indie bundles. I don't care much for the AAA games anymore. I'm not saying I outright dislike them, but the price vs how much I enjoy them just is not worth it to me. I tend to play a game one maybe two days, if that. By then I'll either have finished it or grown bored. There are so many good games out there and there's so little time to play them all. And let's face it, replayability of most games is extremely low. The times of playing Zelda over and over again are long gone.
The Binding of Isaac
So I found BoI in one of the first bundles I bought; the Humble Bundle 7. It was in fact The Binding of Isaac; Wrath of the Lamb. Yeah, while I'm a veteran player I wasn't there from the start. Looking at the video footage of the first version I think I'm glad to. Or maybe just spoiled ;) Like most games in bundles I had never heard of BoI before. I don't actually remember at this point but I think I didn't actually get hooked on it the first time. It's probably my first roguelike. Or at least the first one that pulled me in. It beat FTL for that, since I started playing FTL after BoI. But eventually I got hooked. Boy I got hooked.
And while it may seem I've only spent one or two bucks on the game through a bundle which means they get like 20 cent for it, I had actually ordered the special basement edition which was like 20 bucks? Unfortunately it never arrived, despite Danielle probably trying to send it at least twice. Very unfortunate, that one :( Point being; I may never had done so if it weren't for the bundle.
So BoI is a top-down shooter. Oddly a genre I often don't really enjoy. You play a boy, you shoot tears, and there's a whole weird and slightly macabre back story. In short, your mom doesn't like you and you're crying all the time. You shoot tears and one of the early goals in the game is defeating your mom. Or well, her foot. And later her heart. You'll encounter a whole range of items, themed to this mom-story, religion, and um... well, gore and death. Ok I know that sounds bad. It's just a theme. You've got to draw inspiration from something, right.
I think the power of this game is its simplicity. You have single screened rooms. You have a main character that can walk pretty much anywhere in this room, barring obstacles. You shoot something. And you kill enemies. There's an intentional Zelda-esque feel about the whole thing.
There are six to 10 floors, depending on which stage of the game you are. Each floor has a number of rooms, higher floors have more rooms. Each room can contain a number of things. Most are obviously filled with mobs. Some are special. Like there's a treasure room, guaranteeing you one free item, no nonsens. If you can enter it, of course because you need a (generic) key. There is a shop room, which allows you to spend a few coins to get a generic item or a special item. There's a pain room, a sacrifice room, and of course a boss room. The boss room can be entered at any time after clearing the room adjacent to it and once you finish the random (floor bound) boss you can proceed to the next level at any point. When you defeat the boss you'll also always get one item for free. No nonsens, after defeating the boss of course.
Then there's the deeper mechanics. For one, there are Secret rooms
. These rooms can be found by looking the map layout closely. The secret room tends to be locked in by two or three other rooms. A secret room contains a small bonus, coins or sometimes an item. With the expansion (WotL) there's also a Super Secret
room, which is almost always only adjacent to one room. The super secret tends to be less interesting because in my experience it's less rewarding unless specific to the current game. Under certain conditions a devil room may spawn after defeating the boss. A devil room contains two items which you pay for with heart containers (so not just damage, but the actual life bars).
Then there's the whole item thing. Like any roguelike there's a plethora of items
to collect. Some items are crap. I think the community agrees that "lemon mishap" (an item that plays on Isaac peeing his pants, presumably out of fear) is one of those items. "Holy water" is similarly useless. Then there are items which are super overpowered. Epic Fetus and Brimstone top that, allowing you to deal enormous damage in a completely different way than shooting tears (instead of shooting tears, Brimstone is a charge item which releases a beam of destruction with no range limit and Epic Fetus allows you to guide a explosions). It may seem like they destroy the game, but no, not at all. In fact, it's the synergy of items that make this game so great. Every run is different. And while it ultimately draws from a set pool of items, you'll usually get different games with different item combinations.
Most items are less unbalanced. A lot of them affect your stats. The range, power, frequency of shooting tears. Your walking speed, luck, etc. There are many tear affecting items. Some causing fear, poison, or petrification. Others adjust how you shoot, like getting three or four shots (at the tradeof of shooting slower), shooting from the back of your head, or shooting in a cross pattern. There's a concept of flying, giving by various items. Flying makes the game easier since you are no longer bound by blocking elements or holes in the floor. You can hide in the blocks or by hovering over the gaps which means walking enemies can't touch/reach you. And of course there are many meta items, that do something extra. Like items that spawn small pickups like hearts, coins, or cards. There are sub genres of items, like pills
and tarot cards
. They take a special place in your "inventory", for insofar as you can speak about an inventory. And you're mainly juggling them, trying to get the most out of your options.
As it goes with roguelikes, you'll die. A lot. Especially at first, but also at end game you'll still die by stupid things. The AI isn't super smart or anything but it works very much against you nonetheless. In some cases I'm still wondering whether Edward (the main dev) coded certain enemy patterns the way he did. Sometimes it seems like they shoot in such a way that you wouldn't be hit by them unless you were actually trying to avoid them, walking right into the damage. Maybe I'm just seeing ghosts :) But the dying is part of it.
In fact, a lot of the replayability comes from the playthrough ascending progress; unlocking new items, bosses, or game mechanics. I really thought that was a great thing about BoI. You would start out in a somewhat limited game. Only encounter a number of items and the game wasn't terribly hard. As you found your way, the game gets progressively harder. For example, once you beat moms foot six times, I think, you'll get an achievement. You'll think "yay" but in fact the achievement just made the game harder by adding floor curses. You now have a chance of encountering a floor that's twice as big, two floors in one, or a floor without a map. You'll unlock new bosses and once you defeat moms foot a few times you'll get a new end-boss, basically adding two new floors to your play through. And another floor to reach the Cathedral after that. And with WotL yet another floor, the Chest, at some point for you to unlock.
