Phil Kollar, Deputy Reviews Editor at Polygon, tweeted that he wonders how many games he has missed out on since he discovered The Binding of Isaac, and I feel the same way. It seems that when I finally start playing some new-to-me game from my backlist I eventually find myself devoting my game time to an Isaac run instead. Soon I’m back in my old pattern of playing a daily game of Isaac while the new game joins the others in the graveyard of the twenty percent complete. Kollar and I aren’t alone: many of the game’s best known players have logged over a thousand hours of playtime. Why?
Sometimes I stop and consider how many more games I could have played in 2013 if I hadn’t discovered Binding of Isaac. OH WELL :(— Phil Kollar (@pkollar) September 7, 2013
There are Isaac players who are pretty much guaranteed they’ll win every time they play it. I am far from being one of those players. In fact I still find early sections of the game tricky to navigate without a very specific set of items, and yet I keep launching the game over a year after buying it just to take another shot at beating what the Isaac community calls the Troll Engine.
The Troll Engine is what makes the game capable of knowing exactly which items you need most and refusing to offer them up. Of course this is nonsense. Isaac is a rogue-like based on a series of random generations including the level layouts, bosses and item drops, but it can certainly feel like the game is trolling you when you are scrambling from room to room with only a half-heart of health remaining and the dead enemies keep coughing up keys instead. Keep at it though, and soon enough you’ll outsmart the Troll Engine, kill Isaac’s mom, and win your first game.
It was around the time of my sixth or seventh mom kill that I really started to fall in love with the Binding of Isaac. I had died so many times on my way to those kills, often on early floors, even in the first few rooms of the very first floor. With each game I would push a little further, finally reaching the first level’s boss, where inevitably my precious three heart containers would drain so rapidly I barely had time to figure what the boss was much less develop a strategy to kill it. Now, I almost always get a mom kill and die in The Womb or on a good day The Cathedral (two of the game’s later, more difficult levels) but still I never know if it will be me or the troll engine who will win the run. In Isaac the player doesn’t necessarily lose: either the player wins or the game wins.
There are other rogue-likes out there of course. It seems every other game announced is a rogue-like or shares some elements of the genre. One of the more popular ones, especially among Isaac fans, is Spelunky. Spelunky features many similar elements, randomly generated levels and item drops, and increasingly difficult traps and enemies. I’m a fan of both games, but I haven’t logged nearly as many hours in Spelunky as I have in Isaac. Spelunky hasn’t captured me the way Isaac has because in Spelunky death can usually be attributed directly to the my actions. I never feel like Spelunky has beaten me; I know where I messed up and why I died as a result.
A death in Isaac can be the result of bad play, but many times it feels like the game just doesn’t give you what you need to succeed. That sounds like whining, and maybe there is a bit of that, but if you haven’t received at least a few damage upgrades before going into the final few floors the later enemies will be a very real challenge. When you do get those upgrades you’ll feel like a god. It reminds me of Blizzard’s design for the Diablo series. They wanted the player to feel like an overpowered badass, ripping through an undead horde of enemies like a kaiser blade through brush (mmh hmm). When the troll engine is on your side in Isaac that’s exactly how it feels.
The joy in playing Isaac comes from winning the game no matter what the troll engine throws at you. The game becomes less about defeating its final boss, and more about overcoming often difficult situations and winning in spite of them. Edmund McMillan, the game’s creator, recently said in an interview that his initial design wasn’t built around luck playing such a large role in the game. He certainly wanted randomness, a key component of the games status as a Rogue-like, but not in a way that affects the outcome of a particular run. However he has reluctantly come around to realizing that the luck involved is part of Isaac’s appeal and plans to leave that mostly in tact in the games’s upcoming remake: The Binding of Isssac: Rebirth.