I think another great game mechanic is pretty much opening up the game at the end-game stage. This is where you've unlocked most of the content and are mainly hunting for achievements. So the game sports a few different characters. (Okay these are just dressed up Isaacs, but let's look beyond that, we're in a game not a program lalalalalala
) and most characters start with a certain item or skill or whatever. But Isaac, the main character and the only one you can start with initially, has nothing. He's just the base character. But once you defeat one of the end bosses with a certain character, you'll unlock an item called The Dice
. Now, whether intentional or not, I think this is a great game design choice. The dice is an item that allows you to reroll any item in the current room to a random different item. It takes a few rooms to charge so you can't really abuse it (ok, you can, but not out of the box) and it heightens your chance of getting an item you want. Encountered Lemon Mishap? No problem you reroll the item and get Technology. Of course, the dice can be abused by certain synergies which can lead to a total breakage of the game. But that's alright! It's part of the fun. Heck, Edmund enjoys this himself.
Similarly, the last floor added in WotL is called The Chest, for a reason. You start with four chests all guaranteed to contain a random item. Furthermore any chest that spawns on this floor contains an item. Combine that with the dice and you'll get pretty much anything you want. That sounds bad but it's great. How often do you get the most powerful artifact/item in the very last phase of a game? Why would you waste this content for just the last boss? How often does a player finish the last boss with this spanking new game breaking item and then still continue to play it afterwards. That is, if you even get the item when you continue. I think it's a great choice to introduce such game breakers earlier than the end. Of course in BoI it's already at a point where you've invested a lot of time and you're still not even close to finishing all the achievements. The dice help but they don't carry you since it's all still very random. Many people seem to critique it for being overpowered, but I think it's hitting the spot pretty well. You've already spent enough time in the game, you're allowed a break.
I have played many games but playing BoI opened me up to a few new things. Whether I never actually cared for the genre, ignored it, or just didn't notice it; I do now. It should be no surprise at this point that I love this game :) I think it's well executed and does a lot of things very well.
I haven't been an active member of the community, mostly lurking on reddit or the wiki. I've seen the spidermod pass by, which essentially wraps the game (it's originally a flash game) and modifies it in a few ways. The main feature is an editor that gives you full control over the game, allowing you to warp or use any item combination, and even see the damage you deal as numbers. To be frank I haven't used the spidermod myself. It looks like an awesome thing don't get me wrong, but I'm worried it'll make me see the game more in terms of stats than it already does. Ignorance is bliss.
There's also a mod called the community mod. Also something I haven't played, but as far as I understand it basically modifies and extends the game with ideas from the community. This struck me as odd actually, because Edward mentioned on a few occasions that it had pushed the limits of flash with WotL and couldn't extend it much further while keeping it flash based. Maybe he was exaggerating a little or maybe he meant something else. But anyways, the community mod adds content to the game. I find this a grey area. Yes, on the one hand it's pretty cool that somebody hacked it that way. But on the other hand, you're basically taking away content from the creator. If he wanted people to do this he'd have released the editor. Now, if the creator expressed that he was done with the project, I think it's a different story. But that's not the case. In fact, something I frowned upon was adding content to the community remix which was revealed as new content for BoI:R. Now you're just blatantly copying stuff. I don't know, I don't think that's very cool... For me personally the community remix brings me back to that Mortal Combat game on the Wii where I could use any generic character and make it use any part from existing characters. It brings me close to seeing the game for what it really is; a bunch of lines of code and entropy. Give me back my bliss :(
So last year the devs announced a new version of the game; The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth (BoI:R). I think it was initially softly predicted for the end of 2013, but that got scaled back quickly. We've been anticipating it for a long time now but it's gonna be released next week and we're super excited for it :) The main reason for this blog post is actually the next part, which I wanted to post before playing the new game, because I don't think I'll look at it with the same eyes once I've played it.
I'm not going to be all conservative here. Change is bad, of course ;) But for me BoI:R is a new game with familiar content. Heck, many glitches probably don't work the same way. Some have been fixed explicitly, others implicitly. New ones are to be discovered too.
I hope the new content doesn't give me this Frankenstein feeling though. From what I've seen I'll be fine. There's a lot of new content and things to discover. And since I've been anticipating this game for over a year now, I'll be super anxious to play this game. And I'm not alone
The new engine looks to be solid, allowing for new things like those seeds. The seeds modify the game in one way or another. For example, in this playthrough
he enters "BRWNSNKE", causing him to trail a poop whenever he walks over a tile. It's like game genie codes! There were also some examples like applying filters. Though initially the concept was used to give two players the same randomized game. Introduced in the spidermod so players could play against each other, I believe the seeds give you a certain random state and mostly the same game (same drops etc). But of course something like the Dice could still give two players on the same seed a completely different game. Seeds are interesting and I'm sure we'll get to see many interesting ones, easter eggs including.
I'm not a particular fan of the big rooms, yet. They give me too much of the top-down shooter feeling. I know Edward is super enthousiastic about them, I'm not so sure about them yet.
This is a general thing, actually. I think one of the corner stones of the success of BoI, despite it's dark theme, is simplicity. There's a fine line there but in general, simplicity is an important factor for people to like a game. Of course this game has already gained the traction, like from myself, so maybe simplicity is no longer that important anymore. People will buy the game regardless. But still, I hope things don't go overly complex...
Ok that's about it. Good job, Edward and Tyrone and everybody else. Isaac is a good game, regardless.